If we’re going to use YA literature to talk about sexual violence, to discuss what it looks like and the destruction it can leave in its wake, then we must also use YA literature to talk about consent and what healthy sexual experiences can and should look like. Literature, books, are a window into the world. Even in the little things, the little moments, they can help us gain a bit of understanding of what life is like. Teen readers need to know that sex is not always rape and violence and punishment (with things like a pregnancy or STD).
We know statistically that many teens will choose to engage in sex.* And even if they choose not to, they are still thinking about it, wondering about it, trying to figure it out. It terrifies adults, but biology kicks in and this is part of the adolescent experience: trying to figure sex out and trying to figure out who we are as sexual beings. If we want teens to develop positive sexual identities, to develop healthy views of sex, and develop meaningful and consensual ways to discuss and engage in sex with their partners (even if not now, but later in life), then they must also read stories that help them understand what healthy sexual expression and consent looks like. Here are five of my favorites.
Infinityglass by Myra McEntire
I love this book but what I most love is that this is a book that gives a spot on depiction of what consent looks like. Our two main characters are starting to get into It when the boy stops, looks right at the girl and says, “So I have a green light to continue?” It is asking for consent and it is down right sexy. Just listen to Dune and Hallie discuss their relationship:
“Don’t you want to?”
“Want to what?”
Her hands went to her hips. “Kiss me.”
Caution spun my braind dry. “Not a good idea.”
“Not good,” she agreed. “Great.”
“It isn’t –“
“We’re alone. Legimately alone. Hint. There’s . . . tension, and maybe I’d like to ease it. What’s the problem?”
“Too fast. Out of nowhere. Complications. Cloudy motives.” (page 136)
I love that they spend time thinking about their motivations. I love the way the dynamics of the relationship change as they begin to truly trust and respect one another. Basically, I love this book.
This book is not out yet, but it is all about FREE AGENCY. The agency to decide how you want to live your life, who you want to become, and yes, if and when you decide to have sex. There is a great scene in which the girl, Soleil, looks at the boy, D’Arcy, and says, “I want to have sex with you.” And then they do. Part way in the act D’Arcy takes a moment to read her nonverbal cues and asks, basically, are you sure you want to keep going. She says yes, and they do. It’s great for several reasons: the girl freely and without guilt or shame initiates sex, taking full ownership of her sexuality, and then in the midst there is this great example of how initial consent doesn’t mean continued consent so he takes a moment to confirm that this is what she wants. There are some negative examples that involve sexual coercion earlier in the book that make for some interesting comparisons and discussion.
Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller
It is true, at it’s heart this is the story of a young girl, Callie, who has been the victim of abuse. And in the wake of that abuse, she takes control of her sexuality. There is this deeply moving scene where Callie is in the midst of a sexual encounter and something that happens triggers her. So she looks at Alex and says, basically, if we are going to do this I need you to be fully naked – and he does. This scene is powerful because Callie has a need, she is able to express it, and that need is respected. There is another time where they start but Callie pulls away, asking Alex if he is upset that they didn’t, and he is kind and respectful in his answer. There is a lot of god stuff that happens in this book: It’s okay to ask for what you want or need. And it’s okay to stop or say no. And even if you have already had sex, that doesn’t mean you always have to have sex because yes once is not yes always.
This Song will Save Your Life by Leila Sales
This book is a hidden gem and I highly recommend it. Lost and alone, Elise finds herself sneaking out at night to DJ at a club. Here she finds her people, and herself. But there is this great scene where some guys have a very drunk girl pinned up against the wall and they are “making out with her.” Elise’s friend, Vicky, sees what is happening and intervenes on behalf of the girl. When the guys tell her no, the girls wants it, Vicky very clearly says that the girl is too drunk to consent to anything – she’s barely able to stand – and she leads the girl away. This scene is so important because it articulates very clearly what consent is and what it isn’t. It is also important because it demonstrates how people can – and should – intervene when they see someone being taken advantage of.
So now I am totally going to cheat, but it’s my blog I can cheat if I want to.
Guitar Notes by Mary Amato
There is no sex in this book. There isn’t even any kissing. This is the story of two teens with musical ambitions and what seems like nothing in common. At all. But they are both struggling with various things and they start up an interesting relationship. It begins with a lot of animosity and a few notes left back and forth in a guitar box. But slowly, they begin encouraging each other to be true to themselves. This is not a romance, but a story of friendship between a boy and a girl. It’s a beautiful story, but it is also great because it reminds us all that not every boy/girl relationship has to be romantic or sexual. When the book closes, you could see how maybe it could develop into a romance, but given the dynamic these two have built I imagine that they would have some meaningful, respectful conversations about sex. (Along these same lines, I also highly recommend Until it Hurts to Stop by Jennifer R. Hubbard and Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg)
Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Darla Snadowsky
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick
A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson
The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson
Wild Cards by Simone Elkeles
Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins
Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson
Desires of the Dead by Kimberly Derting
The Exiled Queen by Cinda Williams Chima
Roomies by Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando
Shiver by Maggie Steifvater
Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols
*Fewer than 2% of adolescents have had sex by the time they reach their 12th birthday. But adolescence is a time of rapid change. Only 16% of teens have had sex by age 15, compared with one-third of those aged 16, nearly half (48%) of those aged 17, 61% of 18-year-olds and 71% of 19-year-olds. There is little difference by gender in the timing of first sex. (Source: Facts on American Teens’ Sexual and Reproductive Health)
Check out Christa Desir’s, Trish Doller’s and Carrie Mesrobian’s blog for more sex positive depictions in YA.
Please share your favorite titles in the comments and share with us what makes them good examples of consent or sex positivity.