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Let’s Be Frank: Honest Conversations About Sex in YA, a guest post by Jason June

I get asked a lot what I’d like to see more of in the YA space, and my answer is always, “More frankness around the topic of sex.”

Specifically, more frankness about the topic of queer sex. The need for more YA queer characters to be open about their hormones and horniness is to let LGBTQIA+ teens today know that their same-sex desires, or their nonbinary fantasies, or their sexual attraction to any consenting human are not only completely natural, but part of the beauty of being human.

When I was a gay and as-yet-to-discover genderqueer teen in the early-aughts, this was not the message I received. While my straight male classmates got to openly talk about how hard Stifler’s mom made them, there was no way in gay heaven I would have been able to do the same regarding hot TV daddies. Boners and hard-ons were not for me or queer kids to discuss, and for so many of us on the rainbow spectrum, we were forced to deal with the downward shame spiral of hearing the guys say how they’d like to bone (insert straight-cis-opposite-sex star here) and not relating at all. This was unsettling because whether or not said star wanted to be a part of the boning was rarely brought up, and because if we gay kids brought up our desires or even mentioned two boys kissing, it was met with slurs, sneers, or violence.

Sex-positivity in queer YA is about ending that shame. It’s about making safe, consensual sex for everyone regardless of gender or sexuality the norm so we can end that violence and stigma. IT’S THE AGE OF SEX-POSITIVITY!

Now, let’s not forget an important point: An aspect of sex-positivity that goes hand-in-hand with not shaming anyone for their sexual desires is also not shaming anyone who has no sexual desire. There can be a multitude of reasons for this including being asexual, not being ready yet, or being at different stages of body development. So while I’m all about being a hoorah cheerleader for young adults discovering their sexuality with consenting peers, it’s also important that we normalize the fact there is no “right” way or timeline to figure ourselves out, and no amount of sexual desire you must feel in order to be “normal.”

So what does sex-positivity in YA look like? First, it’s ending the cycle of naming books without sex as “clean.” When a reader or parent asks for a “clean” book meaning one with no sex, they’re implying books with sex are dirty, nasty, gross. Let’s all say it together, “Sex is not dirty.” Sex is so natural! It’s how we got here, it’s how we can show someone we trust them and connect with them on the most intimate level, or it’s how we can let off steam with another pent-up person hoping to let their hair (and/or pants) down. It also has health benefits including less stress, better heart health, glowing skin, and a more positive outlook on life. I totally get that a teen might not want or be ready for a book with sex in it, so when asking for a book without sex, let’s just say that. “Does this have sex in it?” or “I’m looking for a book without sex” work perfectly and don’t label books with sex as unclean in any way. Yay!

Next, let your characters name what’s happening to their body and the type of bodies they are curious about. Wanting to know what a penis or a vagina or both looks and acts like is part of our post-pubescent years for so many of us, so if we act like our sex-ready teen characters never think that, we’re doing a huge disservice to our sex-ready readers. It makes them feel that shame spiral, like these totally common thoughts popping into our head and making themselves clear in our pants are somehow wrong. In Jay’s Gay Agenda, my sex-positive queer rom-com, Jay lets us know regularly what he’s thinking and feeling. It’s really the whole purpose of the titular list! He wants to kiss a boy, get naked with one, see another penis besides his own IRL, and have sex. Jay’s not alone in wanting these things, and by letting our characters think about sex and talk about it in safe spaces, we’re saying bye bye to shame and hello to healthy conversations about how to have sex and how to ask if someone your body is reacting to is down to have sex too.

Delivery in all of this matters, both in how we share these books with readers and how we portray teen characters emotionally and physically expressing their sexual desire. We don’t have to whisper that a novel has sex anymore. Sex isn’t a secret, and by labeling a novel sex-positive, we’re acknowledging the humanity of the act, the gorgeousness of sharing your body with another human when you’re both ready. For writers, when getting into those sex scenes, remember you’re not writing erotica. You don’t have to go into every single nitty-gritty detail. This is for your teen audience, not to act as a turn on, but to acknowledge to those sex-ready readers that doing sexy things like they’re about to read is totally normal and exciting and nervous-making, all of it. Go ahead and make it clear what’s happening, but be sure to do it in a way that’s not gratuitous, that’s about acknowledging desire and curiosity and safe, consensual fun.

I know when I was sixteen, I needed books that had people like me getting to openly talk about their horniness and hormones. I needed to know I wasn’t alone, I needed to know how many teens just like me wanted to see what it was like to have sex with another guy. And I know now from stories of so many friends, every single letter of the rainbow spectrum needs those stories too. So write that sex so teens know they aren’t alone, share sex-positive books in libraries and bookstores so readers of all genders and sexualities can see themselves and understand others and know that even if our sexual partners look different, the need to be linked through our bodies is an experience so many of us share.

Because after all, sex is all about connection.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Ryan Bilawsky

Jason June is a gay, genderqueer, list-making, Virgo Sun, Taurus Moon, Pokémon-playing writer living in Austin, TX. If he had a Gay Agenda, “marry the love of your life”, “be mom to two extremely pampered Pomeranians,” and “get accidentally kicked in the face by Kylie Minogue as an extra in her music video” would all be crossed off. Visit Jason June on social media @heyjasonjune, and on his website at www.heyjasonjune.com.

Twitter: @HeyJasonJune

Instagram: @HeyJasonJune

About Jay’s Gay Agenda

From debut novelist Jason June comes a moving and hilarious sex-positive teen rom-com about the complexities of first loves, first hookups, and first heartbreaks—and how to stay true to yourself while embracing what you never saw coming, that’s perfect for fans of Sandhya Menon and Becky Albertalli. 

There’s one thing Jay Collier knows for sure—he’s a statistical anomaly as the only out gay kid in his small rural Washington town. While all his friends can’t stop talking about their heterosexual hookups and relationships, Jay can only dream of his own firsts, compiling a romance to-do list of all the things he hopes to one day experience—his Gay Agenda.

Then, against all odds, Jay’s family moves to Seattle and he starts his senior year at a new high school with a thriving LGBTQIA+ community. For the first time ever, Jay feels like he’s found where he truly belongs. But as Jay begins crossing items off his list, he’ll soon be torn between his heart and his hormones, his old friends and his new ones . . . because after all, life and love don’t always go according to plan. 

ISBN-13: 9780063015159
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/01/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Let’s Talk About Sex…Positivity in YA, a guest post by Jenn Bennett

My latest YA contemporary, Serious Moonlight, is a book about Birdie and Daniel, two teens who meet one rainy afternoon in Seattle and impulsively decide to hook up. Unfortunately, the experience is bumbling and embarrassing. Birdie’s only solace is that she’ll never see him again, but alas, when she lands a job working the front desk at a historic hotel, Daniel is the hotel van driver. Awkward. Do they ignore each other? Pretend it never happened? What if they still like each other? What if they are both just bad at sex?

All of my YA contemporaries are romances; all of them include sex on the page. It’s by no means the driving force of my stories, which also include a lot of other big-ticket items—themes about non-traditional families, exploration of mental health issues, and the importance of self-expression. But when you write about two people falling in love, just like Real Life, that connection sometimes gets handsy.

Luckily for me, this is one of my favorite subjects to write about, because sex is such a complex and wonderous thing filled with weird emotions and meaningful conflict. How can something so simple go so wrong, so often? How can something so pleasurable be plagued with baggage, shame, and guilt?

I never once considered not including sex scenes in my YA books, nor did I want to “fade to black” during the kissing, or skim over the good parts. And by good parts, I don’t mean the actual sex—though that’s in there, too. (Three cheers for joyful female desire!) No, I mean the talking about it. Because my characters talk about sex a lot. They talk about birth control. Previous partners. Lack of experience. Pain. Rejection. Body image. Masturbation. Pregnancy.

My characters are curious. They ask permission and respect boundaries, but they also get confused and make mistakes. They know exactly what they want, and yet know nothing at all. Like all of us, really.

The subject of sex is strange when you’re a teen. It can be both alienating and blissful, both scary and alluring. It can change your life in terrifying ways (pregnancy, STDs) and in unexpected ways (establishing an intense, beautiful connection with another human). Sometimes it’s all of the above, and that’s a heady thing to explore when you’re trying to figure out who you are while also surviving the day-to-day pressures of finishing high school.

I’ve never once had a teen reader tell me they were upset with the sexual content in my books. Occasionally I see reviews from parents who like my books but warn other parents about “intimate situations,” like it’s something they can’t even bear to say out loud. It’s bizarre, really, that in America, sex is still one of the big taboos. We are A-Okay with violence in our fiction, on our televisions, in our streets. But when it comes to sex, we seem to be perpetually stuck in arrested development—censoring it, hiding it, shaming people who do it too much, laughing at people who don’t do it enough.

Sometimes writing these kinds of stories make me feel like everyone’s cool auntie, the person in who you feel safe confiding. My sister-in-law asked me if I thought it was okay if my nephew, who was twelve at the time, could read my YA. Was it? Did I want to be the person who taught this kid about sex? WAS THAT WEIRD? I recommended that she wait until the kid was thirteen, at least. I didn’t want to scar the kid, for the love of Pete. (Spoiler alert: he’s now almost fifteen and turned out just fine.)

Being a YA author comes with a certain amount of responsibility. I always tell my editor, when we’re both in doubt about a certain piece of dialogue or the direction a scene’s taking, that my personal philosophy as an author is much like a doctor’s oath: do no harm. That’s a lot of pressure, especially when I don’t have all the answers about sex, love, and relationships. But I think I’m okay with it. I do my best, and that’s all any of us can do.

Who knows? Maybe Birdie and Daniel’s journey in SERIOUS MOONLIGHT is not the experience you remember having with your first boyfriend or girlfriend. Maybe you’ll judge Birdie for having sex with someone she didn’t know very well. Maybe you’ll empathize with her. Fiction is part escapism, part mirror…and sometimes, it’s rebuilding the world how it should be. To that end, I hope that teens (and adults!) reading Birdie and Daniel’s story will see two people on the page who make a few mistakes but eventually get to know each other, talk frankly about their hopes and fears, and eventually build a stronger, lasting connection.

And what could be more positive than that?

Meet Jenn Bennett

Jenn Bennett is an award-winning author of several young adult books, including: ALEX, APPROXIMATELY; STARRY EYES; and SERIOUS MOONLIGHT. Her books have earned multiple starred reviews, won Romance Writers of America’s RITA® Award, and been included on Publishers Weekly Best Books annual list. She lives near Atlanta with one husband and two dogs. Find her online at Twitter: @Jenn_Benn, IG: @J3nn_Benn,and at her website http://www.jennbennett.net/

About SERIOUS MOONLIGHT

After an awkward first encounter, Birdie and Daniel are forced to work together in a Seattle hotel where a famous author leads a mysterious and secluded life in this romantic contemporary novel from the author of Alex, Approximately.

Mystery-book aficionado Birdie Lindberg has an overactive imagination. Raised in isolation and homeschooled by strict grandparents, she’s cultivated a whimsical fantasy life in which she plays the heroic detective and every stranger is a suspect. But her solitary world expands when she takes a job the summer before college, working the graveyard shift at a historic Seattle hotel.

In her new job, Birdie hopes to blossom from introverted dreamer to brave pioneer, and gregarious Daniel Aoki volunteers to be her guide. The hotel’s charismatic young van driver shares the same nocturnal shift and patronizes the waterfront Moonlight Diner where she waits for the early morning ferry after work. Daniel also shares her appetite for intrigue, and he’s stumbled upon a real-life mystery: a famous reclusive writer—never before seen in public—might be secretly meeting someone at the hotel.

To uncover the writer’s puzzling identity, Birdie must come out of her shell…discovering that most confounding mystery of all may be her growing feelings for the elusive riddle that is Daniel.

ISBN-13: 9781534445284
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 04/16/2019