Teen Librarian Toolbox
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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

Book Review: You Be You!: The Kid’s Guide to Gender, Sexuality, and Family by Jonathan Branfman, Julie Benbassat (Illustrator)

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in an issue of School Library Journal

Gr 3–6—This conversational primer on gender, sexuality, and family supports and affirms all identities, urging readers to see and value all human experiences. The author posits that the narrow and conventional ideas many children are taught—born a boy or girl, marry someone of the “opposite” sex, have children, conform to gender roles—are untrue, and “that’s great news!” Instead, a world of possibility is open to all children. Full of joyful, bright, comic-style illustrations, this brief guide touches on assigned sexes, people who are intersex, stereotypes, and gender identity. The author clarifies that marriage and children are a choice, not an expectation, and explains discrimination (looking specifically at sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and biphobia), privilege, intersectionality, and what it means to be an ally. Readers learn definitions for identities and orientations like genderqueer, nonbinary, gender-fluid, transgender, cisgender, asexual, aromantic, bisexual, and pansexual. This supportive, educational look at identities offers constant reminders that no matter your chosen identity, whoever you love is great. A varied depiction of ethnicities, races, abilities, ages, and body shapes are shown in the vibrant illustrations. This guide could easily be read together with younger readers; certainly many older readers, including adults, could benefit from this quick and easy look at acceptance. 

VERDICT This inclusive and respectful guide should be part of all curricula about family, gender, and sexuality. Short, accessible, and important.

ISBN-13: 9781787750104
Publisher: Kingsley, Jessica Publishers
Publication date: 07/18/2019

“Our kisses were seismic”: Positive sexual experiences in LGBTQIA+ YA books

Part of the Sexual Violence in Young Adult Literature Project has included posts looking at enthusiastic consent, positive and healthy sexual experiences, and on-the-page consensual sex scenes (check out those posts here by Karen Jensen, Christa Desir, and Carrie Mesrobian). While it’s important to look at and discuss rape, consent, abuse, and violence, it’s equally as important to present plenty of healthy, positive, and enjoyable experiences for teen readers to show them what desire looks like and how it can play out. The field of books about LGBTQIA+ teens is growing in leaps and bounds. We are lucky that we can hand so many books to teenagers where the characters have happy and fulfilling relationships, where things are not all doom and gloom, and where sexual behaviors actually take place on the page, rather than some fade to black scenes. There is power in representation, in being seen, in seeing hope and happiness.

 

two boysOne of my favorite books that falls into this category is David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing. In it, Craig and Harry, former boyfriends and now best friends, set out to break the world record for the longest kiss (32 hours, 12 minutes, and 10 seconds). Their kiss is recorded and streamed live to a worldwide audience. Levithan writes, “They are kissing to show the world that it’s okay for two boys to kiss.” And kiss they do.

 

Here are two of my favorite parts:

“Harry has kissed Craig so many times, but this is different from all of the kisses that have come before. At first there were the excited dating kisses, the kisses used to punctuate their liking of each other, the kisses that were both proof and engine of their desire. Then the more serious kisses, the its-getting-serious kisses, followed by the relationship kisses—that variety pack, sometimes intense, sometimes resigned, sometimes playful, sometimes confused. Kisses that led to making out and kisses that led to saying goodbye. Kisses to mark territory, kisses meant only for private, kisses that lasted hours and kisses that were gone before they arrived.”

 

“Two boys kissing. You know what this means … When we kissed, we knew how powerful it was. Our kisses were seismic. When seen by the wrong person, they could destroy us. When shared with the right person, they had the power of confirmation, the force of destiny … And even as it becomes commonplaces, the power is still there. Every time two boys kiss, it opens up the world a little bit more. Your world. The world we left. The world we left you. This is the power of a kiss: It does not have the power to kill you. But it has the power to bring you to life.”

 

gone gone goneHow about a bit from Craig and Lio in Hannah Moskotwitz’s Gone, Gone, Gone:

“He pushes me up against the counter. I’m cold everywhere he touches me, except my mouth, my mouth is burning against his mouth. I’m all wet. I’m melting.”

 

“…I kiss him in my kitchen like I’ve never kissed anyone in my life. It feels a little hilarious, like I’m trying to sweep his whole body into mine. Starting with hands, then arms, then lips.”

 

“We are in the bed, squeaking on the mattress. We are all arms and legs and mouths. I’ve never kissed like this before. I feel like I’m falling into him.

‘I like your hair,’ he says.

‘Mmm.’

His hand underneath my t-shirt. I shiver. ‘However far you want to go, Craig.’

‘Yeah?’

‘It’s fine with me. I’m ready.’

He kisses me hard, for a long time teeth are against my lips.

He whispers, ‘Li? Can we just sleep tonight?’

I can’t say I’m not a little disappointed. But it’s all right. There will be other nights. There will be. And again and again and again.”

 

about a girlSarah McCarry’s About A Girl has some great scenes too:

“… But the unmapped landscape I had cross with him that night in his room compared not at all to the country in which I now found myself, to this girl who moved beneath me and above me like a serpent, lithe and strong, her muscles like cables snapping beneath her skin, the exquisite softness of her mouth a sweet counterpoint to the hard plans of her body …. I looked deep into the bright honey of her eyes and found that I had lost myself altogether, that had she not whispered my name over and over as she kissed me … I should have forgotten it altogether, and it was only the sound of my own name in her mouth, her tongue shaping it as she shaped me, that brought me back to myself, and not long after that there was nothing left for her to say at all, and I was nothing more than a body singing, a body reborn and born again, utterly hers in the dark.”

 

 

I asked on Twitter for people to share with me their favorite YA relationships/scenes/books featuring enthusiastic consent and healthy, positive relationships. Thanks for all of the wonderful input! Let us know in the comments or on Twitter your favorite books, relationships, and scenes! 

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