YA novels increasingly feature sexually strong female protagonists, LGBTQA+ characters, queer desire and non-normative relationships: Amanda Lang provides some insight into the genre.
When it comes to teenagers and their attitude toward sex, there’s a substantial divide between real-life and fiction.
This is real life:
“I didn’t cum, I never have with them, and I’ve never said anything about it.”
This is fiction:
“‘When I lick you, I want you splayed out on a table like my own personal feast.’”
I asked a few of my friends about their experiences being sexually active during their high school years, and the resounding response I received was that they never felt like their voices were being heard. As teenagers, both they and I had a lot of disappointing, expected, and unpleasant sex—and most of us didn’t feel comfortable talking about it with our partners, parents, or health teachers.
Instead of engaging in these often awkward conversations, we chose to look to pop culture, porn, and friends to learn about sex, and our findings became alternately confusing and grim. I found myself asking (and it seems likely that teenagers even now, with access to the internet, are wondering): Where do we find all of the good sex? Fictional or otherwise.
When it comes to Young Adult (YA) literature, good sex can be hard to find. But when this genre gets it right, the sex can be powerfully satisfying. In the last few years, certain YA series with badass, capable female protagonists—a win in itself—have featured these protagonists navigating sexual and romantic relationships where their own pleasure and fulfillment is a priority not only for themselves, but also for their partners.
“When I was in high school, I often pretended to be attracted to someone because I felt like that was what I was supposed to feel. I had a lot of bad sex back then and I’m pretty sure the people I was having sex with weren’t having the best time either,” my friend Spencer, a Rhode Island-based artist tells me over FaceTime. “I ended up developing pretty late in life, I think because I didn’t get a lot of guidance in that area when I was younger. I don’t think I actually had an orgasm, or gave an orgasm until I reached my mid twenties.” We laugh at this but the overall tone of the conversation is still pretty grim.
Spencer tells me that he couldn’t find many examples of sex-positive, equitable romantic relationships growing up. Thankfully, it seems that the landscape of literature—particularly YA literature—is changing. In Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me series, 17-year-old Juliette negotiates several personal and political planes of experience—a possessive first boyfriend who tries to define her; and a desire to take part in and finally lead the efforts of the rebels trying to save the world from a fascist government. Over the course of the series Juliette learns about her emotional limits and discovers what she wants from herself, from friends, and from romantic partners.
When she ultimately finds a supportive romantic partner, the first thing he does is go down on her. Including cunnilingus in Juliette’s personal and sexual awakening normalizes oral sex as a fun, pleasurable activity (which it really is by the way, as someone who has both given and received it). The fact that she engages in it with an eager, respectful partner works to validate the active role she takes in claiming her independence, both personally and as a leader in her country’s rebellion. Just prior to this encounter, Juliette physically and verbally stands up to her possessive ex-boyfriend, a turning point in the development of her confidence and personal strength. It is then significant that she immediately decides to engage sexually with her new love interest—she is able to articulate what she wants (rather, what she doesn’t want) from her ex-boyfriend, and then what she does want from a new partner. Her new partner makes it clear that he is not only willing but eager to please Juliette in whatever way she feels comfortable with, something that few of my friends found in their first sexual encounters.
I spoke to my friend Serena about some of our early sexual experiences one evening over drinks. “I wanted to be the cool girl,” she tells me, “so I would pretty much go down on my boyfriend whenever he asked, or even if he didn’t ask, but he literally never went down on me the entire time we were together. He never made me come, but I wanted him to like me so I never brought it up. I’m terrible with confrontation in relationships.”
In Mafi’s novels, Juliette learns to assert herself and put her own pleasure first. The series rewards her for learning how to be sexually confident; it suggests that, as a result of asserting herself, she ends up in a relationship with a partner who cares about her sexual and emotional wellbeing. In a story where people have the power to literally become invisible, the development of such a healthy relationship might have been one of the more fantastical elements. Maybe I’m just being bitter.
The queen of sexually-egalitarian YA fiction might be Sarah J. Maas, the author of the Court of Thorns and Roses series. For Feyre Archeron, the protagonist of this series, sex is both casual fun and physical release with or without a prior emotional attachment. After she enters the fairy world as a prisoner, she embarks on a relationship with Tamlin, a fairy king. Feyre loves Tamlin, and the sex that they have is not only tender, but also pleasurable for her—Tamlin actually makes Feyre orgasm. However, Tamlin becomes possessive and unreasonable as the series continues, and Feyre stops sleeping with him, and ultimately leaves him. Feyre’s decision is especially striking for many YA readers, who have been culturally conditioned to believe that heteronormative vaginal sex is some sort of symbolic marriage commitment, and that the quality of the actual relationship should be secondary. Therefore, it is crucial that young women witness Feyre’s ability to separate her self-worth from her sexual history—regardless of how difficult it may be.
After Feyre leaves Tamlin, she enters into a friendship with a character named Rhys. Rhys puts Feyre’s freedom of choice first. He allows her both the time and space to grieve over her previous relationship, and provides her with the companionship she needs, without pressuring her to give more than she is ready for. When the two of them do enter into a romantic and sexual relationship—again, the first thing Rhys wants to do is pleasure Feyre.
There are several Young Adult fantasy reads with strong heroines (the Grisha trilogy, for example) and LGBTQA+ characters (Six of Crows, for example), and each of these novels grapples with sexual relationships in some way. We are not given perfect relationships, instead we see characters of different cultural and racial backgrounds, each with a complicated history of their own, learning about the wants and needs of another person and how those needs fit into each of their lives. There is never one specific road that these characters take to reach a place of comfort in their relationships, and that’s important. I have never been attracted to perfect people. Ultimately what draws people closer is the experience of learning about each other’s quirks, fears, and the paths they have taken to become who they are. That myth about damaged people having better sex? I think in reality it’s more like people who are honest with each other about themselves tend to have better sex.
Teenage readers are obviously curious about their sexualities and the different ways in which physical and emotional desires are expressed. Through more graphic depictions of pleasurable sexual relationships, sexual exploration and nonnormative sexual expressions become normalized. Physical intimacy is in turn exemplified as an exciting, mutually pleasurable way to engage with and learn about your partner, rather than an expected route to adulthood, or a rite of passage that we have to deal with in order to please someone else (our own personal satisfaction be damned), as we are led to believe as teenagers.
So where can young people find good sex?
Since schools, parents, and popular culture are failing to provide answers to this question, teen literature has become a crucial way for teens to learn about assertiveness, relationships, and sex positivity.