Imagine buying a non-fiction parenting book about teenagers and finding there was no section on sexuality? How shortchanged would you feel? Sexuality is an enormous part of being a teenager. How can a child become an adult without sexuality coming into it? Young Adult fiction that avoids sexuality is like a sandwich without bread.
When talking about Young Adult fiction, I am not, of course, including novels aimed at the pre-teen market which are mostly about friendships, dreaming of boys and the odd kiss. Those novels are perfect for that age. And are extremely popular for that reason.
Recently I attended the Romantic Novelists Association Conference in Penrith, UK. There was a talk on sexuality in YA fiction – How Far Should You Go? As a YA writer, I attended with interest, though I knew I would continue to write what I write, regardless. Because it feels right. And my readers love the books. After discussing the various levels of sexuality in the YA novels out there, it was generally agreed that books give sexuality a context that is not provided by the Internet.
Teenage years are intense. New, powerful, confusing and often conflicting emotions, urges and thoughts are the norm. There is a huge need to know, to understand. Especially about sexuality. Thanks to Google, information is available at the touch of a button. And when I say information I mean more ‘stuff’ than your basic parent has ever come across. If you are in any doubt, let me confirm, the average teenager knows more about the act of sex than his or her parents. Often, this is without the context.Ever since I started to write YA, teenagers have contacted me. To tell me that the stories make them feel that they are not the only one; they are not weird or strange. But normal. By dealing with big issues (not just about sexuality but about loss, bullying, first love, the complexities of friendships etc) it makes readers think. It opens them up to other points of view. I have been contacted by people thanking me for helping them understand what a friend is going through. Others have got in touch to say that, though they have never experienced an issue (eg bullying), they feel better equipped to deal with it should it ever happen to them.
I think it is important to say that I do not write in sexuality into my YA books because I feel it should be there. The stories, the characters, come to me and I let myself be guided by instinct. If sexuality comes up, it comes up. I do not write to titillate. I didn’t do it when I wrote for adults. And I don’t do it now. If sex comes into it, it comes into it – because of where the characters find themselves. It is part of their journey. In my books, sex is not Nirvana. It is not idealised. There are implications. Like in real life. The most important thing to me as a writer are relationships. That’s what interests me. I’m pretty sure, it’s why I write. And I would hope that the teenagers reading my books would strive, primarily, for good relationships, for a soulmate – someone who understands them, cares about them, ‘gets’ them, someone they can talk to, be themselves with.
Sometimes, I like to remember the books I read when I was a teenager. I read Jane Austen (all of them, over and over). I read the Flowers in the Attic series. I read (one of my favourites) Go Ask Alice. I took something different from every book. And something different every time I read the same one. None made me go out and have sex. None made me take drugs. Or commit incest. They did one thing, they made me think. And that can’t be a bad thing.