Yes, this is the forbidden subject...the one everyone wanted to blog about a few years ago only to be hounded and eaten alive by trolls, dragons, abstinence awareness speakers, nuns, Ke$ha fan club presidents, the Target check out dude in aisle four, and other even scarier internet creatures.
And yes, I still see a few posts pop up now and again, for example, this one recently re-posted from 2010. Reading this article a few days ago inspired me, not to stand on my soap box and give my own opinions, but to ask the Perfect 10, my teen panel, what they think on the subject. It is technically their books being discussed when the grown-ups engage in heated debates on this topic.
I know that it seems backwards to ask the kids what they think about sex and language in books because they're teens, they love to break rules and get wild, right? Of course they are going to want all the sex, drugs, bad words, and bad choices us authors can possibly cram into one novel, right? They can't possibly make intelligent choices regarding their own potential moral corruption, can they?
|What Moral Corruption by Book Actually looks lik|
It isn't my place to decide whether each individual pre-teen and teen is capable of determining which books are appropriate for them to read, but I do think it's important that they at least be allowed to voice their opinoin somewhere. And to be honest, I was immensely curious to hear what they had to say on the subject.
So, no, I'm not going to bite the bullet that will inevitably come at me faster than the speed of light should I tell you what I think about this topic, but it's possible I've found more subliminal ways to insert my personal feelings into this post. Keep in mind, I have a tendency to use sarcasm.
Before we go any farther,you should know that the Perfect 10 is an incredibly diverse group of young people. And by diverse, I mean in nearly every way possible-age, sex, race, religious beliefs, country of residents...
On to the Q&A with a few Perfect 10 members....
What are your opinions regarding content in YA fiction such as sex-whether just in reference or explicit description-and language?
"I think it is ok to reference sex in YA novels because if you're being true to characters then maybe your characters are having sex. I don't want explicit description. Like in the scene [in Tempest] when Holly and Jackson were having sex, I don't think that was explicit details. I think that was perfect. It was like you knew they were doing it, but you didn't give too much details." --Hannah, 15, Ohio
"Ok, yes maybe some adults don't want their children reading about language and sex, but they are going to learn eventually and they already know most of it. I think YA books especially require it, you're writing for teenagers, teenagers who experience similar things, who want to relate to their characters. Being 18, I find it hard to get a good YA novel that is enough like real life that I started to read adult books a few years ago. Rachel Vincent's, Shifter series was a good example of fantasy and true to life. Yes there is sex, though only one scene, and language but nothing over done. I think sex and language (and even religion) is perfectly fine for a YA book as long as it is natural and not forced or over done. I think it depends on the type of book and the story and characters. At the end of the day it all comes down to the reader." --Tasha, 18, Northern Ireland
"I'm nineteen and my thoughts are cussing and sex are okay in YA. It's realistic. And I think some adults are trying to protect children/teens the wrong way--it doesn't matter what they read, but they hear/say cuss words at school, with friends, whenever they're not around their parents. And I know some people like to believe that teenagers aren't cussing, aren't having premarital sex, aren't doing drugs/drinking/whatever, but it's happening and it should be portrayed in books. It's portrayed in movies, in video games, in real life, etc." --Ashelynn, 19, Wyoming
"In regard to profanity or sexual content, I have no qualms as long as it holds some purpose in a particular scene. Accuracy is key in YA, yes? It is only fair then to create characters who truly relate to real teens. If encountering strong language or engaging in sexual activity is something that real teens do, how could it be wrong for a fictional character? In my several years of experience reading YA, I've never come across overtly sexual situations or instances of too much profanity, so I think publishers are fairly skilled in keeping YA novels as appropriate (for lack of a better word) as possible for the adolescent age group. Of course, I have grown and my mindset has changed since the time I first started reading YA. As expected, I'm more comfortable reading some of the more racy scenes than I used to be."--Zareen, 17, California
"My teacher has recommended books like Atonement by Ian McEwan to me in the past, which contains sex. I read Looking for Alaska when I was nine, which had an oral sex scene. Was Alaska appropriate for me at the time? No, absolutely not, but I learned to avoid YA until I was older. We learn from experience, and I never really understood (the stuff that happened in Looking For Alaska) until later anyway."--Nicole, 13, Australia
How do you feel about adults constantly debating the content issue and making decisions about what you should or shouldn't be able to read, what your school libraries may or may not carry?
"When it comes to what we should or shouldn't read I think parents get ridiculously strict, it's not a big deal if that [sex,language] is in a book because it is just a book."--Hannah, 15, Ohio
"I could write a book on my views on this. In the UK they want to put age restrictions so that you will need ID to prove you are a certain age for books. This really annoyed me and will if they bring it into effect as a lot of books I love are adult fantasy and I won't be able to get them because the age will be 21."--Tasha, 18, Northern Ireland
"Would I be bothered by censorship of certain books? Yes. Do I understand the support for such a system? Also yes. Basically, it's a complicated issue. I've never really followed the age guidelines on books. I picked up my first YA book before my teen years. I also know of others who have done the same thing simply because we were kids who wanted more to read. Though I'd be bothered if my parents, teachers, etc. tried to keep me from reading books above my level, I would recommend monitoring what a child or teen reads. Not every kid is the same; we don't mature at the same rate or go through the same specific experiences. It is ultimately up to a parent/guardian to decide whether any certain form of entertainment is appropriate for their son or daughter, whether it be books, movies, music, etc."--Zareen, 17, California
"I think there's a difference between 'sheltering' a child from the ugly side of things--drugs, sex, etc., and showing them age-appropriate content. And while I can certainly see why adults would want to remove or censor explicit content from books, the reality is that their teenagers, like it or not, are going to read or hear about this sort of thing sooner or later, regardless of whether permission is given. Correct me if I'm wrong, but can't someone buy a book like Fifty Shades from a bookstore or Amazon? Where are we going to draw the line with book censoring? Will it only apply to YA? Can't a teenager pick up an adult book just as easily? While I think there is a baseline for how much sex/language an author will even put into a book for teenagers, each person is different, and each parent has different tolerance levels for content like this in stories. I don't think YA books with sex should be banned, but if parents think it's inappropriate, it is *their* responsibility to censor THEIR children's reading material, and not to limit others from reading about things that happen in the real world to real people."--Nicole, 13, Australia
So, there you have it. A little food for thought for those of you who like to think. Personally, even though I've worked with these kids for a few months and already think highly of them, this proved to me how much more mature and intelligent teens can be than we realize.
I've heard every side of this debate from those who believe in 'keepin it real' to those who are convinced publishers add more sex and language just to get teens to buy a certain book. While I can't speak for every instance of this last allegation, I will say that it's possible authors have been asked to add more of this R-rated content, not as a marketing tool, but because the stakes needed to be raised for a main character or for the plot of the novel. For example, which is a heavier issue for a teen character to encounter: 1) deciding to kiss a boy/girl or 2) deciding to go all the way with a boy/girl? Which one has larger consequences and will most likely give the reader a harder slap of reality?
Reality? Did you say reality? Yes...that's right. Deciding whether to have sex or not is very much a part of nearly every teenager's reality. That doesn't mean YA authors should have the freedom to write stories about teens who lie, cheat, steal, get rich from said lying, cheating, stealing and live happily ever after, but honestly, give me the name of a YA book where that happens? Or anything remotely close to that?
Okay, so here's the fun part. I'm going to list below some quotes from random articles/blog posts on this subject. If you'd like to join this discussion, maybe start by saying whether you agree of disagree with the statements.
1) "Researchers found that when profanity was used [in teen fiction], the characters were most likely to be young, rich, attractive and of high social status. A lot of research has shown that viewers tend to imitate the characters with desirable characteristics. If adolescents are reading about these characters who are popular and rich — which are desirable characteristics for them — they are likely to imitate their behavior.”
2) "Books offer one of the few spaces in which teens can encounter the hard edges that mark true coming-of-age without judgment. For those teens whose lives have already been affected by drugs, violence, suicide, or any number of traumatic experiences – that children as well as adults struggle with – books can provide comfort, healing, or simply the realization that one isn’t alone."
3) "Kids at this age are impressionable. Sometimes it's a monkey see, monkey do."
Thanks again to the Perfect 10 members who so graciously and candidly contributed to the content of this blog post! And again, I think I can speak for them as well as myself when I say that we would LOVE to hear what you think!