By referring to Salt-N-Pepa’s iconic pop song in the title of this special issue, we evoke a topic that is both difficult and enticing in texts for young people. Our special section continues some of the many conversations that were started at the Let’s Talk About Sex in YA (LTASYA) conference at the University of Cambridge in May 2021. This ongoing conversation is essential because YA literature’s engagement with the topic of sexuality and sexual experience corresponds to broader histories of representation in texts for young people, which in turn frame real lives.
We began the planning of this conference in 2019. After the arrival of COVID-19, which itself had extreme implications for sex,1 the world changed, but our desire (so to speak) remained the same: to investigate a dimension of YA literature which is intrinsic to the pedagogical and social dilemmas that structure the field and contribute to the construction and representation of adolescence.
YA has always been a ground for ideological struggles and social constructions of what sex ‘should look like’ for young adults. Emphasis on certain types of representations of sex and sexuality – such as losing your virginity, teen pregnancy, and sexual identity – ensures YA’s place as a space of exploration, and for figuring out our relationships to difficult topics; YA can act as a powerful tool in dismantling repressive and contradictory ideologies about youth sexuality. As Lydia Kokkola emphasises in Fictions of Adolescent Carnality, “the ways in which adolescent sexuality is presented in works intended for young readers reflect [...] changes in the ways society negotiates adolescence” (9). Ideas about virginity, desire, questions of sexual agency, pleasure, and responsibility tend to be integral parts of the construction of adolescent subjectivity and contentious issues for those who shape and reflect on these constructions.
In her opening keynote to the LTASYA conference,2 Kim Reynolds surveys the history of sex in YA in the UK and USA since the 1970s, highlighting how early trends have affected the current state of YA publishing. Reynolds states that before the 1970s, there were plenty of educational materials on the biology of sex available for young people to access, but nothing that considered its emotional or pleasurable aspects. Judy Blume’s Forever (1975) marked a turning point for YA and for the publishing industry. Blume’s classic novel was radical because nothing bad happens in it: a girl wants to have sex with her boyfriend, she goes to the family planning clinic, they have sex, and there are no reprisals after having done the deed. It ends with the relationship coming to a natural and unproblematic ending as she has met someone new. The uproar about such an open and quotidian portrayal of sex in a book for adolescents remains a potent example of controversy, even after fifty years. After Forever, people had opinions on what was and was not appropriate content for young adults, and scholarship on youth sexuality emerged in YA studies.
Before introducing the five articles in this special section, it seems pertinent to give a brief summary of some of this scholarship and the foundational ideas that shaped our thinking for our original call for papers. In 2007, Reynolds declared that “[w]riting about sex, sexuality and relationships [...] is one of the most radically changed areas” (Radical Children’s Literature 114-115) in texts for young people. Roberta Seelinger Trites famously argued that the 20th-century YA novel “participates in the social construction of the adolescent as someone who must be repressed for the greater good” (83), and certainly, narratives about youth sexuality are an arena in which this process of repression plays out: the depiction of lust, desire, consent, sexual violence, sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, etc., in texts written for young people are deeply entrenched in ideas of control and sexual expression. However, since the early 21st century, YA literature has, in certain societies at least, become associated with a less repressive engagement with sex, sexuality, and sexiness. Reynolds identifies a post-2000 shift towards novels that are “more inclusive and less judgemental” (Radical Children’s Literature 116). Nevertheless, YA is still not as liberated as it may appear: many books – especially books containing sex-positive, LGBTQ+, and/or sex education content – come under attack as those in power continue to impose their sense of what constitutes appropriate reading for young people.3
While worries about losing your virginity, accessing contraception, and being ‘ready’ or not ‘ready’ to have sex are quintessential features of adolescent narratives, other changes to do with reproductive health and sexual freedoms of marginalised people offer up urgent topics for storytelling. At our time of writing, we are reeling at the US Supreme Court’s vote to overturn Roe v. Wade,4 an act in the US Constitution which protects personal privacy, including the right to have an abortion, that has been in place since 1973. This step back might seem inconceivable, but the US is far from the only country where abortion access is difficult or under attack, and we also acknowledge the ongoing battles for bodily autonomy in countries including Northern Ireland, India, Poland, and Brazil. Female autonomy, hard won and only recently gained in many instances, is under attack, a context with obvious repercussions for today’s young readers and those producing content for them. Violence against people with disabilities, women, gender non-conforming people, and LGBTQ+ people are all escalating, underscoring the importance of debates about what young people can access. Therefore, another area we highlight in this special section is queer YA studies. This is an essential part of YA studies, because the LGBTQ+ rights movement has always emphasised the power of reading and representation as ways to foster community and identity. There is always so much more to talk about. Alongside the articles we have selected, we therefore present an extended bibliography of further reading to showcase research across these important topics. Our approach in this special section is not so much focused on the didactic utility of sexual content in YA novels, but on its sociocultural contexts, aesthetics, and intersectional relevance.
The special section itself opens with Audrey Coussy’s exploration of the affirmative representation of the sexuality of autistic youth. In “‘Just Be Careful’: Sexual Desire and Autism in YA Novels”, Coussy analyses a corpus of 10 YA novels published between 2009 and 2021 and argues that these texts counter the prevailing oppressive tendency to desexualise autistic people (as well as disabled people in general) by presenting the neurodivergent character’s sexuality not only through their own narration but from the perspective of their love interests. Casting light on what she sees as the authors’ not-so-hidden agendas, to help readers be informed and take their time when it comes to sexual intimacy, Coussy’s investigation constitutes a possible change in discourse and offers a counter narrative. The potentiality Coussy proposes is a common theme running through the section alongside limited representations, negative portrayals, and restricted sex education.
Following on from Coussy, Yan Du’s “When Paper Puppy Meets Beijing Doll: Reading Adolescent Female Sexuality in Two Chinese Youth Novels” addresses the multifaceted sexual politics that impact Chinese YA. Shedding light on the complexities of adolescent female sexuality as it is described and negotiated in late-20th-century China, Du highlights the tensions between young people’s desires and those endorsed by the state. These tensions inform the sexual discourses presented by Chinese YA authors, who, Du concludes, face challenges greater than ever before due to the increasing sexual literacy of their audience and the growing need for more diverse texts.
The next article is a study of several Indian YA novels’ engagement with taboo themes: LGBTQ+ identities and issues; and adolescent girls’ sexual desire. Ritwika Roy’s “‘The Secret is That the Secret Changes’: Sex and Taboo in India and Indian Young Adult Fiction” argues that the development of Victorian puritanical views in India after the arrival of British colonial laws continues to have an impact on the norms of Indian life and so makes life harder for Indian women and LGBTQ+ people living in a misogynistic environment. As with the failures of state-controlled sex education discussed in Du’s article, Roy finds that the books she analyses serve as a kind of ironic sex-education guide by drawing attention to the failure of the Indian government to arrange mandatory LGBTQ+-inclusive sex education. The article draws attention to Indian examples of a trope that will be familiar to scholars working in queer YA studies: the enduring connection between the construction of queer figures and an overwhelming association with death and negativity.
In the two articles that follow, Carrie Spencer and Stephanie Lyttle explore the notion of the love triangle in YA literature. In “Beyond the Binary: Queer (Im)possibilities of Bisexual Desires in Selected US Young Adult Novels”, Spencer illuminates the tensions that can arise even in seemingly positive representations of bisexuality, contending that there is, and can be, no monolithic story of gender plural desires. She uses examples of love triangles where at least one character is bisexual to unpack the possibilities of gender-plural desire as a means of disrupting narrative and social expectations. In Lyttle’s article, “Challenging the Love Triangle in Twenty-First-Century Fantastic Young Adult Literature”, the author frames the love triangle as a major selling-point of several blockbuster YA series, showing how a polyamorous approach to the love triangle destabilises its heteronormative and capitalist implications by undermining its increasingly stale formula of a presumably cisgender, straight, female protagonist who chooses from two male suitors. In this light, polyamory becomes a kind of queer methodology which can illuminate new perspectives on classic YA series, as well as providing a literary context for the emergence of YA texts that recognise polyamory as a legitimate rather than covert identity. Building upon approaches to taboo topics in texts for young people from our previous articles, both authors explore the biphobic, sex-phobic, gendered dimensions of the field, in which the subversive dimensions of the love triangle disrupt conventions of selfhood and desirability and therefore create space for possibilities and potentialities for alternative representations.
Sex, sexuality, and sexiness are intrinsic to understanding and engaging with broader histories and issues of sex in YA literature, whilst also providing references in which readers are able to position their own experiences. Therefore, to prioritise and investigate constructions of the adolescent as a sexual subject in YA novels is to make explicit the often-implicit tensions that shape adolescence. Critical approaches to the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of the representation of sexuality – from desire to violence and back again – in YA literature are booming and urgent, something our conference, and consequently this special section, highlight.
We would like to thank Dr Lisa Kazianka for all her hard work on the Let’s Talk about Sex in YA conference and for her assistance in the early stages of the editing process, including the editing of the contributing authors’ articles. Additionally, we wish to thank Dr Alison Waller and Dr Emily Corbett for supporting this special section and helping us bring it to fruition.
References: a bibliography of critical approaches to sex in YA literature
This bibliography is by no means exhaustive; it emerged organically as we wrote this Editorial. It is included here as a map of emerging and foundational critical perspectives, broadly categorised into three themes: sex and identity; rape culture and reproductive justice; and gender, sexuality, and queerness.
Sex and Identity
Elman, Julia Passanante. Chronic Youth: Disability, Sexuality, and US Media Cultures of Rehabilitation. New York University Press, 2014.
James, Kathryn. Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature. Routledge, 2009.
Kokkola, Lydia. Fictions of Adolescent Carnality. John Benjamins, 2013.
---. “Carnality in Adolescent Literature.” The Edinburgh Companion to Children’s Literature, edited by Clémentine Beauvais and Maria Nikolajeva, Edinburgh University Press, 2017, pp. 90-102.
Reynolds, Kim. Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
---. “The Literary Sweet Spot: Sex in US and UK YA Fiction from the 1960s to the 1980s.” International Journal of Young Adult Literature, Vol, 2, no.1, 2021, pp. 1-16.
Toliver, S.R. “Breaking Binaries: #BlackGirlMagic and the Black Ratchet Imagination.” Journal of Language and Literacy Education, vol. 15, no. 1, 2019, 1-26.
Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. University of Iowa Press, 2000.
Venzo, Paul and Kristine Moruzi, editors. Sexuality in Literature for Children and Young Adults. Routledge, 2021.
Wang, Cathy Yue. “‘You Two Seem to be the Same Person’: Death, Sexuality and Female Doubles in Chinese Young Adult Fiction and Film.” Sexuality in Literature for Children and Young Adults, edited by Paul Venzo and Kristine Moruzi, Routledge, 2021, pp. 127-139.
Rape Culture and Reproductive Justice
Altrows, Aiyana. “Rape Scripts and Rape Spaces: Constructions of Female Bodies in Adolescent Fiction.” International Research in Children’s Literature, vol. 9, no. 1, 2016, pp. 50-64.
---. “Silence and the Regulation of Feminist Anger in Young Adult Rape Fiction.” Girlhood Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, 2019, pp. 1-16.
Bulfin, Alise. “‘I’ll touch whatever I want’: Representing Child Sexual Abuse in Contemporary Children’s and Young Adult Gothic.” Gothic Studies, vol. 23, no. 1, 2021, pp. 21-42.
D’Amore, Laura Mattoon. “Vigilante Feminism: Revising Trauma, Abduction, and Assault in American Fairy-Tale Revisions.” Marvels & Tales, vol. 31, no. 2, 2017, pp. 386-405.
Engle, Olivia & Cordelia Freeman. “‘All this way, all this money, for a five minute procedure’: barriers, mobilities, and representation on the US abortion road trip.” Mobilities, 2022, pp. 1-15.
Harde, Roxanne. “Girls and Rape Culture.” Girlhood Studies, vol, 14, no. 1, 2021, pp. vii-xi.
Herb, Annika. “Restricted access (Para)normalizing Rape Culture Possession as Rape in Young Adult Paranormal Romance.” Girlhood Studies, vol, 14, no. 1, 2021, pp. 68-84.
Hubler, Angela E. “It Is Not Enough to Speak: Toward a Coalitional Consciousness in the Young Adult Rape Novel.” Children’s Literature, vol. 45, no. 1, 2017, pp. 114-137.
Matthews, Corinne. “Contraception, Consent, and Community in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Trilogy.” The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 43, no. 1, 2019, pp. 69-89.
Meek, Michele. “Exposing Flaws of Affirmative Consent through Contemporary American Teen Films.” Girlhood Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, 2021, pp. 101-116.
Mooney, Jennifer. Feminist Discourse in Irish Literature: Gender and Power in Louise O’Neill’s Young Adult Fiction. Routledge, 2022.
Moore, Amber, and Elizabeth Marshall. “Intoxicated Masculinity, Allyship and Compulsory Heterosexuality in Young Adult Rape Narrative.” Sexuality in Literature for Children and Young Adults, edited by Paul Venzo and Kristine Moruzi, Routledge, 2021, pp. 140-156.
Osman, Sharifah Aishah. “Addressing Rape Culture through Folktale Adaptation in Malaysian Young Adult Literature.” Girlhood Studies, vol, 14, no. 1, 2021, pp. 117-133.
Plieth, Carla. “Negotiating Boyhood and Victimisation: Rites of Passage in the Adolescent Male Rape Novel.” Forthcoming. University of Cambridge, PhD dissertation.
Smith, Louisa-Jane. ““No Strings Attached?’ Sex and the Teenage Mother in American Young Adult Novels.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 50, 2019, pp. 381-399.
Gender, Sexuality, and Queerness
Andracki, Thaddeus. “Un-settling Gender and Sexuality: Indigenous LGBTQ+/Two-Spirit Literature for Young People.” International LGBTQ+ Literature for Children and Young Adults, edited by B.J. Epstein and Elizabeth Chapman, Anthem Press, 2021, pp. 117-128.
Anonymous. “Morals, Society and Distribution: LGBTQ+ Literature for Young Readers in the Arab World.” International LGBTQ+ Literature for Children and Young Adults, edited by B.J. Epstein and Elizabeth Chapman, Anthem Press, 2021, pp. 181-182.
Bittner, Robert. “Queering Sex Education: Young Adult Literature with LGBT Content as Complementary Sources of Sex and Sexuality Education.” Journal of LGBT Youth, vol. 9, no. 4, 2012, pp. 357-372.
Chapman, Elizabeth L. “We’re Not Here and We’re Not Queer: Bisexual Erasure and Stereotyping in French Young Adult Fiction.” International LGBTQ+ Literature for Children and Young Adults, edited by B.J. Epstein and Elizabeth Chapman, Anthem Press, 2021, pp. 29-54.
Corbett, Emily. “Transgender Books in Transgender Packages: The Peritextual Materials of Young Adult Fiction.” International Journal of Young Adult Literature, vol. 1, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1-25.
Cuseo, Allan A. Homosexual Characters in YA Novels: A Literary Analysis, 1969-1982. Scarecrow Press, 1992.
Duckels, Gabriel. “Melodrama and the Memory of AIDS in American Queer Young Adult Literature.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 3, 2021, pp. 304-324.
---. “From heterosexualisation to memorialization: queer history and heterosexuality in Young Adult literature about the AIDS crisis.” Mortality, vol. 26, no. 4, 2021, pp. 424-438.
Epstein, B.J. and Elizabeth Chapman, editors. International LGBTQ+ Literature for Children and Young Adults. Anthem Press, 2021.
Epstein, B.J. Are the Kids All Right?: Representations of LGBTQ Characters in Children’s and Young Adult Literature. HammerOn Press, 2013.
---. “Becoming Versus Being: Nature, Nurture and Stereotypes in Swedish LGB Young Adult Novels.” International LGBTQ+ Literature for Children and Young Adults, edited by B.J. Epstein and Elizabeth Chapman, Anthem Press, 2021, pp. 303-318.
Gillingham, Erica. “Representations of same-sex relationships between female characters in all-ages comics: Princess Princess Ever After and Lumberjanes.” Journal of Lesbian Studies, vol. 22, no. 4, 2018, pp. 390-401.
Kealley, Adam. “On the Straight and Narrow: The Homonormalising of Australian Queer YA Literature in the Age of Marriage Equality.” Sexuality in Literature for Children and Young Adults, edited by Paul Venzo and Kristine Moruzi, Routledge, 2021, pp. 157-177.
Kennon, Patricia. “Asexuality and the Potential of Young Adult Literature for Disrupting Allonormativity.” International Journal of Young Adult Literature, Vol, 2, no.1, 2021, pp. 1-24.
Kidd, Kenneth. “Introduction: Lesbian/Gay Literature for Children and Young Adults.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 23, no, 3, 1998, pp. 114-119.
---. “Out and About in Children’s Literature Studies.” Children’s Literature, vol. 50, 2022, pp. 73-84.
Mason, Derritt. Queer Anxieties of Young Adult Literature and Culture. University Press of Mississippi, 2021.
Matos, Angel Daniel, and Jon Wargo. “Editors’ Introduction: Queer Futurities in Youth Literature, Media, and Culture.” Research on Diversity in Youth Literature, vol. 2, no. 1, 2019.
Matos, Angel Daniel. “Queer Consciousness/Community in David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing: ‘One the Other Never Leaving.’” Gender(ed) Identities: Critical Rereadings of Gender in Children’s and Young Adult Literature, edited by Tricia Classen and Holly Hassel, Routledge, 2017, pp. 59-71.
---. “A Narrative of a Future Past: Historical Authenticity, Ethics, and Queer Latinx Futurity in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.” Children’s Literature, vol. 47, 2019, pp. 30-56.
Shen, Lisa Chu. “The Effeminate Boy and Queer Boyhood in Contemporary Chinese Adolescent Novels.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 51, no. 1, 2020, pp. 63-81.
---. “Femininity, Homoeroticism and Heterosexuality in Yin Jianling’s Female Coming-of-Age Narratives.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 52, no. 3, 2021, pp. 378-395.
Silveira, Rosa Maria Hessel, et al. “Self-Help and Coming Out: LGBTQ+ Themes in Contemporary Brazilian Young Adult Literature.” International LGBTQ+ Literature for Children and Young Adults, edited by B.J. Epstein and Elizabeth Chapman, Anthem Press, 2021, pp. 11-28.
Waldhart, Katrin. “Stuck in the Binary: Heteronormativity and the Binary Conception of Gender in German-Language Trans.” International LGBTQ+ Literature for Children and Young Adults, edited by B.J. Epstein and Elizabeth Chapman, Anthem Press, 2021, pp. 55-72.
Warnqvist, Åsa. “‘I’m Sure This Whole Boy Thing is Just a Phase’: Transgender Narratives in Contemporary Swedish Children’s and Young Adult Literature.” International LGBTQ+ Literature for Children and Young Adults, edited by B.J. Epstein and Elizabeth Chapman, Anthem Press, 2021, pp. 275-302.
1 In the UK, due to the implementation of COVID-19 social-distancing laws, sexual contact between people who didn’t share a ‘household was briefly made illegal.
2 Kim Reynolds’ “The Literary Sweet Spot: Sex in US and UK YA Fiction from the 1960s to the 1980s” is a transcript from the opening LTASYA conference Keynote.
3 An explosion in attempts to not only ban but legislate against LGBTQ+ and BIPOC-authored novels and children’s picture books reported by the American Literature Association (ALA) in the United States make the clearest example of this.
4 The US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday 24 June 2022.