Up Front by Emma Hart


Somebody Think of the Young Adults!

Hey guess what? It's my turn to write the "This Herald Editorial is Batshit" column. In my defence, this Herald on Sunday editorial is batshit. I nearly didn't write a column. I was just going to upload a clip of me reading it aloud in my Outraged of 1870 voice. Imagine Stephen Fry wearing pearls and a twin-set. 

Oddly, the first two paragraphs lay out a very good case for why there should be sex in Young Adult fiction: 

Children are exposed to a great deal of explicit sexual material these days. As they come through puberty and beyond, they are liable to come across so much of it on the internet that those who would like to bring a better influence to bear might despair.

They should not give up. There are more weapons in the fight than heavy-handed bans and censorship that never worked, even before pornography was as pervasive as it is now. The best weapon is a book.

You'd never guess, from that opening, that this was a piece that was going to go on to describe an award-winning book (which, it appears, the columnist has not read) as "a waste of time" simply because it includes sex. No other objection to the book is raised. Sexual content has automatically made it bad. 

Anyway, let's take a brief break from trying to read "It is not prudish or patronising to maintain a certain standard, it is re-assuring them that quality exists and people they respect can recognise it" aloud without laughing, and address the question. Should there be sex in Young Adult fiction? 

Of course there should. What the fuck is wrong with you? 

The book in question, Ted Dawe's Into the River, was in a category for readers aged 14-18. Any discussion of the 'innocence of children' is as irrelevant as Bob McCoskrie's opinion. Most avid readers in that age bracket will be reading adult fiction as well as Young Adult. Also, most of them will be aware that sex exists. 

The vast majority of teenagers are sexual beings. For stories intended to be for and about them to contain no sex is a case of Your Defaults are not Apolitical. This isn't about jamming inappropriate material in where it doesn't belong. It's about addressing the weird obvious gap where it would naturally be. (Also, it's never been the default for YA. Tomorrow When the War Began is twenty years old. Where did your copy fall open?) Teenagers want depictions of sex. They actively seek them out. 

And "So Morally-Panicked They Could Barely Type" has a point. Teenagers have access to a lot of shitty depictions of sex. What better counter-balance to that than well-written depictions of sex in Young Adult novels? Where better to genuinely show the awkwardness and angst and fear of adolescent sex than where you can have an internal narrative? (As Carrie Mesrobian says, "Stay in the cringey spot.") You could even have, and I know this is a bit radical, depictions of sex that show clear consent as natural. You could show boys having genuine emotions and feeling hurt and being afraid of being rejected or not knowing what to do. 

Including sex also allows the inclusion of issues of sexuality and gender identity. My teenage years were the 1980s, and I can't remember ever once reading a book with an LGBT character. Never. 

Last year, when my daughter was fifteen, I lent her my copies of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel books. Well, I gave her the Naamah books and meant to talk to her before she got to the ones with the explicit BDSM content, but she read them too quickly for that. I was more than happy to do this, because these books depict a world where sex is a positive, varied thing. Same-sex relationships and kink relationships are treated with the same degree of focus and respect as opposite-sex and vanilla relationships. Consent is clear. Casual sex is had honestly and freely. The underlying theme is "Love as thou wilt". All this is not in spite of the explicit content, but because of it. Why wouldn't I want my kids to see those things as possible?

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