Sex Does Belong in YA
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Sex Does Belong in YA

My research essay on sex in YA novels

Sex Does Belong in YA
Grace Tyler

Young Adult (YA) is an uprising genre for the publishing world and has been around since the 1970s. Some of the classic YA novels like Catchers of the Rye, Lord of Flies, and The Outsiderswere not even intended for a YA audience, but for adults. The genre has changed, with the most well-known books are City of Bones, The Twilight Saga, The Hunger Games, and The Lunar Chronicles. Current books are being released with a minor theme, but a major concept; sex.

A popular author that incorporates sex into her YA novels is Sarah J. Maas. Maas was born on March 5, 1986, in Manhattan and earned her bachelor’s degree at Hamilton College in 2008. She has written two popular series, Throne of Glass, and A Court of Thorns and Roses. Both have won multiple awards which include Goodreads Choice Awards for best Young Adult Fantasy, Best Young Adult Fantasy Prize, and Best Book of the Month for Kids & Teens. Maas’ books have been translated into thirty-five languages, so her work is popular around the world.

A lot of people believe that sex does not have a place in YA books, but others believe that YA books are the perfect place for sex. Sex is something that adults should not hide from young adult readers. Zareen Jaffery, an executive editor at Salaam Reads, a Simon & Schuster imprint that focuses on Muslims stories, says “In acquiring young adult fiction, I try to balance the need for depicting the world as it is and offering hopeful escapism," (The State of YA, 2017, p. 21). In an article, Brandy Colbert, author of Little & Lion, said “essentially ignoring that actual adolescents are dealing with these issues, and saying their stories are inappropriate is a slap in the face to the very teens whose voices we’re trying to amplify,” (State of YA 2017, 2017, p. 58). Sex in YA novels helps to make readers feel empowered and informed and realize that sex is not something shameful.

Leah Phillips, (a postdoctoral associate in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick), wrote an article titled Real Women Aren’t Shiny (or Plastic) that talks about how YA mythopoetic writing affects the female body image. Mythopoetic is creating a world, with heroes who used to be male, that does not currently exist. In traditional YA books, male characters are portrayed as heroes and female characters focus on their body which affects their self-worth. Even though in YA books females can choose who they want to be, they tend to choose to be portrayed as homogenous, which narrows their choices of who they want to be. Phillips mentions Marissa Myer books who have heroes who are not male or even fully human. According to Phillips, in Myer’s book Cinder, a YA retelling of Cinderella, she uses, “the shape-shifting and cybernetic bodies in these texts offer ways out of the trap of appearance that is not only engendered by the visuality (the insistence and reliance on the visual as a state of being) of popular and media culture but also by the mythic tradition (with its ideal, heroic form) underscoring the mythopoeic nature of these texts,” (2015, p.41). Cinder is not an ideal female character because she is a cyborg and breaks the mold that is placed upon her. This shows young readers that it is okay to be different.

Maas’ also uses mythopoeic YA books to challenge the way that female characters are traditionally portrayed. A Court of Thrones and Rosesis are loosely based on the famous fairytale Beauty in the Beast. Feyre is the main character who was thrown into a new world when she kills a fae disguised as a wolf. At the end of the book, Feyre dies and saves everyone from the curse that Amarantha placed on them. The beginning of A Court of Mist and Fury Feyre is now fae and is trying to get over the trauma Amarantha put her through. When Feyre was human, she knew who she was, but now as a fae she has to figure out who she is. Tamlin, her original love interest, is suffocating her by not giving her room to find who she is and to deal with what happened to her. Rhysand then saves her from marrying Tamlin and they end up falling in love. Feyre starts to learn who she is and is accepting how she feels. At the end of the second book, Tamlin betrays everyone to try to win Feyre back. In A Court of Wings and Ruin, Feyre is pretending to help Tamlin but in fact, she is trying to destroy him from the inside and save her friends and family.

In her books, Maas' creates a set of rules that her characters are supposed to live by and then lets the characters defy them. At the end of A Court of Mist and Fury, Feyre is made into the high lady of the court of dreams, which has never been done before in that world. She also decides to make Feyre sexual history known. In YA books female characters are usually virgins, but Feyre had sex with two people. In A Court of Wings and Ruin, Feyre had to get a mirror, that no one could look in without going crazy to gain an ally in the war for her court.

"It was, perhaps, the one thing I would never show him. Anyone. How I cowered and raged and wept. How I had vomited, and screamed, and clawed at the mirror. Slammed my fists into it. And then curled up, trembling at every horrific and cruel and selfish thing I’d beheld within that monster-within me. But I had kept watching. I did not turn from it. And when my shaking stopped, I studied it. All of those wretched things. The pride and the hypocrisy and the shame. The rage and the cowardice and the hurt," (618) -Feyre

The reason Feyre was able to be fine after looking into the mirror was that she accepted herself for who she is and that included the bad and the good. When she was explaining this to Rhysand she realized that she had to love the bad parts of her to love all of her.

“And what I saw,” I said quietly to him as the Carver raised a hand. “I think-I think I loved it. Forgave it-me. All of it.” It was only in that moment when I knew-I’d understood what the Suriel had meant. Only I could allow the bad to break me. Only I could own it, embrace it. And when I’d learn that … the Ouroboros had yielded to me. (618) -Feyre

It is important to young readers to know that they need to accept themselves even if it is something different than what society teaches them which Maas’ does with her characters and with including sex in her books.

Sex is not only taught as a bad thing outside of literature but inside as well. The article, Sex in YA: What works, what doesn’t and why it matters, was written by Daniel Kraus, a Booklist editor of books for Youth and author of several YA novels. The article is an interview from two YA authors, Christa Desir and Carrie Mesrobian, that discusses their opinion on sex in YA books. Both authors agree that sex in YA is necessary. Mesrobian stated, "If we're rational, we'll realize that having a sexual life is something desirable, not something to be lumped into risk-taking behaviors like drug use," (2016, p. 64). She continues by stating, “It’s either a One Ring to Rule Them All Relationship or nothing. And you don’t see girls having lots of sex unless they’re acting out because of trauma or mental illness. They can’t just be experimenting,” (2016, p. 65). It is important for young readers to know that there is nothing wrong with having sex or wanting to have sex. By publishing books that portray characters that are okay with their sexuality, it shows these young readers that it is appropriate for them to be okay with their sexuality. Desir stated, “I also adored Simmone Howell’s Everything Beautiful (2008) for how it portrayed sex with a douche-bag guy and later with a good guy and the contrasts between those experiences,” (2016, p. 64). Desir continues her point by discussing why sex in YA is important by saying, “Books are a source where my teen daughter, at least, searches for authentic content because she’s not getting it elsewhere,” (2016, p. 65). Desir understands that a lot of teens are lacking a resource that they are looking for to understand sex.

A traditional role that sex plays in YA literature is that women do not have sex while men have sex. In Katy Stein’s article “My Slippery Place”: Female Masturbation in Young Adult Literature, she brings up a point on the double standards in YA books dealing with male and female sexuality. She states, “In young adult literature and in Western society in general, male masturbation usually is considered a facet of a healthy libido,” (2012, p. 415). Even though she is talking about masturbation here, one can say the same thing about anything sexual when it comes to sex with females. In Christine N. Stamper's review, Sexual Content in Young Adult Literature: Reading Between the Sheets by Bryan Gillis and Joanna Simpson, he states,

They close their survey by noting what they see as the “desperate need for literature that deals honestly and openly with sexual information that teens want and deserve to possess. Only when we make this literature available will our society be able to address the disconnect between the transmission and reception of sexual information and the accurate transference of that information to sexual behavior (165).

Maas does not follow traditional gender roles or the role of sex in the characters’ lives in her books. In an interview published by Cosmopolitan, Maas discusses why she includes sex in her series. She states, "With the sex in my books, I try to make it a positive thing. It's OK for women to be virgins, it's OK for them to have had as many sexual partners as they want. With Feyre, it just felt like it was part of her character. I wanted her to have a sexual history that wasn't something to be ashamed of, that was something that she was in charge of; I wanted her to be in charge of her body, her passions, and desires. It's important for women to realize it's your body, it's your choices, and if anyone tries to shame you about that stuff, then that's on them,” (2017). Maas’ diction of sex leaves women feeling empowered and more importantly, okay with having sex. In A Court of Mist and Fury, when Rhys tells Feyre that the men in the room all want her, she comes to a realization about herself that she did not know before. She says, “I waited for the blush, the shyness, to creep in. But I was beautiful. I was strong,” (410). It is important for teens to know that what they feel towards sex is okay and normal.

YA books can be used as a resource to help young readers to understand sex in areas where schools do not talk about. In The Secret Source: Sexually Explicit Young Adult Literature as an Information Source, it discusses why schools should use YA as a source for sexual education. In the article, Pattee states, “Sexuality education curricula in public schools dictate the teaching of the mechanics and biology of maturation and sexual intercourse; however, the social context of these occurrences is rarely mentioned outside of marital relations,” (2006). Schools in America do offer sexual education, but they only focus on the physical aspect of sex, not the emotional parts. This is a problem because while young adults understand what sex is, they do not understand the emotions that come along with the act. This leaves teenagers with a lack of knowledge that could help them to make informed decisions. Pattee states, “The awareness of professional wariness of sexually themed young adult literature allows us to open a space for the discussion of the appropriateness of these texts as both literature artifacts and legitimate alternative sources of sexuality information for young people,” (2006).

In A Court of Mist and Fury, it shows the different types of relationships young adults have. As mentioned before, if a female character does have sex in a book, it is usually with the same person. Feyre has had sex with Tamlin and Rhysand and the readers can tell the difference between each relationship. In the book, “Tamlin held out a hand. ‘Feyre.’ An order-like I was no better than a summoned dog” (594). Tamlin did not give Feyre the room to accept herself or to be herself. He viewed her as an object that he owned. Feyre told Tamlin multiple times to let her go and that she did not want to be with him. He ended up betraying her and his people to get back "what was stolen from him.” While Rhysand accepted Feyre for who she was and never hid things from her. The first time Rhysand and Feyre have sex “Knelt on those stars and mountains inked on his knees. He would bow for no one and nothing- But his mate. His equal,” (531). A reader can see the difference between the two relationships and how Feyre decides what is best for her. Teens are looking for information about sex and they need the access the school does not prove that YA novels do, (Pattee 2006).

Parents and adults are trying to protect the minds of young readers, but by doing so, it is harming them. By reading Sarah J. Maas' books, teens learn that it is okay to be themselves and to accept their sexuality. Teens also learn about the different emotions that come with having sex that school does not talk about. Maas creates characters that do not just defy the rules of society but her own world's society. Without books like Maas,' teens are left without a source that explains the aspect of sex that they cannot learn other places or experience it themselves. Having sex in YA books gives young readers a chance to relate to things they feel and believe. It also lets them live in their sexuality without being ashamed.

Works Cited

Corbett, Sue. "The State or YA: Editors, agents, and authors take the pulse of current trends in teen literature." Publishers Weekly, 23 Oct. 2017, p. 20+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 11 Apr. 2018.

Kraus, Daniel. "SEX IN YA: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why it Matters." The Booklist, vol. 113, no. 2, 2016, pp. 64-65. ProQuest,

Kraus, Daniel. "The State of the YA Novel: 2017." Booklist, 1 Dec. 2017, p. 58+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 11 Apr. 2018.

Maas, Sarah J. A Court of Thorns and Roses. Bloomsbury, 2015.

Maas, Sarah J. A Court of Mist and Fury. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Maas, Sarah J. A Court of Wings and Ruin. Bloomsbury, 2017.

Pattee, Amy. "The Secret Source." Young Adult Library Services, vol. 4, no. 2, 2006, pp. 30-38. ProQuest,

Phillips, Leah. "RealWomen Aren't Shiny (Or Plastic): The Adolescent Female Body in YA Fantasy." Girlhood Studies, vol. 8, no. 3, 2015, pp. 40-55. ProQuest,, doi:

"Sarah J. Maas." Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2016. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.

Stamper, C. N. "Sexual Content in Young Adult Literature: Reading Between the Sheets by Bryan Gillis and Joanna Simpson (review)." Children's Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 41 no. 4, 2016, pp. 465-467. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/chq.2016.0056

Stein, Katy. "My Slippery Place": Female Masturbation in Young Adult Literature."Children's Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 4, 2012, pp. 415-428. ProQuest,

Thompson, Eliza. “Sarah J. Maas Can't Wait for You to Know What Happens in ‘A Court of Wings and Ruin.’” Cosmopolitan, Cosmopolitan, 9 Oct. 2017,

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