UNCENSORED: Sex and Young Adult Fiction

The subject of sex has been continually viewed as a topic of taboo in young adult literature.

Judy BlumeIn “The Secret Source: Sexually Explicit Young Adult Literature as an Information Source,” Amy Pattee provides a profound, insightful, and informative discussion of the representation of sexual coming of age in young adult literature. First off, she makes it clear that “[u]nfortunately, much of what may be considered erotic or sexually explicit in adolescent literature has been challenged by censors and is often passed over for less controversial materials in school and library materials selection” (30). This challenge is very true, and quite unfortunate. Librarians and teachers should embrace sexually explicit young adult literature because it is an educational tool and a socio-cultural representation of teenagers that can function to compliment sexual and health education in the classroom, library, and various information and social settings.

Pattee notes “the arguments against greater disclosure in young adult literature mirror two distinct and historical arguments concerning both the sex practices and sexuality of young people and the troublesome effects of sensational fiction” (30). The counter arguments to sexually explicit young adult fiction as “troublesome” is extremely unsettling because the idea of “sensation” fiction provides teenagers with a window of intrigue into reading fiction and learning about the sexual information that pertains to their coming of age learning needs. Young adult literature effectively functions as a vehicle for teenage education and entertainment and should not be dismissed as a teen’s reading material of choice.

Pattee mentions Judy Blume, a courageous advocate for young adult fiction, as a wonderful author example who delves into the world of sexually explicit materials . Blume fearlessly discusses topics such as masturbation, sexual activity, and the emotional side of sexual feelings in her vast collection of young adult works. This video displays Blume’s contribution to the field of young adult literature through her discussion of the sensitive process of coming of age:

This article points out the inherent value of sexually explicit young adult literature. Pattee notes, “[b]ecause the sexual content of young adult literature can be explicit and detailed, and because these passages may even stir the senses and be considered erotic, […] these fictional texts should be considered as unique information sources that can offer young readers both realistic and needed information about sex and the sex act as well as a private, safe space to try new feelings of sexual desire” (30-1). Therefore, young adult fiction is an information source, a guidance counselor and friend, for sexual inquiries and coming of age observations that teenagers are uncomfortable in discussing with parents, teachers, and librarians. These texts engage youth in a realistic discussion and relationship with the topic of sex and the emotional connection associated with sexual feelings. Most importantly, young adult materials encourage reading, learning, personal, and social awareness.

Pattee highlights an extremely important fact: “sexuality should not be censored in young adult fiction; in fact, scenes of intimacy should read as close to the truth–of the physical act and the emotional investment–as possible. Young adult literature has the potential to fill in the gaps left by sexuality education curricula by depicting the many ways […] young people choose to be intimate” (32). These information gaps should be filled by young adult authors so teenagers can understand the the entire spectrum of sexual experience in a comforting, non-judgmental format. Librarians and teachers should incorporate said fiction in their lesson plans and programming to encourage a fully comprehensive learning and pleasure reading experience.

I am intrigued by Pattee’s claim: “[i]t is not a coincidence that readers look to writers of explanatory and sometimes explicit fiction to provide even more extratextual advice and guidance. In fact, the desire of readers to learn more about their own lives is likely charged by their textual experiences with fictional yet familiar characters” (33). The idea of authors and characters in their stories acting as confidants and a vehicle to sexual awareness and knowledge, among many other topics, is extremely comforting. Characters become friends for young adult readers who are struggling to understand the world around them as they mature into adults. I’d like to make the claim, as characters  retell and relate their coming of age experiences with young adult readers, teenagers will be more comfortable living and learning in a complex and diverse society through fictional understandings.

Pattee emphasizes, “[t]hese narratives can and should include frank discussions of adolescent physiology as characters discover and handle the emotional and physical components of sexuality” (36). Teenagers need teenage characters to relate to and obtain their information needs on sensitive issues.

As librarians, please encourage young adult patrons to combine their reading experience with non-fiction and fiction materials to equally satisfy for emotional and physical understands of sex. “Sensation” fiction is not something to frown upon, it is an intriguing tool to inspire reading interests and information skills.

For more information, check out this interview where Judy Blume discusses the sexual content and “sensitive” issues in her highly contested books:

Pattee, Amy. 2006. “The Secret Source: Sexually Explicit Young Adult Literature as an Information Source.” Young Adult Library Services 4(2): 30-8.

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