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The Message Sex Sends in YA Lit

My freshman year of college, I took a communications class as one of my gen-ed credits. One of the things we had to do was a persuasive speech, and I did mine on why positive sex education was better than abstinence only or no sex ed at all. I included the many statistics that show how little effect abstinence only sex ed has on when and how teens have sex, and argued that the best way to keep kids safe and healthy was to teach them about safe and healthy sex, rather than trying to keep them from having it at all. Seems like a no brainer, right? As I’ve written about before, my mom was very open with me about sex and alcohol and drugs. As a teenager, I knew that I didn’t have to do it until I was ready, and that I absolutely didn’t have to do it to keep a boyfriend, and that if I DID decide I was ready, the main thing to remember was condom, condom, condom.

Those three words were my mantra from the time my brother was born when I was four, and it became even stronger when my sister was born and I was age ten. I was far too shy sexually to even LOOK at a penis in high school, which my sometimes friend with benefits was totally, wonderfully okay with; but when I got to college and started to think I might be interested in going further, you bet your ass I picked up free condoms from the Lambda table, just in case! And though I was all prepared, it was still three years before I decided to have sex. When I did, it was simply and purely because I wanted to, and so did my partner. I was not at all nervous, and I did not just “let it happen.” I made a decision, because my mom taught me that it was my right to decide.

My point is this: it only takes a few words to make a huge difference.

SO, fast forward to today. I’ve been reading The Girl Who Would Be King by Kelly Thompson. It’s an engaging enough read, but there has been one scene in particular that made me rage a little bit.

Main character #1 is a sixteen-year-old girl named Lola. She kills her mother and runs to Las Vegas, and ends up joining a crew of master criminals. One of these criminals is the conveniently attractive seventeen-year-old Adrian. Needless to say, they fall in love in the space of about twenty pages. So I get a little ways in and suddenly there’s this line:

“I make him wait longer than he’s probably ever had to wait for a girl.”

Oh dear. I saw where this was going right away, and though I had high hopes, they were disappointed. She’s nervous about sex for the first time, which is understandable, especially since she’s super strong and she’s worried about accidentally hurting him. (Sort of an Edward thing, I guess–which actually makes it seem worse since Edward DOES hurt Bella during sex, but Lola doesn’t hurt Adrian. At least Edward was telling the truth.)  So she has nightmares about hurting him, and its when she wakes up all sweaty from one such nightmare that they start to get hot and heavy.

“Before I even realize it, we’re kissing and pieces of clothing are falling away and in moments his skin matches mine in sticky sweetness.”

Okay, alright. My clothes never conveniently fall off, but whatever. Now here’s the part where they stop and get a condom and have that adorably awkward moment of agonizing waiting!

“He’s inside me flawlessly,


Hold up.

Nope. Those sentences are right next to each other. There is no condom, and there has been absolutely no mention of Lola being on the pill or any other kind of contraceptive.

See, here’s my beef. All it would have taken was ONE SENTENCE to turn unsafe teen sex into safe teen sex. One sentence, something like “I clench my fists around the sheets, writhing with impatience, while he rolls the condom on.” Tadaa! And then you have a sex scene where they’re not worried about getting pregnant or getting STDs (a reasonable concern, since apparently Adrian is a ladies’ man). You don’t have to get preachy about it. I am all about more depictions of healthy, safe sex in YA! Healthy and safe being the operative words.

Lola is, functionally, the antagonist of the book, which means that her behavior is transgressive, edgy, violent. She steals, she kills. BUT. She also gets twice as much page time as the functional protagonist, Bonnie, at least in the first third of the book (which is all I’ve read so far). It’s clear that she’s the author’s favorite character, and she’s by far the more interesting character. So what ends up happening is that even though the author may have included this sex scene in some weak attempt to show what a “bad, devil-may-care girl” Lola is, all the reader sees is the coolest teen girl in the book having unsafe sex with her new teen boyfriend. 

I obviously don’t know what Kelly Thompson was trying to do with this sex scene, which by the way, doesn’t even matter much to the plot (so far–there may be little plot babies a’coming). She may not have been trying to do anything. That happens. But this is ostensibly a young adult book, and a little awareness of your audience can go a long way. I doubt she’s actually advocating rampant unprotected sex between teenagers, but the scene between Lola and Adrian does normalize and glamorize such sex. Believe me, it can be just as flawless with a condom, and a whole lot less nerve-wracking.

3/14/13 EDIT: Read my full review of The Girl Who Would Be King here!

I ranted about this for a good hour when I got home, and my boyfriend decided to take a brief video near the end. For your viewing pleasure:

16 thoughts on “The Message Sex Sends in YA Lit

  1. Yes! Yes, yes. yes! I get so distracted reading any contemporary sex scene, be it YA or romance or fancy pants literature, that doesn’t include mention of condoms or birth control. I don’t know who these authors are in real life, but have they never had modern single person sex? A main character should always, always think about condoms contraception, just to be realistic! It’s not only irresponsible when writing YA, but just rings false. You can bet if a modern teenage girl didn’t have sex with the condom, she’d sure as hell obsessively worry about it for a month afterwards.

    1. Ahem. That should be condoms OR contraception.

    2. I know! None of that, though. The boy disappeared from the plot twenty pages post-sexytimes and has been mentioned maybe twice since? But no wondering about pregnancy or disease. Unless Lola’s superpowers involve ACTUALLY being able to shut all that down, we’ve got a giant plot hole on our hands.

      1. Ugh! Seriously? That is the kind of thing that knocks me right out of a book, even if I’m enjoying it. In YA, especially, improper handling of sex or technology makes me see red. It can be easier not to address the aftermath of sex, but it’s not accurate storytelling for this age. If a character is supposed to resonate, she needs to seem like a real teen. Which means in this case, Lola should be freaking out, not barely thinking about it or him. *seethes*

        Sidenote, I didn’t mention it above, but this post is perfect. Thanks for writing it, Caitlin!

        1. Yup. What gets me is that the reason Lola’s not with him any more is that the crew betrayed her and left her for dead and all that, and when she came back to confront them they tried to kill her again and Adrian didn’t help her or stand up for her, so it’s supposed to be this big betrayal–but that could have been done without the sex scene. It’s served absolutely no purpose so far. I’m still reading in the hope that it’ll turn into “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant: Super Villain Edition.”

          And thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

  2. I couldn’t agree more! Bravo!! I get all nervious when YA romance heads in the direction of sex. It feels all wrong if its starts to read like a poor b rated porn film. It’s for teenagers not granny! You know? I think you put it into words perfectly.

    1. Thanks! I don’t read a lot of straight-up romance, which might take a more thorough approach to all of the issues around sex? I don’t know. But still, even if your book isn’t about romance/sex, if you include sex you should probably include all this stuff, you know?

  3. I have to agree with everything you’ve said here. If we’re sexing up the youth of today then we should be promoting safe sex. I can definitely see why you ranted! 🙂

    1. Thanks! And I totally agree. Dear society, please catch up to yourself.

  4. YES! Some of my favorite YA books are by Tamora Pierce and she always had pregnancy amulets!

    People be dumb.

    1. LOVE HER. And her pregnancy amulets, haha.

  5. Hi Caitlin:

    Kelly Thompson here. I generally try not to comment on any reviews or criticism (positive or negative) but I just wanted to say that I completely understand your point here and I think it’s really valid.

    That said, even though Lola actively does NOT want to have children, I just don’t think she’s the kind of character that thinks about these things, or plans, or plays it smart. She’s a jump first and maybe ask some questions later, as I think is really well established in the book. I also think she comes from a very bad/broken home situation with her mother (and very unlike yours) and Lola was not taught these things. It’s a horrible mistake she makes and perhaps what I would change if I went back was to have her realize what a mistake it was to not pay attention to that – because I feel like THAT is very Lola – to think of things way too late in the game.

    I definitely get your point that Lola is kind of a badass and so it sets a dangerous precedent for young readers to have her so cavalierly ignoring safe sex practices. On the other hand, she also kills indiscriminately throughout the novel, so I hope nobody is really looking at her to do the right/smart thing.

    But again, it’s a good point and while I wouldn’t change the scene in this book (except perhaps adding something about it after the fact) I will certainly make sure I pay more attention to this issue in future books – so long as it fits the character! 😉

    Thanks for reading – and for the great review you put up today. If you email me (1979semifinalist[at]gmail) I’d love to send you something fun via mail that I think you’ll enjoy.


    1. Wow, thank you for replying and for being so open to this discussion. I agree that making mistakes and dealing with it later is very Lola, and that her home situation set her up for a lot of poor decision-making. The scene with Adrian and the sex-just-kidding-murder spree later are definitely a huge part of Lola’s characterization and I do think it all works very well to that end.

      That being said–and please understand that this is just for discussion’s sake–I think having Lola insist on a condom or something could have worked. She knows, for example, that LeFever daughters kill their mothers in order to get their power. She’s so obsessed with her own power that NOT getting pregnant with her potential murderer could be the ONE thing she thinks about ahead of time.

      Regardless, I did end up loving the book, so there’s that! Thanks again for replying and for considering this topic in future books–which I will definitely read.

  6. “Must be explicit for the children!!” 😉 Indeed.

    I find this topic intriguing and not that it matters much in the case of a published book, I also want to concur with you Caitlin that by including a a detail of fear, in this case, fear of becoming pregnant with the one who may kill you for power, is what turns a good character into a great one. Personal fears are, in my opinion, some of the greatest ways to understand people/characters and why they are the way they are. Knowing that she can’t get pregnant because she is so driven by the need for power adds a layer of complexity to an already interesting character (I have not read the book, but based on what your post and the discussion you had with Kelly Thompson herself, I gather that the lead does go through significant character development). People have a multitude of circumstances that make them who they are, so I believe characters should reflect that. Furthermore, I think that could be a detail that would allow for safe-sex promotion without readers even realizing that they are thinking, “Good call! God, imagine what would happen if she got pregnant?!? Ahh!!” The last thing you want is a teenager you are trying to teach ends up feeling like you are trying to teach them (and in no way does that mean I think condoms or contraceptives should be left out of YA sex scenes–just to be clear).

    Overall I think it is a very interesting issue that you bring up. Changing the way we educate needs to start with the reality of where kids are actually being educated.

  7. […] and here on my personal blog I’ve explained my feelings on topics like reluctant love and sex in YA. If your story includes reluctant love, for example, and you hire me as your editor, you’d […]

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