Sex and Swearing in YA
Hello and welcome to Sex and Swearing in YA!
Sex and swearing have an interesting place in the YA publishing discussions, because you often have people in one of these two camps:
- Oh, it’s books for teens—obviously I can’t have sex and swearing
- Teens aren’t children—I can write whatever the hell I want, within reason
And it’s not that one camp is fully wrong or one is fully right, it’s more like Camp 1 isn’t reading nearly enough, and Camp 2 doesn’t know nearly enough about the publishing business. Because the real answer is more like:
You can write you want within reason, but what’s “within reason” changes depending on your target and professional goals.
What do I mean by this? I mean that from a business standpoint, sex and swearing in YA matters because that content is going to dictate A) the age of your target audience (e.g. 12 and up vs. 14 and up), B) where the book can be published, C) where that book can be featured, and D) its school/library intake and recommendation.
One of the biggest reasons authors keep sex and swearing out of their books is because inclusion of a certain amount/level will keep you out of certain major-selling organizations, such as the Scholastic Book Fair. I attend a lot of author panels, which is a great benefit of living and working in NYC, and one of the most enlightening things I ever heard at one was from an author who relayed that she had been asked if she wanted to keep a certain fairly mellow post-coital scene in her book, and she said yes, because why wouldn’t she? It was part of her story, and no one was forcing her to cut it. What she didn’t know was that keeping that scene would keep that book out of the Scholastic Book Fair. However, she did learn that afterward, in time for her next book. So for her sophomore title, she kept it free of sex and swearing, landed in the book fair, and her sales exploded.
Now, of course, not every book/author can do that, or wants to. For that author, it was pretty natural to her style and character voice; in fact, it’s something she could’ve easily cut from her debut, and would have if she’d known. But if you’re reading this post, there’s a good chance you read and write more like I do—the older the target YA audience, the more your jam it is, and a lot of those times, a book just wouldn’t work, and a character wouldn’t be believable, if their books were SBF-friendly, or tween-friendly at all.
So what if you do write closer to that edge? Say you’ve decided you won’t have authentic character voice without swearing. Does what words you use make a difference? Does it matter where you use them?
There’s no universal answer here; some editors are going to ask you to change things, and some aren’t. Some librarians are gonna push back at you, and some aren’t. Some readers are going to criticize the amount of swearing in your book, and some aren’t. But based on having asked a bunch of authors their experiences, here’s the practical stuff you should know for the swearing end of things:
- The most problematic place to have a swear word, no matter how mild, is in the title/subtitle. Even if your publisher is cool with it, you’ve still gotta get it by booksellers (including B&N), and they may not be. There are a lot of instances in which it’s worth sticking to your guns regarding your content, but booksellers (especially B&N) declining to carry your book is one of the toughest hits you can take as an author, and even if it’s one you’re willing to shoulder, your publisher may not be, even if they think your title’s fantastic.
- “Fuck” is not only a problem for stuff like Scholastic Book Fair, but for curriculum books, so if you’re hoping to get on a high school syllabus someday, that’s something to keep in mind.
- If your editor asks if you’re willing to remove swearing from your book in order to make your book more likely to get picked up by the Scholastic Book Fair and Clubs, they are in fact making it your choice; every author who responded to this reported having been asked and having chosen to make that cut. It’s probably not something you’re going to be asked if it’s integral to your book, so it’s really up to you to decide how attached you are.
So, that’s swearing from a business perspective, and that’s pretty much all I have to say about it, because from a craft perspective… well, it’s swearing. You know what it is. The only real way to play with it is to have “replacement swears” of sorts e.g. one of my main characters in Just Visiting didn’t swear, but would occasionally invoke the name of her terrifying aunt in a case where she normally would. That wasn’t to keep the book “clean”—the other MC swears plenty—but just another way to differentiate MC voices, since that can be really tricky with a dual-POV in which both narrating characters are the same gender.
So, on to sex!
Sexual content in YA is obviously going to be subject to a lot of the same things as swearing; even the suggestion your characters are engaging in it may prevent them from Book Fairs/Clubs etc. So again, it’s something necessary to contemplate for inclusion if you’re actually not that attached to it for your characters; there certainly are plenty of great YA Romances that stop at kissing! And, for example, it’s not going to be a fit for an imprint like Bloomsbury’s If Only line, which is sweet YA Romances for the 12-and-up set, so it does affect your publishing options too.
If, however, you do think it’s necessary for your books to have sex (or your book is already clearly not gonna be eligible for 12-plus so you may as well just go all out), let’s discuss that.
Sex in YA is important to me for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it’s the only sex ed of sorts some teens are getting. For another, it’s sort of a safe way to experiment and figure out what you like when that’s not something you can or want to do in person. I also think that done well, it can do anything from help readers parse through the emotions surrounding it to give readers the language they need for consent. But of course, writing teens having sex comes with a lot of considerations. Here are some things to think about, whether or not you address them all:
- How old are the characters? Is this sex legal, and if not, are there consequences?
- Is there obvious consent? Is it verbal?
- Are any measures of infection/disease and/or pregnancy prevention mentioned? If not, are there consequences?
- What’s the experience differential like between your characters? The physical power differential? How does that play out, both physically and emotionally?
- “On the page” or “fade to black”, if you have it at all?
- Does your character masturbate, or are they only interested in sex with another person?
- Do your characters go from kissing straight to sex—whatever that means for them—or do they build up to it?
- If your characters don’t have sex, what’s behind that decision? Are they not ready/interested, are they saving themselves, are there religious reasons?
- Where do your characters live and how is that going to affect their attitudes toward sex? What are their families like and how is that going to affect their attitudes toward sex?
Then, of course, there’s how you’re going to actually write it. As a general rule, though I’ve definitely seen exceptions, in YA, the safer bet is to focus more on sensations and movements than on body parts, especially if you’re writing from a female POV. Basic euphemisms are your friends; flowery prose generally isn’t. (This is not the place for “my sex,” “his member,” “her channel,” or anything else along those lines you might see frequently in Romance novels.) Depending on the nature of the book/experience, bluntness can be a perfect fit or all wrong for your character. Don’t forget your character’s voice in all this; it’s one of the realest places to make it shine.
Would your character be scared, excited, self-conscious, apathetic? How much would your character know about what they’re getting into? Have they had The Talk? Is it something that happens spontaneously, or do your characters plan doing it beforehand? A lot of those questions are going to be answered by how you’ve already drawn your characters and the people they surround themselves with.
Whether your characters are marginalized is going to affect this too. For example, cultural attitudes may play in, especially where religion is concerned. If a character is physically disabled, that may or may not affect their ability to engage in sexual activity and/or it may require extra sensitivity in how to proceed. If a character is queer, they may have had less exposure to relevant sex ed, and the power differential may not be as obvious in same-sex experiences as otherwise. (See my post for Teen Librarian Toolbox on some of the unaddressed harm of heteronormativity in YA.) Poverty can affect access to not only solid sex education, but it also access to contraception.
Or maybe for your character it is just not a big deal; it’s a fun thing to do, by yourself or with a partner or both, and there are no roadblocks to it for anyone.
Or maybe it’s not for your character or book at all. Maybe it wouldn’t even come up. Lord knows in a YA about my high school life, it wouldn’t have.
But if you are writing sex in YA (or you’re just interested in how it’s being done), and you’re looking for some solid examples? Here are some books I recommend checking out:
- My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick—this is my favorite example of a traditional, healthy, evolving relationship, and seeing not only different depictions of different acts done in a non-salacious way, but also seeing condoms feature really prominently in a great scene
- The Duff by Kody Keplinger—good example of sex being fun and clear and consensual and not jumping from kissing straight to intercourse
- Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley—the only f/f YA I’ve seen really delve into prophylactics/safe sex between girls
- Uses For Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt and Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn—I have to give props to Kelly for drawing my attention to that these books are great readalikes in her Goodreads review for the latter; I really can’t separate them now, because they do such a great job showing different sides to the same coin. These are fantastic examples of promiscuity as driven by traumatic sexual events, but with the MCs having extremely different attitudes about it: Uses For Boys goes more the route that combines taking control and being forced into apathy, while Firsts is more of a “Here’s how it’s made me want to better sexual experiences for others” path. It’s also pretty rare to find YAs where the MC sleeps with more than one person, so these are both important reads for that, and Firsts in particular has a lot of well-written on-page stuff.
- History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera—one of few m/m YAs I’ve seen with sex on the page and also an MC who engages in multiple sexual relationships
- Anything by Carrie Mesrobian—frank, blunt, realistic sex from a male POV, and in the case of Cut Both Ways, there’s with both a guy and a girl
- The Revenge Playbook by Rachael Allen—has four different POVs, and displays a nice variety of attitudes toward sex/waiting
- Cherry by Lindsey Rosin—this one is straight-up fun and deals with a bunch of different first times, as well as featuring sex on the page between both m/f and f/f pairings
- When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore—on-page sex scenes between a cis girl and trans boy, and also a great example of writing a sex scene that flows tonally with a more literary work
- Miranda Kenneally, Trish Doller, Heather Demetrios, Corey Ann Haydu, and Sarah Ockler are a few other authors I think handle sex in YA well and include it in most if not all of their books.
- Not a book, obviously, but YA authors Carrie Mesrobian and Christa Desir run The Oral History Podcast, entirely about sex and books—another resource on the subject worth checking out.
- And of course, this is something I write, so I recommend Just Visiting in particular for examples of active consent and contraception discussion, and Under the Lights for active consent and sex between girls. (Both books are on-the-page.)
So, there you go! If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments!