Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Warning: This Post is About Sex in Books

This is a revised version of a comment I wrote in response to a post on Beth Revis's blog,  in which she expresses frustration about the reluctance of educators to put books containing sex (particularly consensual sex) on the shelves for their students. Her point is essentially that sex should not be demonized and that we need books that are about healthy sexual relationships. Now, I do not advocate censorship, but as an author, a former librarian, and a mother I believe we have certain responsibilities to our readers, our students, and our kids.

As an author, I believe that if sex is a part of a character's journey, it should be part of the story in a non-gratuitous way. There is no reason for graphic sex to be a part of a book geared toward teens, whether consensual or not. Consider the book BECAUSE I AM FURNITURE by Thalia Chaltas. It is a verse novel that deals with abuse, and the way the author writes the necessary scenes is very minimal, not graphic, yet powerfully effective. Or consider the book SPEAK, by Laurie Halse Anderson. You can't get more effective than the simple way she wrote that rape scene. Even when writing about consensual sex, or "almost" scenes, there is no need for graphic details. Write well, and you won't need them.

As a former librarian, I can understand the hesitation regarding choosing books with consensual sex. There is obvious value in a book like SPEAK that deals with the delicate topic of rape, but the value isn't so obvious in a book that has consensual sex. The sexual "messages" in these books, whether good or bad, vary widely from story to story. This can be a problem for those young readers that don't have a healthy understanding of what sex should be. In her blog post, Beth complains that the abundance of abstinence education is leading kids to "find information on sex from the media--the Internet, movies, television--and books." But the truth is, kids don't need to seek it out when they live in a world where they are constantly bombarded by sexuality on the Internet, in movies, in TV shows and commercials, and yes, in books.

No matter what you think about abstinence education, most parents would prefer that their kids don't have sex with their high school sweethearts. So do we put books that glorify sex on the shelves and damn the consequences? Do we try to choose books in which sex is an integral, yet tastefully written, part of a character's journey? Or do we simply try to avoid the topic of consensual sex in teens' books altogether? It's a tricky spot to be in for educators, especially librarians who love books and reading and want to encourage that in their students without upsetting parents or school boards (or even, in some cases, the students themselves).

As a mother, I have had lots of discussions with my teenage daughters about sex, and I trust them to make good decisions not only in their personal lives, but also in the books they read and the movies they see, etc. But I take issue with Beth's statement, "Books about rape need to exist. But so do books about healthy, consensual sexual relationships." In my view, a "healthy, consensual sexual relationship" is that which is between a husband and wife. Such a relationship is not healthy beyond the confines of marriage. Sex is not merely a way for two people that are hot for each other to have a (consensually) good time. It is not meant to be the logical next step when two people "fall in love." And it is certainly not meant to be some awkward teenage experience of "losing it."

This attitude about sex, the idea that sex outside of marriage can be healthy and safe, is a pervasive, cancerous notion that leads all too often to disease, unwed motherhood, abortion, heartache, shame, and regret. Too many people have forgotten that sex is meant to be a sacred, wholesome way for a husband and wife to express their love (and have fun) together. The sooner society remembers this truth, the healthier relationships will be.

I get it. I was a teenager once. I got married at 18, to the guy I started dating at 16, so I know what it is like to be a teenager in love. I am not suggesting that authors completely disregard the natural desires that are a part of ANY romance. I'm not even suggesting that authors don't write about sex. But let's not pretend that society's idea of "a healthy, consensual sexual relationship" is the best that we can hope for for our readers. Or our kids.

What do you think? Where do you draw the line between censorship and common sense?


  1. Brava. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Probably this opinion isn't the most popular one in the world, yet I imagine more parents (especially) agree with you than will admit to it.
    And I will let my teenagers (once my girls are that old) read some books with sex in them, if that is necessary to the story and done in a way that respects what a special thing it is (even if this is done somewhat inversely, as in SPEAK, by showing the danger of selfishness within sex). But when sex seems to be placed in a book more to push an agenda than to allow a story to unfold naturally, I do take issue with that!

  2. Thanks, Faith. I cringed a little when hitting the publish button, but some things just have to be said.

  3. That was a brave, honest, and very well-written post, Rebecca ... and I agree with you wholeheartedly. I do not want my children, once they hit that age (and, for my oldest, it is SOON!), to think sex is a 'normal' part of being a teenager. It's not and shouldn't be ... they are too young ... for all the reasons you pointed out.

  4. Thanks, Kelly! I hear so often, from so many different people, that we just have to accept that teens are "going to do it." But I think that's only true if we don't give our kids real reasons to wait. Like my mother did with me, and I am doing with my own kids.


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