Friday, June 10, 2011

Sex vs. Relationships in YA

If you live in America, you probably know nothing about Sophie Elliott.  But her murder and the details surrounding it took centerstage in New Zealand about three years ago, and haven't strayed far.  (You can read the awful details here).

Sophie would have turned 26 today.  Her mother, Lesley, has written a book and established a foundation which aims to reduce violence to young women at the hands of partners and ex-partners. 

Lesley has had a lot of interesting things to say over the years.  But she made some very insightful observations this week about the sexual education of teens - and the dearth of relationship advice and guidance to supplement it.

I think she's got a very, very important point.

In many western countries, sexual education is detailed, sustained and bi-partisan (I recognize this isn't always the case - sexual education in the United States seems to be wildly disparate depending on what state you live in, or what type of school you attend).  But similarly detailed relationship advice is available only if a teen seeks it out. 

In a world where teens are often reluctant to admit they "don't know", or where they don't trust the adults in their lives, what kind of message does that send?

How can we expect girls (I'm focusing on them because that's the teen experience I had) to recognize danger signs in a relationship if the only examples they're absorbing are either 1) purely sexual; 2) romanticized or fanticized via television and movies; 3) unhealthy and hidden.

I think teen fiction offers a unique opportunity to educate vicariously.  While they may be reluctant to ask questions directly, teens who read usually aren't scared to seek out a book.  As YA authors we have the chance to show teens the good and bad of relationships - not just the romantic ideals.  We can offer insight into the repercussions of decisions.  We can offer alternatives, and explore conflicts.

Most importantly, I think, we can show girls choosing self-respect over social status, personal achievement over sexual conquest, and integrity over popularity. 

Let's not paper over the cracks.  Let's not pretend the guy we think is really hot can't turn out to be complete psycho - or that we won't make decisions we regret.  But let's offer realistic, wholistic pictures of life as a teen.  And, for goodness sake, let's make sure they know there's a LOT more to a relationship than sex.

Who knows?  Maybe there's another potential Sophie out there who's eyes could be opened to a clear and present danger.

As they've been saying on Twitter recently: YA Saves.  Let's help it keep doing that.

Your Turn:  What messages do you think teens are receiving about relationships?  Are they healthy?  Is there enough support and guidance to help them through?


  1. Great advice and encouragement to YA writers! I love it! With all the talk about sex in YA, whether it's okay or not, good or bad, if the relationship side is written in, it makes a world of difference. And like you point out, it can make a world of difference in the life of a teen.

  2. Women can be psycho too...not just men. I just want to point that out because it is always "men" who are the villains.

  3. Michael -

    I know what you're getting at. I think in YA (in particuarly) there's a predominant number of male villains because the protagonists are more often female - i.e. written for the female demographic. Also, I don't know about others, but as a woman I find it easier to write 'evil' men without them sounding melodramatic. Not sure why that is. Perhaps that's another blog post!

    Anyway, if it's any consolation, my book has a group of six villains, three male and three female. If it ever makes it to the shelves you can measure whether I treated the genders equally.

  4. I love this post! One of the things I say to potential adults purchasing my book for their daughters or nieces is that it has GOOD MESSAGES for girls about choices in life and love. And that's not just about sex - although the sex question comes up, it's certainly not the main driver of the story. Indeed, I wrote the story for my own niece with the idea in mind that epic love can happen, but you have to think about the choices you make with it.

    I'm so happy when an adult buys my book for a favored child in their lives!

  5. Very thought provoking post, Aimee. I'd like to think that relationship messages come out in those well written YA books but it's an interesting point you make about not having any 'relationship' education in schools. It's hard to know how much of it would be absorbed though, because as you know, the minutes teenagers (and many adults) feel they're being preached at, they switch off. Something for us to consider while writing, for sure.

  6. Your post makes me wish my second MS was YA. It portrays three girls who have to deal with the repercussions of poor relationship choices (all with the same boy). However, the sexual abuse element took it out of the realm of YA, despite all the HEALTHY relationships that dominate the book: parents, foster parents, new boyfriends/husbands at ARE good for them. Sadly, there is no way I can market it to young readers. New adults... maybe, but even then....

    Lovely article.

  7. I love this post. It's a great point that there's no relationship education in school and you're exactly right in saying that teens tend to hesitate when going to adults for advice. So most of our relationship advice is coming from friends and the media. Advice from friends may be good or bad depending on the circle of friends. Media on the other hand has never been a very reliable source for advice.

    There's been a lot of discussion about relationships in YA lately. I'd like to use an extremely popular example for recent years: Twilight. A few years ago, I was just as big an avid Twilight reader as any teenage girl (I was about 15 when I read the series).

    Recently, however, I've become extremely critical of the series. I know a lot of people say books are "just books" but you never hear anyone say TV is just TV or video games are just video games.

    It's always bothered me in Twilight how Edward is pretty much a stalker. And instead of portraying his sneaking into Bella's bedroom to watch her SLEEP as creepy and inappropriate, it's portrayed as being romantic. Discussion of Edward's controlling nature and Bella's complete breakdown when he leaves are subjects for another day.