Sex and the Young Adult Heroine

YA Author Andrea Cremer confronts the double standards held for teens of different genders with her new paranormal novel, Nightshade

Sexuality is a hot (no pun intended) topic in the world of YA and if sexual or suggestive content appears in your YA novel it will be a point of discussion and possibly controversy. How sexy is too sexy for YA, do the rules change if the book is a "crossover" novel? Where is the line? Should there be a line at all when it comes to sex in young adult literature?

While I don’t have answers to all these questions, I do have opinions – many of them. When blurbs for Nightshade first arrived, my review from Becca Fitzpatrick started off by calling Nightshade ‘sexy and thrilling;’ which I thought was fantastic, so it surprised me when a friend saw the blurb and commented “do you really want that on your book?” To which I replied: “of course I do,” and she said, “but isn’t it for kids?”

Herein lays a piece in the puzzle – audience perception. For one: I wouldn’t categorize teens as kids. Are they adults? No, but I think adults too often don’t give young people enough credit when it comes to understanding and responding to challenging issues: topics like depression, drug use, suicide, domestic violence, eating disorders, school shootings, sex and sexuality. Books offer a safe space in which to encounter trying subjects and consider them without fear of judgment (note: this remains true for readers of all ages, not just teens) – it is imperative that such spaces exist.

While I believe discussions of sex and sexuality are important for all teens, they are especially important for young women. The steamy scenes I write and read are among my favorites. It’s hard to appreciate a novel that doesn’t give you at least one good toe-curling moment. But too often these scenes are predicated on stereotyped characters: hero – sexually experienced to ensure his lady will always be satisfied, even during that trying first time; heroine – sexual novice, maybe she’s seen third base, but it’s likely she’s still hovering around first. Even if she’s a plucky fighter, she’s guarded her virtue, unwilling to give away her heart or her body until tall, dark, and sexually irresistible shows up to share his worldly ways with her.

It’s a good formula, right? Maybe. Maybe not. 

This very scenario is one I’ve manipulated in Nightshade in an effort to consider sexual double standards. Calla – the alpha female of her pack has been required to live chastely, while her counterpart and intended mate, alpha male Ren, has been having a blast playing the field without repercussion. When Calla encounters a stranger: a beautiful, human boy, she’s unprepared for the rush of physical and emotional sensations this chance meeting stirs inside her. 

Sexual awakening, discovery, and experience are encountered by both women and men in their life journeys. Yet for some reason, our society still splits that inexperience, rendering each side’s expectations unrecognizable to the other. While it’s considered run of the mill for boys to hide porn under their mattresses and get…um…familiar with their own anatomy on a nightly basis, girls are loaded down with the weight of responsibility, getting advice about pregnancy, STDs, and maintaining reputations. They’re told how to entice boys without giving away too much and god forbid they should know anything about how to make sex an enjoyable experience on their end of things.

These expectations plague the heroes and heroines of many a book and the reactions to characters who step out of bounds reflects the problems these double standards create. Calla struggles to control passion she’s been told she shouldn’t have. She’s allowed to flaunt her strength and use her body for violence, but not examine her own desires. She’s caught in the very dilemma so many girls in our society face: the young men around her can pursue their sexual desire without repercussion, while if she did the same she would face not only judgment, but also serious punishment. The latest headlines reveal the ways this scenario plays out in the lives of teens – “sexting” images passed around by boys led to the humiliation and tragic suicide of the objectified girl and yet the blame somehow is laid at the female victim’s doorstep: boys will be boys and she should have known better than to send a sexy picture to her boyfriend. The mind boggles at the horrifying injustice of this attitude, and yet it continues to pervade our culture. 

Sexual double standards perpetuate the idea that sexual violence against women can somehow be justified. Until the heroines of our stories can be sexy and sexual as the heroes without being villainized for it we’re dealing with a frightening patriarchal bias. Inequality on the page reflects inequalities in our world. Young women need spaces where they can encounter the risks and rewards of sex and romance without judgment. Books are a good place to start.

- Andrea Cremer

You can pick up your own copy of Nightshade on shelves now!