Why teens need ‘normal’ sex between the sheets

A strange thing happened yesterday. The Mail on Sunday wrote something I agree with.

Rachel Johnson’sarticle echoed the excellent Malorie Blackman’s call for children to receive their first information on sex through ‘realistic’ scenes in books and not through porn on the net.

url-5The thing is, I don’t think there’s much good fodder about. Earlier this year, The Telegraph reported on a new genre: ‘steamies’ which are ‘flying off the shelves’ and aim to tap into the young E L James market but whilst authors like Liz Bankes are doing well in the US, these books are sensationalist and their storylines lack the ‘normality’ of relationships. Compared to, say, Jilly Cooper’s Prudence and Octavia in the eighties, there are few books around now that address everyday life and sex and allow teenagers’ imagination to do most of the work.

Teens know sex pretty well. Even if accessible porn didn’t exist, they have friends who’re doing it if they aren’t already themselves and relentless media coverage of the Jimmy Savilles and Jeremy Forrests of this land make it only too clear what one sex wants from the other (sex).

It’s true that when I was fifteen, my education mainly came from Judy Blume’s Forever with the male protagonist’s endearing use of the name ‘Ralph’ for his penis (though I always thought he’d named it ‘Frank’ for some reason). But, as Ms Johnson says, “the curious thing is, as visual culture has become more pornified, the literary scene has become less so.”

She attributes this in part to the annual wooden spoon of the Bad Sex Prize. I attribute it to More! magazine’s url-6Position of the Fortnight, which I think started balls rolling (no pun intended) away from the written word*.

Perhaps there should be a ‘good sex’ prize for young adult fiction. As well as keeping some things private, it might balance out children’s inevitable absorption of stark newspaper reports and graphic porn sites a bit, to be frank.

*More! Folded in April of this year, with The Guardian terming the magazine an ‘embarrassing mum trying too hard’ and killed off by the internet.


What do all bisexual teens deserve?

… and heterosexual and homosexual teens, for that matter.

Representation, that’s what.

According to Cheryl Rainfield, author of the fantastic Hunted and Scars, and fellow YA author Toby Emert, author of Come Closer, out of a selection of almost 5,000 YA books, a measly 44 have LGBT main characters or deal with LGBT issues. 

44?! That’s less than 1%.

Hardly representative of the societal reality now, is it?

The fact is, teenagers and young adults are way ahead of authors when it comes to being open about LGBT issues. The It Gets Better Project is a worldwide movement to help raise awareness of the issues faced by young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Schools now commonly have LGBT committees, representatives and debates. For heaven’s sake, Ja’mie from Summer Heights High championed the lesbian schoolgirl ‘posse’ three years ago. So why is openness/representation so different in YA fiction?

Rainfield makes an interesting point that not only are many authors white and straight but also they may be afraid that they might write about these personas and get it ‘wrong’.

But I disagree. In To Be Honest, Josh – the protagonist Lisi’s best friend – is gay. I am not gay, or male, or fifteen for that matter, but the way I see it as an author, isn’t the whole point of writing to explore lives that are different from ours; to put voices to characters that aren’t our own?

Publishers, publicists, editors and readers should be aware that diversity in YA fiction needs to reflect real life for the sake of, well, real life. If we as authors owe anything to a teenage audience, it’s to reflect reality. It’s getting better: there are more ‘diverse’ main characters in YA literature than ever before. But there’s a way to go yet before readers no longer find a search for diversity within pages or on screen a frustratingly closed book.