What? No teen sex allowed?

A couple of weeks ago I sent off the first 5 pages of one of my YA manuscripts to a publisher to get some feedback.  The editor really liked it and fast-tracked it, but before I submit the full manuscript, I need to remove the sexual references because the heroine is seventeen.  This publisher doesn’t accept stories where teens have sex or where the act of sex is implied.  I understand it.  I get it and I applaud them.  I will submit my manuscript to this publisher once I clean it up, (not that there was any sex to begin with, only references).  But this requirement led me to wonder what the reasoning is behind some publishers adhering to this rule.  I personally don’t write sex scenes, but I have to ask, isn’t sex a part of teen life these days?  Is the reason for not going the sex route a moral issue or a legal one?

I read the Twilight series.  I think most people will agree it was soft porn for teens.  I read Graceling, Bitterblue and Fire by Kristin Cashore.  Her female leads have sex.  Though it wasn’t displayed vividly, you knew what they were doing.  Maggi Stiefvater has a sex scene in Shiver.  Tahereh Mafi turns up the heat in Unravel Me and John Green has a quite vivid oral sex scene in Looking for Alaska, although in his defense, it is rather ‘clinical’.  So, if New York Times best-selling YA novels explore teen sexuality, why do small, indie publishers shy away from sexuality when considering taking on new works and authors?

The answer is, I don’t know.  I’m hoping an editor of a small press will stop by and lend some reasoning, some explanation.

I know the YA audience falls within the 12 – 18 age group, and I understand where publishers wouldn’t want graphic sex scenes to fall into the hands of a 12 – 14 year olds. My take is, most teens already know about this sex stuff.  They’ve seen it on t.v., they see it in movies.  Unfortunately, many of them are having sex themselves, (I know, scary, right?)  Also, if you listen to teens and read their blogs, one of the big topics is sex, and mostly by girls.  Should they?  Shouldn’t they?  How do they know they’re in love?  What if the boy doesn’t love them?  Should the girl bring the condom?  Should the guy?  Is Prom night the “Big Night”? Taking this and the fact that the above-mentioned best-sellers hit the mark with teens and adults alike, does it make sense for indie publishers to stay away from books that explore teen sexuality?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one for gratuitous sex, especially among teens, but sex is a no brainer in teen life.  Teens have sex.  Not all of them, but a lot of them.  Even if you (if you’re a teen reading this) or your teen isn’t having sex, teens know teens who are.  If authors want to write realistic stories about teens, doesn’t it make sense that the issue of sex needs to be addressed at some point, in some fashion?

When I was a teen, I was reading adult books and most of what I read had sex scenes, especially historical romance.  I stumbled upon D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover when I was 14.  So not a novel for kids and let me tell you, I learned an awful lot about sex.  I immersed myself in these novels for the longest time.  There was something beautiful, enticing, about these love scenes to my young teen mind.  Sex was raw, powerful, loving, romantic.  The men were handsome and swoon-worthy.  The women young, beautiful.  There was a fascination, a power, a joy that came from reading these books as a teen.

I doubt much has changed since then.  Teens are still reading.  Teens are still looking for those stories that touch their curiosity, stories that ignite their imaginations. Stories that make them feel and swoon and speak to the parts of them that are considered ‘off limits’ or taboo.

So, why do many small publishers stray from publishing books that touch on teen sexuality?  Your thoughts would be appreciated.  Also, as a reader, do you stay away from YA novels that touch on teen sexuality?  Inquiring minds want to know.


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26 thoughts on “What? No teen sex allowed?

  1. I don’t have teen sex in my books (only because I’m really bad at writing sex scenes) but I don’t think it should be left out of teen books. It’s a big part of a teen’s life (relationships etc) so I’m a bit stumped to know why the publisher has done this. I sometimes think publishers ‘think’ they know what teens like when they don’t. Teens these days are smart (very smart) and they’re growing up faster than the publishing houses realise.


    1. I don’t think sex scenes need to be thrown in for the heck of it, but sometimes they do serve a message. Have you seen any novels out there that deal with teen rape? incest? I wonder if there are YA fiction books out there that touch on these taboo topics and leave a positive message for the reader to take away with them. I’m not talking about actually ‘seeing’ the abuse, but at least to see it spoken of. Sadly there are so many teens who are abused and/or have been sexually compromised against their will. I wonder if they would or could find some sort of consolation in a novel that touches on these themes. Does anyone know of any titles? Would teens read something like this? I can so see a novel centered around a teens struggle to survive such abuse and what he/she does to make it through and grow into a strong, caring and loving person. Hmmm. And if there isn’t and someone writes it, are there any publishers who will take it or is the topic too horrendous even for the big publishing houses? i wonder.


  2. There’s a good chance it is a moral stance, especially if this is a Christian press. You’d have to check out their web site and see if they have a mission statement or such, to determine.

    Perhaps they are seeking to offer alternatives to our overly-sexualized society. Perhaps, as one of your commenters suggested, they’re concerned about having to defend a book that has been challenged in a school or library.

    To me, they “why” isn’t important. Every publisher has the right to decide what material they wish to produce. Just as we writers decide what level of violence, profanity, name your taboo, to include in our work. They have said they don’t publish teen sex. There’s really no more to be said.


    1. I’m not debating this particular publisher’s reasoning. This was more an overall question of indie publishers vs the big 5/6. Of course they have every right to say what they will and won’t publish. That’s why it’s very important to follow their submission guidelines and not submit anything that doesn’t fall within their guidelines. Personally, I think many small presses stay away from these sorts of stories for legal reasons. They just don’t have the funds to defend themselves and they don’t need the hassle. I wish I could hear from teens about this subject. I wonder if they feel they are over-sexualized and if the topic needs to remain outside of the books they read…or, if they want more Twilight sort of ‘teen hotness’. I might have to conduct a poll at some point in time.


  3. I find your publisher’s take on it refreshing! Seems all publishers want anymore these days is sex, sex, sex! The subject of it comes up in my books, but no sex scenes, and you’ll never see one from me in YA novels. I didn’t allow my daughter to read books with sex in them until recently (she’ll be 13 in June). At my middle school, they try to weed out the books with sex, graphic violence, or F-bombs in our media center.


    1. I think that’s awesome for young readers but what about the 16 – 18 year old age group and older? I’m not talking graphic sex, but do you think it adds credibility to the ‘age’ if it’s mentioned?

      I’m like you, I don’t write sex into my YA novels, but I have read some YA novels where there is sex and the subject was handled beautifully with more of a reference than graphic portrayal. When I think of 12 – 14 year old readers, I’m still thinking Middle Grade books and I certainly wouldn’t hand a child at that age a book with sex scenes.

      Like I said above, I was reading sex stuff as an early teen and I don’t feel I’m damaged from it. I consider it a part of my ‘early sex education.’ I remember giggling a lot. 🙂


  4. I agree with Tristan that there are probably legal reasons behind the publisher’s guidelines. In extreme cases, fiction that involves sex between teenagers has been considered child pornography, and as he pointed out, in a court of law the final verdict matters less than the cost of the defense.


  5. Lots of valid points here, but in trying to look at this initially prom an Indie or small publisher’s point of view, I think for them it’s probably a simple matter of economics. Most publishers in that segment of the market are operating on a shoestring and don’t have deep pockets by any means. They’re probably doing a risk/benefit analysis and determining that, in the instance that a litigious parent has a conniption over their child reading subject matter they might object to, they won’t have the resources to even put up a useful legal defense. The potential revenue they might earn from making their product more universally appealing probably just isn’t worth the potential loss of their entire enterprise.
    Furthermore, shifting from the publishers’ point of view to my own, I have to add that my views on this subject have shifted dramatically over the past six to nine months. Last year, Jen, I would have agreed with you completely and been entirely flummoxed and perhaps even frustrated over those publishers’ choices for your genre. Now, though, I look at things in a much more scriptural sense than I used to and I think that teens are so overloaded with sexual references, from almost-innocent innuendo to outright pressure, in practically every aspect of their environment that I think the best thing we can do for teens, particularly teen girls, is to give them a break. I wonder if the sexual pressure that teens (both girls and boys) face hour after hour, day after day, might not give them a desire to ‘get away from it all’. I think many would love to delve into a world where sex is not so much hidden as it is just simply considered sacred. As a young teen boy, I loved Middle-Earth, and its lack of sexual content was, in hindsight, a significant reason why I loved that world so – and still do.


    1. Your last few lines in your post are why I write YA fantasy free of sex except for a little kissing here and there. My male protags are very respectful of women. One fights with his attractions all the time because he wants there to be something more when it happens. He also doesn’t want to mess up a perfectly good friendship. Besides, he’s got too much going on with trying to dodge a sorcerer and a fire-breathing dragon trying to kill him. Romance is extremely important to teens, and while I don’t write sex scenes in my YA novels, I understand why the authors who do, do it.

      Your reasoning makes sense as to the legality and financial issues. I would think that would be one of their main reasons to shy away. Thanks for the weigh in. As always, I can count on your logic.


  6. I wonder if it has anything to do with 50 Shades of Grey? Wait, hear me out! Before that book, erotica definitely existed, and tons of people bought it, but it wasn’t a *thing*, you know? I’m wondering if publishers are now shying away from sex scenes in teen books because they want to avoid the label of “erotica”?


    1. interesting concept, but I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with teens being underage and not wanting to promote sex in teens. I’d really love for an indie publisher to pop on board and share some of their wisdom and insight.


  7. Very interesting considering the one I sent to them, though the pages didn’t contain the scene, does have sexual situations in it. Heck, the last crit session the things I sent in have drug use and sex. Granted, I have another place in mind for the one but the other two with those elements? They wanted it so that’s interesting indeed.

    Like you, I read more adult oriented stuff when I was in high school. A lot of the covers were big breasted females that I covered so the book wouldn’t get taken away. Ah, those classic fantasy books!


    1. I read lots of Harold Robbins and Jackie Collins when I was around 15. I think my mom would have had a cow if she’d known what I was reading. That’s when I also discovered Frank Yerby. I wonder if his books would be as exciting now as they were then.


      1. I always had the argument with my son’s father about sex and violence. He had no issues with our son seeing naked boobs but had a fit if I allowed him to see blood and guts.


        1. So weird. It’s usually the other way around. Either way, our kids are getting desensitized to everything. No matter where they look, sex, drugs and violence are staring at them in the face. I can only hope what they read will guide them somehow to a better place of love and understanding.


      1. My thoughts are similar to yours. I was an avid reader of all things very young. I think there is an art of balance in writing about sex. Maggie Stiefvater does an awesome job like you mentioned. So does Brenna Yovanoff in the Space Between. Rachel Cain does too. I think it is important to approach all themes in life. It feels real that way.


  8. I personally think we havebecome innundated with sex in every venue possible. Why not talk about abstinence? Yes. Sex exists and teens have it. That will never change but what I think is happening in our society today is, people are becoming desensitized from all of this gunk. Do we really need to read yet another story about teen sex? What happened to leaving things to the imagination? Remember the old films where you didn’t see pornagraphic simulations of sex? They faded away and left it to the imagination. That’s my kind of story.


    1. I agree to a certain extent. I don’t think YA stories should revolve around sex, but it does happen. In the YA fantasy novel I submitted, a young girl is placed in a home where the ‘owner’ breaks her arm because she wouldn’t acquiesce to his ‘needs’. That’s the way it was written. The small indie publisher wants it and other references taken out since it is a YA novel. I don’t mind removing it because it’s not a huge part of the plot line and it can be written around, but I was just curious as to why some small publishers don’t want to approach teen sexuality in their books? Do they believe they’ll lose readership? Do they not want to walk a controversial edge? Is it because they are small and just getting underway that they don’t want to alienate future fan base? I’m wondering since the big presses are having best-sellers that aren’t afraid to address the issue.

      Just to let you know, I don’t incorporate sex in my novels, only brief references if need be because I agree with you…less is more. That doesn’t mean I am put off by a YA book that incorporates well thought out and beautifully executed, loving scenes.


  9. One of the earliest YA series I ever read as a (pre) teen was the Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce. Alanna, the heroine, definitely had sex with both Jonathon the prince and Roger the thief. It wasn’t graphic, but it was there. Sex is something teens (and pre-teens) know about. I think the YA genre should (and often does) embrace that. Surely portraying healthy relationships sends a better message to teens than making sex a taboo subject?


    1. I agree. I don’t think all YA novels need to incorporate sex into them just so they can sell, but when there is a purpose, a reason, why shouldn’t the subject be explored? I’ll have to check out the Song of the Lioness. It sounds like something I’d like to read.


  10. Thanks for the pingback! When Stars Die has sex in it, and it’s a YA novel. AEC Stellar isn’t afraid to take on books like mine that breach the taboo. They are a small press.


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