On Sexuality and Virginity in YA – #Feminism

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I’ve had the idea for this post for a while now, after talking about it with my friend Emmie from Another Night of Reading, but I’ve been kind of scared to actually write and, more importantly, post it, because it’s kind of a sensitive subject. Or, at least, it can be for some people, because it involves criticism regarding the portrayal of virginity in Young Adult literature. Oh, and feminism. Lots of people are offended by that. So, if you don’t feel like reading a feminist and critical take on sex in YA I’d recommend not reading this post. If you do, read on, my friend!

So, let’s start with a little anecdote. A few weeks ago I was reading Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins, which is a YA romance novel, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by the way the book “handled” virginity and sex in general. In the novel, Isla has had sex with a boy before she meets the love interest Josh, and while this is briefly touched upon, it is not made into a big deal. In fact, Isla herself mentions the taboo that is still pervasive in the USA (and less so in Europe, I believe):

“I mean, when you grow up half French, it’s not like sex is this big taboo. And, yeah, you have to be careful and you need protection and blah blah blah, but it’s not that American Puritanical be-all, end-all.”

Besides the fact that this YA story features a girl who is not a virgin when the story starts and, most importantly, is not somehow condemned for this, it also does not shy away from portraying female sexual desire. Both Isla and Josh want to have sex with each other, and this is described as a completely natural thing and, again, not condemned in any way.

All this struck me as a particularly refreshing take on virginity (or lack thereof) and sexuality in YA literature. And that got me thinking.

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The fact that I found Isla refreshing says enough about the representation of virginity and sexuality in YA in general. I remembered reading about what feminist scholar Jessica Valenti has called the purity myth: the idea that virginity is somehow related to moral integrity, which is, of course, complete and utter bull shit (excuse my French).

Yet this is a view that is still very pervasive and also exactly what we see in a lot of YA novels. For some reason, virginity and value (whatever that might mean exactly) are linked to each other so often. It’s one of the main reasons why I didn’t like The Selection by Kiera Cass, in fact. Its protagonist, America, is “of value” because of her virginity. Even though the novel seems to be criticising this, the fact that America is rewarded for her virginity (by being allowed to join the Selection) actually makes sure that the novel supports this idea of virginity as purity and a virtue.

Another very common thing in YA is the trope of girls wanting to have sex but suppressing their desire, which ultimately turns out to be the better decision for some reason or another, or they do “give in” to it and it somehow makes them a different person – they feel like they’ve lost something of themselves, that having sex has changed their identity.

I think all of this is problematic, and here’s why: it makes sex into way too big of a deal for girls.

Yes, you should wait until you’re ready and not do anything you don’t want to. It can be a big deal for someone personally, and a first time is probably a milestone in anyone’s life (at that point in time anyway), but ultimately it’s only sex. It doesn’t suddenly change a person’s identity – they are still the exact same person they were before.

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And this is where a lot of YA gets it wrong: it sends the wrong message. Having had sex isn’t a big deal – it’s part of life for a lot of people (but not all – and that’s fine too). One of the characteristics of YA has always been that it’s not afraid to break taboos, but for some reason this doesn’t seem to apply to sex. Sex is still controversial and the way it is portrayed in YA is strangely old-fashioned and conservative in comparison to a lot of the other topics YA does manage to talk about.

I’m not saying that every YA novel should feature sex, or that female protagonists who are virgins are a bad thing – not at all. It shouldn’t matter one way or the other. I’m just saying that novels that do feature sex should not paint a skewed picture of what it really is. Society feeds girls enough nonsense as it is.

I could say lots more about this, especially since I haven’t even really touched upon the difference between representation of girls having sex and guys having sex, but I’ll leave it at this. I’d love to hear your thoughts about all this in the comments!

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52 thoughts on “On Sexuality and Virginity in YA – #Feminism

  1. Maybe this particular representation of sex in YA fiction has become a genre trope so ingrained that it is difficult to deviate from. But you’re right, it shouldn’t be so odd that this was such a peculiar scenario to come across.

    Perhaps there is room for development here in YA literature. Well written.

  2. I don’t read much YA, I’m in the middle of an attempt to read more genres, but this is exactly what puts me off reading it. It’s so strange to me how sex/virginity is treated with reference to teenagers, especially girls. I’m European so the whole abstinence thing was never taught, so it’s always been odd to me. Your recommendation of Isla will go on my TBR, thanks

    • Yes, it bugs me too. I’d noticed it before, but reading Isla made me realises how problematic and distorted the representation of sex/virginity actually is in a lot YA, and how widespread it is. I’m European, too, so it’s a strange thing to me as well. So old-fashioned. I hope you’ll enjoy Isla, thanks for your comment!

  3. This is an interesting post. Have you read My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick? I’m not sure if it matches exactly what you’re looking for, but I felt like it had a really sweet and “normal” portrayal of teenage sexuality.

    • Thank you! No, I haven’t read that one – thank you very much for the recommendation, I’ve added it to my to read list on Goodreads. I’d love to read more books that handle sexuality differently than most YA.

  4. I completely agree with you. Like 100%. Sex is always portrayed as a big deal. And for some people, of course that’s true. But it is not the same for everyone, because no person is the same. We should talk about all aspects. Some may want to have sex. You know what? THAT’S OKAY. Some may want to wait. That’s okay TOO! Some may think it’s not a big deal to them, but haven’t found someone they like/love yet. And that’s okay too. IT IS ALL OKAY. Whatever you’re feeling, that is legit.

    Like you said, I think it’s problematic to only communicate the one standpoint, in which sex is a big deal. We need to talk about all viewpoints.

    P.S. Totally loved Isla!

    • Exactly – it’s all okay! YA lit is often so one-sided and, like Isla says, so Puritanical. Perhaps our shared opinion also has to do with the fact that we’re European – or at least, not American. I don’t know. I just think it’s ridiculous that sex is such a taboo in YA lit, and that the whole purity thing is so prevalent. It’s problematic and possibly even destructive.Thanks for your comment!

  5. I agree with this 100%. I especially hate when I read books that use being a virgin as something that makes you better than everyone else/a special snowflake (i.e. when the main protagonist is a virgin but the antagonist isn’t). It honestly gives an awful message to girls that you’re better or worth more if you haven’t had sex when that’s far from the truth. I also hate that a male character’s virginity (or lack off) never seems to be a big deal because it just emphasizes the outdated views that a girl should be a virgin and sex is big deal for girls but not for boys.

    Great post!

    • Exactly! Both sides of the coin puts such pressure on girls: either you have to lose your virginity to be “cool” (also an issue in some books/films), or you have to remain a virgin to be “good”. And the complete absence of it being an issue for boys is so telling as to what kind of world we live in… We still need feminism! Thank you very much!

  6. This has always been something that has bothered me about YA too. I’m from Canada, for me abstinence wasn’t the only thing taught, we also learned about how to have safe sex. For me, the attitudes in YA never matched what was happening in my real life. Sex is something that happens, or at least plays some sort of a part in everyone’s life. So, I am tired of the attitudes people have towards it that make other people feel less than. We all can make our own decisions about what we’re comfortable with. I also am tired of seeing Purity viewed as a bad thing. In a lot of NA books I’ve read, the main character is a virgin and they are always put down for it. I am just as tired of seeing that as I am slut shaming.

    • I agree with you completely! Growing up in Europe, and, more specifically, the Netherlands, abstinence was never this big thing that was being taught. At least, I don’t remember it being taught – which says enough, I think. Sex is one of the most basic things about life, if you look at it from a purely scientific and objective point of view, so why is it this big of a deal? And I agree with you as well that virginity being viewed as a bad thing in some books or films is totally off-base as well. It makes me mad just thinking about it! Thank you for your comment!

  7. Oh, oh, don’t forget about Twilight and the fact that Bella gets punished for having sex for the FIRST TIME by having a monster baby who kills her! I LooOOOove that one. O_o

    Yeah, I agree with what you’re saying here. If we’ve come to a point where we’re all “Ooh, this book has a good portrayal of YA sexuality” when it doesn’t condemn it (but does nothing revolutionary about it), it’s bad. And here we’re talking heterosexual relationships – don’t forget how much more stigmatized homoerotic sex can be in literature. Ugh.

    I feel like we’re going backwards with this virginity thing, actually. Like the 90s were much more … openminded with this, and now, thanks to blockbusters like Twilight and Selection, we’re back to “you should guard your hymen for that SPECIAL SOMEONE who will cherish you – or else you’re a slut”. Double ugh.

    • Oh, DEFINITELY. That’s a classic example of what’s so wrong with this all. One of the sources in that list I sent to you is actually a book that partly focuses on Twilight and its abysmal portrayal of sex and virginity.

      Yep, exactly. I could write a whole separate post on portrayals of non-heterosexual relationships/characters as well. Stupid heteronormative, slut shaming goldmines. Double ugh, indeed.

  8. This is really interesting! I completely agree that virginity is valued too highly in YA fiction and that, of course, is going to skew young people’s approach to sex. If you haven’t had sex with a few people, how are you supposed to know what you like? As long as you’re taking care of yourself, go off and frolic!
    There are two things about this topic that also frustrate me:
    1) When a character does lose her virginity, it’s made out to be a wonderful, magical experience. I don’t know about you guys, but everybody I know thinks back on their first time with a shudder. Why did I do it with him? Why did nobody tell me it was going to HURT? Why didn’t I orgasm in the first thirty seconds? Obviously we read to experience other people’s lives, maybe happier, more exciting lives than our own. But in books aimed at young women, we owe them some kind realism.
    2) The person the girl loses her virginity to is the person she’s going to be with for the rest of her life. Where are the YA books where people fall in love, and then out of it. Or the books where someone has sex with a guy she doesn’t really care about. We all know that happens, but what makes their stories not worth telling? Sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes, the person who is perfect for you at seventeen has nothing in common with you at twenty three. Having grown up reading these happily ever after stories, me and my two closest friends thought we’d be with our high school boyfriends for life. Two years later we had all had our hearts broken at varying points.
    I think we need to get over sugar coating things. Everyone wants to read a book where the guy gets the girl and they run off into the sunset. But if that’s all we’re reading, how do we manage when that doesn’t happen to us?

    • “As long as you’re taking care of yourself, go off and frolic!” – That is an amazing summary! 😀
      I think it definitely possible for someone to have a wonderful first time, but I also think those people are in the minority. I’ve read or heard multiple times that it’s actually not supposed to hurt the first time, but let’s face it – that’s what happens for most girls, be it because of nerves or inexperience or whatever. It certainly isn’t magical. And I agree: some realism would be nice.
      YES, that too! These kids are all just teens, and there’s very little chance that they will stay together forever and ever. Of course, those stories often only cover a year or a few years tops, so the characters would probably not know yet that they wouldn’t be together forever. But I agree, some more breakups would be nice – although that does sound harsh, haha! But yes – the sugar coating thing is a problem. I love a good feel good story every now and then as much as the next person, but there’s a difference between a clear feel good novel and a book that’s supposed to be a realistic depiction of teenage life. We definitely need more of the last category. Thanks for your insightful comment! 🙂

  9. Yup! I think you’re spot on. 😀 I think virginity/sex should not define you or summarise your worth. I mean, what year is it?!?? Sheesh. Although, funnily enough, the majority of books I read sex is not a “big deal” and mostly all the teens have had (or have during the book) sex. And I think this is fine, totally, but I also think it’d be nice if there were some more books about virgins who didn’t see their virginity as a huge burden and something they had to ditch? There shouldn’t be shame for being a virgin and there should be shame for having sex in books!

    • Exactly! Interesting that you should say that most books you read actually feature teenagers having sex – a few comments down Emily mentions that Aussie YA is much better at that, so maybe that’s the thing? I agree with you that more books about virgins who are fine with being virgins would be cool, too! No slut shaming AND no virgin shaming! Leave girls alone, people. Let them be who they want to be. Sheesh. Thanks for your comment Cait!

  10. I found it interesting and a little bit weird that YA books don’t feature sex… well, especially those which are about love and romance. Sometimes I get this feeling as if sex is something bad and young adults shouldn’t know about it until they are certain age. Well guess what, they know about it. By not talking about sex in books we are making a big deal out of it. We are transforming sex into this big scary thing that is bad because if a young girl has a lot of different partners she’s immediately slut-shamed. I love LGBTQ+ books because as much as it’s important to talk about diversity and that it’s okay to be who you trully are, it’s also important to talk about sex being normal part of person’s life. I think by portraying the normal aspect of sex, the ordinariness of sex we could create the image of sex as being competely normal thing. We shouldn’t feel ashamed becase we had sex, we shouldn’t feel ashamed because we haven’t had sex. In the end, we’re all different and what works for someone might not work for another person. I totally loved your blog post! 🙂

    • Yep, exactly! I am dumbfounded by the idea that we should not tell teenagers about sex. How is saying “yeah, just don’t do it” going to help anyone in this situation? Tell teens what it is about – that way they’ll be much more prepared and won’t have such a skewed view of it. And novels can definitely play a big part in this! There’s such an opportunity for these novels to actually portray sex or sexuality realistically and yet they often don’t. Thank you, and thanks for your lovely comment!

  11. I hadn’t even noticed that about Isla. Woo, go Stephanie Perkins! But yep, I think you’re spot-on, and there IS a difference in representation for male characters (because while virginity = purity for women, sex = pretty much one of the definitions of masculinity…which, you know, has awful implications for rape culture).

    Americans are so Puritanical about everything. This is why Aussie YA is so awesome, just saying – doesn’t shy away from drinking, sex, swearing…you name it.

    • YES, exactly! I thought about touching upon rape culture in this blog post but I think it would’ve been twice as long if I had. So maybe I’ll need to write a separate post about that – although that’s a pretty scary topic as well.

      Perhaps I’ll need to check out some Aussie YA then! I think the only Aussie book I’ve read (at least in the last 5 years) might be The Book Thief, and that’s set in Europe. Oops!

  12. For me, the kindest interpretation of the ubiquity of the YA Virgin is the tradition of YA dealing with themes of coming of age and self-exploration. In that sense, having sex for the first time (or making choices about whether to do it or now) would fall under the theme of the genre.

    (Though I’m trying to remember if male characters face this as part of a coming-of-age. I’m not sure; the YA books I can think of with male protagonists seem to mostly focus on adventure. Is the very existence of romance driven plotline – and first time romance – gendered?)

    I can’t comment well on the current state of YA romance well, but I definitely know that there’s a whole lot more of it now than there was when I was growing up. I would have adored the proliferation of YA paranormal romance and popularization of YA as a legit category. When I was a teen, I did come across books that address the issue well (Tamora Pierce’s Alanna series, for example), those that used proxy plots and metaphor for sex/sexual awakening (Amelia Atwater-Rhodes vampire books), and adult sci-fi and fantasy books which spanned the full range of intimacy. I don’t recall vivid examples of virgin = good themes in my reading, but I avoided lit fic and real-world YA like the plague growing up, which is where a lot of the “real life” plotlines happened. I mostly went for adventure storylines, where, if romance happened, it tended to be a good and desirable thing, without the “what will my best friend say in class tomorrow” drama.

    I came across a pretty powerful model of looking at sex a while back; it sees sex as a collaboration, not a commodity to be given or taken. Like making music together. The moment you start using musical collaboration as a metaphor for sex, it highlights a lot of the issues and unhealthy assumptions and baggage surrounding the topic (ex. If you meet up to do a jazz session with a friend, no one is giving music or talent away. If you love music and play often, how’s that a terrible thing. Enthusiastic participation becomes a no-brainer requirement, not an optional nice-to-have. And so on.) I wonder what our stories (and culture) would look like if that was the dominant outlook.

    Here’s a link to an excerpt (can I even do hyperlinks in comments? Sure hope so…)

    • I, in turn, am not very familiar with the older YA tradition. Besides the fact that I’m quite young, I also only really started reading YA when I started blogging, or just before – which is when I was 18 or 19. I like the idea of sex being normal and a desirable thing, but unfortunately, that’s not what I’ve been seeing in a lot of contemporary YA these days. Oh, and I definitely think romance is a gendered thing in literature – which is ridiculous, but oh well. I really like that idea of sex as a collaboration! I’m definitely going to remember that in my own writing, and also in life itself. Thanks for your insightful comment!

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  14. The portrayal of sex in Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is amazing. It’s an important part of the story, but the other parts of the characters’ lives are treated with the same importance. Plus, the sex-related scenes are written so ridiculously well — they’re realistic without being too stiff or too explicit. It’s wonderful.

    • I agree! I’m a big fan of that book for multiple reasons, but the way it handles sex is definitely a big part of that. Marvellously done. I should reread it soon! Also, thanks for your comment and I’m sorry for the extremely late reply!

  15. This post spoke to me so much and I am very grateful that you brought up the courage to write it. I have just gotten back to reading more because for a long time, the books for my age group (and gender – gendered books are another super frustrating thing) became too detached from who I was and wanted to be. They created this impossible ideal: I should stay young and innocent, but I should also be beautiful and alluring to men – never was there any talk of realistic body images and self-confidence.

    I will definitely have to check out some of the suggested books!

    • Thank you so much, Tamar, that means a lot! I completely understand what you mean (also: ugh, gendered books) – the ideals in books are often way too far removed from real life and also quite damaging. Thank you for your wonderful comment, and I’m sorry for the late reply – it was definitely appreciated!

  16. Such an interesting post! I completely agree with you that sex is made out to be such a big deal for YA female characters and there’s this big deal made about virginity. I quite liked Sarah J. Maas’ “A Court of Thorns and Roses.” The protagonist in that has already had sex, and that’s not treated as a big deal or anything, and she has desires, etc, which are seen as normal. So important for these things to be treated as normal (because they are) when sex is broached in YA fiction.

    • Thank you! Ooh, that’s interesting because I’ve also heard bad things about the portrayal of sex in ACOTAR. I haven’t read it myself (yet!), so I can’t judge it, but that’s yet another reason for me to read those books. Thanks for your comment, and I’m sorry for the late reply!

  17. This is such an interesting post. To be frank, I hadn’t ever given much thought to sexuality in YA novels but now I am incredibly interesting in reading the novels you have mentioned. Thank you for bringing my attention to it!

    • Thank you very much! For a long time I didn’t pay much attention to it either, but I’ve gotten more interested in feminism and gender bias and stuff like that over the past few years and I started to notice these things in YA fiction. You’re very welcome! I hope you enjoy the novels. 🙂 Sorry for the late reply!

  18. What a delight to discover your post! This is a subject rarely addressed, and it needs to be. I am a writer/therapist who has been around long enough–don’t laugh–to remember the 60s Sexual Revolution sparked by the advent of “The Pill” and the Hippies’ “free love” in San Francisco, when female sexual desire was supposedly “set free,” and you would think, by now, we’d all be comfortable and happy with female sexuality. But we’re not. I think, in fact, we’ve gone backwards in some ways. Our culture is still “screwed up” (pardon the pun) about sexuality, especially when it comes to girls-becoming-women. Bias, repression, confusion–all this keeps showing up one way or another. Thus it’s especially good when novels address the subject honestly and through characters who are real people that readers can relate to and even learn something from. I’m writing a novel on this subject right now, in process, and although it may be more suited to the “new adults” fiction category than younger readers, I’m hoping it ultimately makes a contribution toward more openness and understanding on this issue. It’s time! Feeling good about our bodies and sexual intimacy is essential to happiness. Thanks for addressing the topic. It’s too often kept under the covers.

    • Thank you, I’m glad you liked the post! I completely agree with you. I think good and realistic representation is so important, but unfortunately that’s still quite difficult to come by in YA. Somehow sexuality is often conceived of as something that shouldn’t be talked about in an open and honest manner with teenagers, and that makes me so angry at times! Thank you for your comment – your novel-in-progress definitely sounds like something I’d be interested in reading, so I’ll check out your blog, too.

      • I think we’re on the same wave length! So nice to know. I keep hoping for the day when people understand that while sex is perhaps kept “under the covers,” sexuality is a vital part of being human and a subject to be honestly and openly discussed., without shame or embarrassment. If only. And speaking of my blog, I regret I haven’t been posting as much on the subject (or at all) as I’d hoped. Time can be so elusive!

  19. Just yes, to this entire post yes. Totally agree, when I read YA novels during high school the portrayal of sex had a quite an effect on me because it made the stories seem unrealistic to what was happening around me with how teenagers talked about it and addressed it. But the books still influenced me to believe virginity was something of high value and that I would change once I had sex because it was a common occurrence in the books I was reading. I hate how this can still be an influence for teenagers now. Thanks for bringing this topic up, it’s needs to be talked about more.

  20. “Another very common thing in YA is the trope of girls wanting to have sex but suppressing their desire, which ultimately turns out to be the better decision for some reason or another, or they do “give in” to it and it somehow makes them a different person – they feel like they’ve lost something of themselves, that having sex has changed their identity.

    I think all of this is problematic, and here’s why: it makes sex into way too big of a deal for girls.

    Yes, you should wait until you’re ready and not do anything you don’t want to. It can be a big deal for someone personally, and a first time is probably a milestone in anyone’s life (at that point in time anyway), but ultimately it’s only sex. It doesn’t suddenly change a person’s identity – they are still the exact same person they were before.”

    Sex is a really big deal. American culture, and obviously Europe are wrong only in that they pretend it isn’t. I agree, there is a strange thing with a hyper valuing of “virginity” (which leads people to do everything but vaginal sex and then do EVERYTHING with abandon once virginity has been “lost”), but there isn’t anything wrong with a common sense valuing of sexual practice.

    Sexual expression DOES change a person…just look at the science of what happens when someone is actually active. Biologically, chemically alone, it’s a huge deal. I mean the drug levels in the brain literally seer that person into your brain. What you’re looking at when you climax is locked. (Enter the problem with porn here.) And if the biological/physiological wasn’t enough, most people completely ignore that sex isn’t just physical. It holistically affects a person, mind, body, soul.

    I don’t disagree that the treatment of sexuality in YA fiction is deeply misleading and dissatisfying, but I find it completely on par with how our culture treats it. And it’s poorly done.

    • Thank you for your comment! I guess we simply have to agree to disagree on certain aspects. I don’t believe sex fundamentally changes a person any more than other big or small events in that person’s life do (obviously with the exception of traumatic sexual experiences). I’m not denying that it can have an impact on someone, but I do think that is made out to be a much bigger deal than it truly is. And that is indeed mostly to do with our culture.

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