Beyond Titillation: Sexuality in Realistic YA Fiction @ YALSA’s 2010 YA Lit Symposium

November 8, 2010

I attended the 2010 YA Lit Symposium in Albuquerque. This post is a summary of one of the sessions that I attended. Check out other posts tagged yalsalit2010 for more session recaps.

Saturday was the first full day of the symposium and I attended four different sessions that I’ll summarize here. First up is “Beyond Titillation: Sexuality in Realistic YA Fiction” with Jason Kurtz, Dr. Nicholle Schuelke, and Jamie Kallio.

Jason started out with a discussion of why it’s appropriate to include sex in realistic YA novels. He provided quotations from authors, librarians, and educators that you may have seen on Twitter. The few that stood out for me and that I think capture the main arguments Jason made were:

  • Pam B. Cole, author of Young Adult Literature in the 21st Century: “[…] any realistic novel about adolescent development that does not include sexuality is incomplete.”
  • Professors Katherine Butcher and Kaavonia Hinton, authors of Young Adult Literature: Exploration, Evaluation, and Appreciation: “Well-written realistic fiction novels do not dictate specific moral and ethical beliefs. Rather, they challenge readers to learn the importance of moral and ethical behavior by drawing their own conclusions after they consider the events and facts from their own personal perspectives using their own moral and ethical judgments.”
  • Dr. Amy Pattee (“The Secret Source: Sexually Explicit Young Adult Literature as an Informational Source.” Young Adult Library Services, 4(2), 30-38): “Because the sexual content of young adult literature can be explicit and detailed, and because these passages may even stir the senses and be considered erotic, I argue that these fictional texts should be considered as unique information sources that can offer young readers both realistic and needed information about sex and the sex act as well as a private, safe place to try on new feelings of sexual desire.”

YA lit reflects teens’ worlds, allows them to develop their own system of morals and ethics, gives them the opportunity to experiment sexually in a safe way, and provides information about sexual encounters (so long as authors write authentically).

Nicholle discussed the history of YA lit as instructional and didactic and used this to explain parents’ discomfort with sexual content in YA lit today. She argues that teens are becoming more behaviorally autonomous; are dealing with emerging sexuality; are developing their own moral, ethical, religious, and political principles; and are resolving issues of identity and values–and that all of these things prepare them to encounter sexuality in young adult literature. Adults are uncomfortable with teens being sexual beings because they want to protect teens, but understanding sex is part of developing into an adult, and teens’ perceptions of sex are more ambivalent, including both parents’ warnings about pregnancy, pain, disease, and powerlessness as well as more positive associations like passion, intimacy, and desire. She ended with the conclusion that to assume that teens lack the intellectual capacity to handle sex in books is to undermine their astuteness.

Finally, Jamie explored how YA lit has “grown up” and become more complex in the last few decades and an exploration of the motives of would-be censors. YA lit is no longer dominated by 200-page problem novels with a real coming-of-age structure, and teens and YA lit are more complex than they’re often given credit for. Censors assume that kids can’t handle sex in books, that particular content in a book predicts a particular response, and that all readers will respond the same way to the same material. But teens put down things they’re not ready for: our own lived experience is what informs our reading, and if teens don’t have a context into which they can put sexual material in books, it doesn’t really stick with them or interest them. In general, there’s a difference between the parent lens and the librarian or educator lens, and we need to keep that in mind when talking to upset adults.

There were no handouts, but there are links to the speakers’ PowerPoint presentations, the YALSA Blog liveblog of the session, and Jason’s blog on the Ning.

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