I recently conducted a series of focus groups with girl readers at a secondary school in Melbourne, Australia, as part of my PhD project. The girls read the popular YA fantasy texts A Court of Thorns and Roses (Sarah J Maas) and Red Queen (Victoria Aveyard) in preparation for the focus groups. The girls and I were discussing all things related to girlhood: agency, femininity, gender, romance, and of course, sexuality.
I was somewhat nervous about the “sex talk” part. What if they were embarrassed? What if I was embarrassed? What if the girls didn’t say anything? But the experience of discussing sexuality with these teenagers was enlightening, and they raised points about including sexuality in YA that seemed to me to be beyond their years:
Elizabeth: How do you feel about reading scenes of kissing… and even sex?
Sarah-Jane: The normalisation of female sexuality is great
Victoria … it’s normal behaviour. We should see more of it.
Lara: That’s the good stuff!
While only a tiny snippet of our long discussions (we talked for 2 hours on romance and sexuality alone!), the girls’ comments highlight three key aspects of their understanding of sexuality.
1. Female characters experience sexuality and desire
The girls recognised a need for normalising female desire. Both the ACOTAR and Red Queen series feature female protagonists who have sexual relationships. Feyre actually has multiple sexual partners. This was something that the girls were particularly excited to see. Lara noted that sometimes book “passive aggressively slut shame” girls who don’t wait for “that someone special”, but that in ACOTAR it’s “not that big of a deal, which is good”.
2. Sex is normal
There was a clear sense amongst the girls that including elements of sexuality in texts made the characters, and the act itself, appear more normal. They felt that it made them closer to reality, as “kissing and stuff happens in normal relationships”.
The girls felt that it was the explicit detail in particular that made it more real. Lara felt that some YA books that include sex are “like, oh yeah, they did it, but we’re not going to go into detail because, you know, that’s gross and stuff”. Lara said that the detail makes it “more natural and normal to the audiences”. Sarah-Jane agreed that including sex scenes makes sex “more normal” and made the characters “more human… more alive”.
3. It's good
The girls I talked to enjoyed reading explicit scenes. While I recognise this might not be a universal experience for girls, it does go against the traditional fear and moralising associated with including sexuality in texts for young people. Lara stated clearly (in multiple focus groups) that the kissing and sex scenes were her favourite part of several YA texts.
Enjoyment was further demonstrates when Sarah-Jane and Victoria were discussing the sex scenes in A Court of Mist and Fury (Maas 2016). The two girls had developed slang for referring to their favourite sex scene. Simply saying “soup” or “Chapter 55” brought on giggles and sideways glances:
V: “The” chapter, is Chapter 55.
SJ: Oh God, Chapter 55.
V: THE chapter.
SJ: Everybody knows, you say that Chapter…
V: and it’s like, “oh! Oh god!” (giggles)
This scenes involves sex on a table, oral sex, and multiple orgasms for both partners. I asked the girls if the slang was because they were embarrassed about the scenes, but they assured me they only used slang so they could “talk about it in class without actually talking about it”. The girls’ delight in the scenes has created a sort of secret language and shared friendship, and they wanted to be able to reference these parts of the texts whenever they wanted.
The climax of the enjoyment of sex in texts came at the end of the last focus group when the girls shared titles of the YA texts with their favourite sex scenes. Young people are engaging with and enjoying sexuality in YA texts. They even seek it out. So let’s keep talking about sex with the readers of YA.
After all, that’s the good stuff.
Elizabeth Little is a PhD student in Children’s Literature at Deakin University, Melbourne, working on a project that utilises postfeminist theory to examine Young Adult fantasy literature. She is also a high school English teacher. Elizabeth has a forthcoming book chapter titled “Postfeminism and Sexuality in the Fiction of Sarah J Maas” in ‘Sexuality in Literature for Children and Young Adults’ due out this year. She’s passionate about literature education, sexuality and gender, and the girls who read Young Adult Literature.