writing post

The Sexualization of Teen characters in YA Romance (and why it needs to end)

Sit down because this is one reeeeeally long post. Recently I was talking to a friend about something that deeply bothered me in book blurbs – the use of the word “sexy”. Often, I see it used in erotic books – which are totally fine! – but still feel weird. What troubles me is the use of this word to describe… YA books.

Yeah, that’s right. We need to talk about romance in YA.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of romance books. I’d rather have a really good plotted fantasy than a romance any day, but I like when it’s well written. The feelings on the page, the characters and how they react. Often, for YA, romance is about first love and discovering love, and it can be great to read about in the page.

What doesn’t make it great is the way this romance is described often by authors. Authors are adults, writing about teen lives. We should have responsability when it comes to our writing, especially if it’s published, because then it will be able to affect people’s lives and maybe even normalize something that is not great. When I see adults describing a character as ‘sexy’, it always baffles me because we’re talking about teens. Fictional teens, yes, but still teens.

I understand some of this attitude that ends up crossing over from your teenage days. I started writing YA when I was fifteen as a fun past time, so yes, I swooned over my own romance — but essentially, because everyone was the same age as me and I could daydream about romance and adventure. Now, as an adult, I’m constantly reminded of the fact that the characters I write are a lot younger than me, and it’s a little disturbing that some authors and adults don’t seem to make that connection.

Let’s go for the facts: when you normalize something like calling fictional teens ‘sexy’ or ‘swoony’, it sounds like you’re OK with abusive relationships and child predators. I can hear you say “Laura, but you’re exaggerating”, but let me explain it first. When we normalize this kind of thing as calling YA sexy/swoony/delicious, it normalizes sexualizing teens.

Let’s break this down even more. Teens are allowed to explore their sexuality. It’s a part of growing up, of discovering who you are. Sex is often a part of it, often not. It depends on who you’re interested in, whether you are allo or aromantic/asexual, if you’re OK with sex or just want nothing to do with sex. These things are often explored through fiction, which is a way for teens to connect to their own reality. By exploring themes as sexuality in books, it allows people to identify and name their own feelings and discover themselves. And that’s great! It’s great to have a portrayal of this on the page so the safe exploration of this is encouraged and normalized.

This is what books are for in the end – helping you discover your own reality and make sure you fit in it, finding words to describe something you can’t describe. Books and fiction allow you to explore your reality and find your place in it. Things like sexuality, race, gender identity, mental illness should be explored in fiction and there needs to be space for that.

However, we don’t need space for the sexualization that happens often in romances. Instead of the exploration of these themes and the exploration of sexuality, we often have the explicit of sexualization of teen characters in order to have a more ‘sexy’ romance. This is CREEPY. It’s the only thing I can describe it as. This normalizes predator behavior towards teens by making them feel like adults, when they’re not. Teens are teens, and adults are adults. There’s a big difference there, and people often seem to forget it.

Here is a basic guide on the differences between exploring sexuality and sexualization of teens when it comes to books. The sexualization comes when a teen character is presented by someone desirable by any other people than the love interest. When you narrate your story in 1st person POV, for example, and your character is a 16yo girl, you can probably see her look at her school crush and say “damn that guy is sexy”. Why? Because that’s normal teen behavior. As teens, they can look at each other and think that stuff. Now if your narrative presents anything else other than that, or talk about a teen girls’ breasts from the POV of the narrator or anyone else… you’re sexualizing teens. Or if you’re the author giving an interview, talking about your teen character and saying “I love writing him, he’s so sexy”.

Sexualization in narratives can also come in different tropes. For TV shows, it often shows older actors portraying teens. Marketing turns it around to be ‘sexy’. We have Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars. These are all supposed to be teen characters, but they’re portrayed by adults. It’s a double edged knife, however — because you sexualize the life of teens by having them be seen as ‘sexy’, but it also avoids the problem of actually sexualizing teens. By having adults portray them, everyone clearly sees they’re adults. There’s nothing remotely teenager-like about Gossip Girl or Vampire Diaries, and this way, they avoid actively sexualizing teenagers on screen.

In urban fantasies and fantasy romances this happens a lot as well. You have one sexy bad boy character who rides motorcycles and wears leather jackets and acts all alpha male over the main character. This character, in fact, can be often an adult (over 18 years of age) or an immortal being of some sort or other. It tires me that I can think of more than ten examples of books where the characters are deeply sexualized, and romance that is meant for teens. Out of the top of my head, I can think up of at least five characters in romances that are composed of a teen girl that meets up with this dark emo sexy person who is a couple of hundred years older than her. Or even when the MC is a teen and the love interest is ten years older than her, it’s still enough to be wrong. “Laura but this is what paranormal romance is for!!!” I know, reader, and I agree with some of your commentary. It is indeed why it can be difficult to portray a healthy relationship between a paranormal being and a teen. And I think this is a post entirely for another time where I can point towards good examples vs bad examples.

Remember Renesmee and Jacob’s imprinting? A lot of people argument that Jacob will be whatever Renesmee needs him to be, whether that is a friend or a lover. That could be a good concept EXCEPT the author never presents the imprinting bond as something other than a romantic bond. There is no presentation of friendship or family on the page, only of ROMANCE. So when it’s not deconstructed on the page, imprinting will always refer to the original meaning brought in the text – romance. And then you have a romantic bond between a newborn and an 18yo.

When writing this trope, writers forget that this is highly problematic. I’m not saying age is especially relevant when it comes to love (it isn’t) but that only works if you’re an ADULT. If you’re 25 and meet a guy who’s 32, the age difference isn’t going to be telling. However, if you have a character who’s younger than 18 meeting a character that’s older than 21… you have a problem. You are playing into a trope that sexualizes young girls especially and tell them that it’s OK if you go out with a guy who’s a lot older than you.

The problem with this is that it normalizes predatory behavior towards teens. Teens do not need any more of this normalization, because guess what? IT’S FUCKING WRONG!!!!!!!!!! I honestly don’t understand how people struggle with this concept. There is a major difference because in the end, teens are also children. They are not adults. They cannot consent to any sexual behavior with adults, because they are children. The end.

There is a lot of ways this problematic aspect in romance shows up in YA. First, you have love interests that are angels/vampires/fae/immortal. When the MC is only seventeen or eighteen, and the love interests are hundreds of years old, it’s CREEPY. It’s even weirder when said love interests still act like teenagers… because they’re literally hundreds of years old. Even when it’s a second world fantasy I still struggle with this trope because I can’t help but think that one person is just out of their childhood days and the other has been alive for years (and has had an active sex life, for most part).

We also have the alpha male trope which speaks for itself. The alpha male often reeks of misogyny and controling behavior masked as something “romantic”. They want to protect the heroines and their love interests, often by locking them at home. Unfortunately, this trope is rarely subverted. Even when an author manages to do so, some of the love interests still show this dominant behavior and of claiming their love interests as something only they can touch. Mind you, both these tropes show up especially in maleXfemale relationships, and very rarely in others. Although the alpha male does show up in m/m romance if written by women, which I could write yet another post on it.

That said, there are ways of avoiding this sexualization of teens in books, and as authors, we must avoid this at ALL COSTS. When society already preys on teens and children and already makes it “seem ok” when this sexualization happens, we should be working to avoid it and work towards making something constructive. When you use words like “sexy” and “swoony” to describe a teen character, you normalize the fact that 16yo could be seen as adults and already consenting. Which is not OK.

So I started chatting to teen friends on how they see this behavior. One friend of 17 told me “I don’t mind when book characters describe each other as sexy, I do that to people all the time”, but when it comes to authors describing their characters as sexy, there was a big “nope” all around. This is the main difference. YA is meant to be a safe space for teen readers, and yet, they can still be sexualized instead of feeling safe and cared for. As authors, we should be aware of our audience. If you’re writing for teens that must mean you care about them, right?

I also asked a couple of questions through twitter and I got three amazing volunteers who helped me answer the questions. I’m separating them by questions/ansers so it makes for an easier read. Thanks so much for Kaitlin Mitchell, Natalie Bucklein and Nikhita who all volunteered to help me out with this post.  The questions and their answers are below.

 

  • What makes you feel uncomfortable when you’re reading YA romance? What do you like it best?

Kaitlin: Romantic and/or sexual relationships between teenage and adults characters make me uncomfortable. I just read an amazing YA romance a few months ago, but one aspect that seemed so unnecessary was a hookup between a teenage side character and a woman in her mid-twenties. I assumed that the age factor would be discussed and deemed problematic at some point in the book, but it was never brought up. There are not many f/f YA romances, so this hookup was even more disappointing. Teens of all sexualities deserve to have healthy romantic/sexual relationships portrayed in YA, and hookups between adults and teens are not healthy. I love when characters are still interesting without their partner around. Characters that discuss boundaries and respect each other. Diversity in all forms.

Natalie: if it’s specifically a romantic scene that is a little intimate in a romance novel. too much description of what they’re doing is discomforting. An example would be the scenes in ACOTAR by SJ Maas.

Nikhita: When possessiveness is construed as sexy/romantic. That’s obsession and, frankly, there are lots of YA books out there that are like that and it bothers me that younger, more impressionable teens/pre-teens might not catch that it’s a bad thing. For what I like best, consent. When the dude actually cares what the girl has to say and isn’t an ass to her just because he’s wounded/pissed/whatever. Or, if he is, he has to grovel to gain her love back. I’m tired of seeing the guys being complete jerks, but somehow, despite it all, the girl falls for them. Why?? I highly doubt that IRL any of us girls want that.

  • Does it make you uncomfortable when authors describe their teen characters as ‘sexy’?

Kaitlin: Yes. A lot of these authors are parents themselves, and I highly doubt they would describe their children’s teenage relationships as “sexy”. It makes me wonder whether they’re truly writing for teens or if they’re actually writing for adults. YA, while everyone should be allowed to enjoy it, is marketed at teens. When authors describe their teen characters as “sexy”, it can come across as though they’re telling teens they think they’re sexy, and that their relationships are sexy. It’s almost voyeuristic.

Natalie: I like it when there’s humorous banter between the two because it’s hilarious! Kiss scenes are sometimes just 😍. But again, if it’s too descriptive, it makes me squirm in my seat 😂

Nikhita: Haha, definitely not! I like the sexy and the cute guys equally. I just don’t like when sexy has to automatically mean jerk-who-has-a-traumatized-past-and-can-thus-be-an-ass-to-the-FMC. If he’s going to be a jerk, there has to be another reason than his traumatized past and once again, he has to really earn his way back into the girl’s good graces. She can’t let him back easily.

  • What do you think of using the word ‘sexy’ to describe a YA book by marketing/others?

Kaitlin: I think it’s unnecessary and also a bit misleading. What exactly do marketing people think is “sexy” about YA books? The characters, the romance, the sex? I have no problem with sex in YA, but YA is written for teens. Sex in YA, therefore, must be written for teens. It isn’t realistic for it to always be “sexy” or “steamy”. I think centralizing a book’s marketing on sexiness gives teens false expectations for sex, and says certain types of relationships are more deep or meaningful because they’re sexual.

Natalie: The sexy description. Haha, no it’s all right if they use the word sexy. If it’s contemporary, then heck yeah use the word sexy 😂

Nikhita: I don’t care. If it’s a little risque book, let it be risque. 😀 Of course, when the first couple books of a series are very quiet in terms of sex and the explicitness of a book, it can’t suddenly be flipped on its back in, like, Book 5 to become an erotica that needs content warnings for younger readers. (I’m talking about Empire of Storms, lol.)

  • Do you feel like teens are sexualized in some romances?

Kaitlin: Definitely. I think there’s a difference between having a character who has sex and a character who is sexualized. If a teen couple could be aged up and inserted into genre romance without anyone batting an eye, perhaps the relationship needs to looked over again before the book hits the shelves.

Natalie: Yes, some teens are definitely sexualized. For me, I like to read YA romance novels that are set in fantasy worlds. And a perfect example for this, where the teens are being sexualized, is definitely Throne of Glass, because she’s a hard core assassin, but is made to look pretty constantly with low back dresses and revealing skirts. In the book Graceling by Kristin Cashore, she is also dressed up in a tight dress when she’s this hard core killer. If it’s who the character is, and if it’s done because there’s a specific goal to doing so, not just to look pretty, then it’s perfectly all right.

Nikhita: YES. Mainly, this happens to the boys. They have to have certain masculine features and MUST be considered gorgeous by the general population to be worthy of a romance. And I dislike that the girl usually is unaware of her sexiness or perceives herself as bland. Why can’t she be self aware? And somehow, the girls that ARE sexualized in books are often the ‘other’ girl – the villain, so to speak, which is perpetuating this myth that the pretty girl is always evil, and that in order to be good and get the fairytale guy, the girl has to genuinely believe that she is not pretty enough.

 

Those were great answers, and thanks so much for volunteering (once again)! All in all, we can definetly see a pattern here – probably to do with Sarah J Maas’ books, haha – and how teens can be sexualized in YA to the point where it makes everyone uncomfortable. Because we live in a society where this is also normalized, it’s a lot harder to pinpoint this behavior to combat it. We swim in a sea of books where all of these behaviors are seen as normal, so it becomes a lot harder to determine why something can bother you. I didn’t realize the word ‘sexy’ bothered me for so long when using it to describe books because of this – it’s just seen as normal on the market.

Let’s recap: Do NOT use the word “sexy” to describe a YA book. Do NOT use the word “delicious” to describe a teen romance. DO NOT use the words “my book boyfriend” or “he’s so hot” or “he’s so swoony” when describing a fictional teen if you’re an adult (no, not even if you’re the author of said fictional teen).

There is a HUGE difference between letting your teen characters explore their sexuality and sexualizing the teens themselves. As authors, we should work to avoid falling into that place of sexualization. The best way to do it is start noticing our behavior and how we write teens on the page. And not repeat what our characters would say out there.

I think a good way is to avoid using the word “sexy” or “delicious” when describing a romance between two teenage characters. Also avoid calling teens “book boyfriends” if you’re an adult, because that’s just really weird. We can all agree Mr Darcy is the perfect book boyfriend, but he’s 30, so we should just keep using him instead of Jace Wayland (who’s sixteen, for god’s sake!).

It’s fairly simple, and we shold be working to write better books for all teens out there, and not just reinforce stereotypes and mysogynistic behavior in our romances. Instead of writing that ‘sexy bad boy’, maybe write something healthier with characters who feel real and teen-like?

 

 

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