The first sex scene I can remember reading was in a Stephen King novel when I was thirteen. At that age, I knew what sex was, but when I read that scandalously detailed scene, I learned how it actually worked. My parents never gave me The Talk, and I went to a Catholic high school which very much pushed the wait-till-marriage agenda. Maybe it’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who got most of their sex education from books. In high school, the YA books with cis/het sex scenes that I read were mostly vague, flowery, or fade-to-black business. They either didn’t mention contraception at all, or had the girl asking, “Do you have–?” She wouldn’t even say the word “condom”! Then the guy would either say he had one, or say no and ask if that was OK. She usually said it was. At the time I thought nothing of it because I didn’t know any better, but now I realize how bad an influence scenes like that can be. They give the impression that girls should be passive when it comes to their sexual experiences. That boys should be the ones responsible for having a condom, and if they don’t, then just roll with it.
I’ve read a fair amount of books describing this exact situation. It wasn’t until I read Kristin Cashore’s Graceling that my eyes were opened to this problem. As the romance in the story builds between Katsa, the protagonist, and Po, her love interest, they decide to have sex. The story takes place in a feudalistic fantasy world, so no condoms or pill; but while the author could have chosen to gloss over the technicalities of contraception, she didn’t. Katsa makes sure she has plenty of the special herb women take in this world to prevent pregnancy. She is also very clear with Po that if he hurts her in any way, or wants something from her that she isn’t willing to give, she’ll ditch him in a hot second. This absolutely blew my mind. For the first time, I was reading a book where the girl was truly in charge of her own sexual experience.
I have since read other fantasy YA books featuring similar contraceptive herbs, or teas, or magic spells. I applaud authors who make it a point to mention birth control. Obviously YA isn’t just for teens, but it is marketed towards them. If someone is choosing to write a YA book that features sex, they should take a moment to fully appreciate the gravity of the situation. Sex-ed is a huge controversy in high schools across the United States, with many pushing for none at all or abstinence-only, which is proven to be the least effective. So for some teens, the fiction they read might give them their first actual clue about sex, like it did for me. The presence of contraception in YA is something we need more of. Not just in fantasy worlds, but in realistic fiction, too. I never want to read another sex scene where a character asks their partner if they have protection without even naming said protection. If it’s OK for young adults to read sexual content in their fiction, shouldn’t they be trusted to read the word “condom”?
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