What I want to say is this. Yes, some YA lit includes references to sex or drug use or abuse. And that is because those things are threads in the teen weave. But YA authors DO write with our audience in mind. Authors for the adult marketplace have no such worries. When I was a teen, “young adult” meant middle grade. There was no teen fiction. So I, an avid reader, read whatever I could get my hands on. I read Jean Auel. (God, those Clan of the Cave Bear rutting scenes!) I read Jacqueline Suzanne, Jackie Collins, Colleen McCullough (that priest in Thorn Birds!) and Erica Jong (Fear of Flying’s “zipless fuck!”) I read Stephen King, Ken Kesey, Dean Koontz, Mario Puzo (Sonny and Lucy against the door!), and even managed to find a copy of Story of O. Too often, these books equated sex with “getting off.” They didn't make me want to run right out and get off. But neither did they define "healthy sex" for me.
Teens have sex. Period. They do, and always have. Why not show them what healthy sex is, or isn't? Rather than focus on sex as titillation, YA books tend to portray it as an outpouring of love—good, bad or confused. They show the outcomes of sex given too cheaply or taken by force. Teens make choices every day. It is vital they understand that every choice has a consequence. Mistakes can be forgiven, but some consequences can’t be taken back—a pregnancy, an addiction, a drunk driving accident that kills someone. Knowledge is power—the power to see consequences before a choice is made.
It is ludicrous to assume a teen who reads about cutting will choose to self-harm. Kids cut to deal with the immense pressure in their lives—the pressure to succeed at school, at sports; to live up to others’ expectations, or perhaps have no expectations at all because no one really cares. Ditto reading about drugs. Young people use to cope; to fit in. Hey, to have fun. But if they can become a character in a book, use and lose control, right along with that character, they understand better what’s at stake.
YA books do not make the world a darker place. They bring light and hope to an already shadowed landscape. Parents have every right to encourage their kids to read the kinds of books they’d prefer. But I submit that they also have a duty to arm their young adults with knowledge; to empower them to make better choices. And they should respect their teens enough to let them read the books they’re hungry for, whether that’s vampires or wimpy kids or teen prostitutes. Step up to the plate, parents. Read with your kids. Open the lines of communication and discuss your kids’ favored reading material with them. That’s parenting. Censorship is not.