I can’t believe how much sex there is in my 12-year-old’s YA books

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At Christmas, I bought the publishing sensation Fourth Wing for my 12 year-old daughter, Kitty. I am always fascinated by publishing sensations – those books that sell 20,000 copies a week and are stuck at number one for half a year – and this particular sensation was about “an elite dragon-riding school”. Kitty liked Harry Potter, and that’s got dragons in it too, so it seemed a present win.

On Christmas Day afternoon I picked up the book from the litter of wrapping paper and flicked through it, wanting to find out what made it so sensational. The reason became quickly apparent to me: it is a smutty book. Okay, not ‘smutty’, that’s unfair. But it’s got a load of sex in it. I quickly re-homed it. Harry Potter it is not; maybe Harry Potter Nights.

Is it okay, I wondered, to have a book aimed at a young adult (YA) market to be so racy? I tracked down a knowledgeable teenage YA fiction enthusiast for some answers. “[But] it’s not aimed at the YA market,” corrects the Teen. “In a bookshop it will be stocked in the Sci-Fi and fantasy bit, not the YA bit.” Despite all the dragons? “Yes…but there is plenty of dodgy sex stuff in books that really are aimed at and stocked in the YA section.”

The Teen directs me to the Shatter Me series, written by Tahereh Mafi. The set-up is a bonkers dystopian situation and our heroine, Juliette, is a 16-year-old who is simultaneously weak and all-powerful. She can kill people with one touch and cause earthquakes but is often rendered almost incapacitated by all her tremendous feelings. Also, she’s telekinetic.

Her main love interest is Warner, who is 19 and a mega-privileged bad boy. The semi-rape set ups are not a thing I’d want an impressionable girl to read. “I try to swing my fist but he catches my arms. Pins them to my sides. Presses me up against the wall. He’s so much stronger than he looks. ‘Don’t lie to yourself, Juliette. You’re going to come back with me whether you like it or not. But you can choose to want it. You can choose to enjoy it […]’”

Barf. There was nothing like this available in 1993. Maybe I missed out?

But I suppose publishers would be dim not to notice the barnstorming, gigantic popularity of Game of Thrones, Sally Rooney and Fifty Shades of Grey, all of which have explicit sex scenes as a common thread. The only thing that ought to be surprising about the increasing sexiness of YA literature is that it has taken the industry so long to catch on.

It’s also naïve to think that “YA” is a one-size-fits-all term. There is “older YA”, “young YA”, teen (which is younger) and “clean teen”.

A watershed element in these demarcations seems to be a phrase I have never heard before that made me laugh out loud, which was “DOP”: dick on page. The phrase was introduced to me by a YA editor who didn’t want to be named (intimacy scenes in YA books are controversial – who knew?) She went on to explain that there would never be DOP unless a book was explicitly marketed as “older YA/crossover”.

Of course, nit-picking marketing terms don’t stop children of any age from reading this stuff in droves – but only in the way that my generation read Jilly Cooper.

Much as how Forever by Judy Blume was passed around social groups for its sex content, the equivalent of this these days is curious teens asking each other if books contain any “spice”. Spice, as I’m sure you can guess, is the code word for sex that is specifically titillating rather than an awkward rite of passage or an opportunity for some sort of moral lesson.

I suppose what bothers me, as a parent of pre-teens, is that Jilly Cooper’s books were so evidently for adults and covered very adult issues – getting married, losing a child, business takeovers and so on – whereas Fourth Wing is about young sexy people in a mythical land swooping about on dragons.

I suppose the older YA market – aged 18+ – is so au fait with dragon/sex mash-ups thanks to Game of Thrones that, to them, it does feel like the books cover adult issues. And again it goes back to the market. This stuff really sells, so why not sell it?

The children’s fiction reviewer Alex O’Connell thinks I am being a bit uptight about it all. “I think it’s only a problem when smutty YA is sold to middle-grade [aged children], which is where book jackets become important. Broadly-speaking, I’m permissive up to the point where a book dabbles in suggestive suicide stuff, how to take hard drugs or relationships that are nasty or violent.”

She thinks that the sex content in YA books has probably stepped up a notch, thanks to the internet. “[Publishers] think these kids are getting it all online anyway, so Pandora’s box is already open.”

A major part of this busting open of Pandora’s box happens on the fan fiction websites WattPad and AO3. These have been around for many years and are where people post fan fiction of varying quality. In these new works romantic relationships exist between well-known characters, known as “shipping”. Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy is a popular combination, with Captain James Kirk and Spock being a well-known first instance of “shipping” in fan fiction.

People make fun of it, but the fan fiction genre is a force to be reckoned with. The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy started life on the OG site Fanfiction. net and, to date has sold more than 15 million copies.

The AO3 USP is that it is aggressively anti-censorship. Literally, anything goes, but it comes with efficient peer pressure on creators to thoroughly tag their work so that readers know what they are getting into. It gets pretty wild: the tags “inappropriate use of eye-socket” and “emetophilia” both exist. Any curious YA can get quite the education on AO3, so by comparison, even borderline stuff they find in the YA section of Waterstones is tame.

The entire industry knows this. It also knows that the average age reported for first viewing online pornography is 12, with 58 per cent of kids viewing it unintentionally. The internet is a Wild West of vomit kinks and accidental porn-watching. All things considered, Shatter Me and Fourth Wing both read like Barbara Cartland. Still not sure about it for a 12 year-old, though.

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