Y is for YA: Sense and Sensuality

ybuttonThe Young Adult genre has recently achieved validation above and beyond the rather clumsy and gratuitous posturing of the lovesick Bella that invoked hordes of fans to choose sides and cast away all notions of credibility as angst and self-absorption reached staggering new heights.

What, you aren’t a fan?

Didn’t say that…

Team Jacob. [Don’t judge me.]

From wildly dystopian futures or alt histories, to coming-of-age, to the paranormal and dark urban fantasies, YA today takes us truly where no one has gone before. Its themes are often darkly ominous, dealing with issues like drugs, bullying, divorce, date rape, coming out … or worse.

YA often pulls no punches. The Hunger Games sacrifices children on the altar of stability, and those who survive don’t necessarily triumph.

Too often, the genre falls into the traps of tropes: the outsider befriended, the invariably female protagonist(s), instant love, the quirky best bud, love triangles, teen lives lived in a parentless vacuum…

And while romance, love and insta-love figure prominently, often it’s devoid of believable emotional content: there’s an over-riding element of self-absorption which is to be expected when a neophyte struggles with that sense of becoming, a coming-of-age without safety nets and clear boundaries. With no frame of reference, the choices can and do devolve into all-or-nothing.

The New Adult genre takes these tropes an additional step: into stark sexuality and graphic language—as if a switch is thrown and suddenly what had been vague and unformed suddenly achieves harsh clarity. Much of the NA I’ve looked at reads like Tourettes on speed, the dialog strident, in-your-face, the sex frequent, frenetic and nearly out of control.

The NA genre has many detractors, for a lot of good reasons:

Why I Hate the Genre Term “New Adult” focuses on the isolation and ageism inherent in this genre.

The Problem with New Adult Books pins this genre with an unflattering “childish” sobriquet, calling it reductive, off-putting and a huge step backwards in the evolution of reading maturity.

Why I Dislike the New Adult Genre has a nifty chart/graph that summarizes all the ways you might conjure for not liking/approving this “marketing ploy”:


Back to that pulling-no-punches: what about sex in YA novels? The question is often asked: how much is too much?

Sarah Alderson examines this issue here: Writing Sex in Young Adult Fiction: How Much Is Too Much? For her, and her editor, it begins and ends with the kiss. She (and said editor) also admit that it’s not a hard and fast rule, that if it serves the story then it is incumbent on the author to “…emphasise (sic) how important it is to be honest, to be sober and to be in a committed respectful and loving relationship before you take the leap. Why? Because that’s the way it should be. Am I a hopeless romantic? Yes. Of course. But I want girls to read my books and decide that they are in control of their bodies and of their decision-making.”

For me, that clearly puts the author in the role of in loco parentis—neither a good, nor a bad thing, but not a role I would be comfortable assuming. For one thing, it imposes standards of behavior that may run counter to the characters. That mindset allows for children to die heinous deaths in a dystopian world yet disallows the normal exploration of one’s own sensuality.

For the young adult, the trick is not so much learning what to do, but rather how to feel about it. And to learn that there are consequences to every choice we make. A teen’s world is about as far from perfect as it gets, and those choices—the good, the bad, the indifferent—are what make for compelling storylines.

Sensuality and sex are part of that learning experience, and I would wager that those “learnings” happen way before the age of consent (however that is defined).


Here’s a snippet from Roman (Saints and Sinners).

Roman is enigmatic, tempting, dangerous, and irresistible. TJ’s been warned off dealing with him, a warning she takes seriously until events spiral out-of-control and she prepares to make the biggest mistake of her life…


As he turned to face her, she stood and walked toward the magnificent creature, aware that both heaven and hell had her in thrall and she cared little for whichever won out. The only thing that mattered was that she belonged to him.

She wasn’t going to be so foolish as to imagine a forever after. The best she’d ever managed was good enough for now. Regrets were for those who never tried. She’d rather go to her grave a wanton harlot than a dried up virginal prune with virtue her constant companion.

Right now I’d rather be a sinner than a saint.

As the myth slowly morphed into the teenage boy, the blackness misting into translucent dust motes dancing about his lean build, she removed her tee-shirt and shimmed out of her jeans, watching his eyes grow dangerous with lust and understanding.

They both knew he had done more than simply remove her from whatever danger he thought stalked her. He had set himself up to betray the rigid, impossible code threatening to tear him apart. That he wanted her was not the issue, rather the question was … did he want her enough?

He answered her question before she had a chance to ask it, his lips hot and angry and primal, driving her back to the edge of the cot, forcing her down as he covered her with silk and sin.

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Author: Nya Rawlyns

Crossing boundaries, taking no prisoners. Write what’s in your soul. It’s the bass beat, the heartbeat, the lyrics rude and true. Nya Rawlyns cut her teeth on sports-themed romantic comedies and historical romances before finding her true calling in the wilderness areas she has visited but calls “home” in that place that counts the most: the heart. She has lived in the country and on a sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay, earned more than 1000 miles in competitive trail and endurance racing, taught Political Science to unwilling freshmen, and found an avocation in materials science. When she isn’t tending to her garden or the horses, the cats, or three pervert parakeets, she can be found day dreaming and listening to the voices in her head.

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  1. Thought-provoking as always. The need to stand in loco parentis, whether that need is actual or simply perceived as such, is one reason I don’t write YA/NA.

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    • It’s my belief YA readers want and need realistic portrayals of their unique, troubling realities. I think they truly operate without a safety net and they are desperate for a respectful treatment of their problems.
      As a YA author, I try to provide a framework through which teens can filter explosive situations, though it may not pass the in loco parentis seal of approval.
      The operative term is young *adult* – they can handle more than we give them credit for.

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  2. Fantastic post! So many good points here. YA can either be really good or really bad with tropes. I love how so many YA books deal with tough issues because teens do go through tough issues. It’s sad how many of these books end up being banned. Like you said though, the sex thing is a tough subject because parents are always going to want to protect their kids from that even though it’s already everywhere. New Adult just steps it way up from that, it’s tough to find a NA book that isn’t completely about sex.

    Thanks for linking up to my post about New Adult!

    Post a Reply
    • My pleasure, Alise – yours was an excellent post. It’s a gnarly subject, one deserving of consideration at both ends of the spectrum.

      Post a Reply

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