This post is inspired by one written by Melissa Marr over at Supernatural Underground, appropriately titled Let's Talk About Sex. The theme of the post was on sex and sexual content in YA literature, the questions/comments/concerns that she receives as a writer in that genre, and her thoughts on the issue from both a creative perspective and from the perspective of a parent.
By and large the comments on the post seem to reflect the consensus that sex in YA is fine as long as it's done "tastefully" (thought it should be noted that no common definition of what specifically that means has emerged) and that it fit with the groove of the story. Ms. Marr parries effectively by pointing out that the lack of common definition of tasteful is part of the issue at hand, and that gratuitous sex/violence/substance use/bad decisions in adult novels aren't necessarily what make them adult novels.
I am child-free, but I am a teacher, and honestly? My feeling is that my true job when it comes to sensitive issues such as these is to teach students how to be critical thinkers, how to determine if a source is accurate or believable, and how to develop a concrete stance on an issue based on evidence. I've always been kind of nervous about the idea that creators of young adult literature are somehow responsible for making sure that readers aren't exposed to anything "bad" and to thoroughly villify that stuff if they are; likewise, I don't think it's the job of an author to present archetypes of "good things" or to provide role models for readers. Their job is to create a story; how the reader interacts with the story is an individual experience.
I am totally supportive of parents knowing what their children are reading and being aware of the subject matter; knowing what your child likes to read is knowing something about them as an individual. But I do think that we're a little late to the party if we think that sex or sexual content or innuendo in popular culture is something new or something that only just recently needed to be policed. I mean, here's one of my favorite cover songs ever. It's about going to the doctor and being told you need to get some:
It wasn't so long ago that rock and roll was the devil's music, the Hardy Boys were corrupting the young men of America, and it was uncomfortable to see Ricky & Lucy, a married couple, sleeping in the same bed (many thanks to @Karenof4 of Twitterland for helping me finish that thought!) Not only have social ideas of what constitutes appropriate content changed, our ways of interacting with media have changed as well. Rather than focusing on what specific things a book contains or what our perceptions of those things may be as adults, I think the focus needs to be on helping young readers become thoughtful, critical people; people who don't necessarily accept things at face value and who, if they come across something that doesn't work for them for whatever reason (violates their sense of justice, conflicts with their morals, just doesn't interest them), can do something radical: make a different decision. That means read something else, change the channel, buy tickets to a different movie or hey, blog about it!
Am I saying that YA literature should be a free for all of hedonistic debauchery? No, I think the books still need to be well written and one endless sex scene doesn't constitute a good story, regardless of the target market. What I am saying, is that rather than being outraged or embarrassed that two people are intimate, or that violence is omnipresent for some people, or that some people cuss like it's going out of style, or that relationships in a book are depicted a certain way (Bella and Edward, I'm looking at you,) or whatever the case may be, I would ask readers the question, "what do you think about that?"