How Appropriate is Sexual Violence in YA literature?


Recently, I was told to be more aware of the audience I was writing for. Further, I was told to be very careful of what I write because my intended audience is young adult. The content in question dealt with implied sexual threat, and one individual’s critique was that it may be too adult for young adults. That because I included a few implied lines within my writing that something unsavory might happen, an editor may not buy my novel.

This comment intrigued me on many levels. One, violence is often a large and widely accepted, and expected, part of YA literature. Look at The Hunger Games and Divergent, two more recent examples of extremely violent trilogies. Now, in these novels most of the violence is non-sexual, however Divergent includes a scene where, while the protagonist is being beaten up, she is molested, and that sexual attack is described, not glossed over.

In Days of Blood & Starlight, the second novel in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, the protagonist is almost raped. The scene’s most tense point is when the would-be rapist is naked and on top of the protagonist. In Speak, the protagonist is raped. The story is about her recovering from that incident, and the hypocritical nature of society’s perceptions of rape culture.

There are many more examples of sexual violence within YA literature, so I was curious as to why this individual had been so adamant about the implied threat within my writing, and that some others within this particular critique group had seemed to agree with her.

Do individuals believe that teenagers and young adults should be sheltered from the darker topics of life? (Violence, cursing, mental illness, rape, suicide, drug abuse, and eating disorders are all examples of topics typically considered “darker.”) Do these individuals think that young people aren’t already exposed to these topics?

Novels have been and are a great, and safe, way to help younger individuals navigate the “darker” sides of life. They enable young adults to process topics they’re already ruminating on, and help them to think of ways to overcome complex obstacles.

I realize there are limits to what can be put into a YA novel. I doubt that topics such as bestiality, incest, or an explicit sex scene would do well in YA, nor am I advocating to discuss such topics within YA literature. But, a YA story shouldn’t be so childish that older readers, and I’m talking about readers sixteen/seventeen and up (many adults read YA), would roll their eyes and close the book.

YA encompasses a wide range of readers. If you only focus on what the publishing world has established as the YA age range (twelve to eighteen year olds), you still get a varying range of readers. Those twelve to fourteen/fifteen may be too young to read what sixteen to eighteen year olds are reading (though when I was fourteen, I was reading Jodi Picoult, as were many other girls at my school). Therefore, it would make sense to have varying YA books, some for younger teenagers (i.e. – The Iron King) and some for older (i.e. – The Immortal Rules).

One of the most important things to remember is that young adults aren’t stupid. They can tell when an author sanitized a novel in such a way that it’s unbelievable. Teenagers are aware of and/or have experienced “darker” sides of life. They flirt, they make out, they get harassed; some of them have sex, some drink, some experiment with drugs, some experience depression, etc. Keeping realistic threads, even in YA science fiction and fantasy, connects readers to a novel, and will make them want to read either the next book in the series or more novels by that author.

What do you think?

(Photo courtesy of Viewminder.)

5 thoughts on “How Appropriate is Sexual Violence in YA literature?

  1. eclecticalli

    I think it’s important to pay attention to the context and handling of the situation (is it gratuitous or is it really part of the plot… does it ring true and real?) But, yes… I don’t think you should shy away from “darker” subjects just because you’re writing YA… as you say, they aren’t babies and they certainly are being exposed to such topics already.

  2. silverpen2013

    I almost laughed when I read that your editor suggested that the suggestion of implied sexual threat was too mature for young adult readers. Young adult literature often deals with much more mature content than a vague implication of sexual threat and current publishers don’t seem to shy away from that.
    I do not think that it is a problem for a writer to present the darker things that happen in life even in a book for children, its good for children to explore ideas in a safe environment.
    I do sometimes wonder though if there is too much focus on the mature and dark side these days. Sometimes the hero’s are just as cruel, viscous, or thoughtless as the villains and I can’t help but wish that there was more positive stuff to balance out the dark.

    1. brittanyekrueger Post author

      Sometimes it does seems like darker issues are taking over, but I think part of that reason is because many literary agents and editors are looking for darker topics.

  3. Pingback: Book Review - Allegiant by Veronica Roth - Themself

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