I wrote a review for my Goodreads friends a while ago about a YA book with some disturbing elements. I bought the book, so I wasn’t under any obligation to review it, but I did, because I would have been grateful to have read such a review before I bought the book. I’m not publishing the review here or telling you the name of the book, but I do want to discuss the issues it raises.
Here’s a quote from my review.
There was a very disturbing element in this book, the combination of sexual advances and pain infliction by figures of authority on young girls. It was a minor element, but sex and violence together are a combination that I am particularly sensitive to, especially sexual sadism and especially in YA books. It gave a bad taste to the whole book – disturbingly creepy. My seventeen-year-old daughter was horrified when I described the two scenes and said that she wouldn’t want to read that.
Ahhh, we’ve opened a can of worms here, haven’t we?
My understanding of the YA genre is that sex and violence are minimal and suggested rather than explicit. However, what people consider ‘minimal and suggested, rather than explicit’ varies.
For the record, I think that sex should be portrayed only where necessary for the realistic development of the story, character or relationship. I believe that authors and publishers have a responsibility to our society to show sexual activity in a responsible way in YA books, meaning within a loving relationship and taking appropriate measures to avoid pregnancy and disease, or at least the overall message should support this view.
I’m not of the opinion that since teens are all doing it, that we should have it in our books. I have a teenage daughter and I teach high school, and I can tell you for sure that not all teens are doing it, and not all want to do it – even those with boyfriends – or read about it.
As teachers and parents, we have our view, but what do the kids think? They’re the ones the books are supposedly designed for. When I asked my daughter what she thought was appropriate in YA fiction, she said, ‘ if there is sex, it has to be only if it’s right for the character and should only ever be described once and be suggested, not explicit.’ So we’re in agreement.
BUT what about sex and violence together in one act…. YUK. YUK. YUK! NO, NO, NO.
My daughter agrees. YA books should not have this combination at all. In the above book, the sexual part of the abuse was completely unnecessary. The men in the incidents could have been sadistic without bringing in the sexual titillation part. They didn’t have to stroke the girl’s bare flesh before stapling the ‘discipline belt’ into her thigh-yes, that’s what it was called – or before cutting it out with a knife and no anesthetic. The story at this point was horrific enough without the added sexual abuse element.
The exception to my ‘no-sex-and-violence-in-one-act-rule are books dealing with issues such as rape and abuse that are designed to help victims solve the problems that arise from these. I welcome such initiatives, but I think you have to be a very knowledgeable and talented writer to get the right balance, and of course, they have to be particularly careful to obey the ‘suggested rather than explicit clause.’ Nor am I talking about a book with an attempted rape (I’d prefer that it not succeed) that is a necessary plot turning point and is written briefly and without embellishment. It’s sexual sadism that really gets to me.
A while ago, I bought a book from a YA shelf and found two fairly explicit and incredibly cruel and demeaning rape scenes where pain was inflicted as part of the act. The scenes really disturbed me. I took it back to the shop and complained – I don’t even want to read that sort of things in adult books. The shop owner checked and discovered that some distributors catalogued it as YA and some didn’t. Interesting? She gave me my money back and removed the copies from the YA shelf. I was left wondering who makes the categorizations.
As a writer, I don’t feel that it would be wise for me to take my concerns to the publishers, but I do hope that other concerned parents, teens and so on would write a letter to a publisher to complain if they find inappropriate content. We don’t need to make a big fuss about it, just write a letter explaining why you don’t think it’s appropriate and ask them to take it off their, and their distributors, YA list.
Do you agree with me? Have you ever written a letter to a publisher to complain of inappropriate content in a YA book? Would you?