Sexuality is one’s capacity for sexual feelings or it can also be defined as a person’s sexual orientation or preference.

The Oxford Dictionary of English reports that the word sexuality probably is derived from the post-classical Latin sexualitas that appeared circa 1761.[1] In our use of English today it is a combination of the adjective sexual- which is defined as “Of, relating to, or arising from the fact or condition of being either male or female; predicated on biological sex; (also) of, relating to, or arising from gender, orientation with regard to sex, or the social and cultural relations between the sexes”[2] with the suffix ity- expressing the state or the condition[3].

The Oxford Dictionary also defines sexuality as, “A person’s sexual identity in relation to the gender to which he or she is typically attracted; the fact of being heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual; sexual orientation.”[4]

Sexuality is often explored in young adult literature because as one starts to mature they begin to become aware of their sexuality and start to explore the possibilities.

Issues Connected to Sexuality in Teen Literature

  • Lack of Negative Consequences: Sex and sexuality is a hugely important topic in YA books, and very rarely does a YA novel come that doesn’t mention sex in any way. However, not all discussions of sex are created equal; in one study of 40 YA novels, researcher found that although 100% of the novels discussed or portrayed sex in some way, negative consequences from sexual intercourse were rare, safe sex was never mentioned, and there were no physical negative reactions from sex, only emotional ones[5]. Most heterosexual literature tends to focus on the positive aspects of sex and sexuality, while those depicting the negative aspects are often sensationalized and overly dramatic. Although some of the depictions of YA sexuality may not be positive, the fact remains that exploring heterosexuality in some way or another is a theme discussed in a large chunk of YA literature.
  • LGBTQ+: As homosexuality and gay rights have come to both the political and social forefront, current trends have been calling for a larger representation of LGBTQ main characters in YA literature. This attitude can also been seen in the acceptance of sexuality as a inborn trait, something unchangeable about a person’s identity, instead of something that a person chose to be. The Urban Dictionary has quite a strong standpoint on the subject, stating that “some people think that if you are anything except heterosexual then you are abnormal or have a disease, but this is not so, people should except you for your sexuality whether that be heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. the people who dont accept homosexual, bisexul or transgendered people are just afraid of change”[6]. This quote portrays an attitude of not only being accepting of different sexualities, but aggressively accepting; to reject someone’s sexuality is to reject the modern way of thinking. However, this acceptant attitude does not come without complications; books dealing with homosexuality often discuss homophobia and prejudice, highlighting the problems with minority sexualities. Some authors feel they need to create purposefully homophobic characters in order to present a realistic situation [7]. In the novel If You Could Be Mine, two teenage girls in Iran struggle with their love for each other in a society where their sexuality is illegal. The two girls do come across affirming characters in their stories, but the protagonist must eventually accept the fact that as a woman herself, she cannot be with the woman she loves in the way she wants to. This novel, showing one of the more extreme examples of homophobia, falls into a much larger category of homosexual characters needing to assert their sexuality not only to themselves but to the society around them. In this way, LGBTQ characters seem to have a much bigger task in exploring issues with their sexuality; not only must their explore their personal sexuality, but they must find a space for themselves in a society that can be hostile and unwelcoming.
  • Sexual Abuse: The very basis of this subject is rooted in sexuality. The OED defines this type of abuse as, “ To inflict a sexual act regarded as illicit or unnatural (such as fornication, incest, sodomy, etc.) on (a person); to assault (esp. a woman or child) sexually; to violate, rape.”[8] This topic is used in several different ways in YA literature. In some books sexual abuse may have already occurred and the character is dealing with the aftermath (ex. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson). In other books the character may currently be being sexually assaulted (ex. Live Through This by Mindi Scott). Within YA lit the attacker varies; it may be a parent, partner, stranger, relative, teacher or other person in the character’s life. This topic intersect with sexuality in ways beyond the nature of the attack. The sexuality of the victim because of the attack is often a way in which sexuality reoccurs in books with this subject.
  • Physical Appearance: One’s appearance is often a factor in the sexuality of an individual. Beth Younger says that “Analysis of Young Adult literature spanning 1975-1999 reveals an imbedded link between body image, weight, and sexuality”[8]. This manifests itself in YA literature in a variety of ways. A need to be more sexually appealing may drive characters to alter their appearance in positive and negative ways. Beth Younger even proposes that appearance may also affect the way in which readers and authors perceive different characters. She says that thin women are seen as powerful and heavy women are “sexually passive and irresponsible”. The link between sexuality and personal appearance is also seen in books like The Amazing Life of Birds by Gary Paulsen where a young boy feels that girls like him less because of his acne.
  • Repercussions: The repercussions of sexuality are evident in YA lit. These repercussions are connected with many aspects of human sexuality. One of them is the physical repercussions of being sexually mature. Duane in The Amazing Life of Birds faces this repercussion of puberty when he sees female body parts all around. Other repercussions of sexuality come from acting on ones sexuality. In Angela Johnson’s The First Part Last Bobby deals with the challenges of fatherhood as a repercussion of having sex with his girlfriend. Some other repercussions for sexuality that are discussed in YA novels include: Sexually Transmitted Diseases, family conflict (parents finding out about teenagers having sex, etc.), emotions, friendship drama.

Books dealing with Sexuality

  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan* (sexuality, friendship, coming out, love)
  • If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan* (homosexuality, homophobic societies, gender and transgenderism)
  • Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan (transgenderism, gender presentation, gender roles, homosexuality)
  • Keeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters
  • Forever by Judy Blume
  • The Amazing Life of Birds by Gary Paulson* (puberty, emerging sexuality, navigating social situations)
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson* (rape, rape culture, sexuality, mental health)
  • The First Part Last by Angela Johnson*
  • How to Be Popular by Meg Cabot

(* = text used in creating this post)

Questions for Further Research

  • How do gender stereotypes relate to one’s sexuality? (perhaps use a transgender ya books to further explore this)
  • In what way are teens sexualized by society and themselves? (A look into more middle-grade books and how infatuation and crushes turn into more and at what age. What creates this change and how it affects the individual)
  • What are the portrays of LGBTQ characters like in YA lit? Is their sexuality typically their single defining characteristic?
  • Does the influence of religion on sexuality and sexual behavior typically appear in YA literature?
  1. Jump up “Sexuality.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: 2015.
  2. Jump up “Sexual” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: 2015
  3. Jump up “-ity, suffix.”Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford 2015
  4. Jump up “Sexuality.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: 2015
  5. Jump up Callister, Mark, et al. “A Content Analysis Of The Prevalence And Portrayal Of Sexual Activity In Adolescent Literature.” Journal Of Sex Research 49.5 (2012): 477-486. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 May 2015.
  6. Jump up
  7. Jump up Wickens, Corrine M. “Codes, Silences, And Homophobia: Challenging Normative Assumptions About Gender And Sexuality In Contemporary LGBTQ Young Adult Literature.” Children’s Literature In Education 42.2 (2011): 148-164. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 May 2015.
  8. Jump up to:8.0 8.1], additional text.