Let’s Talk About…Virginity in YA Fiction

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately stewing privately over thinking about various issues/trends in YA books I’ve read, and I want to start discussing them here on the blog. I’ve been whining so much in the past few weeks about how I want more content besides reviews and memes, so…here we go. I hope to hear your thoughts on these topics as well!

One thing I’ve noticed a lot of in YA fiction is the reliance on virginity as a key plot point. Whether virginity helps keep the population under control, or helps the heroine fulfill her destiny, there seem to be more than a few instances where remaining a virgin becomes critical to the novel’s positive outcomes. Lately I feel as if I, as a YA reader, am getting clubbed over the head with the message “Virgin good, slut bad!”

There are a variety of techniques used to keep heroines virgins in books. There’s the “I don’t want to hurt you” technique. This is epitomized by Bella and Edward, where he couldn’t possibly have sex with her because he wouldn’t be able to control himself and might accidentally damage internal organs or something. This is most often seen in paranormal romances where sex is denied because the vampire/werewolf/whathaveyou is FAR too dangerous and therefore they can’t possibly be together. Because sex makes you lose control and that is BAD.

There’s the “if you lose your virginity you fail to fulfill your destiny” technique. The one that most readily comes to mind is Rampant, where Astrid can only be a powerful unicorn huntress if she abstains from sex. Forever. Girls can’t possibly juggle a job AND a sex life, right? In order to be 100% focused on their futures, they must deny themselves love and the natural expression of it and just be happy killing unicorns.

Then there’s the “doomsday” scenario. This is where the girl can’t have sex because Bad Things will happen to her or the people she loves. I spotted this one in The Mephisto Covenant, where having sex meant that Sasha would turn into a homing beacon for the villain and he would instantly be able to track her and kill her. Again, sex = bad.

Bad, bad, bad.

Now, I’m not saying I want to see a bunch of books about irresponsibly promiscuous teenagers. I don’t want to read a book about irresponsible promiscuity, period. I would, however, like to see books where young women make informed choices that reflect what is best for them and their lives. If a girl wants to have sex, and has the maturity and knowledge to do so safely, why not have a book explore that decision?

I’m sure there are books out there that deal with this topic in meaningful ways. I don’t doubt that there are a lot of girls getting good information about sex from books that deal with it in a pointed fashion. What bothers me is the sense that a lot of these messages about the value of virginity are undercurrents that slip past the radar. If you read enough books about sweet, heroic virgins that are better people because they have chosen not to have sex, you start to think that’s the only right choice. It devalues the many teen girls that have chosen not to remain virgins. And if you follow teen sex statistics at all, you’ll know that’s a very high number.

I’m tired of reading books where the protagonist must remain a virgin or bad consequences follow. I’m tired of our culture’s insistence that virginity is something precious to young women. More than anything, I’m tired of these characters’ decisions being taken from their control and passed along to someone else. Whether it’s Edward sticking to his dated chivalrous guns, or an inherited vocation dictating their choice, or even the threat of certain death, young heroines are not being given the power to make their own decisions when it comes to whether they are ready to have sex. Instead, the decision is handed to them by external circumstances, and that’s not something I like to see.

Have you noticed other ways in which virginity is celebrated in YA fiction? Do you think I’m way off base? Sound off in the comments, and let’s get a discussion going.

16 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About…Virginity in YA Fiction

  1. Now that you mention it, I remember in the SWEEP books, we find out if she has sex with her boyfriend, it will complete an evil spell that will keep her bound to him. and I definitely notice that YA characters don't seem to lose it until they're over 18.

  2. I'm definitely not a fan of the remain-a-virgin-OR-DIE! story lines. It's just not realistic, and I don't really think it speaks to the majority of teens. I just read Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn't Have) by Sarah Mlynowski, and the author was very open about birth control options and consequences of unprotected sex. I didn't come off as a PSA or like she was promoting sex either.Great post, Logan!PS – Maybe killing unicorns would be the only way to get rid of all that…tension. lol

  3. Book with a nuanced examination of virginity: Terra Elan McVoy's PURE. A group of girlfriends take an abstinence pledge in middle school, and in high school one breaks it and another begins to seriously question the pledge (while the other two are pretty hard core about it). I liked it because it doesn't say either side is better than the other, but encourages carefully thinking about choices in sexual activity and not doing more before they're ready, which I think everyone can champion.(Spoilers for Rampant and a minor one for Ascendant follow!)Gonna have to argue with you on Rampant being about the girls having to deny sex entirely. I think it's very clear all of the characters think it's an absolutely bull shit requirement – and Astrid's cousin absolutely proves that sex doesn't mean you have to give up fighting the good fight. She juggles her position as the leader of the hunters as well as a burgeoning love life. Astrid dates in both Rampant and Ascendant and is still one of the best unicorn hunters around. And in Ascendant we get a pair of lesbian unicorn hunters – not sure if their relationship is at all sexual yet, and if that would "count" to the unicorns, but they certainly have a love life and a job.So I was actually quite happy with how Rampant addresses the sex/virginity issue. It's something you have to address if you're writing about unicorns – virginity is an important part of the lore – and it stays true to that aspect of the mythos while the 21st century characters acknowledge it's bullshit.

  4. I don't like the idea of focusing on the intact hymen over looking at the intimacy of the sexual act. Virginity, in many of these books, is all about the body, when the emotional consequences for BOTH boys and girls are so much more important. The experience, whether for the first time or the thousandth time, creates bonds between men and women. That's why cheating is so devastating.

  5. I have also been thinking about that a lot. I just read the dystopian ya Dark Parties, have you read it? Since the population is shrinking, the government is counting on teen idiocy to repopulate-thus, sex is beyond encouraged for teenagers in media, etc. So the rebel cause decided to not have sex as an act of denying the government's control over them…blah blah. It's interesting, but I don't know if I love the message. These kids are not having sex (doing everything but) just to spite "the man". Also, not exactly the rule to live by but at least they are showing that hormone-crazed teens can decide not to, which is not always represented in ya lit.I just read a great ARC called Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler about a really interesting relationship. The female lead, Min, has a really good view of sex, I think. Handler really handles the issue well, and I highly, highly recommend it (it's his debut ya novel). I just blogged on it actually 🙂

  6. I'm not such a big YA reader, but considering the teen sex statistics, I'd say that teen sex is probably not accurately portrayed in YA fiction (the Shade series by Jeri Smith-Ready might come close, though). I wish we could get a teen's perspective on this and if they find it as absurd as we do."I'm tired of our culture's insistence that virginity is something precious to young women." — There seems to be no in between. You're either virginal or a slut. Though I suspect this general idea is true of adult women as well.

  7. Great topic! I need to start some discussions on my blog as well. I have only read one of the books that you mentioned, Twilight, and I remember the reason that Edward did not have sex with Bella while they were dating is because he wanted to wait until they were married. That was his choice and just as we should respect the girlâ??s decisions on sex, we should respect the boyâ??s as well. Whether or not Edward wanting to wait is antiquated, it was his decision and I was annoyed that Bella spent so much time and energy trying to manipulate, bargain and negotiate Edwardâ??s no into a yes. All the books you mentioned are all fantasy novels and not sure how much realism you should expect with any of them. While I donâ??t read a ton of contemporary novels, I believe they have a more â??realisticâ?? take on teenage sex. Iâ??m also not sure why you believe that books featuring virginal main characters devalues girls who have chosen to have sex. Would it work the other way, that books featuring girls who are having sex devalues virgins? On a final note, I tend to avoid YA books that use sex (having it VS. not having it) as a main plot point. I think itâ??s an easy/lazy way to build up tension and I need more than that to hold my interest. I will be sure to stay away from the ones you mentioned. Keep the good discussions coming!NCTruly Bookish

    • I think the main problem is the idea of “you must remain virginal or else (insert terrible thing here) will happen.” It’s a form of slut-shaming, and slut-shaming is a huge issue (and it promotes the virgin-whore dichotomy). Girls having sex in YA literature doesn’t devalue virgins at all, it’s more of a “they had sex, and that’s okay”. Of course, sex is a topic that needs to be handled carefully, because there are important issues surrounding it and it can be a risky thing. That doesn’t mean that YA lit should say it’s “bad”, or even imply that it’s “bad”. And I’ve noticed that a lot of YA lit does so.

      Not all YA lit does, of course. I’m fairly certain that Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet has sex at least once over the course of the books, and it’s handled spectacularly. It happens between two individuals who have romantic feelings towards one another and it isn’t treated as a big deal. It’s quite nice and it isn’t meant to be any kind of “tension” or “plot point” (well, besides it being part of a romantic sub-plot). That’s the kind of representation of sex that should be in YA lit, even if it didn’t really touch on many of the aspects of having safe sex or anything like that.

      As for Twilight, I always got the impression that Edward was ‘good’ for ‘protecting Bella’s virtue’. It negated Bella as a sexual being because she was obviously ‘wrong’. (For the record, it’s the only book out of the ones mentioned that I’ve read as well, and my interpretation isn’t the only one).

  8. Blahahaa! "might accidentally damage internal organs"Wouldn't want to do that because then she might not be able to get pregnant… oh wait.I thinks some of the plot points for virginity in YA are more acceptable to me than when I see them in adult fiction. I just finished a book that center around a grown woman's virginity and I can't tell you how freaking aggravating it was to read. And this particular woman was made to be the epitome of purity, so much so that whenever sex was discussed there was no talking about sex in a vulgar way. "He would not f*uk her, never that. Only make love to her like she deserved"You can imagine the massive eye roll sprains I acquired. What was worse was after an attack in which she was nearly raped and had to be saved by her hero, she is finally ready to get it on with the dude, but he has to stop her and remind her that she is doing it for the wrong reasons! WTF! Gah! I could rant about this for hours, and my rants make no sense so I should stop. Interesting topic, Logan.

  9. Awesome topics. I think it just depends on how you look at it. For example, in Twilight, it seemed like Edward didn't want to have sex with Bella because he was an old-fashioned dude. I mean, it fit his character. He looks young but he's old. I always thought authors hinged things on virginity because there is nothing else available. Virginity is the kind of like pregnancy. Either you are or you are not. In many of the books you mentioned they needed something clear cut. I guess authors could have switched it and said you have to have sex to save/conquer/do whatever but that isn't very hard. So that's not a real problem or anything.Maybe they could have used hair instead. You can't cut your hair? I don't think it has such a significance. I think this would be a bigger issue in contemporary YA because it attempts to project real life.

  10. Admittedly, I don't read very much (see: barely any) YA fiction any more; I sort of peaked with that genre in middle school. But as an awkward, bookish adolescent reading YA, it was actually often times comforting to see sex filed away in exchange for magical powers, or becoming a knight, or any of the examples given above. (With the giant exception of Twilight.) Teenagers, especially teenage girls, are hugely over-sexualized in the media, especially television, and seeing heroines in books abstain assured me that I did not have to make irresponsible choices or act before I was ready, to feel good and confident about myself.Just the other side, there. Interestingly, Tamora Pierce worked sexual relationships into her plots quite often–and these were girls living in a man's world. Then again, they also had magical birth control, so…

  11. @Creepy Query Girl – Yep, it's just a trend that I noticed in the last few months. It was worth mentioning anyway. :)@Jess – Thanks for the rec! I'll check it out. Yes, it's the "or die!" part that drives me nuts. Why must the consequences be so dire?@Angela – You're right about Rampant, and I confess that I have limited knowledge about unicorn lore so that explains my unfamiliarity with the virgin angle. I agree that the characters don't like the requirement, which gives it more nuance in discussing the topic, but I still was annoyed that it was this either-or dichotomy of virgin or lose your birthright. But I will absolutely give you that this one takes a more in-depth look than most.@DebraZ – I agree! I hadn't thought about it in those terms, but yes, the mere fact that virginity is essentially narrowed to the physical over the emotional is an important distinction. I would love to see a book where it was the emotional consequences that made the difference in the character's life or plot instead of just the reliance on physically losing their virginity. Great point.@Bethany Grace – Yes! I almost mentioned that one in this post! Dystopians often have this same struggle where sex is only considered with regard to its pregnancy implications, so teens make the choice to have sex or not have sex based solely on external circumstances such as population control or growth. Thanks for bringing it up!@Amanda – Exactly. And where is the emphasis on virginity for men? Why are women responsible for maintaining purity while men are not?@Truly Bookish – Absolutely, Edward's choice to not have sex also revolved around his wish to be married and that should be respected. I thought about getting into this in the post but it was getting too long. What bummed me out was that Edward knew how Bella felt about marriage, and used her wish to be physically intimate with him to try and goad her into marriage. There was also no real negotiation or other attempts to be intimate because of the whole "I will hurt you" thing, and it all just seemed like a front to pressure Bella into teen marriage.As for devaluing girls, I only mean that virginity in these books is seen as better than having sex, because of all the negative consequences. If my subconcious is told over and over that being a virgin is better than being a girl who chooses to have sex, then it makes that choice seem less valid than choosing to stay a virgin. I also definitely agree that the not having sex thing is a lazy device for tension building!@Missie – Oh no. That does not sound good. I absolutely despise it when male characters start lecturing women or dictating their choices for them (i.e. Bella and Edward).@Alexis – Interesting point! I think the clear cut line is probably a big reason it becomes a focal point. Hadn't thought about it that way, so thanks for sharing!@Alyson – Also an excellent point. I agree that the sexualization of young girls is WILDLY out of control in mainstream media, so I suppose it is refreshing to have books be a counterpoint to that. Awesome insight!

  12. Oh boy…there's a deflowering moment in TEMPEST. Did I add to your pile of complaints? :)But i hear what you are sayin…it's presented as very one-dimensional in YA sometimes and should be full of gray area. Not just bad or good…but also, just life. Where's Judy Blume when we need her…she'd know just want to add to this discussion.

  13. What bothers me are the authors that are afraid to go there. They have 11th graders lying on a couch kissing for hours alone in a house and all they do is kiss. I've never met that 11th grade boy. Yeah, he could transform into a wolf, but he did have control over it. Who believes that story?And that series by a certain author! Six books. Six books before they could have sex and that seemed to be the plot of every book was reversing the spell so they could have sex. Was that so the female MC could think about it through six books and make sure that's what she wanted? And again, if they had sex, she'd kill him.I read an interesting book called Boy vs. Girl about a Muslim brother and sister. The brother joined (kinda) a gang and the guys (it was implied) had sex with some non Muslim girls in the neighborhood. But when they talked about who they would marry, they said no way would they marry the girls they'd been with, they would only marry Muslim girls b/c they hadn't been with anyone. It shows that old double standard, the guys want to have sex, even in fiction, but want a virgin when they get married. This is a great discussion!Heather

  14. I've noticed this as well. I've always just assumed it was because the author was particularly religious or else publishers don't want to stir up the pot too much among particularly religious people and thus only choose to publish such books… but I realize it's incredibly unfair to automatically make this assumption. Still, I wonder why this trend in YA is the way it is. It's odd because I don't feel it's the case for TV shows geared towards teens, for example. There seems to be lots of sex to be had on teen shows.I'm tired of it too. And I'm right there with you about the most disturbing part of it all being that it's often not the protag's choice to be a virgin; it's under someone else's or something else's control.

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