In November 2017, my article, The Dark Alleys in Young Adult Fiction, was published on desiringgod.org. I had a mishmash of reactions when it hit social media. It wasn’t until recently that I fully comprehended where all of that negativity was coming from. In my initial excitement (and apprehension) that my article was live, I neglected to fully digest the status that accompanied the facebook post—the status I didn’t write.
It read, “Many parents think any book is better than TV, but the fantasy in some young adult fiction leads our kids to places we would never want them to go.”
Did you catch it? “. . . the fantasy in some . . .” Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I read fantasy, write fantasy, breathe fantasy. In defense of whoever wrote this, I think they were referring to sexual fantasy, and not the fantasy genre. But some people didn’t read it that way. Instead, my article, meant only to discuss the amount of sexual content in YA fiction, was taken by some to be advocating censorship of speculative (sci fi/fantasy) fiction. It’s an unfortunate mistake, but I assure you it was unintentional. In fact, I think engaging with speculative fiction is morally good and God glorifying. (Check out this blog post for clean speculative fiction books and resources. Unsure if your child should be reading sci fi and fantasy? Check out my article on that topic at Speculative Faith.)
There were also many who disagreed that sexual content should be censored at all. I'd like to spend some time unpacking my stance on that more. Even if we don't agree at this end of this post, I hope my stance will at least make a little more sense.
So why advocate censoring sexual content (instead of critical thinking which is my usual MO)? Shouldn’t young adult literature be realistic? Shouldn’t it address those issues that affect teens and preteens the most? Well yes and no. Teens do need help with those things, but sadly, the well intended attempts to help often end up doing exactly the opposite.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of why, I would like to tell three stories that will put this into better perspective.
A few years ago, my husband and I went through foster care training with the intent to adopt a girl who already had her parental rights terminated. With two small children at home, the only limitation we placed on our application was no history of sexually acting out toward younger children. We inquired after every girl under the age of twelve in the state—but not one child met that requirement.
Back in college, a “perfect storm” of sexual confession hit my life. All at once, six girl friends poured their hearts out about their struggle with masturbation and porn addiction. All of them had grown up in loving Christian homes, and had been secretly struggling with a slow-growing addiction from as early as six years old. Years later, at least five more women told me similar stories. These Christian women had been fighting alone, afraid to confess lest they find out that no one else had the same struggles. Sadly, many of them drew their sexual inspiration from literature.
Propelled by the confusion following my article and armed with the stories of my friends, I sought out more women to take a survey on female lust. (Check out the survey results.) I was sure the idea that only men have this struggle was dead wrong, that we isolate ourselves by not discussing it, and that we make true repentance unattainable by misunderstanding how the female brain is wired. Thirty women took the survey. 90% struggled with lust, 80% have at one time in their life been addicted to sexual sin, and more than half of them drew sexual inspiration from literature. (I would like to say now that these findings do not mean that I am advocating censorship of all literature. Please continue to read! I am saying that we should be aware of temptations, address them with wisdom and maturity, and seek to be obedient to Christ in all things.)
Here is a testimony from one woman who took the survey early on before I made it anonymous. (She has given her permission to use this quote.):
“I spent a lot of time at the public library and I came across a series of books.... They were not hard core romance novels. It was very light romance but the seeds of lust were planted. I would fantasize about different interactions with the main character of the books. Nothing sexual. Just innocent at first. But I learned that I could conger up these scenarios in my mind and make believe and that lead to other things as I got older. Once you've seen hard core porn you need something more and more perverse. And the perversion got worse and worse. I needed dirtier and nastier stuff to make me feel what I needed to feel.”
So back to the questions at hand. Why advocate censorship of sexual content in literature specifically? If you read the article on Desiring God’s website, you might recall the quote by Stephen King that says, “A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over her skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold.”
King understands the power of literature better than many readers and authors. Reading a book is not the same kind of experience as watching TV. Although they both tell stories, books will always have a power over the mind and body that TV never will—especially for women. I’m not going to try and convince you that men and women are different, which is unpopular in our culture. Equality and sameness are different things. So without going down that rabbit trail, I will just say that women are emotional creatures. When it comes to sex, we are less likely to seek visual stimulation like men are. We care more to be desired and desirable—and not always in a sexual way.
Look at that King quote again. I believe he’s saying that through modern storytelling methods of showing (not telling) by using internal and external sensations, a reader can feel what the character is feeling. They can taste, hear, smell, see what the protagonist is experiencing. You will never have the same kind of reaction when you watch a film. It will never take you as deep, or make you fall in love as hard as a book will. This is a wonderful thing! Unless the author uses this power irresponsibly, or worse yet, uses it against the reader in order to wreak havoc on their heart (perhaps for the sake of creating that money making, late night, can’t put it down, full of tension, page turner).
Trust is earned. It’s not given freely. When I read, I’m putting my very heart into the hands of a stranger. And yet I continue to do it. But it is a trial run. If that author proves not to be trustworthy, I might not recommend their book to others. Or if I feel their story is leading me to sin, I will put it down and not finish the story at all.
So how can I as a writer help teens think through these pressing issues if I don’t talk about them? Well that’s just it, I never said writers shouldn’t write about sex or romance. It’s the how that’s key here.
Writers, this is for you!
Helping teens figure out biblical ways of dealing with sexual feelings is good and necessary. But since our culture and our teens are bombarded by sex on every side, it's easier than ever to fall into porn addictions and habitual masturbation. Something as simple as using internal and external sensations in an effort to show rather than tell (as is expected for modern commercial fiction) can lead to lust and the reader flushing hot and cold right along with the protagonist.
In my writing, I show rather than tell 95% of the time. Yet, there are moments when being explicit in that way will not lead the reader in a deeper understanding of what to do with the feelings, but simply exaggerate the temptation. I know it’s a fiction writer sin to advocate telling over showing, but a tiny percentage of telling is what’s going to lead a teen closer to Christ. Showing in those moments of sexual tension creates in them a thirst for more titillating fiction that may not care for their hearts nearly as well as you do. And that is the real goal here: to care for their hearts with every scene, sentence, and word that is written.
Cover art above was designed by JT Wynn from Stage and Story!