And I always have to sit back and go, "What...?"
My parents never censored what I read. Ever. They might have been keeping an eye on what I purchased with my allowance, but I was never told that I couldn't buy a book or check one out of the library. I'm not sure to what degree they were aware of the books that I was reading in the bookstore (Borders had the most comfortable chairs), because when we arrived they would just turn me loose and I would wander off to wherever suited me. I ended up in the "Adult" fiction section when I was probably eleven or twelve, because I'm a voracious reader and had a high reading level for my age, and "Young Adult" wasn't a category that really existed then. I read whatever I wanted. All the time. I'm pretty sure I read my first sex scene when I was in...hm...it had to be sixth grade, I think? It was in a Sweet Valley U book that had a yellow cover; looking at the series now, I can't remember exactly which yellow-covered book it was, but one of the characters owned (I am fairly sure) an ice-blue pair of pants and had sex with a guy who turned out to be gay, but had sex with her anyway so she could get passed around with his friends, or something like that. Crazy, right?
I think I was thirteen, on a road trip to Michigan, when I got my first real "sex book." It was my first historical romance, and my dad actually got it for me. We stopped at one of the "state welcome centers" that appear out of nowhere as soon as you cross state lines. I stayed in the RV and he went in, and apparently they were giving away used books inside, because he came back with a copy of this book called Hopelessly Compromised. It's not like he didn't know what he was picking up. This book's cover practically screamed "Sex scenes within!" But he picked it up anyway and gave it to me because he knew I loved to read.
In the years since, I've developed a voracious appetite for historical romances and I've re-read that battered copy of Hopelessly Compromised several times. It's pretty good; there's one scene of questionable consent at the end, but I distinctly remember that even when I read that for the first time, I thought, "Hey, that's not so cool." What I can't remember is if the book acknowledges it or not.
So when parents jump to lead their precious teenagers away from books with--gasp!--sex in them, I'm always left scratching my head a bit. One particular book that came up recently was S. J. Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses, which is published by Bloomsbury Children's and is marketed to the Young Adult audience. One person who commented was aghast that the book, which features a pretty explicit sex scene, was shelved among the children's books. This is, by the way, typically where "Young Adult" books are shelved when there's not a dedicated "Young Adult" section. This person was shocked that the library had even purchased the book for that section, though S. J. Maas is a wildly popular YA author who writes (mostly) strong female characters who build powerful relationships with the people around them while facing seemingly insurmountable odds. I have issues with some of her books, but the inclusion of sex scenes isn't one of them. Why? Well, the characters are adults. They are in committed relationships, having consensual sex that both parties enjoy. What's wrong with that? How is that a bad thing to have your children read about? Is having them look up porn on the internet better somehow? (No. It's not. Porn, unlike sex scenes in most modern books, is extremely denigrating to women and does nothing to build up a healthy image of sex.) I'm not saying that you should be handing them out to your eight-year-old (who probably wouldn't get it, anyway) but what's wrong with your teenager reading them?
"They're my children," you might say, "and I can raise them as I wish." Fair enough. That's your prerogative. But to that, I have to ask... What favor do you think you're doing to them? Do you think that you're preventing them from becoming crazed sexual deviants at a young age? Books don't do that to people, just like video games don't. I read my first sex scene in fifth grade but I was well into college before I had a relationship that was anywhere near sexy. And kids are pretty good at self-censoring if they think they're not up to something; I remember a particularly graphic torture scene in a book that I paged ahead through because I was definitely not up to it at that point in my life. Going back to the book a few years later, it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd thought, but at the time I knew I wasn't up for it and so I passed it over. Do you not trust your children to make those decisions for themselves? Is it against your religion for unwed people to have sex? That's fair, but if so, does your child share your faith and that particular opinion? And if the answer to that is yes, then perhaps consider why your child is still interested in the book. Maybe it's that there's something else there that it offers. And there's always the consideration that, even if that is the position of your family, it's not the position of everyone, and people your child encounters in life are going to be having sex about marriage, and are, at some point, probably going to talk about it. Or is it that you don't want them reading something which might bring up questions that make you uncomfortable, and that you'd rather not discuss? Because that's not doing anyone a service. Open and honest discourse in a manner respectful to all involved parties is always the better answer.
I had a friend once whose parents refused to let her read the Harry Potter books because witchraft!!!! She didn't adjust well when she left home, and even when we were still in high school together she was very out of the loop with what everyone else was doing because, even though we weren't doing anything bad (seriously; no drinking, no drugs, no sex) her parents wouldn't let her be exposed to anything even slightly controversial. Which doesn't leave a lot to talk about for teenagers, now does it? And I've seen it, time and time again, with other kids. I work in higher education, and those kids who've never been allowed to make their own decisions are the ones that are left flailing around, helpless, or plunging headfirst into what's real trouble as soon as they're on their own, because their parents never let them figure things out for themselves. Things like what their limits are, how to handle negative situations...you know, all the stuff that we can learn lessons in books from.
I think it comes back to this preconception that sex is dirty, and that women who enjoy it are particularly nasty. (Such a nasty woman.) Guys. It's not true. I know, I know. I'm preaching to the choir. If you're reading this, we're probably (at least mostly) on the same page already. But it baffles me, and continues to do so every time. "I would never let my children read that." Why? Is it somehow bad for them? And even if it is, do you let them drink soda? Eat candy? Sit around and play video games instead of going outside? That's all bad for them, and arguably more so than a book with a sex scene.
It boggles my mind that we are in the year 2016, almost 2017, and yet I still see this constant refrain of "I would never let my children read that." Children are, believe it or not, people too, and letting them read what their interests take them to (which isn't, really, the sex; the books are not about sex, they just have sex in them) and letting them know that, if they have questions or concerns, you're willing to speak with them without judgment is pretty much guaranteed to be a better course of action than banning them from those books. And besides, reading anything, even if it's straight smut, is always better than not reading at all.