Morals and values in YA lit, or Janette should really get more sleep before she opens her mouth

A couple of weeks ago, my friend (and super author) Shannon Hale asked for my opinion on a blog she was doing on morals and values in young adult books. Shannon, like a lot of authors, says she doesn’t think about morals or values as she writes. She just tells the story and lets people draw their own conclusions about it.

I typed out my opinion and sent it to her–although I wrote the email during a long stint of not-getting-much-sleep, and on that particular night I was up for 28 hours straight. The result is that my answer came off much harsher than I intended and it sort of sounded like I’m telling a lot of authors that they’re going straight to h*ll. With no stops along the way.

Yeah. Sorry about that to all of you authors I may have offended and will subsequently end up sitting next to at upcoming book conferences.

You can see the whole discussion over at:

But basically my quote was something along the lines of: It’s irresponsible for YA authors to write about teen characters having sex when they make it seem like no bad consequences will happen. It’s tantamount to encouraging fourteen-year-olds to throw their lives away, and you’re all going to h*ll!!

Okay, maybe that wasn’t the exact quote, because I went on for several paragraphs, however you get the idea.

But here’s why it’s such an issue for me. About nine years ago while I was doing research for my book, What the Doctor Ordered, I had a scene where my doctor character counseled a pregnant teen. He told her she needed to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases, so I wanted him to throw out some statistics about STDs. I went on the internet to research STDs but I couldn’t believe the numbers. They were too high. Fifty percent of people have the HPV virus that causes genital warts and several kinds of cancer? One in six people have herpes? Surely not. More people would be talking about STDs if they were that big of a problem.

I called two STD hotlines and both times was told that 80% of sexually active people older than 14 years-old have some kind of STD. I still didn’t believe it so I called my gynecologist and asked him. He confirmed the numbers.

I was completely shocked. I still am. It’s a huge elephant in the room that nobody is mentioning.

Here’s another cheery statistic for you. I have a friend who works for a drug company and he’s traveled to Africa several times to work with doctors on their HIV medicine. According to him, in more than one country, one out of every five people are infected with HIV. One out of five! Think of the people who live on your street or the kids in your children’s school. Can you imagine if one out of every five of them had an incurable deadly disease?

Are we here in the USA smarter? Are we safer? Not according to one website I saw that said 50% of teens who have sex don’t use condoms.

And here are a few more facts kids should know before they make life changing decisions: Several STDs are incurable, many are painful, some aren’t prevented by using condoms, and more than one can kill you.

According to The Center for Disease Control approximately 19 million new STDs occur each year— almost half of them among young people 15 to 24 years of age.

The most reported diseases in the country every year are Chlamydia and Gonorrhea. Women/girls are particularly at risk because women don’t get symptoms from these diseases but both can result in infertility if left untreated.

As an added bonus, Gonorrhea—which has the highest reported rates of infection among teenagers and young adults—can cause pelvic inflammatory disease. About one million women in the United States develop PID each year. Look forward to abdominal pain, fever, and internal pus-filled “pockets” that are hard to cure and long-lasting.

Not fun enough? If you get syphilis, which can also go for years without detection, it can damage your internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. Signs and symptoms of the late stage of syphilis include difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, dementia, and death.

Well that’s certainly worth contracting if the guy is dreamy enough.

I could go on, but I won’t. If you’re interested in more fun facts, you can go to the CDC website at:

In truth, I don’t think my fellow authors realize what a serious and devastating problem all of this is. I think they would be more hesitant to put sex scenes in their YA books if they did. Of course, I’ve done my part to solve the problem. I told all of the authors that read Shannon Hale’s blog that they’re going to h*ll.

I’m just really caring and tactful that way.


Morals and values in YA lit, or Janette should really get more sleep before she opens her mouth — 41 Comments

  1. Janette, you make me laugh! (because you kept writing h*ll) ha ha.

    But seriously, those statistics are scary and horrible! The sexy side of sex, huh? Wow. Makes me glad I was a one guy girl. (Aka my hubby)

  2. Amazing post, Jeanette. As a YA author, I too am hesitant with the sex scenes. Partly because I’m old fashioned, and partly because one book is not enough time (unless it’s 800+ pages) to create a relationship that’s stable enough and trusting enough to have such a relationship. (If you notice, S. Meyers waited till the fourth book–and after they were married–before sex happened.)

    I think the last YA book I read where there was sex was Kristin Cashore’s Fire. The main character, Fire, is 17 and has been having relations with her guy friend since she was 15. The only thing she uses is herbs to prevent pregnancy AND this guy is a bit of a Lothario, having a different chambermaid every other week.

    I saw one Goodreads review where the reviewer thought this was irresponsible of Cashore. And was it? As an adult reading it, I of course know better and was fine with this characterization. But as a twelve-year-old who’s reading above her skillset and comes across this sort of casual relationship? Hmmm… I don’t know how this would affect my worldview of sex and personal relationships.

    And the reason I’m old-fashioned about sex? It comes from my fifth and sixth grade obsession with Harlequins. Reading about all those secret babies and broken love affairs made me realize the emotional side of sex, and it turned me off from having sex too soon since I didn’t think I was emotionally ready.

    So, yeah, irresponsible sex scenes in YA is a question mark. But teens reading Harlequins to see the emotional consequences of sex? I’m TOTALLY for that. :o)

    -Susan Colebank

  3. I have to say I agree with you. In media, not just books, sex seems to be portrayed as something fun and casual with none of the reality. I know that people know the difference between reality and something they’ve read or seen, but at the same time, media affects our thoughts whether we admit it or not.

    As writers, we of all people ought to recognize how powerful words are. I know that everyone’s morals and standards are different, but I think that’s all the more reason for writers to mean what they type. Obviously, if the an author puts something in her book, she’s okay with it. But I wonder if she really meant it, if that makes sense.

  4. Thanks for voicing your opinion about this. I read all the views over at Shannon Hale’s site. I admit I was a little disheartened that so many of these young adult authors didn’t really seem to care about how their books may affect children and teenagers.
    I think it is wrong to assume that every kid will be able to intuitively sort out issues they read in books like sex, especially if what is portrayed is not realistic. I think teenagers are still impressionable and don’t always control their inhibitions so well. I do think it is unwise to “normalize” risky behaviors without showing consequences.
    And what is so wrong about having morals and values in books anyway?

  5. Thanks for saying that and for avoiding these types of scenes in your book. It is getting harder and harder for me as an adult to find books to read. I don’t even want to think about what my kids will be reading!

  6. Hmm. I care about how my books affect teens, would never have a scene in a book (for teens or adults) where casual sex was done without proper protection unless I meant for that in itself to have ramifications later on, but … I also get concerned when every single sex scene _does_ have horrible consequences.

    Because, well, one day we all become adults. And as adults, we continue having sex. And if all through our books, every single time a teen has sex horrible things happen to them (even though, with protection, those STD numbers all go down), then we’re giving another dangerous message: that sex is entirely Bad, that horrible things will always come of it, and that even when it’s not engaged in for dysfunctional reasons, there can never be any joy in it.

    And I think that’s as dangerous a message as the message that casual, unprotected sex doesn’t have any consequences.

    So I guess I (respectfully) disagree on the writing of sex without horrible consequences being inherently irresponsible, though of course like anything else it can be irresponsibly done.

  7. THANK YOU for your strong advocacy on this issue! There are so many teen books out there that are filled with trash, it both shocks and saddens me. One of the reasons I love and recommend your books is because they are wholesome and the characters always learn valuable lessons.

  8. Janni, you do have a valid point. I don’t think anyone should portray sex as something that is evil or bad. I think it should be portrayed as something so special, it should be saved for the right time–which is a committed, long-term, monogamous relationship. Marriage fits that bill quite nicely.

    And of course that doesn’t mean that people don’t make mistakes. The reason my main character, Alexia, has never known her father in My Double Life, is that her parents basically had a one night stand.

    But one of the themes of the book is that choices do matter and have consequences.

  9. Janette, first, I don’t think your comment was too harsh! I think it’s silly for an author to think their books are moral-less even if they intend them to be. That in and of itself is a commentary on morals! I thought your comment was refreshing actually.

    I think yes, sometimes an author writes about experiences and morals that may not be thier own and that is fine! But I think it’s silly to think they don’t use morals in their writing.

    And yes, those statistics are CRAZY! It is certainly time for more of this in books, cause there is certainly a lot of sex.

  10. Well. With that blog, my internet filter is calling it “adult/mature”–maybe that’s the problem and teens consider STD’s “adult/mature” when really it’s about THEM.

    The GOOD thing is that my 7th grader had an entire unit on STD’s in Health class, and she is pretty freaked out. In fact, she had to have a parent review and sign. It freaked me out and I read about STD’s I’d never even heard of! How’d you like to be the technical writer on the STD brochures? Freaky.

    Great post!

  11. This is a great post. I remember learning about STD’s in school but it wasn’t till I was forced to teach a sex-ed course to 8th graders that I saw actual statistics and it was/is horrifying!
    Ever since then I have found it very difficult to read a sex scene in a book without getting the heeby geebies. I find myself shouting things like “But what about a condom???” or “But you just met him last week. You don’t know where he’s been!!!”
    But then again, I’m an adult and I actually try to make responsible decisions. Maybe kids don’t want that. I don’t know.
    By the way, My Fair Godmother is a wonderful book. Just perfect.

  12. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for this post! It is getting more and more difficult to filter the books my girls are reading—many of which are promoted by their school library. I am grateful for both your clean teen reads (okay, I like them too, but I buy them on the premise that they’re for my girls) and your tactless caring.

  13. Janette, I am actually quite glad that you are brave enough to speak your standards. I think authors need to take responsibility of what messages they are sending to their readers. Especially, those who write for a younger market.

  14. Hey, I’m a reader of Shannon’s blog, and I didn’t think your comments were out of line at all. I agreed. Especially with the part where you said “I don’t think YA authors can just wash their hands of that responsibility and pretend that what they write doesn’t have an influence on their readers.” Too many authors want to say, “I want to write whatever I want, and it’s not my fault if it influences people in some negative way.” Very irresponsible.

  15. I wasn’t even thinking about STDs and I hate when sex scenes are in YA books. I just think writing it is tantamount to encouraging it, and there ARE consequences.
    Thanks for the post even if you weren’t running on much sleep 🙂

  16. Well said. i think the young people out there need to be made aware of the concequences that come with certain choices. I’ve offten thought that books that idealize sex especially in YA are to girls what a pornigraphic magazine is to boys. It gives them unrealistic expectations about sex and can prevent them from developing a healthy relationship when they’re older. Also another scary thought is PID and other STDs can cause infertility. Maybe its not a big deal to young girls now but it will be to most of them later.

  17. Sorry, I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. You are too cute.

    Shannon understands, I’m sure. And those that don’t, well… everybody loves to hate someone who’ll stand up for what they believe in.

    For my part, I’m on Team Janette. :o)

  18. Power to you, Janette!

    I love reading YA books (even though I’m not in the demographic.. not that it matters), and I am so annoyed every time I come across a sex scene. They never seem to show the consequences of what having sex does in these books. The emotional attachment, the possible diseases, or the possible pregnancies. My boyfriend is a product of a teenage pregnancy, and from hearing about his mom’s story, I can’t take these things lightly.

    Please authors, I know you’re writing about fantasy worlds, but your readers are identifying with your characters! You need to be more responsible with the subject matter!

  19. Ya. You’re totally right you did sound pretty much exactly how you thought you did. SO congrats about that. Susan did mention that Stephanie Meyers waited till after they were married to have sex but I still found the whole vampire human sex scene kind of horrifying and degrating. She also let Bella continually let Boys, into her room like there wasn’t any bad consequences that come from that. And there is. There weren’t any in here book, but lets face it, this is reality. A HUGE number of things can go wrong we you put yourself in that position, and you’ll wake up to be on of the statistics Janette read off. You are all talking about sex and books from a fourteen year olds view, and I am one. Where I live, all around me people are dropping like flies. EVERYONE seems to get pregnant, or is trying not to. Soneone I knew farely closely just had a baby boy. I think I’ll tell you her story. She, like me, saw teen pregnancy often. SHe dealt with sex everyday. She saw and heard of the consequences, but fantasized it like in TV or a book. So she allowed her boyfriend to have sex with her. I mean is was harmless right? It wasn’t the fantasy she thought it would be and she begged him to stop. He wouldn’t. An adult heard her screaming and crying out and finally stopped him. She was a minor, he wasn’t. They went to court and she sued him for rape and one. Now she has a son because of the glamorization of sex and the world we live in. The story of what I live with. I have seen the simply wonderful lives that come from abstinence such as Janette’s. I have also seen the oppisite end of the spectrum. So does sex in a book always bad? Ninety-nine percent of the time yes. The other point one percent is me. Yes, sometimes instead of hurting me, it helps me understand the world I live in and the growing problem of sex. Thank you for talking about sex so plainly and hopefully everyone will get it in there heads that we really don’t want to read it.

  20. I wanted to give you a teen’s point of view. I’m 14 years old.

    I believe sex is good, but when only you’re married.(I was born out of wedlock, so I’m not exactly a sheltered prejudiced teen).

    Sex is not evil, but it certainly hasn’t helped my mind when I read teen books with sex in them. It’s addicting, and thankfully, I broke away from that.

    But my point is, teenagers are not ready for the emotional side of sex–committing to love and cherish that other person forever. I know this, because I’m experiencing the ups and downs of a teen’s life. It just makes me so mad that adult authers (who should know better) are writing these scenes into books when I know of 12 year old preteens who are reading those books. Please, authors, keep the books clean! Can you think of a positive effect on a teenager when they read those kinds of books? I can’t. I can only see the negative effects. So why write sex scenes in a book for 12 yrs. and up to read? Would it kill you to leave those scenes out? Like I said, this is just one teen’s point of view. But I’ve seen the negative effects of reading the sex scenes. They’ve happened in my life, and in the lives of my friends. I hope I didn’t sound angry, because it wasn’t my intention to offend anyone. After all, it’s so hard to tell when you read a message, seeing no facial expressions. 🙂

  21. I don’t think you need to apologize for being harsh. I agree with your statement completely and wish that even more authors would do so. I was downright annoyed by that post on Shannon Hale’s blog- you were one of the few posts I actually liked as well as Megan Whalen Turner.

  22. Thanks Janette for your standards. I agree. I recommended your books to my mom “Grandma” to buy for her granddaughters because they are laugh out loud hilarious but also because of the depth your subtle lessons provide and the confidence that our personal virtue standards will not be assaulted.

  23. I completely agree with you Janette. As a 14 yr old and reading many books, I hate it when there is a scene in the book. It completely ruins it.
    I was always taught that sex is sacred between a married man and woman. And when authors put that in books, they make it sound like it’s something that’s okay to do whenever you feel like it. I think that they are temptations to young adults.
    Not only should authors keep them out of YA books, but they should keep them out of Adult books also. My mom complains about books that she’s read with scenes or talk about sex in it that just ruin the book.
    All in all, sex should not be put in books whether they have good or bad consequences.

  24. OMG I love Shannon Hale!!!!!!!!! Have you ever met Jessica Day George. Sometimes I think one reason I want to be an author is so I can meet my favorite authors…JK

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