I’ve finally come to the end of Sarah J Maas’ Empire of Storms (blame uni) and it has turned out to be my favourite since the prequels, The Assasin’s Blade. Unfortunately, I find Maas’ books to be a little too predictable or I have to struggle through her slow pacing, keeping my ratings down at three stars. This time, however, I didn’t find this to be a problem and the generous sprinkling of plot twists and actions scenes had me giving Empire of Storms four stars. And so I was surprised to see the main criticism of many reviewers was the increased frequency and intensity of sex scenes.
Some say it didn’t fit the tone established in previous books. Some said they were badly written. Some said they were far too explicit. Some said they were inappropriate for a book aimed at teens.
All of this got me thinking about the place of sex scenes in Young Adult books as a whole. I think the reviews show a lot about what people think teenagers should be exposed to, what they should be thinking about and what they should be doing. It got me thinking about the theme as a whole in YA. And, I’m sorry to say, I think there are trends of negative attitudes and portrayals of sex.
There’s a definite shift between Empire of Storms and the previous books; the back cover holds the warning ‘Contains mature content: not suitable for younger readers’ (which made me far too excited). Sex isn’t new to the characters (Celaena and Chaol were at it in Book Two) but this time the narrative doesn’t skirt around the subject. We’ve officially moved on from the saucy telepathic sex of Queen of Shadows to supernatural bondage and orgasms that turn the sandy beach to glass (not even exaggerating).
And the result is… pretty cringey. Aelin and Rowan’s scenes, especially, read like every fanfic writer’s dream come canon.
I don’t know. Maybe you just have to be behind Rowlaena to get it. Personally, I was just laughing at phrases such as ‘I’m not taking you against a tree the first time’, ‘his velvet wrapped steel’ and ‘as he spilled himself in her, lightning and flame danced on the sea’. Rowan and Aelin couldn’t get enough of it this book – there was so much ‘nibbling’ and ‘claiming’ I’m surprised they even managed to participate in the plot.
But, being honest, did we really expect anything else from these two? It was the antics of the others pairs that had me surprised. Lorcan and Elide were having the sexy times in the imminent danger of the creepy stone marshes. And then, of course, there’s Manon and Dorian: ‘Manon let him raise her arms over her head, his magic gently pinning her wrists to the mattress as he touched her.’
Usually, books for this age group have a time lapse over anything more intimate than kissing. It’s ‘age-appropriate’ to show that it does happen, but not what happens.
I graduated to the YA section of the book shop when I was around twelve. Last year, I remember seeing some of the younger girls at school getting the Throne of Glass series from the library, around the time when Maas had started exploring questions around prostitution, and I wondered what the school librarian would think if he knew what was in the books he was ordering in. It’s no lie that the twelve to fifteen age bracket will be getting their hands on Empire of Storms and reading all the sexy times, probably without knowing beforehand.
This is the part that has older reviewers concerned and I think that’s valid. It’s one thing for a nearly-nineteen-year-old, like me, to be sniggering at Maas’ awkwardly written sex scenes, and quite another for a thirteen-year-old to be reading something like that for the first time. And, unsurprisingly, most YA authors acknowledge this; sex scenes are usually carefully placed, if there at all, and glossed over by a narrative break before anything gets too saucy. After collating these scenes in YA books in general, I realised there is a weird trope around teenage sex: basically, if you do it, something shitty is going to happen.
The trope crops up everywhere (highlight to see spoilers). In Maggie Stiefvater’s Linger, Grace and Sam have been sharing Grace’s room for months, having the occasional sexy times, until Grace’s parents find them together (‘I can’t believe you can look me in the face, when behind our backs-‘ says her dad) and then Grace ends up in hospital nearly dying/low-key being a werewolf. In Jenefer Niven’s All the Bright Places, Violet and Finn do it for the first time; immediately after, Violet’s parents decide to ban her from seeing him. In Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything Maddy nearly dies after having sex with Olly. In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Augustus’ decline in health begins just after the pair lose their virginity in Amsterdam. In Stephenie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn, Bella has sex once, she gets pregnant and the baby nearly kills her. And the list continues. I’ve begun to read these scenes as foreshadowing for something bad happening; sex happens and suddenly I’m praying they’ll be no shouting matches or tragic deaths.
If this were an occasional feature, I would understand. I know how a novel can benefit from this structure-wise – the juxtaposition of the thrill of first sex and the drama that gives us a satisfying midpoint turn or propels us into the third act. But when this becomes a frequent plot device, it sends one message: sex is bad; if you participate in such antics, something is going to shit on you. The author’s choice of shitstorm ranges from parental anger to the lead’s drop in personal health to immediate pregnancy, but really it’s all the same message.
Sex is bad! Don’t do it, children!
Let’s pause for a reality check. Teenagers have sex. There’s no way around it. I know I started hearing such gossip when I was around fourteen and wouldn’t be surprised if some were doing it even earlier. Admittedly, most start around their later teenage years and beyond, but to act like all twelve- to fifteen-year-olds are innocent souls who must be protected disregards the reality. If you haven’t done it personally, you’ve heard about someone else.
Teens have to figure all of this stuff out on their own because no one is explaining anything. The first stop is the internet: the struggling wrestlers of information and misconception. Alternatively, it’s the kids at school who pass around false ideas about sex as if it’s the coolest thing that’s come out of their mouths – but really they don’t know what they’re doing either.
We’ve heard time and time again that hiding the idea of sex from teens does more harm than the good it hopes. It’s even worse when there’s the suggestion that sex is a fair indicator of a shitstorm. So why am I still seeing this idea in books directed towards this age group?
The sex scenes in Empire of Storms are cringey and kind of silly in their absurdity, but it’s what the genre needs. Books are a way to help you understand yourself and the world around you. Teenagers are at the very least thinking about sex, what it is and what it means. Portraying realistic sexual relationships in books is one way to understand them when all other information sources are so confusing and contradictory. Pairing the very idea of sex with a negative plot twist is the opposite of achieving this.
We need realistic portrayals of sex that directly tackle the questions teenage readers need answering. When is virginity ‘lost’ when there is no penis involved? What counts as consent? What are indicators of abusive relationships? How should you go about it so everyone involved has a great time?
There are, of course, authors who do a wonderful job of tackling teenage sex, but they don’t seem to be the ones at the top of the bestseller list and they certainly weren’t what I was reading when I was fourteen. Instead, they’re the ones considered inappropriate for the age when these questions and others are just starting to rise.
I’m not saying that all writers should start including scenes of orgasm lightning storms at every opportunity, like Sarah J Maas over here. Just that we should be critical of tropes around sexuality. And, more importantly, we should discard the idea that younger YA readers should be protected from the very thought at all costs.