12 Teen Novels With Positively Imperfect Stories About Sex
True story: I lost my virginity in a car parked alongside a dark and creepy cemetery. As I hustled to get dressed, two police cars pulled up alongside of us. We got a sternly worded lecture from two patrol officers, narrowly avoided receiving a traffic ticket and were sent home in a way that was beyond awkward and embarrassing.
When I began working on my YA novel, Fat Girl on a Plane, I knew a couple of things. I wanted the book to be sex positive, but I also wanted it to capture the ungraceful and bumbling aspects of first sexual encounters that sometimes get glossed over. For me, it was important to present sex in a way that was free from shame, that was appropriately consensual, and that included the use of protection. I also wanted to make sure teen readers knew that your first time might not be the best ever because, for most people, sexual experiences tend to improve with more experience.
Luckily, I am not alone. The YA community has been busy creating many incredible, sex-positive stories. Here are some of my faves, along with a couple of upcoming releases that I'm looking forward to.
Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn
What I love about Firsts is that the novel's jumping off point is the acknowledgment that the first time is usually awkward and blundering. In the book, 17-year-old Mercedes Ayres decides to give virgin boys their first sexual experience. Her goal is to help them learn to give their girlfriends the "perfect" first time that she never had. Firsts remains sex positive throughout even as Mercedes comes to feel that it's time to end her extracurricular activities and the story deals, head on, with the idea that sexual maturity and emotional maturity might not happen at the same time.
Just Visiting by Dahlia Adler
I'm a sucker for a good road trip book, and Just Visiting is a great road trip book. We get to tag along with BFFs Reagan and Victoria, two high schoolers who plan to spend the Summer before senior year on a tour to find the college of their dreams. While the girls' friendship takes center stage here, Adler delivers major swoony and sexy scenes. There's also a modern, feminist take on sex, complete with real talk about critical issues like using protection and consent.
When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
What happens when your family sends you to a prestigious Summer computer camp because they hope you'll meet your future husband? What do you do if you start to feel you sort of like the guy your parents set you up with? These are the questions facing Dimple Shah when she arrives at Insomnia Con. Romantic high jinks ensue. While Dimple and Rishi's relationship is kept sweet, the book does include great conversations about consent and is a good choice for readers not ready for on-the-page sex. When Dimple Met Rishi also garnered well-deserved praise for its rich and authentic presentation of Indian culture.
Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley
Talley's gorgeous book follows 15-year-old stargazer Aki Simon, a girl determined to live her best life. At the start of the novel, she knows she's bisexual but has only had romantic encounters with boys. On a youth group trip, Aki meets Christa and the two pursue a relationship. Our Own Private Universe deals forthrightly with the mechanics of how two girls have sex, including how to practice safe sex. The girls' love story is one part of a larger narrative about what it means to find yourself and your voice. Also, be sure and check out Pulp, Talley's next book coming this Fall about a teen determined to connect with her 1950s-era lesbian pulp fiction idol.
History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera
A heartbreaking and poignant tale of learning to deal with loss, History Is All You Left Me gives us Griffin, a teen convinced he'll be able to reunite with his ex-boyfriend, Theo — until Theo drowns while swimming in the Pacific Ocean. While mostly a narrative about grief, the book has well-handled depictions of sexual activity, the loss of virginity, and the process of coming out. Silvera was also lauded for the novel's representation of OCD.
Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann
This is the story of biromantic Alice whose acknowledgement that she's asexual ends her relationship with girlfriend Margot early in the book. Alice moves on and gets busy planning the perfect Summer, one full of friends, Netflix bingeing, and all-you-can-eat buffets — but no romance. All that changes when she meets Takumi and gets all the feels. Let's Talk About Love tackles common misconceptions about ace people, depicts the difficulty they can have fitting into the larger queer community, and discusses the spectrum of asexuality. Alice is a character full of humor and heart, and her slow burn romance with Takumi is so great.
You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon
Adina and Tovah Seigel are twin sisters who are almost total opposites. Adina is a rebellious viola prodigy completely devoted to her music while Tovah is a student overachiever who steadfastly maintains the family's Jewish traditions. Also, one twin tests positive for Huntington's disease and the other does not. This is a sister story that tugs at your heartstrings, but the sex positive aspect of the book is found in Adina's romance with her viola teacher. She is very confident in her attraction to him, and their relationship is very sex positive. You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone is great example of how a book can have a sex positive attitude in its back pocket, helping teens to see sex positivity as a fundamental part of day-to-day life.
When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
When the Moon Was Ours is a unique and lyrically told story of two best friends, Miel and Sam, growing up in a small town. Sam is a transgender boy who paints moons all over town and Miel is a girl with roses growing from her wrists. They find themselves the targets of the Bonner sisters, a family of girls believed to be witches, who want Miel's roses for their love potions. When his friendship with Miel blossoms into romance, there's an on-the-page sex scene delivered with the greatest respect for the characters, who completely accept each other.
How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake
In How to Make a Wish, Grace meets Eva. Both are suffering through difficult home situations — Grace struggles to deal with her mother's unpredictable and difficult behavior and Eva has recently lost her own mother. The two of them seek solace in each other, entering into a sweet romance. The characters here have frank, sex-positive discussions about bisexuality that come from a place of acceptance of their own identities. I also loved this book for giving us a great male/female platonic friendship between Grace and her friend Luca.
Nothing Left to Burn by Heather Ezell
Between the almost-out-of-control California wildfires and the steamy scenes between Audrey and her boyfriend, Brooks, Nothing Left to Burn will probably leave you feeling like there is, in fact, nothing left to burn. It's told in two timelines — the first as Audrey is preparing to evacuate her affluent neighborhood due to the Orange County fires and the second, months earlier, at the start of her romance with Brooks. Even as the relationship between Audrey and Brooks becomes uneasy and the reader comes to fear his secrets, Ezell is busy exploring the topics of sexual pressure and consent. The pressure to be ready for sex placed on teens by culture, their friends, and by prospective partners is all discussed here, but it's done in a way that allows Audrey to remain sex positive throughout. I especially liked that Audrey talked about sex with her parents on the page of the book.
Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts) by L.C. Rosen
This book will be released in October, but already early readers are talking about Jack of Hearts as a game changer for sex positive young adult literature. Here, Jack is a sexually active gay teen who's asked by a friend to write a sex column for her website. When the feature is a huge hit, Jack finds himself the target of a blackmailing stalker. This book is said to go to places many others are afraid to go, including talk of blow jobs gone bad, anal sex, and the fetishization of queer guys. The book is also said to be ace positive.
The Birds, the Bees, and You and Me by Olivia Hinebaugh
The Birds, the Bees, and You and Me isn't slated to release until January 2019 but should definitely be on your radar now. It's about 17-year-old Lacey Burke, a virgin, straight-A student and music geek who avoids making waves at her high school. Irritated by her school's crappy sex education program, she starts handing out condoms in the girls' bathroom. I'm thrilled to see YA tackling issues related to lack of access to sex education, and Lacey is also a doula, adding a unique element to the plot.