Talking about the messiness of consent beyond “yes means yes” and “no means no” with our children and students can be daunting. The subject makes so many of us nervous. Sex makes us nervous — even without navigating the complexities of consent and all that goes with it. What if we say something wrong and offend someone? How do we make it safe for people (our kids!) to be honest?
I have a time-tested method for broaching this subject, disarming it a bit and creating a safe space for having challenging and critical conversations about consent — the kind that our young people (and for that matter, people of all ages) so desperately need.
The key to this method? Stories. Any kind — short, long, tall, small. Memoir, fiction, essay. Anything that provides us with something to talk about that has to do with sex and consent. There are endless possibilities for sources, which can include anything from the most recent “Modern Love” column in the New York Times to the recent short story “Cat Person” from the New Yorker to classic plays from Shakespeare (I’ve had amazing consent-related conversations about Measure for Measure for instance) and philosophical texts like Plato’s Symposium. Sources are everywhere.
But for conversations with kids and students of all ages — middle school, high school, college — young-adult novels are my favorite. Yes, I’m biased: I also write YA as part of my professional life. But in addition to loving writing stories, what draws me to YA novels is that they always deal with BIG emotion, BIG questions, BIG firsts, BIG failures and vulnerabilities and mistakes — my favorite things to think and write about, which just so happen to be the favorite things of young adults and college students to think and talk about.
Lots of people have this idea that meaningful “content” — particularly sexual content — is somehow forbidden in YA. But it’s not. It used to be, during those innocent days, when Forever by Judy Blume was controversial. But now there is lots of sex in YA. And the more, the better for our kids, as far as I’m concerned — including the explicit, most graphic sex scenes.
Let me explain.
The biggest mistake I see when I visit college campuses involves well-meaning people who — in the effort to open up dialogue — want to corral a bunch of students into a room, so they will tell all of their deepest, darkest secrets and fears about sex. This is the worst possible approach to such conversations.
The best method is for us to get our kids and students reading about the subject — ideally complicated stories that deal with relationships, sex and consent. (If you’re a professor or teacher, the best setting for this is the classroom.) This way, they can talk about those stories as opposed to themselves. Some kids and young adults may want to talk about themselves — which is fine. But many will not, which is also absolutely fine. Stories about other people like them or people they know, in situations they may have experienced or know people who have, allow discussion about personal issues and scenarios without forcing anyone to actually get personal.
Interested? Well, then here is my list of favorite novels and authors that can empower all of us to open messy, complicated, productive conversations that really move the needle in a positive direction when it comes to sex and consent.
1. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
This should be the first choice on any list like this. Anderson’s award-winning novel from 1999, about a young woman who is sexually assaulted at a party, has become a classic go-to text for discussing consent and sexual assault with young adults. Not only is it gorgeously written, but it captures the extraordinary pain and isolation that a victim of sexual assault experiences, with Anderson poignantly conveying the loss of voice and agency in her protagonist by having her literally remain silent — not speaking a word — for nearly the entirety of this novel. This short book is not to be missed.
2. Forever For a Year, The Nerdy and the Dirty and The Handsome Girl and Her Pretty Boy, by BT Gottfred
These three novels are found gold — sex and consent education all rolled into incredibly written, hilarious, poignant, challenging, openly communicative love and sex stories with emotionally and sexually complex characters and situations. Gottfred is fearless. His sex scenes are detailed and explicit. His characters say things like, “Is it okay if I pull down your underwear?” and even compliment penises. You could just hand these to your kids and say: Okay, go learn about sex and consent, and afterward we’ll chat and review. Gottfred’s books always involve two people openly communicating about sex, talking about what they are doing as they are doing it, regularly checking in with each other about whether what they are doing is okay, what feels good and what doesn’t. His characters express their insecurities, worries, vulnerabilities and intimate joys in the kind of dialogue during sexual intimacy that I wish all kids can experience one day.
3. Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Not only is Cashore one of the best fantasy writers around, but you need a fan going on your face while you’re reading her books. Unlike with Gottfred, Cashore’s sex scenes are not explicit in any way — physical yes, but all the sex happens offstage. Graceling is a masterpiece of eros. I want everyone to learn about, think about and experience the erotic in their romantic relationship and sex lives. Toward this end, talking about the idea of the erotic is essential, and Cashore can help.
4. The Summer series and Lara Jean novels by Jenny Han
Han writes a lot of characters that are new at this kissing and the sex thing, particularly girls who are obsessed with certain boys and think about them constantly. Because they are new at this, and because they think so much about who they like and why, Han’s characters struggle and wonder and talk about romance and kissing and how this all comes about constantly and critically — providing young adults, especially younger young adults a lot of opportunities for discussing such important topics as first kisses and how to make those happen in a way that is positive and fulfilling for all involved. And even more helpfully, her book To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is now a delightful movie on Netflix.
5. Pointe, Little & Lion and Finding Yvonne by Brandy Colbert
Colbert is unflinching when it comes to writing sex scenes and dealing with consent, sexuality, sexual identity and all the feelings that go with such things — joy, pleasure, confusion, uncertainty, even regret. The way Colbert handles the before, during and after of sex and intimacy is complex, searching, soulful, critical and vulnerable. What’s more, her novels are un-put-downable.
6. Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork
Not only is Marcelo one of my favorite books ever by one of my favorite YA authors ever, but within this novel is one of the most complicated discussions — between Marcelo and a Rabbi, no less! — about sex, shame, nakedness, how sex can be meaningful and used “to hurt each other” in “innumerable and unspeakable” ways. Amazing.
7. The Gospel of Winter, The Last True Love Story and, most recently, Tradition, by Brendan Kiely
These novels take up the issue of consent with respect to sex, whether Kiely is dealing with situations of assault as in The Gospel of Winter and Tradition, or playfully and wonderfully showcasing sexual situations where his characters ask for their partner’s consent at every single step of the way in Antioch College–style fashion.
8. The Twilight novels by Stephanie Meyer
I see you cringing, I do. But hold on. Meyer’s novels have been incredibly beloved — and controversial, especially among feminists, which I am — when it comes to how they deal with sex and romance. But: they are also very interesting to discuss with respect to consent — the push and pull between Bella (she is, unusually, the pusher) and Edward (who is always the one stopping things). They are also helpful for sparking discussion about the erotic (Why must sex be forbidden to be erotic? These novels seem to suggest that it’s not having sex that is truly sexy), and then there is the creepy, stalkerish behavior of Edward that is really important to explore and discuss — especially with the discussions our society is having right now.
The list could go on. But it’s important to mention here that, while there is no shortage of YA novels that offer positive and (fairly) explicit and non-explicit stories of dating, love and sex for LGBTQ teens, there is a shortage of books that deal directly with consent and sexual assault between LGBTQ people. The same goes for books on this topic by and about persons of color. Brandy Colbert’s books (included on this list) do so, but finding characters of color who are contending with experiences of sexual assault within YA is still rare. This just goes to show how far our culture still needs to go with these conversations.
Still, there is a lot to work with here. So go on now parents, teachers, educators. You’ve got some reading to do.