Sex or Swords?

I recently finished reading an epic fantasy novel by an author who is perhaps a year ahead of me. He is a couple of novels deeper into his series and seems to have a similar, but not bigger, social platform. 

But his books are selling impressively and I enjoyed reading his work, but there was nothing in the quality of the plot, writing, etc. that suggested why he is outselling me.

There are a lot of things in common between our novels. They are both character driven and, though there is a clear plot arc, you really stay engaged because you are rooting for the characters. There is plenty of action and moral dilemmas. If and when I write a review, and I definitely will because this is so important to the author (hinting here!), I realize that it would be similar to many of the reviews I have received for At The Walls Of Galbrieth and The First Decree.


But there are two fundamental differences, perhaps three.

1) His novels are meant only for adults.

2) There is a fair amount of sex.

There is also considerable swearing, but I don’t think someone buys a book because of the swearing. It might deter a few people, but not act as motivator.

These differences lead me to wonder about whether young adults are reading ebooks – which remains the most popular with all struggling authors – and I will examine this next week.

But for now, I want to focus on sex. Let me be honest. I’m very fond of sex and I enjoy reading and writing about it. In my non-fantasy novels, there are probably two graphic sex scenes in each. I believe that the way my characters deal with sex, before, during and after, reveals far more than any long description can ever hope to achieve.

All three books ­– A Gardener’s Tale, The Accidental Activist, and Unwanted Heroes – have garnered criticism from a few reviewers who were upset or disturbed by what they read, but there are many others who mention it positively. There was nothing 50 Shades, or anything violent or forced in these scenes and, in truth, I remain proud of them, even when I know my mother and mother-in-law have read them!

A Gardener's Tale  - new cover

However, what is the place of sex in epic fantasy? The book in question has two sex scenes and neither are particularly graphic or explicit. Throughout the novel there are sexual references but little more than men’s comments or a woman’s thoughts. Both scenes were written well and felt part of the story. Both added to the richness of the characters.

 I have wondered about Game of Thrones, in particular because my 14-year-old is interested in reading and watching the series. I have no doubt that George R.R. Martin wrote what he understood to be sexual mores of that period and I agree that it probably happened as he described, but the sex was clearly not a turn on for me (neither was it for most of Martin’s characters come to think of it).

Much of the sex were men exploiting their power over women and a few scenes are of women who manipulate men to get something they want through sexual favors or binding the men’s lusts to them. All good stuff, perhaps, but not something I want to share with my teenage son.


I want him to know about sex as something romantic, a bonding act between two people who love each other. I want him to know that anything that is not two consenting adults pleasuring themselves and each other, is deviant. It might not necessarily be wrong, but that is for him to decide according to his values.

In the Wycaan Master series, I touch on many values and morals. I challenge the young adults who read my books to make choices about race, violence, friendships, loyalty, and enjoy it when I hear my son or his friends comment that they are proud/disappointed/upset/ happy about the actions of a character. I like that they feel guilty, understanding and maybe partly rooting for the bad guys. Nothing is ever black or white.


But what about sex? There are certain hints in my novels that some things are going on, but it is easily missed if a young adult is not thinking about such topics. To write about sex, even in a tasteful youth-orientated way, would strip my novels of being YA (young adult). I would lose the initial motivation of writing to influence a new generation. 

Is it possible to write in sexual scenes in a YA novel? Most parents do not vet a book, trusting that if it has received recognition as YA then it will not include certain things such as swearing, graphic violence, or sex.

I do not want to step away from the target audience that so intrigues me and I am not sure I am ready to abandon them. However, I am frustrated that there are strict boundaries, frustrated that I could convey so much to my target audience through my young characters having or thinking of sexual encounters. I could convey healthy values associated with sex, values that I want to share with my own sons.

So my question is: Can sex be handled within a YA context? Your thoughts?


Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA – At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.   For more about the author, check out his website.


22 comments on “Sex or Swords?

  1. stankmeaner says:

    I think it’s appropriate for there to be sexual situations in YA novels. My son is almost 16, and between television and music and friends and all of the Internet, he’s exposed to jokes and innuendos and sex on one level or another all the time. I think in a YA novel, an author has the chance to combat the lackadaisical or non-message having flashing red light district of ‘sex sells’ and offer an insight in what sex really is. You can take real life insights and write them in a way that gives an alternate viewpoint to how cheap and easy a lot of media makes it seem. There’s obviously a need for discretion, but it’s not like we can pretend that sex doesn’t exist, so why not offer a healthy attitude about it?

  2. adtrosper says:

    Not only can it, but it absolutely should be. This doesn’t mean that you need to write graphic sex scenes, however you can definitely use the pan to the fire style scenes. Kids don’t need an anatomy lesson from you, but what they do need is to understand that for most people, it MEANS something and that there are consequences to making the decision to have to sex both emotional and physical. And yes, I think these issues would be great to work into a YA fantasy as long as they flow smoothly into the story. The beauty of it is, most kids aren’t thinking about these types of books teaching a lesson. They think YA fantasy is just an adventure. So in effect, you get to teach them something important, in a tactful way, and they won’t even realize they are learning it.

  3. I would say yes. For an example, I’d direct you to a Canadian author, Welwyn Wilton Katz and her 1990 book Whalesinger. It is a fantasy, but not as much as some of her other novels. It’s also about a girl’s coming of age, and part of that is her first experience with sex. Welwyn received a lot of flack for even putting “the sex” in her novel, but it is very realistically portrayed and I think it worked well. It’s also integral to the plot. Sadly, the first time anyone has sex, the experience tends to be a bit of a let down, and not at all about the “fireworks” some claim to feel. Let me know what you think, if you check her out. She’s a multiple-award winning author.

  4. Really enjoyed this post. I have the same issue with my current series. For epic fantasy adventure I see it as two ends of the spectrum. One end is Game of Thrones, like you mentioned, and then the other I see as Lord if the Rings. The question is where your (or my story) fits.

    A standard in YA is romance, got to have romance. But I think hard sex takes you into the New Adult category. Which also raises the bottom of the age level for your target audience. A popular example is Hunger Games – romance but no sex.

    At the same time I don’t agree with what I have heard ablot if today, that NA is just YA but with sex. I think there is more to it. More intense subjects, not just sex.

    In the YA you may get away with a little sex, if not overly graphic, but I think it shoild be minimizes and more eluded to rather than blatantly flaunted. Especially if the only reason is to bump sales.

    There is also the issue of violence. In an epic fantasy there is going to be violence, but the question becomes how much detail to include. There are a couple if scenes where I have a bit of detaol to show the impact of the violence on the MC.

    So it might throw my novel into the NA category. But then I run into the opposite problem you have. Is it okay to have a NA book without sex?

  5. gandy93 says:

    “Young-adult fiction or young adult literature (often abbreviated as YA), also juvenile fiction, is fiction written, published, or marketed to adolescents and young adults, although recent studies show that 55% of young-adult fiction is purchased by readers over 18 years of age.”*
    “A young/prime adult, according to Erik Erikson’s stages of human development, is generally a person in the age range of 20 to 40…”**

    I believe it’s wrong to think that YA fiction must be meant only for children (< 15). Readers of YA fiction are, in my opinion, usually either in puberty (15-20) or beyond it (21-29). Therefore, the question of sex is important to them and it's unnatural to leave it out. You don't have to (but can!) write porn; however, discovering your sexuality is part of growing up and YA fiction should show it.

    In October I'm turning 20 and I've always preferred yA over Ya.


  6. Just chucking in sex so that the book will sell better is to stray from the whole point of the story – and most readers will see through the ploy. Any sex should be an integral part of the story and as has already been discussed, it ought to carry a subtle moral message. When I plotted out my Adult Paranormal romance (A Construct of Angels) I intended for the main characters to ‘get it on’ the night before the ‘big fight scene.’ However, as I approached that part of the book, the whole idea of them getting physical began to feel gratuitous, a token sex scene, as it were, so I dropped the idea and replaced it with an erotic dream, some cuddling and emotional realisation. I have no regrets about this – even if sales are slow. If you want to sell a lot of books, write erotica and make no apologies about it. But if your favoured genre is High Fantasy, write that…but include sex only if it serves to move the plot forward as with ‘Game of Thrones’, where it becomes (pardon the double entendre) a tool of manipulation.

  7. fonch says:

    My opinion is this i do not dislike that in the epic fantasy novel appear sex. It is good and a natural thing. But i recommend one thing the writers who does not include sex relationship was not condemned. For example Tolkien who was unfair struggled because he did not include sex in their novels. I believe that the most important is the story, and the sex is additional. You can include or not.

  8. Angela says:

    I think the difference in content between YA and adult novels is a fine line to walk, however it is obvious that graphic sex belongs in adult novels while gently alluding to it in YA is not a problem at all.

  9. lisafender says:

    I had the same issue with my fantasy fiction series. I think there needs to be a new category for younger readers. Right now YA also includes 12 yr olds and the newest category, NA is 18yrs and older. I wish there was one for 16 yrs and older. My main two characters fall in love and they have some scenes where they are kissing heavily but abstain. Eventually it will lead to more and I always warn people if they want their 14 yr olds to read it. It is a tough call to make, and one that should be looked at by whomever decides category ages.

  10. J S Kuiken says:

    Sex can and should be covered in YA fantasy novels. Young adults need to have authors who, like you, present a responsible and nuanced discussion about sex. Too often young adults are not allowed to enter into a nuanced and responsible discussion about sex, desires, choices, and repercussions.* Showing those things in fiction is paramount, I think.

    For some YA fantasy books that have sex and deal with it responsibly, you really ought to check out Tamora Pierce (if you haven’t) and Kristen Cashore. Both deal with the issue of sex and responsibility well. They give their characters a multitude of choices in terms of sex and relationships, and no one character is judged as right or wrong in their choices. Some characters have more than one lover, others do not. Some characters marry, others don’t. Some characters even have flings or casual sex, and no-one ends up “damaged” or hurt because the characters talk to one another about the fact that “hey, this is probably just a short term thing, okay?”

    PS. I think it is doubly important that authors, especially YA authors, engage in discussions of consent in their work. IE, characters need to be shown giving active consent — saying yes!. Because active consent is awesome and something which needs to be shown more often.

    *Repercussions not in the “you’ll get pregnant and die” way, or “you’ll get STD’s and die” way, but repercussions as in “this act involves not just yourself and your health and body, but another’s health and body”.

  11. I enjoyed your post and the feedback from followers. I think having sex in a YA novel, when it serves the plot and further reveals the characters, is entirely appropriate and necessary. Since much of what is seen in the media is denigrating to women and presents men as manipulative, power hungry or as serial rapists/killers, there needs to be a place where sex can be shown in a nurturing way. Not a graphic representation, of course, but a suggestion or positive description of the culmination of a loving relationship.

  12. […] week’s post, Sex and Swords, generated a lot of great comments and a sound discussion. In the post, I wondered whether the […]

  13. Reblogged this on Left Coast Voices and commented:
    Lot of discussion about what is appropriate to expose to our teenagers – is it better to prevent or control the message?

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