Sex: the status-quo in teen novels, study reveals


Sex may sell, but when it comes to books aimed at adolescent readers, BYU researchers say parents need to be aware that sexual content may be too graphic.

This selling point, however, seems to be increasingly prevalent in novels geared toward teenagers, according to a new study conducted by some BYU professors. And, by the looks of it, the  increased sexual content hasn’t gone unnoticed by the general public, either.

Extensive studies have been done on the effect of sexual images in movies, advertising, TV and other media, but researchers often overlook the effect of sexual content in novels. A recent BYU study, from the Department of Family Life and the Department of Communications, analyzed the top 40 novels that target adolescents.

“Across the 40 books, there were 56 instances of sexual intercourse,” the study said. “Most of which involved unmarried couples (94 percent); and as many were in non-committal relationships.”

According to one of the researchers in this study, Sarah Coyne, a professor in the Department of Family Life, edgy content in books not only helps them sell, but it is difficult to know which books have this content or not.

“Research has certainly found that sex does sell,” Coyne said. “But I suspect that many parents would be concerned if they knew what was going on in some of their teen’s seemingly innocuous books.”

Today’s teen literature is often filled with sexual innuendos, graphic descriptions of sexual acts, pre-marital sex and many other forms of behavior that, put simply, would make any movie R-rated.

Sterling Porter, 30, a father of four, from Lehi, said he worries how the teen novels are becoming increasingly more graphic as the years go on.

“It surprises me how graphic the books can be,” Porter said. “People wouldn’t think to see an R-rated movie with their young teenagers, but they are okay with reading it.”

Porter named a few authors, Amanda Hawking and Pittacus Lore, and said they were benign, or seemingly innocent, but still have elements that he didn’t approve of.  He didn’t want his kids imitating some of the interactions.

Nathan Baier, 24, from Rochester, New York, feels novels are becoming more and more forward. He said it seems that as society becomes less literate, authors rely on more of a sensory overload to attract their audience.

“I enjoy reading popular fiction,” Baier said. “But I’m not sure I agree with how explicit the novels get at times.  I really just wish the authors would not be so graphic. They can allude to what will happen, but they don’t need to go into such passionate detail.”

Valarie Shumway, a mother of six from Wickenburg, Ariz., said she wishes teen novels maintained a bit of class, because movies and TV have already given themselves up to the more carnal desires of the world. She said she believes something needs to remain good and decent, and that increased sexual material in teen books has a significant impact on girls specifically.

“It’s not what makes a good fictional novel great,” Shumway said, “I think that it encourages girls to focus more on their sexual appeal, instead of what is really important. There simply isn’t a need to have random ‘sex scenes’ in teen novels.”

As long as society accepts the more explicit movies, TV shows and advertising, it seems novels will probably follow suit. But people still have a choice over which media they consume, Baier said.

“The world will get worse,” Baier said. “But we can choose to be better.”

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