I was at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators--New Jersey Regional Conference this weekend and I had a blast. The sessions were stimulating and informative. Agents and editors were friendly---I even managed to get some promising leads! Also, the peer company was fabulous. While I was hanging out with a few of my new best friends at the hotel bar; yes, we're children's book writers, but we're still writers---don't judge--we started talking about children in our lives and concerns about the content in books. Two of the women at the bar wrote picture books or middle grade, but the friend I came with, and I write young adult. It also happens that we are both childless. The other two women had daughters. The ladies with kids were concerned about how young adult authors handle sex in YA novels. My friend had an easy out since her project was a sci fi with a male protagonist and the whole sex thing didn't really come up. I write YA realistic contemporary about junior/senior girls. So when the conversation turned to me, I took a beat to absorb the awkwardness. Finally, I said that it's almost impossible to avoid talking about sex if your characters are teenage girls because it's a big issue at that time.
Also, let's be real here: if you think about most of the books out there either for young adults or adults with young women as protagonists, a girl often comes into her own by falling in love and losing her virginity. I'm not saying it always happens, or that is the only way to do it in real life, but it happens a lot. Most of us like reading about it, and it's a standard way of marking that transition because it's an outward expression of the character's internal state. Also, it happens in movies all the time.
Just because something is done a lot doesn't make it right. I live in New Jersey and there's a lot of stuff I see done a lot on the roads that will probably give me an aneurism because I scream every time I see the same bad driving maneuvers. They piss me off every time. Are there other ways to show a character's personal growth? Of course. However, as a culture, we sexualize adolescent females a lot, and that sexualization often is what we recognize as a girl going from a child to a woman. As most of us know, having sex does not make anyone more mature, but for teenagers who haven't done it yet, it's often seen as this mysterious rite of passage. For starters, everyone in high school is either horny, hungry, or depressed most of the time. Out of those three states, guess which one is most preferable? Yeah, I have that picture in my mind too. Teens think about sex a lot. Adults think about sex a lot. It's a big deal. It's a biological need. If we weren't interested in sex, we wouldn't have any more people. Maybe it's not healthy to write books that make it seem like a girl is a misfit if she isn't giving blow jobs to the entire football team during lunch, but I don't think that creating a "realistic" world where 14 year old girls don't think about it at all is reasonable either.
In order for young women to harness those feelings, and to own their power as sexual beings rather than sexual objects, it's important to give them an image of a world where they can say yes or no on their own terms.
Last point I'd like to make here: while authors create an ethical framework in every story, it's important not to mistake the events of the story for what the author believes are great things to do. The best thing concerned parents can do is talk to their kids about these issues and empower them to make informed decisions now and in the future. Young adult fiction is primarily meant for entertainment and stimulation, not a moral education.