“I am a moth to his flame, and he never hesitates to burn me.”
If you’ve read Anna Todd’s After, you know it’s full of lines like this one — lines that are supposed to be romantic, but are actually pretty disturbing. I probably thought getting “burned” by a dude was romantic in high school, when I was looking to pop culture to teach me about sex and love, but I had a fucked-up view of what a healthy relationship involving sex looked like until well into my twenties. I equally blame a lack of Judy Blume (her books were banned at my strict Christian elementary school), too much Jesus, and finally, Pacey Witter for giving me an unrealistically high expectation of teen boys.
Now, some teens will have After to blame for their adult therapy bills. The Wattpad-originated sensation that started as Harry Styles fan fiction is full of S.E.X., but it’s not as sexy as its reputation would suggest. The central relationship is deeply troubling — see above quote — and its leading man is a Molotov cocktail of problematic: controlling, violent, and cruel. After is what happens when you deprive a generation of kids of Judy Blume–worthy sex.
In 2018, The New York Times asked the question, “In Y.A., Where Has All the Good Sex Gone?” and briefly explored the idea that today’s books with young protagonists having sex lacked the physical stimulation of their predecessors — that arousal is associated with bad writing. We’ve seen the adult romance genre get pegged with this misconception, but the connection is fair with After, and unfortunately, it’s become the poster book for explicit sex in young adult and new adult literature. After shows that unambiguous depictions of sex in books for young people are rarely associated with healthy relationships or a quality narrative. You can either get off or get a nice love story, not both.
In the YA books I grew up with — like Sweet Valley High, Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, and The Babysitter’s Club series to name a few — sex was either nonexistent, attached to a capital C Consequence (like Pregnancy, Disease, DEATH), or losing your virginity was something you reserved for a magical special occasion like prom, or better yet, marriage. When teens do have sex, like in the Gossip Girl series, characters are doing drugs and literally murdering people, but their physical intimacy is off the page. Cocaine and killers were still more PG than penetration.
The YA genre has made some progress in recent years towards depicting authentic teenage sexuality (with books like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Tempests and Slaughter, Firsts for example), but damaging tropes still exist — like the innocent and pure virgin cliché that should have died with Twilight. Enter “new adult.”
Ah yes, “new adult,” the entire genre created so that YA can continue to pretend teenagers only have fade-to-black sex (off the page a la The Fault In Our Stars or Everything, Everything), or that they don’t have it at all (To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before). We know that 18+ adults make up over half of YA's readership, and I’m certain new adult was born out of that grown-up readership’s thirst for enjoyable sex scenes in YA stories. New adult books are for the protagonists fresh out of high school and ready for fun sex lives and nourishing romantic relationships! Just kidding; sex is the star of this genre.“New adult is also extremely sexy, often bordering on erotic romance, so strong sensuality is definitely a huge part of the genre’s appeal,” a senior editor for Harlequin told Publisher’s Weekly. With all these open-door sex scenes, as they’re known in the publishing industry, the books often lack emotional maturity and authentic physical intimacy.
The newly formed genre has massive appeal, and these titles are flying off the proverbial shelves. Beautiful Disaster is about a straight-laced young girl who, of course, goes to college and meets a rebellious bad boy with tattoos. Jamie McGuire self-published the book in 2011 and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. I found the male love interest so disturbing I couldn’t finish the book. I gave up after the scene where he shatters a mirror with his fist because his girlfriend won’t answer her phone. But hey, at least there’s sex!
After, which is often classified as YA despite its graphic sex scenes, is stupidly popular, garnering over ONE BILLION reads on Wattpad, a social media platform for writers to share their work, selling over 15 million print copies, and securing a big screen adaptation, which hit theatres April 12. It’s been called “Fifty Shades of Grey for teens.” After isn’t about college kids engaging in BDSM, though. It’s Fifty Shades without the red room. The association is more about their fan-fic origins, explicit depictions of sex, and unstable leading men who emotionally manipulate their love interests. If you’ve ever wanted to get off to an image of the scraggly-haired, tattooed frontman of One Direction going down on a saccharine stereotypical Girl Next Door, this is supposed to be the book for you.
The story goes like this: Tessa is a good girl aka virgin. Hardin (Harry Styles reimagined) is — you guessed it — a leather jacket-wearing bad boy with a massive chip on his shoulder. They meet in a dorm room. He treats her like shit, but she can’t resist how good he makes her feel… sexually.
"Your pulse has quickened hasn't it? Your mouth is dry, you have that feeling... down there." That’s just a taste (pun intended, no regrets) of Hardin’s dirty talk. Some more: “I have missed your body… the way it fits perfectly in my hand” and “This dress is so incredibly sexy… white and virginal looking.”
Again, ONE BILLION reads. And a rabid fanbase of hardcore #Hessa (Hardin + Tessa) stans. As an adult reading YA, I’m no longer looking for education, but for stimulation — and welp, this ain’t it.
When the physical acts Tessa and Hardin engage in are over, Hardin goes back to acting like an asshole, and Tessa cries. Rinse, repeat. Hardin is also consistently violent and demonstrably jealous, but he’s got long hair, tattoos, and daddy issues (the latter three traits being the siren song for innocent teen girls in an alarming number of YA books). As Jezebel put it, “Imagine Health Ledger's character from 10 Things I Hate About You, but strip him of everything charming.”
Hardin’s cruelty is consistent, despite his many declarations of love for Tessa. “I don’t know how else to be” is his paltry excuse. He’s horrible to her, and if that’s not enough, there’s also a big twist — SPOILER ALERT — involving Hardin only sleeping with Tessa to win a bet. He keeps their used condom to show his friends. I wish I was making up that alarming detail. I made it three-quarters of the way through After before throwing it across the room. Borderline emotional abuse isn’t my kink.
Like Fifty Shades, the success of After hinges on something simple: People like being turned on. The billion-dollar erotic and romantic fiction genre exists for a reason. A love story between hormonal teens — especially if those teens are 18 like Tessa and Hardin — does feel more real when there is sex. But, do we really have to sacrifice a good romance for a steamy sex scene? Why is Tessa only allowed to give into her desire when urged by Hardin, rather than because she is a teenage girl with sexual agency? Surely there are many teens out there having relationships that incorporate sex in a healthy way, and without the woman feeling guilty for surrendering her societally-imposed virtue..
The most talented YA writers in the game may be more inclined to keep their books PG. Angie Thomas had to defend herself on Twitter for the “presumptive normalization of sexual activity” in her debut YA hit The Hate U Give (um, there is ZERO sex in this book). John Green delivered a passionate response on YouTube to his book Looking for Alaska getting banned across America for a “controversial” oral sex scene, where two teens attempt to have sex but don’t. If these two best-selling authors are getting backlash for barely any sex in their beloved books, what’s the incentive to add more? Arguably the most popular YA series of the moment is Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, and in the final installment, heroine Lara Jean Song Covey and her perfect boyfriend Peter Kavinsky chose to wait to have sex until they go to college.
That’s okay. Not every teen needs to or should be having sex in high school, and so every YA book doesn’t need to have explicit sex. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is perfect as it is, and a little more believable because Peter isn’t also a virgin — he’s just waiting for Lara Jean. But I want a love story like Lara Jean and Peter’s with a little less conversation and a little more action. In After, there’s a whole side plot about Tessa’s sweet but bland ex-boyfriend who couldn’t excite her… “down there.” The implication is that good guys come with no sex, bad sex, or off-the-page sex. In order to feel pleasure, you have to endure relationships with shitty, lying sociopaths.
There’s nothing wrong with reading a dirty book or fawning over a cheesy, unproblematic romance. Why can’t we have both?