Twitter’s been rather aflutter following Caitlin Moran’s explanation to the Bookseller that her forthcoming YA book is bringing strong female characters and sexytimes to YA. So what did we read back in the bad old days when YA showcased neither strong female characters nor sex? Well, I don’t know about you, but I found enough to keep me happy.
Here are a few of my old favorites:
Jean M. Auel’s cave people sexxxytimes series appears on a lot of ‘first sexy books I ever read’ lists, and lo and behold, it’s on mine, too. My mother handed me the first three in the series (back when there were only three) when I was 12, suspecting (rightly) that I’d like Ayla’s self-sufficiency. I don’t know if she forgot about the sex or just didn’t care, but I didn’t just learn what stone-knapping is by reading these books.
No, they were educational in many, many ways. (Spoiler: sexual positions and acts are all thoroughly explored.) Notably, however, The Valley of the Horses is also extremely sex-positive, which is a relief considering that rape is a plot-point in The Clan of the Cave Bear. And, yes, Ayla is a very, very strong character – indeed, she invents everything from sewing to cornrows to the bow and arrow, all the while keeping a cave lion as a pet.
- Sex: Yes, and lots of it.
- Sex-Positive: Extremely much. (He's essentially a sex-teacher and has a huge... well, let's just say he's very good at flint-knapping and impresses everyone he meets with his flint-knapping skillz.)
- Strong female character: Boy howdy, is she ever. She gets really good at flint-knapping too, by the way.
A Knight in Shining Armor (Jude Deveraux, 1987)
Knight wasn’t the first romance novel I read (and I read a lot of 'em), nor the most explicit, but it was (and remains) a favourite. Like most of Deveraux’s work, it’s warm, funny, features a likable heroine and a likable love interest – which is rarer than you’d expect, if your taste in romance novel men runs to tall, dark and broody. And most romance novels tend to feature tall, dark, and broody men. There’s also a lot of athletic sex, as notable for being funny as for being sexy. And there’s sex in a shower, which is not a thing I’d known was a thing before I read the book. Deveraux revisited Knight in 2003, adding a lot of new material in the hopes of making the female character more relatable. I’m sorry to say that the new material serves instead to highlight issues with the character; her character development is better in the leaner original.
- Sex: Yes. There’s also sexy ice cream and two shower scenes.
- Sex-Positive: Everyone’s so happy! And funny!
- Strong Female Character: The novel’s heart is actually in the female lead’s journey from doormat to awesome. Let’s gloss over the weird denouement, which has to pull a romantic ending out of a story about a 20th century woman falling in love with a 16th century man.
Tiffani Angus covered VC Andrews pretty thoroughly in her gateway smut post. But I had heard about the incest in Flowers in the Attic and avoided it, instead landing on Heaven, the first in the Casteel series. Like most Andrews novels, there’s rape and incest, and well, so much for avoiding the incest thing. That said, I genuinely liked its sequel, Dark Angel, which features the usual Andrews rape n’ incest cocktail but includes a legitimately moving love story between, uh… a girl and her hot young (spoiler!) uncle. They don’t know they’re related, I swear, and then he commits suicide (or does he?) because this is a VC Andrews novel, so of course he does (or doesn’t). Andrews died in 1986 and Dark Angel was her last full novel, but the estate immediately copyrighted her name and ‘she’ continues to produce rape and incest-laden novels in spite of the inconvenient ‘dead for nearly three decades’ thing. That’s some work ethic, eh?
- Sex: Yes.
- Sex-Positive: Uh… until you find out about the incest thing, yes. I think. I haven’t had the courage to reread this one.
- Strong Female Character: Heaven, our titular heroine, has some spark in her. But she’s pretty victimized, as she is, at the end of the day, a VC Andrews character.
The Graduation (Christopher Pike, 1989)
My first Pike was Remember Me (which also included some incest – what the hell?) but my favourite sexytimes Pike was the Final Friends series, particularly The Graduation. The sex wasn’t graphic (indeed, it wasn’t even onscreen, just implied), but it was, erm, a satisfying conclusion to the series-spanning will they/won’t they relationship between the lead character and her hot, nerdy friend. Honestly, I think I was primarily attached to these books because I had a crush on the male lead. This website has a rundown of the hilariously soapy series, and I now desperately want to reread the whole thing.
- Sex: Yes, off-screen. A lot of people talk about sex in what was, then, a reasonably relatable fashion.
- Sex-Positive: No idea.
- Strong Female Character: Again, I have no idea. Oh my god, I don't know; I was 12.
Cry Wolf (Tami Hoag, 1993)
Graphic sex and graphic violence against a rural Louisiana backdrop: what’s not to love? Well, the heroine is a bit of a drip, but the hero is smoking hot. And super tortured which I, as a young adult, really fancied in my smoking hot heroes. Also, there’s sex in a boat. And girls running around without panties on. Which I hadn’t even known was a thing. That said, the plot revolves around a rapist/serial killer, and a subplot around the lead's slutty sister. And, there's incest, of course, because apparently we were obsessed with incest in the late 80s/early 90s?
- Sex: So much of it.
- Sex-Positive: Uh… as mentioned, the plot revolves around a rapist/serial killer, and a subplot around the female lead’s slutty sister. There’s a lot of slut shaming, and some pretty graphic rape. There’s also some fairly explicit, very consensual sex. So, honestly, who knows? I just reread this one recently and it really was very sexy. But also really disturbing. So no, not really sex-positive.
- Strong Female Character: Alas, the slutty sister is actually a more interesting character than the lead, who is delicate and weepy. Falling in love with a hot, rich, Cajun ex-lawyer/bestselling author/sexxxytimes dude* brings her out of her shell, but she’s still pretty annoying.
*Seriously. He’s also a smoker, a musician, was raised poor by an abusive father and blames himself for his pregnant first wife’s suicide. He is a mess. He checks off at least half the romantic suspense-thriller love-interest bingo-card.