Published on July 11th, 2023 | by Kerry Chaput


Why More Parents Should Let Teens Read Sex Scenes

Growing up in a practical, lower middle-class Scottish family, emotions and exploration of self were considered frivolous and better saved for the hippies of our generation. Sweep those feelings under the metaphorical rug and learn the hard way, the way our boomer parents did. Then be quiet because kids aren’t supposed to have feelings anyway.

My parents’ approach to anything sex or hormone related was more of the same — avoid topic, shame into silence, repeat until the kids find the answers elsewhere. Sure, they thought they were protecting me. I did too.

As I grew into the teenage years, the shame I’d always known turned into manipulation. The scariest moments for a kid can be when the grown-ups reveal themselves to be more messed-up than the children they’re trying to raise. If we don’t talk about things, we can pretend they don’t exist.

This painfully shy bookworm once checked out a Judy Blume book. My mother promptly snuck it back to the library before I could read it. Books and writing and exploration seemed like a hidden world I wanted to be part of, but something scandalous existed in discussing bodies and it was clear I wasn’t to ask questions. Except, I couldn’t stop my young brain from associating growing up with shame.

One summer Saturday while reading, I shut my door in a panic when young Anne Frank discussed getting her period. Didn’t she know we aren’t meant to discuss such things? But Anne Frank’s voice sounded like mine. Her thoughts were close to my own, and I felt as though I was discussing my period with a friend who helped me see that menstruation is natural.

It was settled. I would write stories someday. More than a future as an author, I wanted a mother who taught me to be proud of myself and not afraid of my very confusing body and even more confusing feelings. What I ended up with was a mother who introduced me to men on chat rooms when I was fifteen. Her teaching boiled down to, women weren’t capable of much, men’s comfort matters more than anything, and teenagers should never even think about sex. But apparently it was fine to flirt with older men on the internet.

You can imagine how the next decade or so of my life unfolded.

Through years of therapy, I began to unpack why I couldn’t trust anyone and why relationships scared the wits out of me. Thus began my unwinding and unlearning of decades of the lies I believed and lived. I sifted through memories of hating my body, wishing I could disappear. Believing my 5ft 8in, size 2 frame wasn’t desirable or pretty enough because I was a brunette with small boobs. Going into panic attacks over the idea of being naked with someone. Feeling deep shame when I tried to have sex for the first time. Not knowing it would hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt or that bleeding was normal. Expecting the boy to turn and run because he got what he wanted out of me. That was what I was taught, after all.

But here’s the plot twist: that boy didn’t run. He held me and loved me, and we spent several years falling in love. That act of sex at age eighteen helped me overcome humiliating confusion to connect with someone for the first time on a level that was incredibly important for life fulfillment. I didn’t know that intimacy could heal, that love and satisfaction and safety were a right. I didn’t think I deserved anything like love until him. In fact, I broke off our relationship every time we grew too close. Emotional intimacy would be a battle before and after my relationship with him.

If this bookworm was exposed to a different narrative, those formative years may not have been so torturous. Not only was my family tight-lipped, but if popular culture exposed me to sex as a positive experience, maybe I wouldn’t have been so afraid.

The shame I worked to eradicate decades earlier came back with a vengeance when I discovered I was subconsciously teaching my children those same lies. The strength it took for me to explain a period to my three-year-old was nothing less than superhuman. “I’m changing my tampon. Once you grow up, you will bleed once a month from your vagina.” I was pretty sure my younger self died right there on the bathroom floor of complete and total embarrassment for daring to mutter the words vagina and period out loud to a child. Words have power, and not only would my daughter’s anatomy not be banned terminology in my house, but I would even hold back a grimace while I forced the words out. I was doing this differently, dammit.

Although I initially panicked, I did gain some clarity along the way. I joined a book club who read non-fiction books on raising girls, such as Peggy Orenstein’s eye-opening Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. These books discussed things I had internalized for three decades. How sexual urges were unacceptable, and curiosity was the gateway drug to being “easy.” How your body is shameful and gross. How postmodern feminism turned rage into using sex for power, but never taught us how to love — how to actually enjoy sex.

More therapy, please.

Should teens be exposed to sex scenes in literature? Every parent seems to have their own opinions about this, and as the mother of two young girls, I’m no different. But I also write young adult fiction, which gives this subject added weight in my world.

Somewhere along my journey, my life as a mother blended with my life as a writer. Through much denial, I reluctantly became a young adult author. This well-intentioned but easily intimidated woman suddenly became responsible for connecting with teenagers through fiction. My therapist once asked, what would your younger self want? Well, all-knowing-therapist, I would have wanted to know there was nothing wrong with me.

I began to write the most emotional manuscript of my life, a young adult historical titled, Chasing Eleanor, a story of a teenager living through the Great Depression, trying to overcome the trauma inflicted by her mentally ill parents. How do I do this authentically, I asked myself? The best thing I could do was write what I felt.

So I did. And I cried through most of that process.

Each story is a unique, living, breathing world inside your mind, and each character requires different things. My protagonist Magnolia demanded I stop running and face my past. The most honest thing I could do was sit in my own hurt and bleed onto the page.

With very little hesitation, I included a sex scene in my novel. Inspired by my own growth, I realized how deeply I want other young girls to know they deserve the world, even if their families don’t teach them. Even if society tells them in every possible way that they don’t matter. I want them to know that sex should feel good, and partners can be kind. As I say in Chasing Eleanor, “There is no greater defiance than self-love.”

Underneath each sassy, emotional teenager lies a full human, born with the same emotional depth and curiosity adults have. They will explore sex as part of their human experience. I want them to know it can be a beautiful connection. I also want them to know they are more than their desires. Everyone deserves whole, complicated, messy, fulfilling connections.

The relationship between a young adult and the books they read is intense. It’s a portal to a different life. When they’re alone with their imaginary worlds, they dare to explore emotions in a safe, healthy environment without being preached to, or scolded, or taught by their out of touch parents. Literature shows them the consequences of real-life choices, good and bad. The current state of book-banning in this country shows we haven’t moved past our irrational fear of children with knowledge. My mother feared Judy Blume would make me ask questions I wasn’t ready for, yet there I was, internally begging for someone to give me the answers. Avoiding the truth only caused me years of unhealthy images about my body. Nothing about Judy Blume would have hurt me. Maybe her words could have helped me feel less alone.

It’s a monumental honor to write stories, and I can only hope Chasing Eleanor makes an impression in someone’s life by showing them what I was never taught — you deserve love, right now, just as you are.

Cover photo by Andres Siimon on Unsplash

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About the Author

Kerry Chaput is the award-winning historical fiction author of Daughter of the King, Daughter of the Shadows, and Chasing Eleanor. She believes in the power of stories that highlight young women and found families. Born and raised in California, she now lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, where she can be found on hiking trails and in coffee shops.

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