Does sex sell books?

Image credit: ALLIE WARE

Society loves to shove romance down our throats. From Valentine’s Day displays to films to the well-known adage that ‘sex sells’, it’s unavoidable, and books are no exception to that. Especially Young Adult fiction.

In fact, the phenomenon is possibly worst in books aimed at teenagers, although I think it’s beginning to improve. Bestselling series-turned-films like Twilight and The Hunger Games set the scene for thousands of novels featuring love triangles, while contemporary fiction was for a long time dominated by writers like John Green, in whose books romance plays a major role.

Now, I love YA. I read it, I write it, I review it – I even worked in a secondary school library for a while last year, and spent my time surrounded by young adult fiction and its target audience. Yet, as anyone who spends more than a couple of hours with me or reads a few of my reviews will know, I’m basically allergic to romance.

I’m asexual, aromantic, and completely uninterested in relationships. For me, they’re slightly baffling, generally unappealing, and sometimes even border on terrifying. In books, I find it hard to get invested: romantic subplots are either uninteresting or downright annoying, though a few might edge towards ‘tolerable’ if I’m feeling generous. Very occasionally, I’ll find that I care; it’s a lot more likely when they’re LGBTQ+ relationships, but even then I struggle to engage, particularly if there’s a strong focus on sexual attraction.

There’s a lot depicted in books that I’ll never experience for myself, like going to space or discovering a magical world, but the trouble with romance is that authors frequently rely on the idea that romantic and sexual feelings are universal. They assume that their readers will be able to relate, and so don’t take the trouble to explore and depict these feelings in a meaningful, detailed way. I don’t have a romantic bone in my body, though, so I end up feeling alienated.

I love YA, but YA’s full of romance, and I hate romance – how do I reconcile these facts?

Mostly, I don’t. I seek out the books that buck the trend, the rare stories where platonic relationships aren’t subordinated to sudden and overly dramatic love stories where characters who have known each other literally a week suddenly declare this relationship is eternal and perfect. (Spoiler alert: it probably isn’t.)

It drives me round the bend when a book that was working perfectly well without romance suddenly throws in a completely pointless romantic subplot. I can’t count the number of books I’ve read where romance added absolutely nothing to the plot – the characters’ motivations would have worked just as well if it had been platonic, and given the proliferation of romance in YA, it would probably have been more original, too.

And don’t get me started on unnecessary sex scenes. I hate them. They’re rarely anything other than embarrassing, and I can name half a dozen books that I would have liked considerably more had I not had to hurriedly skim through pages of badly-written and unappealing sex. Sarah J. Maas, I’m looking at you. Please just stop.

I understand that for a lot of teenagers, they’re navigating the world of relationships for the first time. YA fiction needs to explore ideas that are interesting to teenagers if it wants to remain relevant – that’s true. (Whether the relationships depicted in these books are healthy and a good example is a whole other article.) But teens don’t have to be aromantic to read about other kinds of relationships: platonic friendships are important, no matter how interested in romance you are.

I’ve been known to say excitedly to friends, “You should read this – there’s no romance!” because it’s a rarity. And I’ll continue to recommend and seek out those books, because they’re a welcome relief from a society that seems to prioritise romantic relationships above all others. To take it further, if we could collectively agree that there have been enough books about romantic relationships for a while and we should focus on depicting meaningful, close friendships… that’d be great.

But I doubt that’ll happen, so in the meantime, if you know of any romance-free YA, send it my way.

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