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Young Adult Literature: What Does It Tell Youth About Contraceptives?


Jeanne T. McDermott, “Getting It On: An Examination of How Contraceptives Are Portrayed in Young Adult Literature,” Young Adult Library Services (Summer 2011).
The researcher identified twenty-five works of young adult fiction published since 1995, selected for their treatment of sexual themes involving the depiction of contraception.1 Titles were recommended by librarians specializing in young adult literature, or cited in professional journal articles from the fields of youth literature or youth sexuality. Each work was analyzed using a checklist developed from criteria found in publications of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Criteria included whether a story’s protagonist discusses contraception with a sexual partner, whether the story informs readers how contraception is acquired and used, and whether contraception is shown to be effective.
Key Findings:
  • Of the thirty-six heterosexual relationships portrayed in these works of young adult fiction, contraception is used at least once in 74% of those relationships.
  • Only 32% of the books provide enough details about contraception to make them helpful informational sources for their intended audience (teen readers).
  • Only 24% of the books portray contraceptive experiences as positive.
Young adult literature remains a powerful part of “the media” which influence and inform young people about sexuality. With the proliferation of e-books, it is likely that young adult fiction will remain competitive with on-line entertainment, video games, music, television, movies, and smart phone applications – that is, with all other media believed by adults to exert positive and negative influences on youth sexual knowledge, attitudes and behaviors. Therefore, young adult fiction provides opportunities to educate young readers in preparation for sexually healthy adulthood. Using contraception effectively is one of the ‘Life Behaviors of a Sexually Healthy Adult’ found in the SIECUS’ K-12 Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education.
McDermott’s analysis of 25 works of young adult fiction raises concern that publishers are missing opportunities to inform young readers about the importance of discussing, acquiring, and using contraceptives. Out of three dozen heterosexual relationships depicted in which couples are (or are considering becoming) sexually active, contraception is used only about 3/4 of the time, and its use is expressed in affirmative terms only 1/4 of the time. There is a wealth of possibility for authors and publishers to explore more thoughtful, informative, and affirmative portrayals of contraceptive use in young adult fiction. 
Additionally, more research is needed to understand how young adult fiction portrays contraceptive decision-making among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning (LGBTQ) characters; in real life, LGBTQ youth may actually be at higher risk of causing or experiencing a pregnancy in comparison to heterosexual peers.2 Here again, authors and publishers of young adult fiction may be overlooking opportunities to engage young readers with highly relevant information and skills-modeling not otherwise available at home or in school.
1  McDermott JT (2011). Getting it on: an examination of how contraceptives are portrayed in young adult literature. Young Adult Library Services 9(4): 47-53.
2  Saewyc EM, Poon CS, Homma Y, Skay CL (2008). Stigma management? The links between enacted stigma and teen pregnancy trends among gay, lesbian, and bisexual students in British Columbia. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality17(3): 123–139.