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Posted on April 20th, 2008 at 08:28 pm
Topic Discussion: How Much is TOO MUCH (or too little) SeX in YA?

I'm sure we all remember those certain "scenes" in novels we read (or sneaked) as teens. The dog-eared corners of certain pages in controversial books like Forever and Flowers in the Attic, but now we're writing for that same audience and it's a new kind of era. It's a time in literary history that, on one hand, promotes and encourages "edgy" YA fiction, and on the other hand, censors books for having gay characters or using words like "scrotum."

I've seen John Green speak several times and watched someone in the audience raise their hand and ask about the "blow job" scene in his Printz winning novel Looking For Alaska. Now if you've read this wonderful book, you'll know why it is so silly for people to be so intrigued by the scene. It's awkward (read=not sexy) it's not with the person Green's MC cares about, yet it is one of those dog-eared (teens!) or high alert (censors!) kinds of scenes.

So I'm asking you, how much is too much in YA? If you have older teen characters engaging in sexual activities in your novel, how much is explicit and how much is implied through your language?

And is it ever okay to leave a scene mysterious and therefore open to interpretation? A did-they or didn't they kind of scenario? And why is it that books that contain this kind of "material" get so much attention?

Inquiring minds want to know.
Debs? Let's hear your answers...


I always leave things up to the imagination. When I was growing up, it was really hard to find anything about sex out there-- I remember oohing and ahhing at a copy of Forever by Judy Blume because it was so risque! But now, sex is rather abundantly available, online and in the YA section, so I leave it to others who are more comfortable writing about it. I don't knock those who want to write about it, as long as it's handled tastefully and responsibly, but personally, I want to write things that I wouldn't be embarrassed to show my daughter when she becomes a young adult.
I think sex in YA needs to meet the same bar as anything else in YA- is it important to the story? If it's relevant and moves the story along, it needs to be there. If it's there just for jollies, it needs to be removed.

And if it is there, much like adult general fiction, counting the strokes adds nothing in particular to the narrative. What the sex is about is far more important than the structural mechanics of the act. (Which is why Green's blow job in LFA is utterly appropriate.)

If the sex is simply a culmination of a relationship without any other pertinent details, I think it probably belongs behind closed doors and left to the imagination.
counting the strokes adds nothing in particular to the narrative. ... if the sex is simply a culmination of a relationship without any other pertinent details, I think it probably belongs behind closed doors and left to the imagination.

Yes, absolutely. Well said. And I agree with Cyn's comment too, about writing things you aren't embarrassed to own up to. Especially if you want your kids to grow up with a balanced and responsible attitude to sex, it doesn't make a lot of sense to be throwing erotica at them and then expecting them to exercise self-control -- it becomes a "do as I say and not as I write" kind of thing.
I think we need to keep in mind that what is positively tame or even off-putting for an adult reader may be incredibly titillating and shocking for a younger one, depending on age and how sheltered that teen's upbringing has been. I have no doubt that John Green's scene is every bit as non-sexy in essence as he and others say it is (I haven't read the book yet), but the mere concept that I am reading about oral sex OMG can be enough to make a younger reader giggle and blush.

The other point is that a book can be incredibly, even agonizingly romantic, full of potent sexual tension, without the protagonists falling into bed or even kissing before the end of the book. There's relatively little of this in YA (which may be one reason that TWILIGHT took off like a rocket -- that rare combination of sensuality and sexual restraint), but it's definitely something that teens do feel. Sometimes less is not just more, but a lot more, and leaving a scene open to interpretation can be more effective than making it explicit, not less. (While, paradoxically, making it a lot less likely that your book will get complained about, because Nothing Actually Happens.)
I think we need to keep in mind that what is positively tame or even off-putting for an adult reader may be incredibly titillating and shocking for a younger one, depending on age and how sheltered that teen's upbringing has been.

This is true. I do think, though, that we have an obligation to remember that not all teens are sheltered (and not usually by their own doing,) and that those broken teens also have a right to recognize themselves and their experiences in literature.

It all boils down to honesty, for me. What really should happen, not what we really would like to happen. Meyer did a great job of setting up her universe to force the courtship issue (if his teeth are razors, her tongue cannot be in his mouth, period.)

But Green also did a great job writing a scene where intimacy was wasted and abused, and not even as meaningful as the next scene where they merely hold hands.

I'm 36 years old, and I still get giggly and stupid and blushful when a pairing I like finally kisses on my favorite tv show. I don't think that reaction ever goes away, if you're genuinely invested in the story.

That's why strokes shouldn't matter. If they're in love and they close the door, that's enough. Happy sex is happy sex, and we can all dig that without details. But if the sex means something, communicates something besides that, I really think we have an obligation to include it.

Stroke free.

Because really, people. That's what fanfic is for. :D

Edited at 2008-04-21 02:00 pm (UTC)
I think we need to keep in mind that what is positively tame or even off-putting for an adult reader may be incredibly titillating and shocking for a younger one, depending on age and how sheltered that teen's upbringing has been.

Well said, RJ. Like you and others have suggested, it depends on what advances the story and how it impacts the characters' development. The sex scene in SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS (the soccer girl...what was her name?) comes to mind here. Although the sex took place largely off-screen, the impact of it and the effect on the character was clearly expressed. It's all about balance.

As to why books with this material get so much attention...well, we're (at heart) a Puritanical culture that largely shelters our children. Lots of parents don't see the value in an honest portrayal of sex and its surrounding issues in YA lit. Instead, they want to hide their children from that content and pretend as though it doesn't exist.

Edited at 2008-04-21 01:49 pm (UTC)
I agree with the sentiment that sex in YA must be treated like anything in YA. I feel the same way about violence in film -- I have real issues with it when it is clearly gratuitous. I'm not interested in shock value, I'm interested in being moved, awakened, enlivened. If a film or a book does that, it works as a package.

If there's a sex scene (or a violence scene, or cursing, or anything else that tends to get censored), it has to have a framework. There must be supports for it, a reason for it to exist...just like in real life.

In life, there are situations where sex, violence, etc. appear to be for their own sakes. I would argue that even in *those* situations, there is a framework and scaffolding that good writers intuit -- they are sensitive to it, strive to perceive it in its entirety, and struggle to skillfully articulate.

There are always emotions a novel's characters are either engaging in, or avoiding; motives and goals that are either hidden or obvious; and conscious or subconscious elements at play. One of the roles of authors is to bring forth our unique take on the convergence of all those factors. There as many ways to write sex as there are authors to write it.

The author has to be aware of what any particular scene is to accomplish. And the reason for the scene, ultimately, determines how explicit or implicit it will be.
Since I skew to the older age range (with characters who range in age from 17 to 22), plus, come from a romance background, I tend to be fairly open about it. Not excessively explicit, but I don't play prudish about it either. Which isn't to say that my characters are little sexed up fiends, hopping from bed to bed. Ali in Adiós was my least experienced character, a virgin who stayed that way throughout the book although she certainly considered doing the deed.

Whereas my next YA is a contemporary interpretation of Carmen—given that that's a very sensual story and that the tragedy is centered around an all-consuming passion, I think it would be selling that story short if I didn't delve deeply into these characters' sexualities and have both physical and emotional passion be driving forces in the book.

My biggest pet peeve with respect to sex in YA is when it's gratuitous. I HATE when YA characters sound and behave in a manner more befitting a 35 year-old divorcée. I don't know, I guess if it fits the characters and the story, then it's up to the author to decide how far is far enough.

Edited at 2008-04-21 09:38 pm (UTC)
I try to remind myself that a 12-year-old could be reading my book.

If it is going to be shelved in Teen Fiction, that doesn't mean every reader will be a worldly, "Entourage"-watching, Jagermeister-drinking 16-year-old.

My character thinks about sex all the time, but when actual human contact occurs, it is offstage. I hope the tension leading up to it will suffice in place of gritty details.

I don't mind teens researching their techniques (in fact, I just remembered some YA book where the MC suggests getting sex tips off the Internet - it was funny! - I can't remember the title) but I don't feel that my scenes need to add to their repertoire.

I'm pretty much with everyone else--if it fits the story and the characters, then there's no reason it shouldn't be there. How obvious and how much detail you include depends on the audience you're aiming for, the tone of the book in general, and how important those details are to the rest of the story. Which goes for pretty much anything else you might put in a story. ;)

To me, sex is far less a big deal than many other kinds of behavior that can go on in books. I mean, yeah, there's emotional concerns and health concerns, but in essence it's a normal human behavior that almost all people will engage in at some point or another and is usually done out of affection/positive attraction. Yet there often seems to be so much more focus on that censoring that than on violence, substance abuse, etc.--behaviors that are almost always destructive. Not that I think we should be censoring *anything* out of hand, just that it seems sex is over-censored comparatively.
i agree. i'd much prefer the censors to be upset about violence than sexuality and language. a movie can have 10 murders, but if they drop the f bomb it gets a higher rating. pretty ridiculous. the f bomb never killed anyone.
Well, I was reading romance novels at an extremely young age so I'm not sure sex in a teen book would have shocked me all that much :) But at the same time, in romance novels counting strokes is often part of it -- the actual sex itself is integral to the book and story line (not always, there are sweet romance novels without sex).

And while relationships are important in my books and I have a lot of sexual tension, the act itself isn't important. It's just not integral to the plot. I have sex in mine -- if you want to read it in -- but unless you're looking for it, you're not going to know it's there. And if you wanted to believe it wasn't there, that would be true too :)

I love your second statement, Carrie--I think that way works the best--open to interpretation.
Okay, I'm probably not the sort of person who one should ask about these things, but I'm a little confused about what Cyn was saying about not being able to find naughty books. Didn't your library carry Anais Nin and Henry Miller? Or how about any of Anne Rice's pseudonyms? Heck, even Piers Anthony had some rather heavy stuff. Maybe it takes a dorky book-loving teenage boy driven utterly insane with hormones to commit the time and energy to do the investigative sleuthing required to uncover such gems...

That said, I'm still trying to figure out that balance. Right now, I'm leaning toward sensuality, then fade out of scene before anything gets too dirty. But that's just what works for this story. I totally reserve the write to push that particular button more in a different story, as long as it serves the story.

In the book I've already sold, it's fairly low key on that kind of stuff. Pluse, it's teenage boy, and I'm pretty sure I know what they can handle. However, in the book I'm working on now, the main character is a teenage demoness. So it's really hard to walk that line. Especially being a man writing a female character. I am constantly grilling my wife, my 10 year old niece, and sometimes even my poor long-suffering agent on what they feel is authentic.

And let's not even get into the violence in this post...I'm really walking on the razors edge with that one...

But, heck. In the end, as long as I don't surpass Holly Black, right?

well, when it's your turn you can ask about violence in YA--i'm sure we'd all have comments about that too. ('course being a serious wimpress I don't normally partake in the horror/violence genre at all--the scariest/most violent book i've read is TWILIGHT/NEW MOON--read=not scary.


Sounds good! Where do I sign up for my turn? I like to have things on my calender. Give me the illusion that my life is under control.

re: TWILIGHT. Um, yeah. I read that. I must say, when I pick up a book about vampires and werewolves, I am hoping for a bit more...I dunno, vampire and werewolf stuff...so not my bag. Still, certainly one of the few to actually bring something new to that somewhat overwritten subject. And clearly, she was doing _something_ right.

Re: Twilight

ah, I see! I was bamboozled!
Well, I'm coming into this discussion rather late, but I agree with what seems to be the basic consensus; it depends on the story.

Whether we like it or not, sex is an almost-everyday concern for pretty much all kids from Middle School on. I have four kids ages 9, 11, 14, and 16, and I have very open and honest relationships with them and their friends (I'm the mom everyone writes to for advice on Myspace!). I can tell you that even the very young ones aren't nearly as sheltered as we'd like to think, and I agree with the idea that these kids deserve to connect with their REAL lives (not the ones we want to pretend they're living)through literature.

When we were kids and the YA genre didn't really exist, we had to go to adult literature to find that and it often wasn't very material to the lives we were living and the issues we were facing. By addressing issues of sex in a realistic manner, I think we're giving teens a venue with which to examine the issues that are important to them without having to read Looking for Mr. Goodbar in secret like I did when I was 11!

That said, I'm NEVER for gratuitous anything. If it's not material to the story, it has to go. And that goes for sex, violence, bad dialog, superfluous description...

Another interesting thing to note; I really likes the way Brashares handled that sex scene in The Sisterhood, but I wrote a scene in a similar manner for one of my books and was asked by my agent to "clarify" what happened.