Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Let's Talk About Sex

More specifically, let's talk about sex in young adult novels.

How much is too much?

It's something I've been pondering for the past few days. I've been looking back through BY THE PALE MOONLIGHT, trying to decide how best to tackle revisions. (Yes, I'm back on the BTPM train.) One stumbling block I'm having is when I reach a certain scene between members of the opposite sex.. a scene of the horizontal variety. I'll cut to the chase and say that I have a PG rated version of this scene, and a version that's not quite so...PG. In fact, it's probably the steamiest sex scene I've written to date--and that goes for my adult novels as well. I actually sent it to a friend and received a few "OMG's" in return. Yeah, I went there...and promptly reined it in with the PG version that currently resides in the manuscript.

The question I'm now asking myself is whether or not I should say to hell with it all and put the scene back in?

I'll give you a little background on the scene itself. I wrote this scene with an agenda. (Heck, don't we all do these things with a bit of an agenda on our minds? Even saying we don't have an agenda is writing with an agenda, if you ask me. So I'm not going to say I didn't have one, because that would be a big old fat lie. So yeah, I had an agenda, K?)

I wrote this scene to illustrate the point that sex should be about more than just the physical. Should be, though that isn't always necessarily the case.

I hope some of you at least agree with what I was trying to accomplish, though I certainly respect anyone who would feel it's a shoddy excuse for a sex scene. In fact, it's those voices in the back of my head that were the cause of my yanking it out of the book to begin with. More pointedly, I shared it with a friend who blew a gasket at the idea I would write such a scene...and for children no less. (!!!!) She felt, and expressed her adamant belief, that to write such a scene is to condone sex among teenagers.

Okay. This is when my eyes are going to do a little workout.


Let's all at least agree on this:

Whether or not you agree with the idea of putting sex in young adult novels... whether or not you want your children/siblings/friends, etc. to be exposed to sex, the truth of the matter is that teenagers are having sex. If they're not actually having it, they want to have it. If they don't want to have it, they're being pressured to want to want to have it. Sex is everywhere, no matter how studiously we may try to shield kids from it. Whether or not we sometimes wish we could put "sexual blinders" on them until they're of age and mature enough to handle the ramifications. (Uh, yeah, are any of us really ever old enough to handle the ramifications? Debatable.)

There's not a one among us who can keep their children from being exposed to sex in one fashion or another.

Not gonna happen. Not gonna happen. Not gonna happen.

And in my book, it's going to be addressed in some fashion. To leave it out would, in my opinion, leave out a LARGE chunk of what it's like to be a teenager.

So we're back to the same question... How much is too much?

There are some big name authors who have tackled 'the sex.' Each in their own way. Who is right, who is wrong? IS there a right answer?

In the TWILIGHT series, Stephenie Meyers built up sexual tension between Edward and Bella for THREE novels. Then when D day arrived, she blacked out the entire scene.

John Green, in LOOKING FOR ALASKA, had one character give a lust-struck couple a lesson in oral sex.

Richelle Mead has sex in her VAMPIRE ACADEMY novels, though told from a distance and without explicit detail.

Can anyone think of a young adult novel that went there?

Please discuss. I really want to hear from all of you. Would you try to keep your kids from reading books that involve sex? How much is too much for you?

Any and all opinions welcome.


  1. Hmmm, it's a tough one because I love a good sex scene (not that I can write one), and yet I guess there are lines you don't wanna cross with YA.

    But on what your friend said - if this is for a YA novel, it's not really for "children", right? Teens aren't children. :)

  2. @Trisha -- AGREED. NOT children. lol. For you, what lines are those that you wouldn't want to see crossed? Are there specific books that you think went too far -- or maybe not far enough? Personally, I vote the TWILIGHT series as my biggest let down on this front (tho I love the books). And honestly, I can't think of a single YA book that I thought took it too far. Hmm..

  3. I think the thing you have to ask is how necessary to your PLOT and the CHARACTER(S) is that one scene. Then, how necessary are the DETAILS of the scene to your plot and character development. If you took the scene out, would the rest of the book make sense? Or would something be missing? If you kept the scene PG and didn't have the details, would it read flat, or would something feel missing?

    Personally, I don't like a lot of explicit content--I don't like to read it myself in the YA I choose, and don't think teens need to read it either. Sure, teens know about it and don't need to be unnecessarily sheltered (cuz often that makes them MORE curious), but a suggestion/summary or a fade to black works just fine. We don't need the details. I like to write YA so that ANY teen (or his/her parents) would feel comfortable reading it.

    Same with bad language or swearing...why limit readership? There are plenty of extremely successful books and movies that tastefully indicate/portray such scenes; they are good examples to learn from.

  4. Very thought provoking post, Jen!

    I haven't read much YA since I was a kid myself, but one I read that certainly went THERE was Judy Blume's FOREVER. The sex scene is short, but fairly explicit (and published in 1975! Crikey, that makes me feel old.)

    I don't think there's a right or wrong answer to your question. On one hand, as with sex scenes in books aimed at an adult market, YA sex scenes only work if they have a purpose - character development, plot development, etc. And while it may make sense for one YA story to fade to black when it comes to sex, for another, a full scene may well be called for.
    On the other hand, do I want my kids reading scenes like that? Well ... I'm not sure why, but I'd rather they be exposed to that kind of content in a book, as part of a story with a point to it, than by googling random smut. Because as you pointed out, they WILL go looking for it, no matter what. (I know I did. Ahem.) Having some context to the sex, a point to it for kids to think about, is better than oggling boobs and bits on a screen.

    I think. ;-)

  5. I've always thought the way Richelle Mead does it is very tasteful - it isn't too explicit, but doesn't shy away from dealing with the subject. I also like that she includes a lot of physical interaction that stops short of sex (making out on beds, etc), which is a pretty realistic depicition of the teenage experience, I reckon.

    For me, sex scenes that are too explicit seem as though they are there specifically to titillate, or to be controversial, rather than to advance the story - which always makes me wonder if they've been included just to improve book sales rather than for artistic reasons. And there's always the pitfall that writing explicit sex can come out fairly cringe-worthy . . .

    I think Carol has hit the nail on the head: if details are justified, leave them in - otherwise, work with a less is more kind of thing.

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  7. Yea, I thought of Judy Blume, too. And, of course, we're not talking about VC Andrews junk either, are we? I was a bit traumatised by My Sweet Audrina at the age of 12... Never mind Phillip in the Dawn series.

    So, ick, unless it's sweet, or there to make a point (maybe in a YA discussing rape or what have you) then I'd say the less is better.

    As for your scene though - your characters act different and are different. If you're being graphic about other stuff, I see no reason to scale back just because some people want to pretend that it's not happening. And I like your agenda - that ought to be the point of most, if not all sex scenes, right? A "horizontal" dialogue [bg]

    (How come pages and pages of violence in YA is not a problem but sex is?)

    There's also this - when you're a teen and having those first few relationships, even holding hands is super duper exciting. Why waste all that excitement by getting down to the full act right away? Let's build up some momentum, here! A little brushing shoulders, a little kissing, and so on. Anne and May did this wonderfully in their Miracle Girls series, as a very recent example.

    All this is part of the reason my current book became straightforward romance - the more fun I had with the sensual aspect of it, the less it became a YA voice.

    And especially not in MG! Can you imagine me writing about Austin getting into bed? What, is Kedi going to give him tips from his perch on the windowseat? [bg]

    Oh, and John Green can do no wrong [g]

  8. Very interesting, Jennifer. I am a former sex columnist for men's mags. I have gone on TV and spoken about sex from a sex journalist's perspective. However, I am going to try to shield my children from too much sexual info too early. The written word is very powerful! What I remember from my childhood is that it only takes a little to really tantilize the imagination. Not that that's a bad thing. Sure, kids can't be sheltered too much -- and doing so can actually cause the contrary (as it did in my case) -- leading to an over-emphasized sexual curiosity that can be unhealthy. I think that sex can be alluded to in YA lit, as it IS part of a young adult's life today. But not in the same way that it is in a book for adults. With all the sex that is blasted at our kids today, we as writers can at least be a little responsible and shield our children from gratuitous sexual exploitation in YA lit.


  9. From another angle-- school libraries are most likely not going to include a YA novel with sex. Even high school could be iffy. If you want the library money (which is not a small chunk of book sales) then it's something to consider.

  10. Interesting post, Jen. I tend to agree with you on this one. Sex IS part of being a teenager today, so leaving it out wouldn't be a true account of teenage life and could result in teens not being able to connect with the book as well. I think if you're aiming at an older YA audience (16-18 y/o) you can probably get away with more details. In Australia the legal age is 16 anyway.

    I agree about the Twilight sex scene being a major let down too!

  11. @Carol -- The scene as a whole: necessary. :) Just really a matter of figuring out how far to take it at this point. There is a certain rawness to the original scene that I really do like because it shows just how crazy nervous my character is...how overwhelmed she feels in the moment. Not only by the sensations she's experiencing, but by the emotions (or lack thereof) she's feeling. It's a BIG moment for her, and yeah...I just hope to impress that upon readers.

    You know, I thought a lot about your comments today. It really made me think back to when I was a kid and first discovered a little thing calld Harlequin. (g) I remember very distinctly that my summer school teacher -- between 6th and 7th grades -- brought a huge bag of them to class one day and sold them to us for a dime a piece. It was my first exposure to sex in books. And I have to say, they didn't make me WANT to have sex any more than I probably already did (which at that age, wasn't a whole lot. I mostly just wanted to smooch boys. (g)). What they did do, however, was teach me that sex is special. I mean, think about it... romance books are geared towards finding your one and only. Only THEN is it okay for you to give up your inhibitions and sleep with someone. I guess what I mean to say is that it taught me to wait for "the one." So even though I was exposed to sex at what some might consider too young of an age, it didn't make me want to go out and have it. At least not until I found that special someone who was worth it.

    I really don't want to alienate any set of readers. But then again, no matter what I do with my book, there's someone out there who will find fault with some decision or thought my characters have. As cliche as it sounds, I have to be true to the characters and the story. It's all I can do. :)

  12. @Rachel -- Yanno, I've never read FOREVER, but as soon as you brought it up, I downloaded it and skimmed through for the "bits." O.M.G. Yes, that is explicit sex right there. lolol. Wow. 1975, huh? Judy Blume is my hero for taking risks. I'm not sure I can take things THERE in my book, but maybe I'll just flirt around the edges instead. (g)

    As for your other point -- I pretty much agree. I think books are probably the best way to be exposed to sex. Not movies with a music montage over the top... not smut... but stories with real life characters that kids can relate to. Not all characters make the right decisions about sex, but hopefully kids can cull through it all and make the right choice for themselves. For me, knowledge is power. (Boy, cliche highway for Jen tonight.) But it's true. The more you know, the better prepared you can be. Shrug. And as I told Carol above, books made me raise my standards high. (g)

  13. @Ricki -- Very sound advice. I read through Richelle Mead's sex scene last night, (There may be more than one -- I'm only through book three. (g)) and I have to agree that she does them very well. I like how she's present in the moment, but not fully focused in on the specifics. Definitely a good model to follow. Food for thought. :)

  14. @Deniz -- LMAO. I totally forgot about V.C. Andrews. I think I'm still in shock over Flowers in the Attic. (vbg) Wow, those books took things to a whole new level.

    I honestly am not trying to be explicit in this scene JUST to be explicit for no other purpose than to a. cause a stir, b. cuz I can. No, I think there is a purpose to it, but as in anything, there's a judgment call to be made. I've frowned out books that imply oral sex is something less than actual sex, because to me there's an intimacy involved no matter the exact actions involved. Yet, I realize that the author isn't necessarily the one who feels that way -- the characters do. And I think that's where part of my problem lies--and that of others--in the inability to separate OUR morals and viewpoints from characters that are supposed to represent real teenagers. It's difficult not to overlay our own feelings and agendas, but in the end, is that true to the story? Hmm. :)

    And agreed. John Green can do no wrong. :) I think LOOKING FOR ALASKA is genius...and look at all the things he included.

  15. @Lara -- Ack. I had a long response typed out to you, and I hit a button and lost it.

    *Head* *Desk*

    Gah, that always happens to me. LOL.

    Well, the gist of it was--thanks for jumping in. I'm so glad I posted this topic because the ensuing discussion has been great. Lots of good things to think about as I go forward.

    The main thing that I wanted to say is that I completely agree about gratuitous sex, but that I'm not sure whether or not we would define the two the same way. When I think gratuitous, I think explicit simply for the sake of being explicit. That's not what I went for in this scene. The reason it turned so explicit is because I wanted to give an honest portrayal of what it's like--the awkwardness, the fear, the doubt as to whether or not my character should be doing this with THIS guy--but ultimately how the physical sensations can sometimes override all of those common sense factors. It is on the way to going THERE, and I probably will end up reining it in to some middle road between the two current scenes.

    The thing is that I guess I don't see putting a sex scene in a book as being irresponsible. I feel the direct opposite, actually. Kids are surrounded by sex, you're right... and I guess I hope that portraying someone they can relate to, someone who is JUST like them in so many aspects, that they'll sit up and listen a little bit. Realize that sex IS a big deal. It's not just this fun thing to do, but has some real strings attached to it. Be they emotional, physical... whatever. Every act leaves an impression on you, so you won't hear me say there are no ramifications involved. But I guess I'm all about the boy scouts in the "be prepared" department. I'd rather kids know what to expect and be able to make the right decision based on that information.

    I don't want to write a "lesson" book either. Gah. Catch-22...all of it.:)

  16. @Danette -- Good point. I try not to think about that stuff, but yeah, it creeps in. :)

  17. @Sara -- Thanks for jumping in. TWILIGHT. Hrm. Another thing that bugged me (and sorry if you haven't read the book yet, peeps) is that she got pregnant the first time she had sex! *Head* *Wall* Talk about attaching some major strings to the act. LOL. They at least could've had a decent honeymoon first. :)

    And yeah, I think we're on the same page here. 16??? Wow. LOL.

  18. This is an interesting topic. I agree with most of the comments here that sex in teen life is a reality...whether the adults like it or not.

    I also agree that it should be appropriate for the characters and the story. If you describe other feelings/things in your book in the same level of detail, then why would the sex be any different?

    YA has a HUGE age range and maturity level of kids reading it. I've heard some folks use the sex discussion to bring up the idea of book ratings (like movies).

    And Twilight? I threw the book across the room when she faded to black. It's a matter of preference though right? I'm sure there are a lot of parents who are thankful she did it that way.

  19. The problem with sex in YA is that the developmental range for teens is 12 to 18 (and some would say 12 to 25). Having been all those ages, and raised girls of all those ages, that is a huge range.

    Once my kids hit about 15 or so, I figured they could read what they wanted. And they weren't reading YA. They were reading adult books. In fact, the only one of my daughters who has read any YA as an adult is the one with a twelve year old daughter. And some of it she has returned to the bookstores as being age inappropriate based on explicit sex. So lost sales and bad rep for the author.

    Kids tend to "read up." So if your target audience (intended or not) is my 12 year old granddaughter, leave the sex out. If your target audience is my 21 year old daughter, write an adult novel. She's not choosing her books from the YA shelves.

    My 30 year old daughter is on a crusade against explicit sex in YA. If you do the math, you'll see that she had that first kid at 17. Her kids know about sex, but she doesn't want her 12 yo reading explicit sex for a few more years.

    As publishers, we are rating books so parents know what they're getting. E for everyone, MT for mature teen based on sex, language, violence, drugs/alcohol usage. My kids knew all about that stuff. But they didn't need to read it until they were old enough to do so responsibly and with proper understanding. It only makes sense.

    As I said, after about 15 or so, I don't care what kids read. Until then, as a responsible parent and grandparent, I have a duty to protect them.

    And, as a former child welfare worker, some of what passes as sex in YA could be considered "premature sexualization" of younger teens. Why risk being banned or kept out of school libraries?

  20. @Kari Marie

    Thanks for your comments -- I think we're definitely on the same page. As long as it's relevant and moves the story along, there's probably no real reason to cut sex out of a book.

    Twilight.. Yes. I know. The blackout moment. Grrr. It wasn't so much that I wanted to have this over-the-top scene. I think it's just that she spent three books building up to this one moment and then never actually was one. Waaaah-waaaah-waaaaah. (vbg) Eh, I guess I'll live. It'll be interesting to see what they do with the movie.

  21. @Susan -- Thank you so much for your insight. There are a lot of things to consider in your post, and I will definitely keep them in mind.