I get asked lots of questions about sex and YA and writing sex and sex in general. Which is one reason Christa Desir & I started this Oral History podcast.
But recently a friend of mine in the Hamline MFAC program asked to pick my brain on Sex in YA Literature, as that is the topic her critical thesis paper (mine was, too!) and her creative thesis also features sexual content (again, same here!) We met for coffee and talked for a few hours, which was pretty cool. Then she emailed me some follow-up questions, as she was worried about what she was positing as the main stance of her thesis paper, as well as wondering if she was taking her own advice from the paper when it came to her own YA novel.
Below is an excerpt from that pep-talk email I sent her, in hopes it might help those writers out there who are thinking about these questions and choices:
Okay, a couple of thoughts here:
– Lose the word “gratuitous.” From yr paper, from yr brain. Same goes for “as long as it serves the plot.” What serves plot is character. And fully developed characters, in my opinion, have layers that we must know as their creators: spiritual, physical, genealogical, mental, intellectual, emotional, sexual. SEXUAL. Many ppl don’t bother to learn their characters’ sexual layers bc we live in a society that won’t freak if they don’t know those details (though many LOVE to know those details.) This stupid, repressive & dismissive attitude is something that separates sex in YA that is illustrative, beautiful and truly unique to a character and his/her situation from sex in YA that is cliched, obvious, unclear & formulaic. Because we live in a culture that is so fearful of discussion of sex as it happens in reality (v. sex used to sell products) even seeing sex that is formulaic appears radical (which is why the romance industry makes billions for its authors)
– There is a balance between writing a true-to-character story that includes sex and a story that includes sex just to shock or seem ‘edgy.’ But I don’t think there’s a tension in positing that there are a spectrum of considerations, actually. What lies between is the vast canyon of artistic expression and possibility.
– I don’t think the writer decides ‘how much is too much.’ That is an editor decision. And maybe even a reader decision. But it’s too variable to let others take the wheel on, anyway. What is better to ask is, “Can a reader imagine this? Am I helping readers imagine this or am I getting in the way of their imagination?” What they think is “too much” or might find “unbelievable” is also a moving target. Everyone has their beliefs about adolescence that generally just happen to cohere with what happened to them as adolescents! (Funny how that works, huh?) So ppl who weren’t sexually active at that time might say, “That is Too Much!” While others, like me, will say, “This looks familiar.”
– The question of “where’s the line” and “how much is too much” will never offer a writer any useable data if we’re talking about sex or adolescent experience. Better questions might be “is this story balanced chronologically i.e. am I writing 50 pages about a sex scene with 10 pages about 3 months at summer camp?” or “how does this sex scene function in telling us about the characters or raising the stakes?”
– The only source I can think of beyond my own big mouth would be Harmful To Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex by Judith Levine. Levine looks at the effect of sex education on kids, plus a whole lot more on sexuality and education. A lot of my thinking on sex has come from writers like Susie Bright and Dan Savage, but I can’t point you to a definitive book on that count (although Susie Bright published a mother-daughter sex advice book w/ her own daughter that I’ve heard great things about).
– The last thing: on a personal level, for authors thinking about writing sex in YA or other kidlit – be ready for blowback and be brave about it. Because guess what: it’s coming. Own what you’re doing, believe in it, know that you’re advocating a natural human behavior, and be proud of what you’re writing. Sex scenes in YA are the most read prose you will ever, ever write. Kids will pore over those passages. I think of those stakes when I write my stories, not just the plot stakes. Give them something to lay their own sexual life beside and think about. Books can provide a great way to talk about difficult issues that are embarrassing (sex, drugs, mental health, etc.) so think about that when you write sex, not just about “positive representation.” You’re providing discussion and emotional cover for very tricky, complex problems. It’s one thing books can do that other media can’t. Be proud of that.
If I think of more, I will send! Let me know if this helped or if you need more. I think you’re fine, actually.
Found this helpful? Have more questions? Leave a comment or send an email to us for our upcoming Oral History Podcast (feedback AT theoralhistorypodcast DOT com) and we’ll try to discuss it during our upcoming episode, Writing Sex: A Craft Talk.