Friday, December 3, 2010

Sex and Sexy Scenes in YA: Let’s Look at it a Different Way

Does sex belong in young adult literature? 

I recently had a lengthy discussion about whether healthy sex between two consenting teenagers, who are in love, belongs in YA or not. Before I get to the main point of today’s post (starring a special guest), here are three constants I have to mention:
First: I don’t know the answer.   

Second: I personally don’t consider young adult books to be for children. I consider YA books to be books for adults, because I consider anyone above the age of 14 an adult in terms of their mind. Sure, they are silly and immature at times, but they think and feel like adults do. The YA genre consists of books written for adults that feature teenage protagonists.

Third, putting YA aside, I think all scenes in a book MUST matter, or they shouldn’t be in the book in the first place.

Last year, I was at a conference where Maggie Stiefvater spoke on a panel about love in literature, and someone asked her why SHIVER had a sex scene.

Maggie didn’t have to answer, because another author – uber cool Michael Knight, spoke up and said, “If you include a sex scene in anything you write, you should have a reason for doing so.”  

Maggie had a reason for doing so (her characters were in love), and I loved Gayle Forman’s thoughts on it (which are put so much more eloquently than I’ve done here).

But getting to my real point.  As I was discussing the positives and negatives of featuring sex in YA, I realized something. 

How often do any of us actually ask teenagers what they want to read about?

Why is it always about what adults want to showcase about sex?

Why is it always about a “message” or lack thereof?

In other words, why is it always about what adults think?

I’ve seen sex in YA showcased in a very positive manner, e.g. – WHEN IT HAPPENS by Susane Colasanti. I’ve seen sex showcased in negative ways, too. TOO MANY BOOKS TO NAME.

So you tell me – what do teenagers want to read about?

If you’re a teenager, what do you want to read about?

If you’re a parent, what do you want your kids to read about?

Since some publishers want YA novels to be cross-over novels that adults will read, do you feel like this factors into the equation at all?

So, since I’m being all anarchist-like and crazy today, I’ve invited my romance author friend Tiffany Reisz to tell us what she wanted to read about when she was a teenager, and how that’s shaped her life as an author today.

So here’s Tiffany!

Matthew Fox, star of Lost, age twelve.
Britney Spears, pop star, mother of two, age fourteen.
Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter, age sixteen.
Johnny Depp, world's greatest actor, age thirteen
Angelina Jolie, Oscar winning actress, age fourteen.

What do all these celebrities have in common? They all had sex for the first time in middle school or high school. 

When Miranda asked me to write a little about what I thought about sex in Young Adult novels, this list was the first thing that came to me. Sex in YA novels seems like a no brainer. Teenagers have sex. Not all of them. But a lot of them. And if you want to write realistic stories for teenagers, you're probably going to have to address the issue of sex at some point. After all, there really is no such thing as a YA Book. Books are books.  The rules are the same whether your stories are about teenagers or million year old aliens--tell a good story and tell it well. Saying you can't have sex in a YA novel is like saying you can't have dinner in a YA novel. Makes no sense whatsoever.

As soon as I hit age twelve I started reading "Adult" Fiction. Some of it had teenage characters in it (Katherine Kurtz's Deryni series) and some didn't (Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead...and A LOT of Star Trek novels.).  I was a teenager reading these books. Did that make them Teen Books? Most of what I read back then had sex scenes. Especially when I discovered historical romance novels. Oh my Lord, my little thirteen year old brain delighted in reading semi-explicit sex scenes. So much so that by age fourteen I was writing semi-explicit sex scenes of my very own. I wasn't having sex then. I didn't lose my virginity until after college. But I was fascinated by sex, the mechanics of it, the power of it, and the joy. 

Yes, I said joy. Sex in romance novels was so magical, so uplifting, so life-altering and beautiful, that I couldn't help but think that sex was something incredibly special. Reading about sex made me take sex more seriously, not less so. When I had my first boyfriend in college, I told him "No sex until marriage." He said, "Fine.”

Anywho, I didn't think of sex as an "issue" in those days. I heard about the "issues" of drugs and AIDS and teen pregnancy. But they seemed very far away from me. They didn't really interest me. I had my nose stuck in a Julie Garwood novel reading about a handsome earl seducing his virginal bride he'd won in a card game or something like that. I hear people talking about tackling "issues" in YA novels. Have these people even met a teenager?

Here's a teenager for you. She's fourteen. She's beautiful. She's smart. And she's my cousin. I took her to see Harry Potter over Thanksgiving Break. The trailer for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader came on. The Narnia books are about God, sin, temptation, the resurrection of the world--BIG issues.  But then tall, dark and handsome Prince Caspian strides onto the big screen. My teenage cousin leans over her friend and says to me, "I want to make love to that man." 

Me too, Kid.  Me too.

________

Tiffany Reisz's first novel THE SIREN comes out from Harlequin in 2011, and her first e-book novella SEVEN DAY LOAN is out now!  Anyone below the age of 18 - please check with a parent before reading Tiffany's work. :) 

28 comments:

Christine Danek said...

I enjoyed this. I agree that the scene has to fit, but we can't be blind to what is really going on in the teenage world. Hiding it is not the answer.
Thanks.

Sara said...

Excellent post!

According to recent studies by the National Health Organization, roughly 50% of kids are sexually active by the end of high school (my husband works with HS teens). That means 50% of teens are not sexually active. So, you've nailed the primary issue here - which is sex in books needs to be relevant to the story, not to the proposed marketplace (good call Miranda - why does the "marketplace" sometimes feel like it's adults' voices instead of teen voices?).

Very powerful and engaging arguments both of you! Well done!
-Sara

David A. Bedford said...

Being in love and having sex are two different things. The biggest problem we have is that we confuse the two. First, let's get straight what being in love means. Second, let's come to a consensus as to where sex fits in.

As you say, teenagers are adults and the sexual urge is powerful. All power takes a good deal of discipline and maturity to handle well.

Please visit blog, where my last post has more on this topic. Thanks!

Jennifer Wolf said...

Good post, but I'm going to have to disagree with you on one big point I have a fourteen-year-old, I am around a lot of fourteen-year-olds and they are FAR from being adults. They are FAR from being ready to take on all the responsibility that an adult has to deal with. Yes, teenagers have sex, but it is an adult act with adult consequences and sometimes adult responsibilities, and I don't think teens are ready for that.

And although she made some good points, I'm not sure an erotica writer is the best judge of what should go into teen fiction.

Jennifer Wolf said...

And I agree with Sara, the "marketplace" shouldn't be deciding what is hot and should go into teen books. I think that the media (TV, movies, music, books,) portrays kids having sex as the norm and rarely shows the reality of those kind of choices--STDs, pregnancy, and even just a lack of self-esteem and other issues that come from intimacy before you're fully emotionally ready to take that step.

Teenagers esp younger teens, are not adults. Their brains aren't fully wired together yet, that's why there are a lot of BAD choices made in teenage years. Check this out:
http://health.howstuffworks.com/human-body/systems/nervous-system/teenage-brain1.htm

I believe putting sex in YA to sell more books, or even because that's what adults think is the normal outcome of love is doing an injustice to teen readers. KIDS are looking for role models, they are looking to see what's right or normal or even cool. YA authors can't discount their influence on teenagers and they can't escape the responsibility for that influence.

Karen said...

Amen Jennifer. The article made some very good points, but I couldn't help but see myself as a 14 reading books like Trixie Belden and just waiting for the boy to hold her hand. THAT was tension building. I liked David statement that love is different than sex. Obviously teens are confused (or authors are)when they think a story needs to have sex to be "real." There are a lot of real events in life and not all of them include sex. Just look at Harry Potter. I don't remember there being any sex in there and look how popular it is. Sex is not being real or necessary in books. Not unless your book centers around it and then you better think about what it will do to the teen who is reading it. You might be turning off a different audience who might otherwise have read it by being too explicit. aka me and my children. Thanks for the rousing discussion. It's always good to revisit. :)

Miranda said...

I agree that love and sex are different things, but sometimes people have sex because they love one another. I don't think we can forget about that when it comes to YA literature.

Sometimes in YA, girls have sex with guys because they feel pressured, or because it's cool, or because of really horrific reasons, but sometimes, it's because they love their boyfriend and want to go that far.

And if they use protection and know the consequences, doesn't that teach a valid life lesson as well?

Growing up, my parents never talked about this stuff with me, so I learned everything I could from Teen magazine and Seventeen magazine.

Those magazines said not to have sex with your boyfriend unless you were in love, had protection, and you consented to doing so.

It made me take sex very seriously, and I was glad to have that differing opinion (my church said not to have sex EVER until marriage).

When I heard of friends having sex without being in love (and without protection), I was able to tell them I didn't agree with it, and could they please use protection?

In fact, I can't remember anybody in high school that had sex that 1) was in love and 2) used protection.

It was a very Christian town where abstinence was taught instead of "wait for love and use condoms."

I think this lesson is just as valuable - if you are responsible and are in love and want to have sex, I'm okay with that.

But does it belong in YA? Still don't know. I'm okay with that, a la SHIVER and IF I STAY, but I could understand if parents didn't want their kids reading those books.

Shelli said...

I think it's interesting that you state that the two characters have sex because "they're in love." In my experience, the girl may really be in love, but boys at that age (high school) are acting mostly from hormones. My concern with sex in YA novels is that it creates a false image of what teen sex really is. It romanticizes it and feeds into what young girls believe it should be, but in reality very rarely is.

I would rather see an author portray two people in love through loving actions -- sacrifice, giving, selflessness. That would create a more real picture of love.

Jennifer Wolf said...

Okay, I'm going to weigh in one more time. Using "They are in love" as a justification for showing sex in YA, AND especially for teens having sex also assumes a level of maturity that most teens haven't achieved. How many of us were madly, passionately, and completely in love in high school and then changed our minds? There is very low level of commitment (and there should be) at that age.

I point to some lines from YA-centered media that illustrate this point:

"When you're 15, somebody tells you they love you, you're gonna believe them."

"Abagail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind, and we both cried."--FIFTEEN by Taylor Swift

AND
(Paraphrasing because I don't have the book handy.)

"If you have sex with him and then you lose him, you will have lost a lot more than just him."--SOMEONE LIKE YOU, Sarah Dessen.

Even safe sex (with a condom) doesn't take into account any emotional (esp. self-esteem) damage that a kid experiences when they make physical commitments without any emotional backing or stability.

heather said...

Great article! I have to say though, we do not need to expose our children to anymore do we? There is enough sex on daytime tv, lets try to keep our books safe. Do kids really need another reaon to have raging hormones? Over exposure can lead to a false sense of reality. You watch porn, you think you should be having sex a certain way. You read about teenagers having sex, you think you should be having sex. I think society already does a great job of exposing our children to too much, yes these are to include children under the age of 18! You know that physical desiers follow emotional desire once it gets to a certain level, we don't need our kids reading about it! Say they were in love in the story, leave the rest to imagination. If teens want to read adult books with sex, we can't stop that, but lets leave a little more innocence for our children to read in YA books!

8pizza said...

Lots of good points, especially about the romanticizing of teen sex, particularly for girls who believe a meaningful relationship is being built by sex, when it generally isn't on the boy's side.

As a parent, I want my kids to understand that sex is certainly part of a healthy, committed relationship, but "being in love" on its OWN is not a good enough reason to have sex because sex is too important to be played with as a toy or a tool.

I understand that authors may feel the need, for plot and character development, to be realistic in the portraying that some teens do indeed have sex, but please shut the door and let the actual act be private. I know our voyeuristic society frowns on privacy, but in real life it generally is for most people and I don't think books necessarily need to cross that line when it comes to sex.

Teens likely know the mechanics from sex ed at school, and I don't think that if they intend to wait for a healthy, mature, committed (and in the case of what I teach them, married) relationship to engage in sex that they need to read the hot and the heavy. It simply stirs up physical and emotional feelings (as graphic descriptions of even loving/consensual sex do) that they then have no where to go with.

For that reason (among others) I don't want them reading, as teenagers, books that describe the actual sex itself. Period. When you choose to add this to your book, you lose my vote as a parent (the one likely buying the book and/or driving my kid to the library).

E. Kristin Anderson said...

I want to applaud Miranda for opening this topic and Tiffany for being so open with us. Both of these ladies are smart and insightful and are leading a fabulous discussion.

Miranda have talked a lot about our teen lives, because we're buds and because we write YA and love talking about teenageriness. So it will come as no shock to Miranda when I say that I thought sex was gross when I was a teen. I did not want to have sex. Did I want to want to have sex? Sometimes. I was very in love with my boyfriend my senior year in high school. He was wonderful to me. He said he loved me. He meant it. We're still friends. Did he ever put pressure on me to have sex? Not a bit. Still, I wondered what it would be like with him. And decided not to.

So I do think that teens are capable of being in love. Girls and boys. Just because we grow and mature doesn't mean that those feelings we feel as teens are any less valid or less real.

Also, I think some of us on this thread are discounting a very important fact: Teens are SMART. Kids are INSIGHTFUL. Sure, 14 year olds make bad choices. So do adults. But I don't think that reading a book where kids have sex is going to make them want to go out and do it. I watched a lot of sexyy TV and movies. I still thought sex was weird. I was not interested until late in college. That's okay. And it's okay if high schoolers feel ready and are educated about the consequences of sex and make that choice in a safe way.

It is the responsibility of the author to tell a true story, even if it's fiction. Some characters, like some teens, will be abstinent. Likewise, some will have sex. It is NOT the responsibility of the author to cater to every single potential audience. That is the job of the parent, and if a parent doesn't want their teen to read my book, cool, there are lots of books out there.

There are lots of books that deal with consensual teen sex in different ways. Sometimes fade to black. Sometimes with a few details. Some with very realistic awkwardness. Some with romance. All are legitimate. All are fine. An author knows who her audience is; she writes for that audience. And, like Miranda said, all scenes must matter. We, as authors, don't put sex scenes in our book merely for titillation. In fact, most sex scenes in YA aren't all that titillating. The BJ scene in LOOKING FOR ALASKA? So cringeworthy. And also very real.

I think we need to take a step back and wonder why we think books need to be "safe." I think books need to be entertaining, they need to be well-written, they need to strike a chord. But safe? Well, to me that's just silly.

Leah Clifford said...

Jennifer Wolf said: How many of us were madly, passionately, and completely in love in high school and then changed our minds?


How many of us have done that as adults too? :) The older I get, the more pure my first loves seem to me. It was fast love, unafraid love that gripped your entire life. I think it's the best KIND of love.

Thanks, Miranda! Great post!

Leah

AZSMITHS said...

Sometimes I think the media uses sex as a shortcut for showing that two people love each other. Plus sex is addicting so it sells.

Some people might disagree, but I think what we watch, listen to and read has a huge effect on our thoughts and behavior, whether your a teenager or adult.

I was reading the Twilight saga and Uglies series and found it interesting that although the Twilight saga has moments of "steaminess", I found the love between Talli and Zane in Pretties to be just as realistic and believable without all the steamy scenes. Scott Westerfeld just had great character development. Zane said "I love you," and it packed a greater punch than all the steamy makeout scenes in Twilight (don't get me wrong, I like Twilight).

Just saying, do we really need sex in our stories to drive our point home?

Miranda said...

I think this discussion highlights exactly what I was going for with this post:

I want to know what teenagers want to read about. What they need to read about. What they need and want to know.

All we've done here is talk about what we think teens need.

Regarding movies and TV, couldn't one just as easily say, "There's too much sex in TV and books, so I don't want to see it in the movies?"

Books are another form of entertainment. They aren't sacred in my opinion.

Tiffany said...

My only point in this entire discussion is this...YA writers should write about teens having sex when the story calls for it. I don't believe in writers censoring themselves or censoring other writers. If sex makes sense in the story (it's coming of age or it's about a teen overcoming a rape or teen pregnancy or a teen falling in love for the first time) then have a sex scene if you think it helps the story. If it doesn't help the story, don't have a sex scene. That is all. It's okay to have a sex scene in a story for teens. Teenagers think about sex and talk about sex a lot. You put a sex scene in the book and I promise, it won't be news to them. They've heard of sex, they've thought about sex, and a lot of them have already had sex. So write an honest story that tells a true story WITHOUT IMPOSING YOUR PERSONAL MORAL OR RELIGIOUS AGENDA ONTO YOUR AUDIENCE.

That is all.
Now goodnight. I'm going to bed. This erotica writer has to go to Mass tomorrow morning.

God bless.
Tiffany Reisz, Catholic Slut

E. Kristin Anderson said...

Props, Tiffany!

Lynne Kelly Hoenig said...

I asked my 18-year-old if she was ever bothered by reading about sex in a YA novel and she said, "No, but I will be if you ever write a sex scene, so please don't. That would be hugely awkward."

Miranda said...

Oh, Lynne. I hope you wouldn't write about sex in your MG novels. ;-)

Natalie said...

Very thought provoking post and comments, Miranda. Way to be controversial. It's times like this when I'm glad I write MG and don't have to ponder this question too much. No sex in my books. :)

Leslie Rose said...

Great post. I remember passing around a certain page with a sex scene from THE GODFATHER when I was in 7th grade. Last time I checked that wasn't YA, but everyone I know was itching to read it. I shared Judy Blume's FOREVER with my daughter in her high school years, because that novel portrayed teen sex in a realistic and gentle way. Sex is alive and kicking in the real lives of our YA audience and I believe that we are all charged with making it work artistically and realistically in our writing.

Miranda said...

Hi Leslie! Thanks for posting. That's interesting. My husband found FOREVER not too long ago and devoured it, and while I adored the book, seeing my husband get so into a YA novel led me to wonder if it might be too spicy. :D

I like what you said, though, and I agree - sex exists, and teenagers have a right to the truth. Not necessarily our "truth," as truth is different to everybody, but a good estimation of what's up. (hope that made some sense.)

Hi Natalie! Trust me, if I could write middle grade, I would. I would like the talent to be able to write in any genre, for any age group. Unfortunately, everything I write comes out YA. Silly YA, at that. I'd love to be some deep writer, writing about DEEP things, but it's never gonna work out. *sighs*

alyslinn said...

Lots of interesting comments, though I shall be leaning on the more liberal side of things, and not just because I write books with sex in them (for adults).

My parents raised me to know how important it was to have sex with someone you love. And that I should be able to say no, and refuse, if I didn't think that was the case.

After about the age of 12, my mother stopped censoring my reading. (even prior to that, she'd started allowing me to read 'adult' books like Stephen King). By 13, I had read most of Anne Rice's books, including The Witching Hour (which has some pretty steamy sex scenes). She wasn't bothered about my reading them because she knew that I knew what good, healthy sex and love was.

Regarding Spizza's comment "It simply stirs up physical and emotional feelings (as graphic descriptions of even loving/consensual sex do) that they then have no where to go with.":
Teens do have somewhere to go with that. Masturbation. And I would hope that parents are teaching their kids that masturbation isn't wrong. I'd rather have a kid getting off on their own than going out and shagging someone just to get off.

I'm curious to know from the other posters: do you think that violence is appropriate in YA novels? If yes, then why? Do you assume that your kids reading about violence are going to go out and commit the violent acts they have been reading about?

If you don't think that they will, why do you think that they're going to go out and have sex?

Miranda said...

Next week's topic? Masturbation, thanks to alyslinn. :)

For the record, I agree. But it's interesting - at my high school, that was considered almost worse than sex. I remember a girlfriend of mine admitted to it at a slumber party, and she never got over it. Even at age 17, I remember being at the bowling alley and another girl said, "So and so is gross, because she masturbates."

It was sad.

I think getting to know one's body is very important.

Rachel said...

I'm 16 I love reading YA books but I also read a lot of adult books honestly romance books that don't have any sex at all in them are kind of weird it feels like you spend the entire book waiting for something that just never happens. Also teens just really like to read books about sex pretty much every girl I know (myself included) found some way to read 50 shades of grey regardless of what their parents thought. Basically most teens like when books have sex scenes in them.

Rachel said...

Oh and also most of my friends are very open about the whole mastrubation thing like we all talk about it and no one really thinks its bad it's just funny especially when guys are around the comparisons are hilarious.

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Kate Midnight Book Girl said...

This is perfect! I had similar experience to Tiffany. I was reading Stephen King, Jackie Collins, Anne Rice, and Johanna Lindsey in middle school and high school. YA in the early 90s was mostly juvenile. So I read a lot about sex, but didn't have any until I was much older, and part of the reason that I was able to wait is because I already felt like I knew exactly what I wanted sexually. I knew from books that having sex with a boy doesn't make him love or respect you, that sex with someone you love is more meaningful than sex with someone random, that picking the wrong person to have sex with can lead to hurt feelings. Books can teach us so much about ourselves and the world around us, and they can also help us make good choices whilst thoroughly enjoying all the bad ones made by some our favorite characters!

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