Teens have been having sex for awhile, as I can remember my friends and I blushing and struggling to describe the (completely innocent) acts we’d engaged in with our high school boyfriends (who we truly believed we were going to marry). Teens likely will be having sex for awhile, something, as the parent of a beautiful little three-year-old girl, I don’t really care to think about it.
But facts don’t lie, and nowadays in the United States, the average age at which a female loses her virginity is 17.3. Regardless of how unsettling the words “Young Adult” and “sex” sound together, the reality is, these words go together, provided we’re being honest.
And for me, honesty is at the heart of my writing. When I craft a story, above all, I want it to be authentic for its intended audience. With that in mind, several of my manuscripts have included teens engaging in sexual acts. But as the person holding the proverbial pen, it’s not just my characters I’m getting in bed with. There are always several other people on my mind when I’m getting down to business. (Which is never a good thing, right?)
First and foremost, as a storyteller, I’m thinking about my readers. What ‘s going on at “third base” these days anyway? Are teens doing more, earlier, and believe it to be okay, or has the pendulum swung at all in the other direction? Will readers dismiss me as preachy and flat out old if my characters choose to keep it classy? For the young adults who pick up my story, what’s real these days, and how do I capture it in age-appropriate language that’s true to my characters? (Sex in YA may be okay, but anything even close to the phrase “throbbing member” is verboten, IMO.)
As an aspiring author, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about “the editors” too. What’s selling these days, and how can I make my story fit within the current boundaries? Will agents and editors dismiss my story as soft porn if I get real about what teens are doing? Will they consider my writing gratuitous? Will they write me off as outdated if I strive to keep it clean? From a marketing standpoint, what exactly is the perfect amount of heat?
As an educator, I can’t help but think about the students I see on a daily basis. I remember fourth graders carting around Twilight, knowing full well they’d likely make it all the way to Breaking Dawn. Fade to black or no fade to black, they were still reading about sex. I remember being in middle school, and passing around a tattered copy of Go Ask Alice, shocked and awed by the honest and disturbing descriptions of sex and drug use. There’s an innate appeal to read what you’re not supposed to read, but it’s a cheap ploy to capture the attention of readers if that’s the only reason an author includes graphic sex scenes. As someone who works in education, do I have a certain level of moral responsibility? Rather than merely describing what a teen would likely do, do I have a greater responsibility to show characters making better decisions? Do I champion the cause of good, wholesome books and stick to my guns that such stories still have a place on today’s bookshelves?
And at the end of the day, I’m somebody’s daughter. Somebody’s wife. I’m somebody’s mother. Maybe this is something some writers don’t care about, but I suspect that many do. I would like my daughter to be able to read my work one day. I would like my daughter to be able to read my work without cringing and going, “Ewwwww…. Moooooom, you wrote this? That’s disgusting.” How much weight do I give my parental status? How much thought do I give to the parents of my prospective readers, and how likely they’d be to approve or disapprove of my content? How much thought do I give my own parents? If one day I reach that elusive goal and my words are actually published, will I be able to share my success with them without any shame? Will they be proud of what their daughter is putting out there for young adults to read?
(side note – I’m pretty sure I’m not the only female writer still concerned with her father’s approval. I remember a blog post from Diana Peterfreund where she wrangled with the idea of her father reading her work. And to me, the talented Ms. Peterfreund is the champion of sex scenes. Granted, the Secret Society Girl series fits more within the New Adult genre than Young Adult, but Diana still chooses to handle sex with subtlety and finesse. Hell, she even manages to impart some culture along the way! Take note of the following description from book 2, Under the Rose (really, you need to read these books):
“The throne on top of the dais is an antique, intricately carved affair, covered as it is with bas-relief scenes from the Grecian underworld and crowned by two large globes on the front of each armrest, which, it turns out, are great places to hook your calves when you’re in particularly intimate positions wherein you are on the chair and he is… well, not on the chair, but rather, on the dais. On his knees.”
Wait a second… is she talking about… oh my God, she IS!
Masterful, no? )
But back to my own attempts at writing about sex for the young adult audience. I guess all I have to do is create a product the editors can market and my readers can embrace that won’t cause any fellow professionals, parents, or family members to half want to disown me for “lewd thoughts.” That doesn’t sound difficult at all. Sure.
I’ll share my guiding principle – if the emotion surrounding the sexual act is authentic, a writer can go in either direction regarding level of candor and end up with a successful scene. As my writer friend TH Hernandez put it: “Throughout history, sex has remained relatively the same. What words kids use now, how young they are the first time, the societal stigma attached to behavior changes, but people have clearly been having sex since the dawn of man. How you write about it might change, but the emotions attached to sex are pretty timeless.”
With that in mind, regardless of what words you use to describe “the deed,” the emotions you bring to life should stand out first and foremost. The emotional component should be more powerful than the act itself, which as it turns out, would be the advice I’d give to my characters before they decide to jump into bed anyway – and it’s only right that I follow my own advice.
If you nail the emotional component, you can be vague and still end up with a great sex scene.
If you nail the emotional component, you can get away with a bit more candor without coming across as gratuitous.
So I say put emotion first, and then write the scene in the manner that’s most comfortable for you as the author. Others will judge the way you handle sex in YA the same way they judge every other aspect of your writing, so when you click “Save,” ultimately, you have to be happy, comfortable, and confident with the product. Regardless of who reads it or who doesn’t.
Agree or disagree? What’s your guiding principle when it comes to sex in YA?
K.A. Cozzo (Twitter:@KACozzo)
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