Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sex Scenes in YA?

Sex scenes are fun to write, don’t you think? Or are you like some people who avoid writing them until the last possible minute to just “get it over and done with”? For me, a writer of YA fiction, the question about sex scenes is: should I or shouldn’t I? The answer is elusive. Richelle Mead, YA author of the well-known Vampire Academy series said the inclusion of sex scenes in YA is at the discretion of the publisher; some are rigidly against it, while others say “Sex it up!” My problem is threefold, I have to decide whether to include sex at all, and if yes, how much, but I also have to consider what the moral/ethical ramifications of doing so might be.

Adolescence is a time of sexual discovery. Sexuality is one of the major developmental milestones of this stage. I’m not suggesting adolescence is a time to start sexual activity (although some do). Statistically, most teens have had sexual intercourse by the age of seventeen, and like it or not, we as adults have to face that.

I think most of us would agree that if there are sex scenes in YA, that there should be A LOT less detail than in adult fiction. Why? Well....I think you know why. So if we go ahead and include it, there has to be a reason. I like to look beyond physical descriptions and the obvious feelings of lust and desire, into secondary emotions that drive the characters. What about insecurity, fear, a need for love, or power? These are important themes in the lives of adolescents, and to avoid them would be dishonest. I work with adolescents every day and they can sniff out a fake faster than Hercules the police dog.

In this day and age of sexting, webcam sex, and sex chat, I think there’s a duty as adults to bring some of the mystery and specialness back to sex, to highlight the importance of waiting, the value of monogamy and the connection between sex and love. It also allows us to explore complicated themes such as unplanned teen pregnancy and sexual health. The young adults I work with appreciate my direct and honest approach to the topic, so why wouldn’t I do the same as an author?

So I have decided....well, I haven’t actually. My YA novel Indigo Blaze had two sex scenes that started out with a fair bit of detail, but then I got nervous and cut them. The other option I have is to do it “behind the scenes”, but for now I have gone back to add them back in, but this time with less physical detail and more emotion, more tension. Before I get a tongue lashing, keep in mind my protagonist is eighteen years old, and my target YA audience is sixteen and up.

What do you think? Do we have a duty in our writing to address the topic of sex with honesty and respect for the reality of teen life? Will teens enjoy....er, appreciate this honesty? Will parents prohibit their teens from reading it? Will it corrupt young innocent minds?


Janet said...

If handled in an honest way, with emotional depth, I think that sex scenes in YA should be included. You're right, Joanne, kids are doing it - and if not, then thinking about doing it, or talking about doing it. Books geared to young adults have the opportunity to empower and enlighten - if done tactfully and within the context of the storyline.

From what I've read around the blogosphere, this question is huge in the minds of YA authors. So you're not the only one wondering what to do. I think you've done yourself a service by eliminating and then re-working the sex scenes - when a publisher comes calling, you'll be ready for whatever their stance on the subject is (does that make sense - it's too early in the morning).

It's interesting how universal that topic is - we've had discussions here on The Prairies about sex scenes in adult stories! I think it all comes down to your comfort level - and the targeted audience for your manuscript. Readers, just like teens and police dogs, know fake when they read it. If it doesn't fit or feel comfortable, it's not going to enhance the story (YA or Adult Romance).

Great post, Joanne!

Jana Richards said...

Really interesting post Joanne. As you said, if teens aren't actually having sex, they're certainly thinking about having it. Why not give them an honest (realistic) portrayal? I think adults do a diservice to young people by not talking about sex in a frank and honest way.

If you do decide to include a love scene just be sure it flows naturally out of the story and makes sense for the characters. I like your idea about taking out the love scenes and rewriting them with more emphasis on the emotional rather than the physical aspect. Actually, I think that's a good rule of thumb to follow when writing adult love scenes as well!

Good luck with your writing.

Karyn Good said...

I think a big part of growing up and maturing is learning how to navigate the sexual climate of the day. I think teens should be aware, educated and put thought into their own personal philosphies so they know when it's the right time, place and the right person. As a parent of teens, if a YA book is going to make them think, re-enforce the fact they have choices, and make them realize it's huge step that requires the respect of both partners then I'm all for it.

For myself, I'd rather have a prepared and educated teen than a naive one.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Janet,I think you're right about this being a hot topic for YA authors. It's dicey, but I agree with your point about the goal to empower and enlighten. Thanks

Joanne Brothwell said...

Jana, I agree that honesty is the best policy when it comes to teens. The re-worked scenes I think have much more emotional impact and will hopefully be more thought-provoking.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Karyn, I think what you said about the advantage of having an educated teen over a naive one is a great point. Anything that gets teens thinking about these very real and important topics is a good thing in my mind.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Joanne. As a writer, you need to write what's in your heart. If you've deleted your original scenes but then brought them back - albeit at a lower level - then you won't be satisfied with that wip until it's there, right? Once you've completed it to your own satisfaction, then you send it on. If your editor wants you to take it out, then you take another look at your wip and your heart and re-evaluate. But if you really feel it should be there and it's not, you'll probably always regret it.

As a Christian mother, I'm raising my kids to look at dating as a search for a life partner. Archaic? Maybe, but it worked for my 19 yr old daughter who still hasn't gone on a one-on-one date although she's had group dates since she joined the youth group at age 12. It'll probably be different with the boys since soon-to-be 15 Nick just asked why he has to wait until he's 16 to date. When I explained the theory of 'the earlier you start, the faster things progress' he squirmed and said, "Okay, Mom, you can stop now." I also told him not many girls want to date a guy who needs his mother to drive them around. :)

As for their sexual education, my 11 yr old is taking sex ed in middle school. By the time he's 16, he'll have had 4 yrs of it. And I'm okay with that because like Karyn said, they need to know what it's about. But do the sex ed teachers take the time to teach about the emotional maturity needed to handle the sexual games?

And that's what I like about your post, Joanne. Because you're really thinking about this as an educational tool and not an entertainment one. The kids need to learn about matters of the heart and head first, and not that it's okay to allow their baser needs to take over whenever they want. Let's face it - guys 14-18 want to satisfy their hormones first and then the girl's emotional state.

One of the best examples I've read of the emotional state of young lovers is Heaven Can Wait by Cheryl St John HH #240, 1994.
Cheryl has captured all the nuances the two virgins face on their wedding night from their personal expectations to the misunderstandings that can occur because of mis-communication at this highly emotional time.

Not that I'm condoning giving this book to a YA. I'm just saying if someone really wants to know, this is a good one read.

Kudos, Joanne.

Vince said...


I think there are two good reasons to write explicit sex scenes: to entertain the reader and to advance the story line. Both are legitimate reasons depending on the type of book one is writing. Of course these reasons are not mutually exclusive.

I don’t think sex scenes should be gratuitous just as scenes of violence should not be gratuitous.

Having a sex scene to only achieve what you could have achieved by simply writing the couple had sex later in the story, would seem to stand in need of justification. I do not like sex scenes where the act is generic and can be substituted in almost any other novel without modification.

However, I did read a romance where the way the heroine made love was unique to her personality and could not be substituted into another romance. The scene also advanced the story line and it helped develop the character arc of the heroine. This is the kind of situation that I feel is the most justified.

As for YA, kids today can see everything it is possible to do on the internet. They don’t need technique. What you don’t get on the internet is the emotional impact of these actions. Showing the emotional cost of such actions is what is needed. If you do A, B, and C, the price may be X, Y, and Z. This is what young people need and I believe one of the important reasons they would be reading such a book.

I feel writers can do an enormous amount of good writing to these issues.


Joanne Brothwell said...

Anita Mae, sex education is probably more like a lesson in plumbing than anything else. It is sterile, factual and lacks the truly human aspects of sex. I agree that authors can provide information and insight that an information-giving session can't. Thanks for the feedback.

connie said...

In my teen/YA years, couples having sex were rare. The boys got no criticism, of course, and the girls were fast, sluts, and whispered about, giggled about and criticized.
Pregnant girls had to marry the young man in question, which created hell for many a couple, especially since Catholics and Anglicans couldn't divorce then. (Spare me Henry VIII who was a Catholic and had his marriage essentially annulled by the pope. He didn't become an Anglican until he needed to steal the Catholics blind to finance wars).
But, many of that era knew precious little when we married.
My four (now in their thirties)learned all about sex in schools, sparing me 'The Speech'. They are completely at ease with sex and discussing sex.
My mother was a young woman during WWI and fashioned with beliefs of that era, 'The Speech' left me still not informed of the details, but knowing it was something you did for your husband's sake. Love was not involved nor was it a time for fun.
My take on the subject is that reading a positive emotional source, such as a YA book, is a good idea. I would write it with some, but not a whole lot of physical detail, and tied in to emotions as well. I believe it would benefit those who have already experienced sex and a source which would help those who waver, to decide for themselves, and to know that sex is wonderful and not dirty.
Although kids know the physical details, many engage in sex because they want to be 'one of the crowd'. That is such a built in phenomenon, that I suspect 'cave teens' felt the same pressure.
The phrase "goal to empower and enlighten", especially 'empower', speaks to all teens
This was a good blog. Best of good luck with your book.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Vince, your point about kids having access to information online is true and sometimes chilling. In my work, I have seen the impact of internet porn on young minds, and it isn't pretty. The fact that there is a new tern out there called "process addiction" is a scary reflection of the effect of twenty-four hour a day access to porn can have. And there is certainly no emotional implications shown in porn. Thanks for your comment.

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

Like you, I've worked with adolescents (used to be a social worker at an alternative school) and sex is definitely on their minds even if they aren't doing it.

I asked this question on my blog a few months ago and I have to say the comments I got were very different from the ones you are getting. Guess I have a more conservative readership of YA authors (how the heck did that happen? lol, I write sexy adult romance ).

But anyhoo, I agree with you. I think it needs to be handled in an appropriate way in YA and needs to be there for story purposes, not for titillation.

But if we ignore the issue, we're only fooling ourselves. I was a "good" girl in high school, but I can tell you around 14, I jumped from YA books to adult books (like VC Andrews) because I was so darn curious.

So I'd rather my kids read about sex handled in an appropriate way (with consequences and emotional implications and such) rather than getting their information from MTV and reality TV.

Captain Hook said...

Joanne, fabulous topic for my first time visiting the Chicks in months.

I write YA as well, and so far none of my characters has done more than kiss, so in my writing I haven't had to worry about it.

However, I do have children and know how they are in life and what I and they would want from sex in a book. In real life, I have two stepdaughters (18 and 20). The 20 year old became sexually active when she was 16. The other still has not gotten that far (thank God!). My younger 3 are too young to be considering sex yet.

The one thing I know for sure from discussing books with the older ones is that they don't like issues skimmed over. Not that every person in every relationship should be having sex, but more that the decision for a teenager whether or not to have sex is a big one. One that almost needs to be planned out. To skip over the mental agonizing, I believe, is worse than skipping the actual sex scene. And there need to be believable reasons why the heroine does or does not have sex.

With my 20 year old, she truly felt she was ready after dating the same boy for 3 years. She sat down with me, told me her decision and asked me to take her to get birth control.

That is another biggie to me - birth control. It's often skipped entirely in adult sex scenes, but I don't think any author should dare to skip it in a YA.

(Rereading this response makes me realize I rambled a bit, but I hope it's understandable)

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Roni, interesting that you got a different response on your blog. I have to admit I'm a little surprised about the comments today.

It's funny you mentioned VC Andrews, someone I thought about when writing this post because "Flowers in the Attic" was a huge hit with the thirteen year olds back in my day too - for the exact same reason. Simon & Schuster has re-released it, hoping it could make a comeback. I can't see it happening now that teens have so many new YA options (and the whole incest thing is too creepy).

Thanks for your comments.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Captain Hook, (Cool name). I hadn't thought about the agonizing part of the decision for adolescents, and in fact didn't include it in my ms, but now that the topic has come across my radar I know what I'll be doing tonight. Great point! Thank you.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Capt'n, real nice to see you here again. I was just thinking about you 2 days ago. Neat, huh.

Captain Hook said...

Joanne, I doubt I would have thought of it if I hadn't raised teens of my own and helped them through the decision.

Anita, it's good to be back even if it will be sporadic. Thanks for thinking of me.