Friday, December 17, 2010

YA: Sex

To include or not to include.  Is that really the question?

Well, it depends doesn't it?  A big reason books are banned is for sexual content.  But teens want to read about something relevant to their lives.  What is more relevant than sex?  Having it, not having it, it occupies a good space of brain time in your average teenager.  And if they aren't having it, don't want to have it, won't have it in their teen years, they are, at the very least, confronted with it every day by peers, ads, TV, magazines, etc.

Take Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (discount the fourth, though that can be a discussion all on its own), and Rampant by Diana Peterfreund.  In these books, the main character wants to have sex, and has to deal with the repercussions of having or not having sex.  In the first case, it means possibly getting attacked by her vampire lover in the moment of passion.  In the second, it means losing her powers as a unicorn slayer.

So these aren't necessarily real life situations.  If a teen has sex, she has to deal with the possibilities of STDs, pregnancy, or personal or social humiliation.  So what's the point of including sexual situations in fantasy novels?  A teen doesn't need a "How to Survive Having Sex with a Vampire" handbook.

What's the point?  It gets the teen thinking.  It gets the teen out of her own head for a moment.  It allows the teen to project.  And it allows the teen to sympathize with the main character in her own plight.  She will recognize in the main character her own emotions, confusion, and dilemmas.

Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher are two contemporary YA that both deal, at least in part, with sex and the consequences.  I won't get into them much here, but know that I loved both of these books.  They handle the dilemma of teen sex so well, both in vastly different ways, that, had they landed on my desk, I would have scooped them up (not for the sex dilemma alone, but the incorporation was very well done).

So, the question isn't really to include of not to include.  It's more about the appropriateness to your story.  Don't include sex for the sake of having it in there.  If there is no point, no lesson, no conclusion to draw from the scene, then it isn't helping.  It might be harming your novel.

The following links talk more in depth about sex and romance in YA novels--probably better than I could.

Romance from Justine Dell.
Edgy YA from Query Tracker.

And the book I'm looking forward to reading with this topic in mind is The Duff by Kody Keplinger.  (Click for a great review.)

So the questions you might want to ask yourself are:
How much is too much?  How can the author gage what will be acceptable for teens to read?  How does the author decide what the teen can identify with?  When is it worth taking the risk of adding sexual material, and just leaving it out in favor of something else?  Is it allowable to be explicit in YA, or is it common courtesy to gloss over the details?

So, dear readers, your turn.  Enlighten me to your thoughts.  Happy writing.


bibliophile brouhaha said...

Great post! There isn't an answer to this one. So long as there is going to be a debate about sex education, there also will be a debate about this. Can't wait to hear your thought on The Duff. I just read and reviewed this - it's certainly a different sort of sex as portrayed in If I Stay. Just wait until you read Bumped!

-Linds, bibliophile brouhaha

Anonymous said...

"Is it allowable to be explicit in YA, or is it common courtesy to gloss over the details?" - One of the great things about the way most YA authors handle sex is the balance. Some are more explicit and some gloss over the details. The question is how well it is written. Twenty Boy Summer is a great example of this. So is Bermudez Triangle. If it is well written, you don't even think about it as sex so much as a moment you get to share with the main character. In Twenty Boy Summer, it was more than just sex. It was about moving on and we got to let go of Matt too.
I'm with Linds above, I can't wait to hear your thoughts on The Duff. It was such a good book.

Anonymous said...

The Duff does gloss over details, in my opinion. It was clearly a debut, but not a bad book overall - I reviewed it as well on my blog. I think that, as a teen myself, sex isn't about the actual doing, it's the feelings that come with it.

Shelley Watters said...

I think that sex should only be included if it is somehow relevant to the plot. I have a sex scene that doesn't gloss over the details in my YA paranromal romance. We'll see if it makes it to the final print version in all its glory. (You know, after I get an agent and a book deal).

I think it all depends on the targeted age group for the book. If it's upper ya, then I don't see any reason to avoid it. They are having it, thinking about having it, or talking to their friends who are doing it. I think that glossing over it is more for the parents and the censors than for the readers.

I think that a writer has to stay true to their characters. If that means including a sex scene because that is what the characters would really do, then it should be there. I don't feel however that authors should include a sex scene just to add to the edginess of their book.

June G said...

I read and reviewed Boy Toy by Barry Lyga. It's quite graphic and tells the tale of a teacher and her student. The author told me he received a lot of complaints about the graphic portrayal of the sexual activity.

I didn't find the sex gratuitous or salacious. It was organic and real to the story. I believe people have to make that distinction. I'm a counselor of children, and I found it adequately portrayed the repercussions of premature sexual activity.

I also read The Duff and the portrayal of sex had a different flavor. I'm looking forward to you take on that story.

Heather said...

That's a tough one to answer but I love the way Shelley put it, it must be relevant to the plot. I've read books where it felt like it was dropped in unnecessarily and I've read those that avoided it when maybe the shouldn't have. It's a tough choice to be sure!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Sex is a tough issue for me. I prefer not to read about it, and I can't imagine ever writing about it, either. However, I recognize that it's a necessary part of some stories (although I'm not always convinced the scenes themselves have to be in the book).

Wandered over here from the Guide to Literary Agents blog, and I'll definitely be wandering back:) I especially like your Wednesday Reads series and how they give writers an idea of what types of manuscripts you'd be interested in.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. As a YA author this is definitely something I've struggled with and it's difficult to know whose opinion to get on such a hot button issue. However, considering the audience, as you said, not addressing sex with teenagers seems disingenuous. Great post!

JE said...

I just noticed this link to my blog! Thank you so much! The link goes to an excellent guest blog, and there are more sections of the blog that talk a little about it, too. ;-)


Matthew MacNish said...

New follower here, nice ta meet ya!

Stina said...

I don't have an issue with sex in YA books, but it can't be there just to sell the book. It has to have a greater purpose and there has to be consequences (either positive or negative).

Some people disagree about having sex in YA books. But to exclude it all together doesn't serve any purpose. As YA writers, it's our job to write stories and characters that are believable. And sex in teens is very believable. On the other hand, we have to remember not every teenager is having sex, but it is an issue many are at least thinking about.

Thanks for including the link to my QT post.

brandileigh2003 said...

This is such a hard question! I have found myself a bit uncomfortable with some details (Forbidden anyone?) and at the other end of the spectrum wanting MORE steam.

Unknown said...

I think part of the problem when it comes to deciding whether or not to include sex in YA is that there is some confusion out there about which books are really written toward children and which are written for young adults. The YA category is somewhat ambigouous in this respect. YA is often considered appropriate for children as young as 10 or 12, but the phrase Young Adult suggests that someone reading them should be quite a bit older, and thus old enough to read and find value in reading about more adult topics including sex.

I feel that most YA books are lacking in adult content which they should have. I feel like there are not enough books actually written about tough topics for people in their late teens and early twenties.

View my blog post for more of my thoughts.