Sex in YA – You Know You Want It

“… and you know you want me to give it to you.” Biff’s words to Lorraine in Back to the Future had me totally flummoxed for a looong time. What was it? How could Biff give it to her? And why was he trying to touch her panties in the front seat of the car during the dance? Why was Lorriane talking about Marty’s Calvin Klein’s in their meeting scene? What’s the fixation with underwear?

I remained in the dark about these topics for awhile. I knew sex existed, but I didn’t have the whole Tab A, Slot B mechanics of the dance figured out until er… well… later. Not so today’s teens. Blame it on the media, blame it on the culture, blame on parenting, blame it on the rain (how many 80’s references can I get in here?) Let’s just set blame aside and focus on the fact that it simply IS. My opinion – kids aren’t having more sex, or earlier than before – it’s simply no longer a taboo subject.

So, because it’s not taboo, because they do know the mechanics – what do we write about it? Do we write about it?

It’s up to you. I’ve read some really graphic sex scenes in YA. I don’t find them offensive. I have a hard time believing there’s anything in there that the average teen hasn’t already been exposed to. However, I do monitor content in the books that I give out to junior high students – not necessarily because I think they’re about to have their minds deflowered – but because their parents DO believe that, and they might have my ass in a sling. And I need my ass. I use it everyday.

My own philosophy runs thus; I have always believed that less is more. Why does Jaws work? ‘Cause you don’t see the shark. I typically refrain from physically describing my characters because I want my readers to fill in their hot guy, their hallway bitch, themselves as the MC. So when it comes to those backseat moments, or when my MC invites a guy over to “watch a movie,” (yeah right, I have yet to see the end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), I want them to fill in slot B on their own. Something happened. Unless it’s imperative to the plot, does it matter what? Do they need the description? Do they need to see that shark?

Here’s a great example from Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix: (I know you’re saying “What!  An HP makeout scene?”) Oh yeah… it’s there. A meeting of Dumbledore’s Army has just ended. Everyone has filed out except for Cho and Harry, who are kinda hanging out there in the Room of Requirement… and who didn’t guess that thing had multiple uses? pg. 456-457:

“I really like you Harry.”
He could not think.  A tingling sensation was spreading throughout him, paralyzing his arms, legs and brain.
She was much too close.  He could see every tear clinging to her eyelashes…
He returned to the common room half an hour later to find Hermione and Ron…”

Hey! Wait a second!! Half an hour later? Gee… what were they doing? Now, obviously Rowling had a duty to her young readers to keep it clean, and to her older readers to keep it interesting. Not so for all writers, certainly. But I think it’s a good example of letting the reader take it to their own level – of comfort, of familiarity, without being told what happened.

My own writing gives a little more detail than this highly gratuitous page break, but you get the idea.

One last thought – what do you want your readers to take away from your book? I haven’t read Breaking Dawn, but I know that Edward and Bella break the headboard, cause that’s all anyone wanted to talk about. Other than that – zero clue what the plot is about.

I’d love some feedback! What are your thoughts? Show the shark, or keep him underwater?  🙂

18 thoughts on “Sex in YA – You Know You Want It

  1. Not on my current MS – it's MG, and I don't want to hurt my chances, but if I were writing YA, I guess I'd show a little shark, as to speak, to tease a little. But not too much shark. Only enough to make it interesting. 🙂
    – EEV

  2. Great post! And in answer to your question, completely up to the writer. Period. The story and characters will dictate how much should be revealed to the reader's eyes and how much should be left behind the scenes. Just like anything else in writing, let the characters lead you, the writer. Can't wait to read more comments on this. I'm RTing!

  3. I'm all for keeping that shark underwater. That ominous fin might still be there–how far above the water and how close to the boat can vary.

    Okay, enough with the metaphor.

    I also agree that there can be exceptions when more detail (or even just more obvious hints) make sense given the plot. It hasn't happened in my writing yet, and I doubt it will, but that's just me.

    I just know I hate it when I'm reading a book and come across a graphic scene that feels like it's there just for the sake of being “edgy” or something.

  4. I'm all for keeping the shark underwater. Don't give everything to the reader. Let them use their imagination. You know how some guys think women are sexier covered and just showing enough to stir the imagination?

  5. Wow,you're quick! Ask and I shall receive- haha! ;o) Thank you for posting this! I find myself really drawn to scenes where there's a lot of sexual tension- you know, getting close to something happening, but nothing does happen. When a couple does cross the line, I actually find myself dissapointed (if that makes any sense). It's the tension that keeps me turning the page. ;o)

    So it sounds like anything and everything is fair game in YA, eh? I'm not planning on going explicit in my WIP, but I do wonder if being “more detailed” can hamper one's chances of getting published.

    Thanks again for posting this!

  6. I would agree that a little shark is not a bad thing, if it works in the story. Certainly in YA the entire naked shark, so to speak, would be a bit much, and very likely gratuitous. The scene in Breaking Dawn with the broken headboard is not sexually graphic. It does, however, clearly demonstrate Edward's conflict between his overwhelming passion for Bella and his continual fight for physical control of himself, and it is, in my opinion, essential to the story.

  7. I've always been a only-glimpse-the-shark type person – holding hands is usually a big deal for my characters! 🙂 – so imagine my surprise when I found myself writing a YA novel that pretty much hinged on an explicit sex scene. It was absolutely necessary plot and character-wise that it be specific about the mechanics or I probably never would have chosen to go there myself EVER.

    And OH MY GOD was it the hardest thing to write. It was so, so difficult to try to toe that line of it being explicit without being gratuitous, being authentic but still being… tasteful? responsible? I've never agonized so much over a piece of writing in my life, and I still worry all the time if it comes across the way I meant it to.

    I personally can't imagine choosing to write a sex scene like that just for shock value or to be “edgy” because it's so fraught and difficult. You couldn't pay me to do that again if the story didn't really demand it!

  8. RC, EEV, cherie – sounds like we have the same style! But I already knew that about you, RC ; )

    Anita – thanks for the RT!

    Marin – looks like my blog “let you in” this time 🙂 I agree – if it's necessary, go for it! A book plot centered around a romance, or losing virginity will definitely suffer in a page-break type situation.

    Angela – honestly, I don't think there ARE any no-no's in YA anymore. I've read some downright explicit material. I say, write what you feel, what the characters are dictating to you. If an agent likes your style, and your writing, they're not going to ignore you b/c they don't like the way you handled the scene. They'll contact you and say, “I like this, but I need less here.” (Or in my case, “I need more here.” 🙂

    Cristin – I agree. In the few scenes I did get a little detail oriented, it made me feel.. a little wobbly. I work with teens everyday, and while I've never based a character on a real-life person, I do use bits and pieces of their personalities to flesh the characters out in my head. So writing a sex / makeout scene with those characters makes me feel…. a little like a creeper?? Ugh. I have to go wash my hands now just after writing this comment.

  9. For me in high school, I searched for the explicit shark scenes and read them over and over. The more sharks the better and I quickly turned to reading adult titles.

    As a writer I kept my YA naked, but not past second base. I'm currently writing an adult title so that I can have more freedom in the romance department.

  10. *hops into shark infested waters*

    I am of the mindset that less is more. I think the slight breath on the back of the neck and the tingle when hands meet flesh is far more romantic and tantalizing than actually being walked through a bedroom scene…er, a Jaws sighting.

    Imaginations will fill in as much or as little as each reader needs. And really, the emotional connection is what any intimate relationship is about. Throwing a shark into your story just to have one is not my idea of good writing–YA or adult.

    Great post, my dear.

  11. Sarah, Eliza, Cat – yep 🙂 We've all definitely got our own opinions on this one. And as Stuart Smalley would say. “That's…. OK.” There are avid readers for both sides, and I think most would deal with either shark-infested or shark-free waters, if they're invested in the story.

    IMO – it's in the telling, not the showing 🙂

  12. I feel the same way. Describing the intimate moments of under-18-year-olds has always seemed a little icky to me if it goes beyond kissing. I think less is definitely more in that regard. Which is not to say that's true in adult romance novels. In that case, I'm usually a little disappointed if no one has sex.

  13. Lisa – yeah my rule with adult novels is first 50 pages or first sex scene, (whichever comes first) in the first sitting. If I'm not invested by then, it's done. If I'm not invested but it's a good sex scene… well, I feel magnanimous giving them the benefit of the doubt ; )

  14. Hi Mindy – as a school librarian, I don't “censor” a book based on sex. I choose books because I believe they are a. well written b. books kids want to read and c. books kids should read. I have adult books in the school library as well as YA books. I know that these adult books have sex in them. The beauty of libraries is people can read what they choose. If a student doesn't want to read the book, they don't have to! However, this year I served on the committee that chose books to read for summer reading – books recommended by the school district. We had originally chosen Chris Crutcher's Deadline for freshman. I had not read the book, but it is in the school library. However, after I read it, I felt that some of the sexual content in the book made it inappropriate for a school recommended read. There is a big difference between choosing to read that book in the school library and being told you have to read it. On a personal level, I would have to say that YA book sex is not necessary – I would fall into the less is more category. These YA's are still, to me, just kids in so many ways!

  15. Good thoughts Roz, and I agree with you on the censoring issue. But – just by dint of having the book the library, it seems to be “school recommended” if that makes sense. Our general rule is that high schoolers can have what they please (unless a parent has made a challenge or asked us to monitor their content) and junior high kids we ask for a note from their parents saying it's OK for them to have certain books. We're mostly lenient on things, but every now and then we'll get a book whose content is… more than likely going to offend a parent of a junior high kid. So, we play it safe.

  16. I think most readers don't want the novel they're enjoying to momentarily become a copy of Penthouse Forum. Less is definitely more. I had too much description in my WIP initially because I thought my senior-in-high-school would want everything described. But my early readers ended up saying “LA LA LA, LA LA LA. I don't see that. Nope, nothing happening here…” and turned the page.

  17. That's a good point Matt – especially if it's only “momentarily.” I think the level of description has to prevalent throughout the book, and match the voice. If a non graphic, non language filled book suddenly goes all Penthouse… that looks like a cheap sell.

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