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Writing Sex in Young Adult Fiction: How Much Is Too Much? by Sarah Alderson

Writing Sex in Young Adult Fiction: How Much is Too Much? - Writing Teen Novels

What’s too much when it comes to sex in young adult fiction?

My editor would say anything beyond kissing.

I’m known for writing steamy, smokin’ hot romances, and yet none of my characters has done anything beyond kiss. (They can’t, because every time they try to, it gets left on the cutting room floor). What I’ve discovered though, writing thriller romance novels for teens, is that it is possible to create jaw-dropping romance and steaminess that leave your readers gagging for more, through nothing more than the locking of lips.

You don’t need to get graphic in order to satisfy…just look at Twilight…there’s not a whiff of sex, not much even in the way of sexual tension. It’s not until book four, when safely within the boundaries of marriage no less, that the reader is rewarded with a euphemistic consummation of the vampire mortal sex conundrum (I’m not sure that’s scientifically possible but hey, it’s fiction…)

A lot of books these days for teens though include sex scenes (or maybe I’m just reading a lot of books for teens with sex scenes in them) and it seems to me that the approaches taken by authors are incredibly varied. One of my favourite authors – Simone Elkeles – is much more graphic than Meyer. I love the Perfect Chemistry series (for Alex Fuentes alone). Simone writes sex well, sensitively – a little graphically – but not too graphic to offend the teen market (except perhaps those of an evangelical Jonas Brothers persuasion). Back in my day we had to rely on Judy Blume for our sex ed…that or sneak Jackie Collins books from our parents’ top shelves (for me it was The Joy of Sex which I found in a box in the attic). I wish I’d had Simone Elkeles’s books instead. They’re strong on the swoon but also on the love angle. Sure, the scenes are heavily romanticised but the message is clear: make sure it’s with someone you love.

And Use A Condom.

Can’t argue with that.

In the middle ground, I love this from John Green’s The Fault in our Stars (currently my fave read of 2012): ‘The whole affair was the precise opposite of what I figured it would be: slow and patient and quiet and neither particularly painful nor particularly ecstatic….No headboards were broken. No screaming.’

It’s realistic. It’s not graphic. It fits perfectly within the story…(I also like to think the headboard part was a jibe at Twilight).

Yet, as they say in Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. Authors need to be responsible in how they depict sex, especially in this era, where the pressure on young people to have sex and to get it over with, is so enormous. There’s no need to shoehorn it into a book for kicks, or to be on trend, or because everybody else is doing it. Personally I think my editor is right. Hunting Lila and Fated work much better for not going there. They keep my readers hanging, daydreaming, longing. Just like the characters in the book. And the lack of physical intimacy does nothing to undermine the tension, rather it charges the atmosphere. The one kissing scene in Fated, towards the end of the book has received more comments than any other scene I’ve ever written…all along the lines of ‘I had to take a cold shower after.’ (If you’re interested it’s P.245 in the paper copy.)

So advice for those of you wondering how or if to write a sex scene into your book:

  • Don’t feel pressured!
  • Ask yourself: Is it absolutely necessary to make the story work?
  • If the answer to the above is a definite yes, make sure you emphasise how important it is to be honest, to be sober and to be in a committed respectful and loving relationship before you take the leap. Why? Because that’s the way it should be. Am I a hopeless romantic? Yes. Of course. But I want girls to read my books and decide that they are in control of their bodies and of their decision-making.
  • If you can’t write a sex scene without giggling, cringing or resorting to copying large tracts from your parents’ copy of the Joy of Sex, then quit while you’re ahead.
  • Always use condoms.

FatedHunting LilaPerfect ChemistryTwilightThe Fault in Our StarsOn Writing Romance: How to Craft a Novel That SellsWriting the Romantic Comedy

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. FAB post, Sarah! It’s kind of funny, given how steamy we keep calling your (fabulous) books how clean they really are when your point it out… and that, despite how clearly I remeber the KISSING scenes in Fated and HL, I almost forgot Alex and Brittany going all the way (despite how much I loved Perfect Chemistry).

    You know, this is kind of timely… my best friend and I were having a Big Discussion about sex in YA. Can’t wait to forward her this post :D

    April 18, 2012
  2. Karen #

    What I want to know is who decided YA books shouldn’t have sex? It can’t be the teens themselves and I doubt they would be offended by it. When I was a teen, I wanted to read about it. My friends and I circulated Mills and Boons books and Taboo magazines that we swiped from our parents. Young adults are the readers most desperate to read about sex and to be informed about healthy sexual relationships. I think it’s condescending to treat them like children rather than sexual beings.
    Oddly enough, I read mostly adult books as a teen and now as an adult I read mostly YA and I love your books Sarah. They’re plenty steamy. :)

    April 19, 2012
    • Jennifer #

      I agree 100%. When my friends and I were real young; 10 or 11 y/o we would pour over our steamy, spicy and sexy romance novels that make “50 Shades” a G-rated book. We enjoyed them and we didn’t care what people thought about it. Teen sexuality has been around since the first human in the universe became a teenager

      February 9, 2013
    • Jordan Ashley #

      What I find ridiculous is the fact that someone did say no sex in teen books, and yet we can have it plastered in our faces on TV. Let’s see, teens these days probably are going to watch these shows like vampire diaries, The tomorrow people, Star Crossed, on the CW, teen mom on MTV and it’s perfectly fine…

      April 15, 2014
  3. Love this post! Well said, I couldn’t agree more. And if steamy kissing scenes are done to perfection, that’s enough, we’ll be happy! With your books, because you do the romance/steamy scenes SO well, were left breathless and needing more but at the same time content… If that makes sense. Brilliant!

    April 20, 2012
  4. Great post! I write YA novels too (though in Spanish) and have been wondering too how much is too much. I agree with Karen, teens want to read about sex. It’s the adults who think they shouldn’t. Anyway, my books don’t contain anything graphic. There are steamy scenes, passionate kissing, which sometimes goes much further but that is left for the reader’s imagination.
    I remember when I was a teen feeling frustrated when I read an adult novel which didn’t go further hehehe. I also read more teen fiction now as an adult than I did when I was a teen. Odd, isn’t it?

    April 28, 2012
  5. I’ve been uhm-ing and ahh-ing about including a sex scene in my story. But after reading this, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary and that perhaps my story will work even better NOT having one.

    I’m so glad I came across this blog. There are so many posts I have open in my browser to read.

    October 12, 2012
  6. I don’t completely agree with the above. Teens having sex is a reality. If every relation in a YA novel is perfect and every sexual moment is like roses and bliss, then how does a teen get informed about the moments that are not so rosy?

    Having been a teen myself, I could say that at that age, I would have felt it was condescending.

    Condoms are good advice in this day and age. What about a time and place where condoms don’t exist? Fantasies and sci-fi novels can take place in all sorts of different settings. Some of those settings don’t have condoms, but they still have teens.

    Teen pregnancy exists. And it’s not always conceived on a silk bed with nothing but kisses. How can anyone expect teens to learn about the negative aspects of teen sex (STD, pregnancy, etc) without being able to portray them?

    I always wondered how keeping teens ignorant of the grittier side of sex helps them.

    January 1, 2013
    • Brilliantly said, Ian.

      I think the only book I’ve read that does this, is Puberty Blues, and that was written ages ago. I’d definitely like to see more books that have realistic, gritty sex with real life consequences. Granted, not all sex is like that, but there should be an accurate portrayal of those types of scenes.

      January 1, 2013
  7. Nikky #

    I think this is a great post. As a teenager who is saving it for marriage, it kinda bugs me when books go too far and the characters are dumb girls with thought processes like “I knew he was the one, I knew this was right” or “I have to express my love for him this way”…I don’t mind the buildup through kissing and dialogue, but I think it should be left at that and I also think books shouldn’t spend so much time with the characters pondering sex. Being a teenager, I’m tempted sometimes but I’m usually too busy being a kid to have it on my mind 24/7

    February 3, 2013
  8. I’ve been asking myself this question for a long time, and Perfect Chemistry is one of the only few YA romance novels I’ll pick up and read more than once.

    Right now, I’m writing a trilogy where in the first book, my main character goes through having his abusive father out of the way getting help for his alcohol addiction because my main character is fed up with how his father treats him, and through this time, he learns how to open himself up to his friends who were worried when he got hurt so bad one night that it ended up with him having back surgery. To make matters worse, my main character is gay and his father is completely against it, which leads me to book 2, where I’m at right now, and not to try and spoil anything but my main character comes home after being sold to a sex ring and , he has vivid memories that come up in his nightmares and since this is all in first person, I don’t know what’s too far or not. Sure, the dreams hold extreme behavior, but I always have my main character wake up from the nightmares right before it gets too bad.

    If anyone could help me with this dilemma it’s gratefully appreciated! From the very beginning when I started this journey on this series, I knew it’d be fore eyes of kids 16/17 and older. Book one, main character is 14 and in book 2 he’s turning 16. I hope this makes sense, I’m running on barely any sleep.

    February 7, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Sex in Young Adult Novels and How I Treat It |
  2. Y is for YA: Sense and Sensuality | Pen and Kink
  3. Sex in Young Adult Books |

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