Writing Sex in Young Adult Fiction: How Much Is Too Much? by Sarah Alderson
What’s too much when it comes to sex in young adult fiction?
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.