Monday, December 8, 2008

Marianna: Let's Get It On -- Sex Scenes in Young Adult Novels

I’ve been a connoisseur of sex scenes in YA fiction since I was nine, when a dog-eared copy of Forever made the rounds in my fourth grade class. So I was shocked that when I tried to write one for the first time, it was a disaster. I was embarrassed. My characters were embarrassed. None of us knew what to do with our hands. We didn’t even get to first base.

Writing sex scenes for adult readers can be awkward, as well, but writing for young adults brings a whole other set of concerns. The considerations of how to deal with the (touchy, sticky – insert pun of choice here) topic of sex in such a way that is appropriate for readers of varying levels of maturity can seem extremely complex. Add to that the worry about censorship, people accusing us of corrupting their kids, the issue of portraying responsible sex, etc.

All of those worries, along with basic inhibitions, distracted me from my main concern – crafting a good story. Once I stepped back and looked at YA novels I think handle sex beautifully, I realized I needed to come back to that – the craft. Because, in the end, good craft will set us free. My firm belief is that our responsibility is to tell the most honest stories we can, and that the question is not, “What is appropriate?” but, “What is appropriate for the story I am telling?” (I loved Varian’s Nov. 24th post that dealt with this issue of the writer’s responsibility.)

Anyway, I went back to that sex scene I’d tried to write and looked at it from a more objective, less panicky and emotional, point of view. I considered it from three angles: plot, level of detail, and language, and brought with me what I’d learned from studying those books I loved.

Regarding plot/”What should those hands be doing?” -- simply put, the physical actions should reflect the emotional truth of the scene, the relationship between the characters, and often, larger themes of the novel. I believe the key to finding this emotional truth is respect -- respecting the right of characters to make mistakes, to take risks, to be desirous, and, if the story calls for it, to do things that I wouldn’t do, or that I wouldn’t want my (hypothetical, at the moment) son or daughter to do. If a character is fully fleshed out, readers will understand her decisions.

In Bringing Up the Bones by Lara Zeises, Zeises’s eighteen-year-old protagonist, Bridget, is dealing with the recent death of her boyfriend, Benji. During one of her first post-death social outings, she briefly meets a boy, Jasper, goes to his apartment, and sleeps with him. This event is the catalyst for the rest of the novel – the story of how Bridget’s relationship with Jasper helps her overcome Benji’s death in unexpected ways. Zeises uses that first sex scene between Bridget and Jasper to establish the dynamics that will characterize their relationship throughout the book:

His lips brush from my breasts to my belly button to the dampened cotton crotch of my panties which soon find their way to the floor. I come quickly, guiltily. But it doesn’t stop there.
He reaches over me to the wood-laminate nightstand, fishes around the top drawer until he finds a condom. I can feel him looking at me in the darkness, can feel him wondering if I’m one of those girls who likes to slip it on the guy herself. My nails dig into the soft flesh of his shoulders; my tongue thrusts itself into his mouth. He decides to do it himself, rolls away from me a bit.
And then he’s inside me, and I’m expecting to feel the searing pain I did with Benji but it’s not like that this time. […]
When it’s over, I start to cry. Quietly at first, then louder (27-28).

The details of this sexual interaction hint at so many aspects of the novel: the oral sex speaks of Jasper’s tendency to give, and Bridget’s to receive; the moment with the condom reflects Bridget’s use of sex/body language to communicate instead of words; her mention of Benji shows Bridget’s constant need to compare Jasper to her idealized ex; and her guilt and tears reflect her emotional confusion.

This is brave writing. By allowing her character to have sex with a stranger, Zeises risks making her unsympathetic to readers. I would be very surprised though if anyone read this book and felt harshly towards Bridget, because the scene is emotionally honest. We fully believe that this is what Bridget would do in the situation, given her grief over Benji, and once we know Jasper, we believe it’s what he would do. The physical reflects the emotional – with all its mess and complexity.

Another book that does a great job of using the specific events in a sex scene to reveal theme and character is Doing It, by Melvin Burgess. Protagonist Dino wants to lose his virginity – primarily to reassure himself that he’s the stud people think he is, not the unsure, vulnerable kid he is inside. But his girlfriend won’t oblige. In his desperation, he decides to have sex with a girl he meets at a party at his house. His parents are away, the house is empty, she’s willing. Dino’s all set.

He pushed her gently to the bed, and she got in. He took his trousers off and got in after her. […] He peeled her knickers off and she lifted her legs to help him. And then…and then…
Dino began to lose it.
[…] He rubbed his pubis on hers, but as his fear of failure grew so his knob got softer and softer and now at last it was nothing but a felty slug hanging off him.
[…] The girl lay under him looking up with a half-smile on her face, and Dino had never felt so alone as he did then, in bed with a girl and no erection (99-100).

Adolescence is a time of losing control and gaining control – as you lose control of your body in some ways, you gain independence and control of your life. The sex scenes in Doing It perfectly illustrate this dichotomy. The physical result of Dino’s emotional confusion makes for a pretty devastating scene, one that, again, took bravery to write.

So, when I’m writing a sex scene, I think about what happens through the lens of what it says about my characters, and how it can illustrate the book’s themes. Both Zeises and Burgess succeed because they let their characters tell them what would happen, regardless of the fact that their characters’ actions aren’t ones that you would assume would be sympathetic to the reader.

The two examples I’ve given go into a fair amount of graphic detail, although less experienced kids might not grasp exactly what’s going on. And that’s certainly fine. Many sex scenes are written so that the meaning will only really be clear to more experienced readers. But sometimes, it’s appropriate to describe things with a certain level of detail. Again, the decision of which way to go has to come from the character, from the story, from the tone of the narration.

Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky is the story of seventeen-year-old Dominique’s first love and sexual experiences, and the sex scenes live up to the book’s title. None of the language or content is inappropriate or gratuitous, though. Scenes are written to reflect Dom’s confusion and curiosity.

Even by the dim blue moonlight filtering in through the glass balcony doors, I can recognize the features of his penis from my anatomy books. The shaft, the head, the urethral opening – it’s definitely all there. Only it looks so much more alive and urgent than any photograph could ever capture. […] (112-114)

Nothing left to the imagination here! But filtered through Dom’s eyes (she’s an avid science student in addition to being a curious virgin), this is the only way the scene could have been narrated. For Dom, these first explorations are not about passion so much as they are about experimentation.

In Jenny Downham’s beautiful book, Before I Die, terminally ill Tessa makes a list of things she wants to do while she’s still able. First on the list is having sex. The very night she makes her list, she goes out with a friend to a club, meets a boy, and sleeps with him.

He lies down, moves my legs apart with his, presses closer, his weight on top of me. Soon I’ll feel him inside me and I’ll know what all the fuss is about. This was my idea.
I notice lots of things while the red neon numbers on his radio alarm move from 3:15 to 3:19. I notice that his shoes are on their side by the door…
He supports himself with his arms, moving slowly above me, his face turned to one side, his eyes tight shut. This is it. It’s really happening. I’m living it now. Sex. (25)

The emphasis is on her distracted thoughts, not the sex. Tessa has no connection to this boy, no emotions about the sex. The details of it aren’t important to her. She couldn’t care less what his penis looks like. It’s the fact of finally having sex that matters.

So, I ask myself how important the actual details of what happens are to my narrative. Are they going to express something about the characters and about the book’s themes? Do they provide a necessary clue about something? Or would a full description be gratuitous?

Closely related to the issue of explicitness is the issue of language. Obviously, the language in the example I gave from Anatomy of a Boyfriend is an extreme example of one approach – using the anatomically correct words. More often, slang is appropriate, as that’s usually going to be a more natural fit for the narrative voice. But different slang words bring different connotations. Take the following line from Ellen Wittlinger’s Sandpiper: “…it’s clear that what he really needs is for me to put my mouth around his dick.” This immediately shows Sandpiper, the protagonist’s, hostility about her sexual encounters. “Dick” brings a sense of harshness. On the other hand, when one of the protagonists in Doing It says he has to go “shake hands with Mr. Knobby Knobster,” well, we know that his relationship with himself is a friendly one.

I gave a lecture on this topic at Vermont College that went into more depth about our responsibility as YA writers, but here I’m just going to say this: if we treat our characters with respect, and write the scenes with honesty, we are fulfilling our responsibility. And part of respecting our characters is respecting them as desirous, sexual beings. A well-written scene of a sexual interaction can show characters at their most vulnerable, truest selves, and can be among the strongest in the book. I leave you with one last moment from Downham’s Before I Die, when Tessa, now very close to dying, has a final sexual encounter with her boyfriend (someone she’s very much in love with, not the random boy from the club):

His hand slides to my waist to my belly to the top of my thigh. His kisses follow his hand, work their way down until his head is between my legs and then he looks at me, asking permission with his eyes.
It spills me, the thought of him kissing me there.
His head is in shadow, his arms scooped under my legs. His breath is warm on my thighs. He very slowly begins.
If I could buck, I would. If I could howl at the moon, then I would. To feel this, when I’d thought it was over, when my body’s closing down and I thought I’d have no pleasure from it again.
I am blessed.

And readers are blessed that Downham had the bravery to write a scene of such emotional honesty.


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  2. Thanks for sharing these gorgeous scenes. The scenes were written so beautifully and were so real.

  3. Marianna, Thank you for this post! Great stuff here. I wish I could have heard your lecture at VC this summer.

  4. Great post--I too, was asked to "go there" in my writing. It was some of the hardest writing I've ever done. And like you said, I ultimately had to let go of that feeling of "what is appropriate" for "what is true and real." I loved the excerpts you included. Thanks.

  5. Hi Marianna,

    I really loved your lecture, and am happy to get a "refresher" here. I wrote a short story this past semester that deals with sexuality, and am about (after this semester) to get to the part in the novel I'm writing where the two main characters have a sexual encounter, and I really think your insights have helped me, and will help me, write these scenes much more authentically.


  6. Excellent, Marianna. The respect you show for the topic and for your reader is very clear. I look forward to reading your upcoming books.

    Like the writers you've mentioned above, you, too, are brave and honest.


  7. Nice post, Marianna. You're right, it is hard to get past the insecurities we have to just write a beautiful, real scene between two characters.
    Thank you for this.

  8. I'm not sure which format impresses me more. Here, exposing yourself and your ideas in writing, or through the spoken words you courageously offered at VC residency. You gave me the courage to approach writing about sex honestly, and to enjoy myself in the process with more in my hands than just chocolate. :)

  9. Well done, Marianna. I admire your tenacious spirit. You're destined for literary greatness!

  10. What a great post--I've passed it on to others and will keep it at the top of my mind for the next novel. Thank you!

  11. So true--so helpful--so well-delivered. In short, so Marianna.


  12. Thanks for writing this, Marianna (and to Kelley Eskridge for pointing me in this direction).

    This year, our fiction workshop requires us to write one "Sacred Orgasm" story. I'm delighted with the requirement, as are some of my younger classmates---not so much the older ones, especially those who are parents. I will direct colleagues and teachers alike to your post. I believe our group dynamic will benefit greatly from reading your thoughts on sex scenes in YA, colored by the fine examples you share with us.

    I've been musing over this topic for almost a year now; your post has injected me with an urge to dig up my abandoned YA manuscript and revise with an eye that respects the needs of my characters, with an honesty that beckons the reader to revel in the sticky---often awkward, sometimes precious---experience of teenage sexuality. Your novels, along with the works you've sampled from, are now on my wish list.

  13. I just rewrote a sex scene in my current YA novel manuscript after realizing that my 18-year-old character acted far more relaxed and suave than any 18-year-old seducer/virgin I've ever known! As Karina mentioned, showing the awkward parts (fumbling, worried thoughts and questions, inappropriate comments) is necessary for realism and to gain the reader's empathy and sympathy. Teenagers who "do it" with nonchalance and the skills of an adult will not be believable to any adult readers, and will hold up an unrealistic example to our teen readers. We might even affect our teen readers' future sex lives by giving them unrealistic expectations if we write steamy sex scenes that actually belong in adult novels! Thus, as writers of YA novels (and non-gratuitous sex scenes), we owe it to our young readers to present the awkward realities of beginners' sex, not romanticized versions that may cause them to feel inadequate when they experience their own early sexual encounters. And I, as a parent of teens, also owe it to my young readers to respect the privacy and intimacy of sex, and not lay it all out so graphically, enabling them to say, "Well if it's in print, I can do the same, just as openly." Lead them to the bedroom, then shut the door--that's my motto.

  14. Mair - Great post! I wish I'd gotten to hear the lecture in Vermont.

  15. I imagine that whether it be hard to write sex scenes .. but in part can help thinking about your wishes and stuff! You can fantasize about for a while!

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  18. Am glad a came on to this, i do believe that the sexual scenes in novals are great if they do warn the reader after all, it was not that different in the past ...

  19. I'm a young adult and I'm in the process of writing a young adult novel. It's really unfortunate that I have to either not have any sex scenes or make an awkward one. Sure the first sex scene in my story was pleasurably awkward for both of them because it was their first time with eachother (neither are virgins), though they did mess around before. But as the story went on, their intimacy became frequent and natural for both of them because of the incredibly deep and loving relationship they have with eachother. My story isn't all about sex, but it's an imortant aspect of their relationship just as sex is with any relationship. Sure I might have gone too detailed and I can cut some of that, but I don't want to have to cut all of it and don't think I should have to. The way they make love and how often he gives her oral sex shows how much he practically worships her. Young adults have sex, that's the reality of it and a lot of people my age want to read about that. Not all of us are going to have awkward sex every single time we "do it" so I don't see why it has to be written like that. What's wrong with a young couple that knows what their doing? It's honest.

  20. Wow this really helped me, I have a pending risky novel rousing my inner thoughts and all I could think is should I even remotely try to write it. I'm afraid of being too explicit with my sex scenes and exploring the inner turmoil of my young cast of characters as they journey through their experiences with intimacy and love. Thanks for this post and I can't wait to read more.

  21. Wow this really helped me, I have a pending risky novel rousing my inner thoughts and all I could think is should I even remotely try to write it. I'm afraid of being too explicit with my sex scenes and exploring the inner turmoil of my young cast of characters as they journey through their experiences with intimacy and love. Thanks for this post and I can't wait to read more.
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  22. Hi, a great post... I've passed it on to others and will keep it at the top of my mind for the next novel. Thank you!

  23. I am just a mom who just read some of my twelve year old's racy writing. I could only imagine she was getting these ideas from the scourge of books she reads. Sure enough - the first book I opened in her stack com the library had very sensual scenes. This is not the kind of writing that is going to empower her to be in an equal plane with her male counterparts. It is the kind of writing that is too sexually liberating and makes it seem ok. Well, it's not. What ever happened to honor and maintaining that which is sacred. An intelligent character could better control their emotions. I know first hand not all teens are having sex. Sure they are a rarity, but do you ask yourselves what are the influences that have decreased teen virginity, and do you really want to play a part in that? Please consider being socially responsible.

    1. Guess what? Teenagers have sex. It's been going on forever and it's not going to change. It's horrible for you to suggest that it's somehow the fault of the Young Adult writers. They're trying to paint an honest picture of what it's like. By the way, your daughter's probably hearing this stuff at school, are you going to blame them too? Get off your moral high horse.

  24. I really think your insights have helped me, and will help me, write these scenes much more authentically.
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  25. This is exactly what I was looking for. I wrote a scene in my up coming book and I wasn't sure if it was acceptable. I know now that it is. You're the best.

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  28. I also read that, and it was just awesome...;-)

  29. whoa!!!

    this is really a nice post... I have written a lot of short stories and some poems too. Your post is an inspiration to me.

  30. Before I Die is such a beautiful, soulful, emotional book. I will never forget the tears in my eyes when finally, I turned the last page.

    That book changed my life.

  31. I realize this is an old post but THANK YOU. Oh god, I've been wrapped up in trying to write this sex scene and how much detail is appropriate. I feel like this has freed me to back away and really examine what's going on.

  32. Wow, these were graphic. I didn't quite expect a YA novel to have such detail. Here I am struggling with whether I can use the word "orgasm" or imply she had an orgasm.

  33. Part of the creepiness comes from the very fact that the scientist is doing things just because he can, not because they have a purpose; I think anyone who has deep suspicions about science and technology can relate.

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  42. Thank you for taking the time to share these scenes and your take on them, Marianna. I am in the editing phase of my first YA, trying to pin down an intimate scene where a young man is just exploring his girlfriend's breasts for the first time. That is tricky alone, never mind further down!

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  44. Thank you so much! I have been writing a coming-of-age novel for many years now (off and on, really). I think I've been grappling with the sex issue so much that it has hindered my progress. That and I wasn't sure what qualified a book as a YA. I definitely wanted my book to fit in that category- as I am a young adult myself- and help other young adults through many of the struggles my protagonist faces.

  45. Very insightful. I have to write abt sexuality in YA literature for my class and I had to use this post. Thanks.

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  52. Sara- I stumbled upon this old post, but just wanted to thank you so much for your thoughts on this. I've just recently put my book (fictional comedy/romance about teenagers in the 80s) out on Amazon. It took me months of grappling with the two or three scenes of sexual content, wondering if they were appropriate for a YA novel. I ultimately realized that it was just as okay to leave the steamy parts in right alongside the awkward and fumbling parts. Teenagers experience both. I finally let myself be okay with the honesty of that, and your blog is helping to vindicate my decision. (I did, however, make sure to note in the blurb that the story is intended for more mature teens.) Thanks again.

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  54. Hello Marianna,
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    1) In your article, you mention perhaps a criticism written by Varian, dealing with the issue of writer’s responsibility. Could you please tell me the exact name and edition details of the article, so that I could find it?
    2) Who is the author of the book “Forever” you mention? There are several books with this title on the internet. Could you please specify it for me, so that I could find it?
    3) Do you know any book, connected with the issue of sexuality, in which a main character is afraid of sexuality, and intimacy, and is, for instance, postponing sexual intercourse, or some story of this kind?
    4) I am sorry, I haven’t read your books, but as you write, you probably also involve sexual scenes in your writing. Do you have (or do you plan) a book, in which sexuality would be the main theme?
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    PS: If anyone else knows answers to these questions, can you please reply here? Thank you : - )

    1. In answer to question 3- in the film 'The Rules Of Attraction' the main character reads through a book about STI's every time she wants sex to stop herself losing her virginity. The film was based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel by the same title- I haven't read it but it's based on 4 college kids having lots of drugs/sex/etc. Your question made me think of her interesting way of avoiding sex!

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