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.