Posted on April 22nd, 2008 by Anna Jarzab
There are some debates happening on various blogs about sex in YA and whether or not we YA writers have a responsibility to the Truth (as we see it, of course) or to our readers and their parents. Well, of course we have a responsibility to our readers, but what does that responsibility consist of with regards to sex scenes in the books we write for them?
Well, it’s not an easy question. I was just going through John and Hank Green’s Brotherhood 2.0 vlogs the other day and I watched one entitled “I Am Not a Pornographer”, in which John Green explained why the sex scene in his Printz Award-winning Looking for Alaska was not porn.
Sayeth the John:
Pornography is designed to titillate. I don’t think there’s a single halfway normal person in the world who would find a single thing in my book in any way arousing. There is one very frank sex scene [I believe here he's talking about (white text to prevent spoilage) when Miles gets a blow job]. It is awkward, unfun, disastrous, and wholly unerotic…the whole reason that scene in question exists in Looking for Alaska is because I wanted to draw a contrast between that scene, when there’s a lot of physical intimacy but it’s ultimately very emotionally empty, and the scene that immediately follows it, when there’s not a serious physical interaction but there’s this intense emotional connection. The argument here is that physical intimacy can never stand in for emotional closeness, and that when teenagers attempt to conflate these ideas, it inevitably fails…it doesn’t take a deeply critical understanding of literature to realize that Looking for Alaska is arguing against vapid physical interactions, not for them.
I personally think that’s a pretty made of awesome way to put that, but let’s be honest, not every sex scene in a YA novel is meant to explore that same idea. For a very personal instance, there is a sex scene in my novel. It is short and non-explicit, but it is not lacking in emotional intimacy in the same way that Green’s scene is. It is, in essence, a poor choice on the part of the protagonists because it is motivated on one side by a deep feeling of loss and tragic desire for oblivion, and on the other side a desire to make things better and the knowledge that he cannot, but it does not ruin them. There’s a fuzziness to the act, like it may or may not have contributed to the failure of their relationship, but I think that it comes from the same place inside Protag #3 (you don’t know how badly I want to use names) as the behavior that does cause the failure of their relationship, so, like, who knows?
I didn’t include the scene to make a statement about whether or not teenagers should have sex (although I think they shouldn’t), or whether or not they do have sex (of course they do). The sex that my protagonists have is not emotionally empty–actually, I think perhaps that it’s too full of emotion, and the act is an attempt to express and reconcile those emotions by using the body and the other as a conduit, which does not–and cannot–work because the emotions are to big for the act. Does that make any sense? They are using the act in an attempt to express those things that they cannot say to each other, because they’re too young and immature to recognize the depth and seriousness of their own emotions. But I think the lesson is pretty much the same–whether there’s too much emotion or too little involved in a teenage sex act, in at least these two cases, the physical act is a cheap stand-in for really understanding and sharing with someone.
I don’t read a whole ton of YA, but I suspect that there are sex acts in some YA novels (perhaps more than I think) that are meant to be titillating. I mean, hi, the entire Gossip Girl series? I think that probably however sex is presented in YA novels directly corresponds to how the author of the novel feels about teen sex.
I think this argument comes down, at the root, to what you’re trying to say. Even though I don’t think it’s necessary (or even good) that any given book have a specific “message” or “lesson” to “teach” to the reader, I think that most books written by contemplative authors do end up having a sort of thesis, which is pretty much the author’s world view or a world view the author aspires towards or fears. I think every book is a reflection of the heart and mind of the author when she or he wrote it, and readers respond to that as much as they respond to any other factor that determines how good or bad they think a book is (the writing, the characters, the plot, etc.). YA novels are the same, and YA authors are the same, and how an author writes about sex is part of that world view. There is no right or wrong but instead a desire–even a duty–to be authentic to the characters as you wrote them and to the world as you see it.
2 Responses to “Sex-y time”
Interesting discussion. As I’m starting to write YA, I haven’t had to face it yet head-on, but I know some of my readers have made comment about the subject.
I do read a lot of YA, about 125 or more a year and I don’t find that it’s actually that big of an issue. Most YAs don’t have sex in them and when they do, it’s more like what you say your book has, or what John Green says about LOOKING FOR ALASKA. However, I do think that as authors we have to be somewhat careful about projecting our views on sex into our writing. Almost every YA I’ve ever read that has sex is about how it isn’t working out. I do believe that there are mature teens, in relationships, who enjoy responsible sex and it’s just part of their relationship, not some emotional roller coaster or mistake. I think if there’s a reason to have sex in your book, whether it’s like John Green’s or it’s just something your character would do, basically, if it’s honest, then it should be there. If it’s less honest to leave it out, then put it in.