Tuesday, February 06, 2007

To Do It Or Not To Do It --Eve

I just read a rather hot sex scene in a YA book I'm reading, and…WHEW! Good “showing, not telling”. Creative use of the five senses. Excellent dialogue choices…very authentic. Outstanding description of the, you know, action. Good for you, author! CLAP CLAP.

Problem is… it was totally unnecessary. Not that sex is unnecessary. But in some YA books, the sex seems to be gratuitously tossed in either for shock value or for kicks or maybe the author is showing off a bit. Look at me! Look at me! I'M DEAD SEXY! I get it. Those scenes are really fun to write. And read. But how does an author decide when it's necessary?

Yes, teenagers have sex on the brain. I read a 2005 child development study that said over half of all teens claim to be sexually active. About 20% of America's ninth graders checked the “I'M HAVING SEX” box on the questionnaire. Uh, yeah. I work with ninth graders every day now, and here's a newsflash for ya…they exaggerate!

Ain't no way that 1 in 5 of the fourteen-year-olds I'm tutoring are doing anything resembling sex. Oh sure, they SAY they're having sex, but they also SAY they've wrestled sharks, Karate-chopped bank robbers, and saved puppies and nuns from attacking lions! They'll say anything, ANYTHING to impress me or their friends or the imaginary person looking over their shoulders to see which box they've checked on the Sex Questionnaire.

So, anyway, that rant aside…Do I need to add sex to my new YA novel? It's a Romance, yes. However, excuse me for being a prude, but remember when talking late into the night and holding hands and kissing meant everything in the world? I do. To me, the romance of my story lies in the heart-stopping emotional bond that my characters share. Sure, they're physically attracted to each other. Very much so. But I'd love to make sex a non-issue. Does it even have to come up?

99% of writers I've posed this question to agree that my characters must have sex to make it realistic. Yes, they're deeply in love. But does love always have to equal sex? (Especially when we're talking about kids??) Am I being a serious prude, here? No, for real, is it me? Am I being unrealistic? Help, blog-readers. Help!

(Who may need therapy after this one to deal with the fact that I was the most straight-laced and boring teen on the planet.)


Carrie said...

Eve--I think it would be very unrealistic for your characters if the sex issue never came up. BUT I don't believe it's unrealistic for the characters not to have sex. Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

Be original and let them NOT have sex. After all that new study says that teens were turned off by accidental porn viewings on the Internet. I agree with Carrie. Empower your readers to not believe all of the "I'm-having-it" hype.

lskeers said...

Long time reader, first time responder...

Maybe I'm a bit of a rebel but I disagree with the 99% that say your characters MUST have sex. Is that the main thrust (pardon the pun!) of the book? 2 teens discovering their sexuality? Or is the deep emotional connection they make and that helps them learn more about each other and themselves? Realistically teens have sex but they also eat breakfast, do homework, sleep and have their teeth cleaned but that doesn't mean you have to describe those events in detail. Only YOU can decide if your characters need to have sex "on stage" and just how important that part of their relationship is to the story. It's a fascinating dilemma and I'll stay tuned to see what you decide. I worked in a middle school and I agree with you -- they talk a good game but very few are as sexually active as they would like us to believe!

Debby G. said...

It's hard to tell without reading your manuscript. Of course, there are plenty of young adult novels without sex in them. I think the majority of YA novels don't have sex in them, don't you? Read Sleeping Freshman Never Lie or Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pies, or The Year My Life Went Down the Loo, for example. All have romance. None have sex.

But some manuscripts should have sex in them if that's what the characters would do or what the tone would demand. It's really hard to say without reading your manuscript.

Also, I had plenty of sexually active friends in high school. I myself was sexually active. They didn't necessarily publicize it. I was also a shy honor student and senior class vice president. And, really, having sex doesn't require a person to be really smart or really mature. The kids you tutor may very well be sexually active without advertising the fact.

I originally wrote Stuck in the '70s without a sex scene, but everyone in my critique group said I needed to have a sex scene in a very specific part of the manuscript. So there is a one-paragraph sex scene. It has nothing to do with my morals or whether I think most teens are sexually active or whether I want to titillate readers. It has to do with what the character I created would do, and whether it was natural for the first-person narrator to talk about having sex.

Anonymous said...

Why do you care what the "rules" say? If everyone abided by the "rules" of writing, we would be hard-pressed to find original, creative works. I'm just sayin', especially since you have always trusted your own instincts about when to break rules and when to follow them, to much success, I might add. Except maybe that time you got your middle school principal pissed off about the petition regarding graduation. Anyway, I say trust yourself and your characters and the story to determine what "must" be included. Lamy

Natalie said...

Hi Eve,

I agree with Debby in that it depends on your story and your characters. I'm in the middle of reading the first SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS book, and

****Spoiler alert...*******

when Bridget and Eric have sex, I wasn't even sure that's what had happened--it's implied but never stated. So when Bridget starts acting depressed, I actually thought: Huh? Did they do it or not? And now, towards the end, it's obvious that they did. But the aftermath isn't a glorification of sex...things don't go as Bridget (or Eric) had hoped. But I think the whole thing was necessary for her character arc, if that makes sense.

Good luck with whatever you decide!


Greg Trine said...

Hey Eve, nice rant. Yeah, the teen sex thing is so common that it's become a cliche. Trust your instincts. Although the real test is if you can stick to your guns when an editor asks you to include "the scene"


Don Tate II said...

Where I work, we often receive children's publisher catalogs. Looking through one recently, I found one book cover that bordered on soft porn. I couldn't believe it, and I felt a bit disgusted with the industry. Especially knowing the cries that would be heard if a librarian or a parent spoke up and asked for such a book be removed from the shelves. Anyway, I'm so glad that some authors are giving these things some consideration.

Disco Mermaids said...

WOW! Thanks for the comments, guys. It's given me a lot to think about. Although I consider myself VERY liberal and don't believe in censorship, I agree with Don in that some teen book/magazine covers really freak me out! "Soft porn" is a good description.

Regarding what Natalie said, we Disco Mermaids discuss this all the time...how much is too much, or too little when writing a sex scene? One scene (from a wonderful new YA) was so vague and confusing, we couldn't figure out exactly WHAT the characters had done. And it was somewhat important to the plot to know what act they had performed. We had to draw diagrams and do some visuals to investigate what actually could have happened. Swear! It was hilarious.

And I agree with Debbie that the characters should only "do it" if that's what these particular kids would really do. The added twist is that the girl only has a year to live...and THAT'S why most people tell me she must have sex. But, I don't believe that (for girls) sex is the end-all-be-all thing they obsess over 24/7. For teen boys...whole 'nother story!


Disco Mermaids said...

Eve! Aargh! I was almost done writing my next post on the very topic you just brought up: overly vague sex scenes. What I was gonna say is that if the author and the characters know what happened, don't let the reader be the only one in the dark. And I see that more and more in teen lit.

With that particular book you mentioned, we decided that either the girl was triple-jointed or there was another guy involved.

I don't need to know everything that happened to the character, but story is all about cause and effect. Did it or did it not happen, that's all we're askin'!

- Jay

Disco Mermaids said...

Here's my two cents!

Cent #1: I think your character should grapple (love that word) with this issue just as we all are and just as all girls in high school must deal with the dilemma of should I or shouldn't I? How will it change the relationship? What is it that I REALLY want?

Cent #2: That YA novel that you just read Eve, the one with the really steamy sex scene...can I borrow it?

Just sayin',

Anonymous said...

Whoo, it's gettin' hot in herre. (To quote Nelly)! Lamy

Lisa said...

I was just reading a blog (sorry, can't remember whose) who heard Stephanie Meyer speak recently (author of TWILIGHT). Editors were convinced sex sells, but Stephanie refused to have any sex scenes in her books. She said she had to fight hard for her characters and vision.

I think TWILIGHT made the NYT Best Sellers list, didn't it? So see, other things besides sex sell. :)

Nancy said...

Hmmmm. The one-year-to-live angle changes my original answer.

I kind of feel like a teenager with one year to live is going to want to check that off the list in a bad way. Even a straight-laced teen, like I was.

Debby G. said...

I agree with Nancy, that most teen girls with one year to live would have sex on their to-do list. Teens have an extra-sensitive nose for b.s., in my opinion. If your character doesn't ring true, if the teen readers keep wondering why she's not putting sex on her to-do list, it takes them out of the story and the book suffers.

Now, do you have to write a sex scene? I don't think so. She could get to the hotel room or whatever, start kissing her boyfriend, and then realize she would rather not have sex at all than have sex she's not really ready to have. Sex is kind of like getting an agent: A bad experience is worse than no experience. (Of course, teen males might think that "bad sex" is an oxymoron; but teen females might not.) I think something like that could ring true if you did it correctly.

But just to ignore the issue because you the author don't like to mention sex in YA books might do an injustice to the truth of your character and story. Just my not humble opinion, of course.

Disco Mermaids said...

I totally agree with you guys, Nancy and Debby. I think the fact that she'll die young, AND she's fallen in love will dictate that she'd probably have sex (in some form).

Just so you know, it's not that I'm against sex in YA novels; in fact if it's done right, I think it adds a lot in terms of authenticity. I guess I just grappled with writing a sex scene that feels too obligatory. I like Debby's suggestion of showing that the MC wants to do it, but isn't ready or whatever.

The other thing is that I've been polling high school seniors, and naturally all the guys put sex on the top of the "to do" list, but very few girls do. The girls seem to be listing more social/emotional needs they want to meet (leaving a mark on society, showing extreme generosity to family and friends, etc), where the boys' answers are VERY physical (driving race cars, robbing banks, having group sex, etc).

I'm realizing that many teen girls are a lot like I was...dating, wanting to find love, but not necessarily feeling that sex was important at that age. Truth be told...I was scared to death of STD's, pregnancy, bad reputation, so I was a major prude. Had I been given a year to live, however, I probably would have become wild and crazy slutty girl. (Nothing wrong with that!)

Sometimes I wish I had been crazier back then...I was such a bore, and now I've got no interesting stories to tell!

Thanks for the thoughts. :)

Anonymous said...


I think there are teens who are grateful for ya books where the characters don't have sex. I think there are even boys (gasp!) who don't want to have sex when they are 16. While it is realistic for to show some teens in some ya books going all the way, it's also realistic to show some teens not wanting to be sexually active.

I echo everyone's sentiment that you should do what feels right for those characters; but it's not unbelievably abnormal for a teenage character to refrain from having sex.

From a guy who was happy and content being an extremely square teenager - David LaRochelle

Disco Mermaids said...

Yay, David LaRochelle! I was happily square too! Yes, it's an interesting discussion.

For me (as for a lot of teens I've been talking to), I just had no desire to go down that road. Just like I had no desire to join the swim team. It just wasn't a big deal.

I was extremely outgoing, dated a ton and even had a long-term boyfriend for over a year. But, truth be told, all my girlfriends who had "done it" told me it wasn't all that great. So, I felt like, why bother?

I'm glad to hear a man's perspective on this issue. And I'm sorry if I implied that all teen boys are sex-driven. That was my stereotypical assumption, and I'm glad you challenged it. Come to think of it, most the boys I dated in high school weren't active, so I really have no reason to make that assumption.

And I still don't believe that statistic that over HALf of high schoolers are sexually active. Just not buyin' it.

Thanks for your comments. I'm honored to have you read our DM site. I aspire to be you someday. We love you, David LaRochelle!


topangamaria said...

Look how many comments this topic generated !?! Which says something about the power and interest of said subject...and shows that you're probably going to have to deal with it to some degree, either by suggestion, or even to explain avoidance, being that it is a romance, being that there's that only a year to live theme going on, being that it's the human condition to be interested
in the doing or not...regardless of what happens, wherever your characters take you, there's no avoiding that elephant in the room, i think...Bravely onward!!!

Marcia said...

I vote to bring it up only if it is pertinent to your story line, then let the characters do what your characters will do, basically stay in character, go with your gut. After all, there is always editing. . .