May 21, 2013
Sex and YA Fiction
This is an eternal topic in YA Land. Recently, author E.M. Kokie wrote movingly about the appalling lack of specific detail in describing girls’ sexuality in young adult fiction: “If our YA male characters are allowed their experiences of desire, it seems wrong that our female characters are not afforded that same personhood, the same standard.”
On Monday I followed a link via Twitter to this post: Sex in YA Literature: A Presentation by YA author Carrie Mesrobian. It’s an interesting post, summarizing a talk that Mesrobian and Carolrhoda editor Andrew Karre gave in Minneapolis. The post lists a number of points they discussed, including:
5. Recalling your own adolescent sexual adventures will make you cringe. Thinking about what you did, or didn’t do, or how you did it wrong, or what you didn’t understand, though, is the path toward creating something that readers will find fascinating. STAY in the cringe-y spot when you’re writing about sex. Many YA writers flee the cringe-y spot. This leads to a kind of wish fulfillment about adolescent sex – retconning a story with the adult writer’s context and wisdom about sex, if you will – and does nothing to further the genre or tell a fresh story.
This is something I’ve heard over and over from various people in YA Land when they talk about sex in YA. The idea that nascent sexuality is intrinsically awkard and cringe-inducing — and that it should be described that way in order to be realistic (because if it’s not cringe-inducing, it’s wish fulfillment) — is almost gospel in YA Land.
While I don’t think that YA writers should flee the cringey spot (sometimes writing about things that make you uncomfortable is very important), I don’t entirely agree with what Mesrobians and Karre advise above. (And I don’t mean to be picking on them; this is something many others have said before, but they helpfully provided that wonderful quote.)
(That said, remember: As with all writing advice, take what works for you and leave the rest.)
Part of my issue is this: I don’t believe writers should refer primarily to their own personal experiences when writing about fictional characters. Sure, you can’t escape your own personal experiences, but don’t forget you’re writing about fictional characters who likely have different experiences than you did. You don’t want to fall into the trap of believing that your own experiences are universal. They’re not.
Because budding sexuality is not always awkward or cringe-inducing — not for everyone.1 For some people, it feels natural; it feels instinctual. It can be beautiful and life-changing and surprising and sexy. It can make a girl (and a boy) feel absolutely powerful, empowered, desired, and desirable.
I think that a writer who wants to write about sex in a YA novel should never default to the position that nascent sexuality should be awkward. A writer should pay attention, first and foremost, to the characters who are engaging in that intimacy. How would those characters feel about it? Do they feel awkward? If they do, then describe that. But if they don’t, don’t make them awkward against their will.
Sometimes I wonder if the concept of awkward YA sex comes not from adolescents but from adults who are looking back on their own experiences and applying an adult lens to those memories. Adults can look back and compare those experiences to others, but teens — who likely don’t have much sexual experience due to their age —might not be able to.2
When a teen character is in the heat of the moment, are they actually conscious of the awkwardness, or are they completely wrapped up in the now (teen hormones are a real thing), in the physicality of what’s going on? That’s a question of character, and the character’s perception of that intimate moment should be based in the character’s previous experiences.
I think this subject seems so important to me because I write about the coming of age of teen girls. E.M. Kokie’s post that I linked to in the first paragraph really struck home for me, because it seems incredibly wrong that teen girls in YA are so limited in terms of the words they can use to describe their own bodies. I wouldn’t want them to be further limited to only awkward sexual experiences.
So far, I’ve written four novels about queer teen girls. Some of those girls have sex; some of them don’t. They all have different levels of sexual experience, but all of them engage with desire. If I have any political agenda when it comes to representing girls’ sexuality and desire, it’s that I want to describe it positively. I don’t know if “sex positive” is out of fashion these days, but the term still speaks to me. I think it’s OK — and even realistic — for girls to feel desire and to express it physically and with confidence. From the beginning.
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