On Writing Sex for Young Adults Sex for Young Adults
In a recent article to promote the upcoming release of my young adult novel, Being Roy, I wrote that the books I read as a teenager veered far from the age-appropriate genre designated for my consumption. Thanks to my mother’s ample personal library, I was obsessed with historical romantic fiction. After fleshing out the impact of this literary phase in my life, then and now, and sending the article off to be published, I realized that I left out a very important point.
Yes, I loved the plucky heroines and swashbuckling heroes of those formulaic bodice-rippers. I loved being transported to another time and place where midterms and friend drama and orthodontia ceased to exist. But also, I loved the sex scenes. They were hot and fiery and, more often than not, ended in explosions of ecstasy that united the fated lovers for all of eternity. In high school, vicarious historical romance sex was the only sex I was having. Sure, there were fumbling make-out sessions in my friend Mary’s basement and sneaking out for Southern Comfort-fueled grope-fests in the apple orchards and cornfields surrounding my parents’ home, but nothing got truly biblical. I knew that if I ever wanted sex to remotely resemble the trysts penned by Karen Robards and Johanna Lindsey, I would simply have to wait until my suitors and I fully matured.
Despite my early indoctrination into literary lust, the first sex scenes I ever wrote were for Being Roy. Before that, I’d been immersed in writing memoir, primly avoiding any mention of my own sexual experiences (you can take the Catholic girl out of the church…). The process of writing Roy’s sexual experiences met me at the edge of my comfort zone, then pushed me just beyond it. As with my own first forays into physical intimacy, the encounters I wrote were sweetly earnest, but with a heat of their own, fueled as they were by teenage hormones and suppressed desire.
(Excerpt from Being Roy)
“I dreamt, as I always hoped to, of Oscar. Neither of us said a word from beginning to end. He was just there, being Os, keeping vigil as I went through a typical day at school. It was part of an unspoken agreement in the dream. I knew that if I spoke to him or he to me, he would disappear forever. In the dream, his wasn’t really a boy or a girl but a kind of third thing. That night on the sleeping porch, he climbed in beside me, his body warm, but flat and sexless like a Ken doll. I slid my knee up between his so we could press ourselves against each other from hip to heart, passing breath back and forth until the sun crept in.
The insistent glare of it pried at my eyelids but I fought it, turning my face into the pillow. I didn’t want to go out into a world where Os could only linger like a hungry ghost, but as soon as I had the impulse to hide, I began to wake up, and the feel of him vanished like windblown smoke. “No,” I whispered, and I felt my real, waking mouth form the words as a tear slid towards my ear. A finger touched the wet trail it left across my cheek, and I opened my eyes. Hadley’s face was turned towards mine and if she’d been one smidge closer, I would have gone cross-eyed. I could see the stars of orangey yellow in her irises that made her look like a jack o’lantern, and the deep crease stamped into her left cheek by her pillowcase. My knee was wedged between hers, as it been with Oscar’s in my dream, and I could feel her belly move against me as she breathed in and out. I felt like we were under a spell, like in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Hadley was Tatiana, red gold streaks lit in her hair by the shaft of early sun as she traced that drying tear track with the tip of her finger. I couldn’t move.
Her hand moved towards my hairline, where she clawed her fingers into my short hair and raked her nails gently against my scalp. A shiver swept through me from head to toe, which caused my hips to move against hers. Her hand worked around to the back of my neck, fingers digging in just under the base of my skull to knead the muscles there. The motion moved my face closer to hers and I shut my eyes because there was no seeing anything that close up. I had that same feeling from my dream, that if I spoke a word everything would vanish. I felt Hadley’s nose nudge my cheek just before her lips, lips with a totally different topography than Oscar’s, settled on mine. Had’s were as soft as melting ice cream, but warm, like she’d just taken a sip of hot tea. Before I’d gotten used to all of the feelings kicked up by the place our mouths met, her tongue was probing between my lips. I’d like to say I felt some awareness of Oscar in that moment, or at least guilt that someone else was going where only he had been, but my mind held only one coherent thought. More.”
The process of editing the sexual content of Being Roy for publication surprised me. Despite the existence of young adult novels that take on the realities of teenage sex and attraction, there are still conventions about what is and is not “done”. For example, sex scenes that do not mention the use of prophylactics or do not later result in a pregnancy scare as a result of the oversight are “no no’s” in mainstream YA literature. Other taboos include unflinching descriptions of anatomy and scenes that depict young adults honestly enjoying sex without guilt, societal condemnation, or self-consciousness. There are books out there, popular ones, that break these norms, and do it beautifully. Unfortunately, they are seen as the exception rather than the rule. This is absurd, and not at all reflective of the reality of most teenagers living in Western society. I was lucky to find a publisher willing to let my characters express their sexual selves with authenticity, but not all writers en route to publication are given such freedom.
We are sexual beings from the moment we’re born, with needs, questions and curiosities that should be mirrored in books for all ages. I used to dog-ear the sexy scenes in my mother’s historical romance novels and pass them on at the request of my friends. This content was missing from academically-assigned reading and the young adult books available to us at the time. Young adults and adults are not the same developmentally, and therefore not the same sexually. But that does not mean that honest depictions of sex and everything that precedes, follows, and arises from that act should be the intellectual property of the adult world. In life and in fiction, in youth and beyond, sex is often the best part. Why would we leave it out?