How do you handle sex in YA?

“YA books allow the reader to experience another teen’s life in a safe environment.” (Laura Lascarso on her blog All the Way YA)

I started writing novels when I was eighteen. Sure, they have their charms, but more prevalent, their gigantic unforgivable issues. They’re all snug in the back of my closet, probably blushing. Each one is a lesson learned. An exercise. As bad as they are, they were necessary.

They all had this in common: I struggled with the love scenes.

Have you ever tried to write a love scene? More to the point, a sex scene? Let me know how you did it. I kept imagining my father reading over my shoulder. My father does not need to read a graphic description of how a tongue feels on the inside of a thigh. God forbid he think I know firsthand what that feels like! Anyway.

In my experience, there are four ways to handle sex scenes (I’m generalizing here):

  1. …and he closed the door behind him. Also known as the, “she blew out the candle and the room went dark” technique. Or any other variation where sex is only implied. I see this a lot in YA.
  2. Romance novel euphemisms. You know. When she pressed against him, she felt his urgency against her thigh etc. etc. Not too graphic, but still obvious. Definitely appropriate some places, and not others.
  3. Honesty. Think Judy Blume’s FOREVER (a popular target of censorship. Because what honest work isn’t?). If you can do this well, more power to you. Your readers will benefit, because a lot of them will connect to it.
  4. Straight up explicit raunchiness. This has its place, for sure. Glen Duncan’s I, LUCIFER, for instance. James Salter’s A SPORT AND A PASTIME, Pauline Réage’s THE STORY OF O. Done well, it fits the characters, fits the tone, fits the audience. Probably doesn’t belong in YA. Yeah, most definitely not. But why not? Don’t teenagers experience this type of thing? (I’d love to hear comments.)

Here’s some great guidance from the SwoonReads blog: “The point of a sex scene in a YA novel (or in any love story really) is the emotional effect on the characters. How does having sex change their relationship? If it was their first time having sex, do they have regrets the next day for their lost virginity? Was it a wonderful experience that brings them closer or was it kind of terrible and something that they have to get past?”

And a clip from another article on the subject by Kelly Jensen on BookRiotpara from bookriot

Point is, addressing sex in YA is necessary, because it’s real. It’s handled in many different ways, but like any other well-written scene, it shouldn’t get in its own way. Shouldn’t yank the reader from the dream, shouldn’t make them (or you) cringe because it doesn’t reflect the true nature of the characters. If it does—like anything else you write—take a different approach. And maybe leave the door open behind you.


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