Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sex in YA—You Know You Want It

by Mindy McGinnis

"... and you know you want me to give it to you." Biff's words to Lorraine in Back to the Future had me totally flummoxed for a looong time. What was it? How could Biff give it to her? And why was he trying to touch her panties in the front seat of the car during the dance? Why was Lorriane talking about Marty's Calvin Kleins in their meeting scene? What's the fixation with underwear?

I remained in the dark about these topics for awhile. I knew sex existed, but I didn't have the whole Tab A, Slot B mechanics of the dance figured out until er... well... later. Not so today's teens. Blame it on the media, blame it on the culture, blame on parenting, blame it on the rain. (How many '80s references can I get in here?) Let's just set blame aside and focus on the fact that it simply IS. My opinion—kids aren't having more sex, or earlier than before—it's simply no longer a taboo subject.

So, because it's not taboo, because they do know the mechanics—what do we write about it? Do we write about it?

It's up to you. I've read some really graphic sex scenes in YA. I don't find them offensive. I have a hard time believing there's anything in there that the average teen hasn't already been exposed to. However, I do monitor content in the books that I give out to junior high students—not necessarily because I think they're about to have their minds deflowered—but because their parents DO believe that, and they might have my ass in a sling. And I need my ass. I use it every day.

My own philosophy runs thus: I have always believed that less is more. Why does Jaws work? 'Cause you don't see the shark. I typically refrain from physically describing my characters because I want my readers to fill in their hot guy, their hallway bitch, themselves as the MC. So when it comes to those backseat moments, or when my MC invites a guy over to "watch a movie," (yeah right, I have yet to see the end of Ferris Bueller's Day Off), I want them to fill in slot B on their own. Something happened. Unless it's imperative to the plot, does it matter what? Do they need the description? Do they need to see that shark?

Here's a great example from Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix: (I know you're saying "What! An HP makeout scene?") Oh yeah... it's there. A meeting of Dumbledore's Army has just ended. Everyone has filed out except for Cho and Harry, who are kinda hanging out there in the Room of Requirement... and who didn't guess that thing had multiple uses? pg. 456-457:

"I really like you Harry."

He could not think. A tingling sensation was spreading throughout him, paralyzing his arms, legs and brain.

She was much too close. He could see every tear clinging to her eyelashes...


He returned to the common room half an hour later to find Hermione and Ron..."

Hey! Wait a second!! Half an hour later? Gee... what were they doing? Now, obviously Rowling had a duty to her young readers to keep it clean, and to her older readers to keep it interesting. Not so for all writers, certainly. But I think it's a good example of letting the reader take it to their own level—of comfort, of familiarity, without being told what happened.

My own writing gives a little more detail than this highly gratuitous page break, but you get the idea.

One last thought—what do you want your readers to take away from your book? I haven't read Breaking Dawn, but I know that Edward and Bella break the headboard, 'cause that's all anyone wanted to talk about. Other than that—zero clue what the plot is about.

I'd love some feedback! What are your thoughts? Show the shark, or keep him underwater? :)


Janice Hardy said...

I'm in the keep him underwater camp. What I imagine is more fun. Plus, it's the anticipation of the event that captures attention and makes the heart race. Once it's there. Pfft. It just mechanics. That can be exciting too, but there's a whole genre for that and it's not in the YA section. (grin)

It's a lot like scary movies. The music, the nervous sneaking around, the noises. All that puts you on the edge of your seat. Once the monster jumps out the tension is gone and it's just running and screaming.

Mike Mullin said...

Depends on what the topic of the book is. Burgess's Doing It, for example, doesn't work without open door sex scenes because it's, well, about sex. Blume's Forever needs all that earnest fumbling around. If the book's not about, umm, it, then I prefer the door closed ala Rowling. Let the reader decide what went on in that half hour.

Justin Holley said...

Sex sells--period! We can dance around it, water it down, disguise it as something more innocent, but at the end of the day...

Christopher Hudson said...

Sigh ... yes, sex sells ... which is probably one reason my books don't. I probably should've had the shark leap out of the water and do the beach-blanket bingo.

Riley Redgate said...

"Not so today's teens. Blame it on the media, blame it on the culture, blame on parenting, blame it on the rain."

Blame it on the INTERNET! (One of the most realistic things about the movie Kick-Ass to me was the fact that the MC spent all his time watching internet porn at the beginning. *rolleyes* boys...)

Honestly, though, the types of kids I see reading aren't the type that are going to love gratuitous sex descriptions. They'll appreciate artfully skirting the issue. They'll appreciate tastefully dealing with it, however much the author chooses to display on-screen.

As a general rule, if we want to read sex, we'll just go to *that* section of the library. Or, uh, online. In my personal opinion, authors shouldn't spend too much time with describing the act. The emotional aftereffects, sure. But the act itself? Neh.

Matt Sinclair said...

In an early draft of a manuscript, I left nothing to the imagination as my boy-crazy teenage girl lost "it" on the hood of a sedan. I thought it made sense that she'd remember every emotion, every sensation. Sure, she did. But my early readers (grizzled folks in their 30s and 40s) blanched at the level of detail. Well, one guy didn't, but he was single at the time.... So, in later versions, the old shark fin was back under the water, and readers don't seem to mind at all.

Michael Di Gesu said...

I write Y/A and my second novel has some graphic scenes in. For my particular novel it was necessary because of the other context. It's dark and edgy, dealing with physical and mental abuse. My mc's escape is through his sexcapades.

I am a believer if it works in the story put in as much as needed to convey the point. Not just throw it in for the hell with it or because it's what sells. It NEEDS to work in the story.

Jolene Perry said...

It's all about staying true to the character and their internal. I write in first person, so for me, if it's simply the feeling that's what I write, if the smaller experiences are what count, I write those, too.

petemorin said...

Well, Mindy, I'm not writing YA, I'm writing for full-grown adults, but the several sex scenes in Small Fish had little or no graphics in them. Plenty of sly allusion, but no Slot A and Tab B.

"...we used the prep table for a wholly unintended function which I suspect debilitated the structural soundness of its legs."

Jemi Fraser said...

Great discussion! I think it really depends a lot on the tone of the novel. I wouldn't expect Anne of GG & Gilbert to be getting hot & heavy because the tone of the whole book is sweet. An edgier book is going to include more 'action' & it will match the book.

KellieM said...

Depends on the story, but in YA, I would think that showing the shark is not necessary. The right amount of detail and the right amount of imagination are magic. Too much detail and you've "jumped the shark" (80's reference to Fonzi, in keeping with BBC's examples!)

I know that reading my mothers romance novels distorted my expectations for my first kiss. The boy should have read the book too!

Mindy McGinnis said...

Wow! Thanks everyone for all the comments - and valid points on both sides of the argument, as always. And, I tend to agree. If something is edgy and gritty like the Sahara in a sandstorm, but the sex scene reads like Jane Austen swiped the pen... well, that's not gonna work.

I'll admit that the idea of Anne and Gilbert playing beach blanket bingo is kind of interesting... they DID have a lot of kids.

Thanks everyone for commenting - it's a hot topic!

Stephen L. Duncan said...

PERV! ;)

I go sharkless, if you know what I mean. Which is to say, I go without a shark. Wait, what are we talking about again?

Mindy McGinnis said...

Oh SLD - I think the metaphor got a little mixed there. Either that or I'm completely misreading that you're a eunuch? ;)

Aisling Mancy said...

Like the post and the attendant comments a great deal, Mindy.

This interview of me (C. Kennedy – my YA pseud.) that appeared 1/9/13.

It sparked a dicussion on Goodreads here:

That traveled to a reviewer’s site here:

Rather than responding to the nearly 100 comments left within hours, I posted my position regarding Writing Sex in YA and breaking it into four categories: Age & Law, Minors’ Rights, Popular? Opinion, and Publishers and Authorship on my adult blog here:

Many different viewpoints.