Let’s Talk About Sex (in YA)

“I’ll never write young adult fiction because you can’t have sex in it.”

I was at a cocktail party when I heard this. The speaker was an academic enrolled the MFA program at the nearby university. I was invited because I’d befriended his wife and our kids went to the same school. But when he found out that I was also a writer, of young adult fiction, he made that statement.

Perhaps you’ve been in a similar situation, where someone, oftentimes another writer, makes blanket statements about YA without really knowing what they’re talking about or taking the time to ask you, the expert. My response?

He actually walked away before I could respond, which is probably why I felt the need to write a piece about sex in YA.

So here’s the truth: teens are having sex. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the likelihood of sex increases with each school grade level, from 32 percent in ninth grade to 62 percent in 12th grade. And even for those who are not having sex, they likely have friends who are. They hear stories about it in the hallways, they see hyper-sexualized pictures online and in the media, they watch movies and play video games. In other words, sex is out there.

If we take a moment to think about our own upbringing and unpack the things we were told about sex, it’s often a variation of one of these themes:

“Wait until you’re married.”

“Sex is dirty.”

“Girls who have sex are sluts.”

“It’s your job to say, no.”

“Be safe or you’ll catch a disease.”

“Getting pregnant will ruin your life.”

Very rarely are young people told that sex is a normal, healthy activity that they might even enjoy. Instead, they’re often scared into thinking something will terrible will happen if they engage in sex. Meanwhile, their hormones are at full-throttle, making it nearly impossible, biologically speaking, to say, no.

Where does YA fiction fit in?

YA books allow the reader to experience another teen’s life in a safe environment. Through the story, they learn another teen’s thoughts, their hopes and dreams, and their fears. They see the teen interacting with their family and friends, with teachers, crushes and other members of society. Because of this, YA fiction is the perfect place to explore topics like sex. And there are many excellent YA books that do. With that in mind, here are a few tips for writing sex in YA:

Be real. Most early sexual encounters aren’t the stuff of Harlequin romances. Often they’re awkward, bumbling, nerve-wracking affairs. There is usually some anxiety involved in having sex with someone for the first time, even if you’ve had sex before. There are also some logistics involved, like condoms, that should be part of your narrative. Or, if your characters are engaging in unsafe sex, the feelings and motivations involved in that decision should be explored. Remember there are actual teens reading your book and they have a lot of questions.

Is the sex necessary? Does it add to your character’s development? Is it integral to the plot? Does it change the course of the story? Sex shouldn’t be treated like a token act that’s trotted out to keep the story interesting. It should enhance the story and advance the plot.

Sex can be good and it can be bad, but if it’s violent or non-consensual, you need to deal with it. This one seems obvious, but I’ve come across more than a few books where a rape or attempted rape scene occurs and the plot and characters continue on as if it never happened. Don’t include sexual assault unless you’re prepared to fully explore it. If your story is about sexual assault, treat it with sensitivity and make sure you know what you’re talking about.

Be prepared for push back. There may be editors who want the sex toned down or cut altogether. They may want you to pull a TWILIGHT where your characters disappear into the darkness to do mystical things that may or may not be sex. I’m not a fan of the allusion of sex because I think it feeds misconceptions. But editors know that it’s a lot tougher to sell a story to parents and librarians when there is sex involved, so be prepared to defend your artistic license and deal with the fallout.

Remember it’s all about relationships. There is great opportunity for tension and conflict around sex. Should we do it? Am I ready? Does he want to also? Will having sex change our relationship? Will it bring us closer together? Break us apart? Will he treat me differently after? Will I feel different? What will my friends think? My parents? Whether it’s the best thing to ever happen, or if it’s a mistake, don’t miss the opportunity to develop character and increase the tension in your story.

Now, for some required reading. Listed below are examples of books that cover a wide range of sexual experience. Each of them are great examples of the topic done well.

IF I STAY by Gayle Forman

FOREVER by Judy Blume

ON THE JELLICOE ROAD by Melina Marchetta

PERFECT CHEMISTRY by Simone Elkeles

SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson

STORY OF A GIRL by Sara Zarr

THE DUFF by Kody Keplinger

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green

Tell me your thoughts on sex in YA. Have you ever gone all the way? Any tips you’d like to share with the rest of us? Don’t be shy…

Laura Lascarso’s debut novel COUNTING BACKWARDS, which deals with mental illness, won the 2012 Florida Book Award gold medal for Young Adult Literature. Her e-novella series RACING HEARTS tells the story of two star-crossed lovers thrust into the world of competitive car racing. Follow her on Twitter @lauralascarso and enter here to win a free copy of Racing Hearts 1.

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4 Comments on “Let’s Talk About Sex (in YA)

  1. This is a topic that we have to face as writers of YA fiction…you cannot avoid it in your work and you also cannot make it unrealistic. I’ve read a few YA novels that disappointed me…sex was glossed over or dismissed or, in some cases, over the top. I love that you point out that we need to allow for teens to see that sex is not always a mistake. It is difficult for me, at times, to not want to protect my teen characters, like the mom I am, and have them choose to not have sex. Sometimes it does happen in a way that is positive and we need more of that experience in YA fiction.

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  2. Laura thanks for posting this. I have just moved into the YA genre from children’s and middle-grade books, and sex has been an issue that I dread dealing with. My first YA book, still in the editorial process, takes place over a relatively short period of time, and in the past, so I was able to skirt the subject of actual sex, and just deal with romantic feelings. The sequel won’t be so easy, and I hate to feel like sex must take place, or be the focal point of the story, to be a great read.

    It will take time to formulate how my characters will play this out, but your post gave me some good pointers.

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  3. Excellent post, Laura! I agree 100%. Teens are having sex. If we gloss over it or plug our ears and pretend it isn’t happening, we’re doing them (and us) a disservice. Sex is not always needed in every story, but when it is, we owe it to our characters and the reader to explore it. I didn’t write a sex scene until my third book. Before that time, there was a constant hormonal tug of war between the characters. When it was the right time to introduce sex, I decided to listen to my characters–see where they wanted to take things–and just wrote it. After I’d finished the chapter I couldn’t help wondering what I’d been worrying about. The funny thing is, that sex is one topic many people seem to think doesn’t have a part of YA. What they don’t realize is, that it often ends up being one of the most pivotal components of the story.

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  4. Pingback: How do you handle sex in YA? | her soft protest

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