Monday, December 28, 2009

Rounding the Bases in YA: Kissing, Sex, and Everything in Between.

Step One: Smoldering Gaze.
Step Two: Passionate First Kiss.
Step Three: Super Duper Passionate Second Kiss.
Step Four: Sex.

Um... what?

As much as I love a great romance in YA -- and there are plenty -- I can't help but question the progression of many relationships. Can sex be something that happens quickly in a high school relationship? Sure. Does that always happen? Nope.

There are multiple "bases" between kissing and sex (yes, as an adult, I still think of them as "bases"), but where are they in our novels? Or even in TV or movies? We've been conditioned to understand that, once two people are "meant to be" and all obstacles to their Happily Ever After are removed, the next logical step is the sex scene.

Do some teenagers have sex?
But do they do a whole lot of other stuff before or in addition to sex?
Oh yeah.

* FYI: I'm going to mention a couple specifics in the rest of the post. Nothing gross or gratuitous, just matter-of-fact, but if it's not up your alley, feel free to stop reading!

One reason I think authors and scriptwriters shy away from the "in between"/foreplay stuff is the difficulty of describing or indicating it without being too explicit, clinical, or vulgar. (Writing Magnetic Kama Sutra showed me how tough that can be, except that I actually HAD to be explicit! Plus, notice how I dance around some things in this post.)

We're experts in the "fade to black" (see Breaking Dawn) and the words or phrases used to say that people are doing the deed -- without giving the nitty-gritty details included in adult novels.

But there aren't pretty shortcuts, at least in writing, to hint about oral sex or various fondling South of the Border.

But here's the problem -- that in between stuff? It's a big deal. Teenagers hear about it ... watch porn that includes it ... but don't necessarily know a lot. They'll do it anyway. (Oh, raging hormones.)

For many people, sex in YA novels doesn't seem scandalous or unusual. But the other stuff? Well, there's boob groping; that's common. But what about guys going down on girls? That's an intimate act -- arguably more intimate than actual intercourse -- and it brings up a host of issues for both the guy and girl. I've never ever seen that in YA.

I have read mentions of "touching" below the belt during hot and heavy scenes, but despite plenty of sex-centric convos in YA, no one talks about the other stuff. And in high school, when you don't know something, don't you go to Google, your best friends, or a cool older sibling? I want to see those conversations!

(This also ties in to the lack of masturbatory references in YA -- a topic on which Rhiannon Hart wrote a lovely post.)

On the scary side: If someone's not comfortable with sex, they're pressured or guilt-tripped into doing these "other things" that supposedly don't have the emotional weight or consequences of sex. But they do.

Here's the deal: I thought about this topic because I debated with myself (and Frankie) about scenes in my novel -- one of which occurs in chapter one -- that involve or discuss "in between" things. I felt like maybe I should find a way around them. (After all, my mother will one day be reading this novel!)

But then I remembered WHY I first chose to include "in between" things: they're a part of high school -- even if teens don't do them, they know they exist! But all teenagers have questions or doubts about these topics. Reading about them -- in thoughtful, honest, or funny scenes -- makes teens feel less alone and helps them understand what they're comfortable with, and what they're not.

Will I get hate mail from parents (if this ever gets published, fingers crossed)? Yep. They'll probably also mention how much they disliked my three or four well-placed f-bombs. (Lisa and Laura Roecker wrote a great post about that one! And Rhiannon just did too!)

But my duty as a writer is to be true to my readers and to my story. And so it stays.

Your turn!
Have you read novels with "in between" stuff? How do you think "the bases" and such should be approached, if at all? If you're a teen, what do you want to see in YA?


  1. I will read your novel. Teens know about this stuff, parents have done this stuff, it's stupid they would scream or criticize you for writing the honest to god truth.

  2. How very fitting. I've been thinking about this stuff a lot lately. I don't want my characters to have sex, but honestly teens do get urges and often will succumb to at least some level of sexual activity. The question is how DO you write it. Thanks for this post. I'm glad I'm not the only one thinking about this.

  3. The sad thing is, the only time I've ever read YA with "in-between" scenes, they're always rounchy, and usually involing a "loose" girl. It's really sad that going all the way is normal, but if you make any stops in-between, you're considered slutty as far as YA goes.

  4. Once again I am SO glad I write middle grade and don't have to deal with this stuff, but I guess for me, it depends on the character. Some characters are more comfortable with sex than others. (Though I don't know that I could write that kind of scene. I'm much more of a fade to black girl). Great post though. Lots to think about.

  5. The only book that comes to mind is Looking for Alaska by John Green, which I think he handled the 'in between' in a way that is just awkward enough to be funny; and in return his books get banned in some places. Maybe that is why some authors stay away from it: they don't want to be flamed by readers and parents.
    I'm not particularly fond of books (just for an example, Shiver) where the guy and girl have sex after a few make out session.

  6. I was thinking about John Green's Looking for Alaska as well. It was awkward and funny, but real, because your first time doing anything isn't going to be perfect. It would be cool if more YA would address these issues because by the time you get to adult books, they are just full of perfect sex and all that good stuff, but I want to read about the awkward, the stuff you regret, your first time doing anything.

  7. Nice post!

    Melissa Marr's "Wicked Lovely" has an oral sex scene. It was handled rather well (even if I'm not the biggest fan of the book).

    I fully agree with you--one of my gripes about YA these days is kind of a reaction to "sex is okay, it's normal to have intercourse"--it kind of glorifies it as a normal part of teenage life. And it is, just not to the extent a lot of books are making it out to be.

    I, too, would like to see some variety in depictions of physical intimacy. IMO, heavy petting written well can be so much more powerful than a deadpan description of the deed.

  8. There is a LOT of masturbation and "between stuff" in Youth in Revolt...but it's definitely not your typical YA novel, so maybe that's not a great example. And I think the Jessica Darling series talks about the "between stuff," but the more I think about it the less confident I get.

    It's true, though, it's not addressed very often, and it's rare that teens just skip over oral sex (on guys or girls) and go straight for intercourse. People talk about it in hallways - heck, they do it on the bus! Great post, and definitely don't cut the between stuff from your novel.

  9. Have you read Perfect Chemistry? I think the sex scenes in that book were perfect! It's really intimidating to write about sex in a meaningful, realistic way for YAs, but it's also really important. Hollywood tends to glamorize YA sex, but that (clearly) isn't always the reality. Personally, I'd be thrilled if my tweens and teens were reading books that deal with these issues head on - the good, the bad and the in between. I mean, how many of us had sex for the first time and thought, "Seriously? That's IT?"

  10. Excellent comments as usual, guys!

    Taschima - Thanks! I'm sure a lot of parents don't want to imagine their teens doing what they did in high school, haha.

    Tina Lynn - I've actually kept sex out of my novel - this one, at least. So far I've found that it's easier to write when characters TALK about it... much harder when they DO things. But you'll find a way!

    Mandy - Yes! There's a definite impression of that. And that's not a stereotype that should be continued.

    Shannon - Thanks for commenting! MG definitely saves you from some of these issues, but they're why I love YA - it's such a messy time! And I agree that the decisions characters make and what they're comfortable with should be very unique to them.

    Audrey - I've been meaning to read Looking for Alaska, and now I have another reason! And it's equally important to have these scenes in boy-friendly novels because boys are just as clueless and confused as girls on these topics.

    Najela - OMG, I could write an entire post about how much I HATE perfect sex in novels. I refuse to write any perfect sex scene because it's just stealing potential away from your book!

    Faye - I've read Wicked Lovely, and I think I remember going "Wow, this is in here!" in a very happy way... because it's so rare. It's a challenge to write, but there's so much potential for the in-between things.

    Heather - I haven't read Youth in Revolt, but now I'm curious. I agree that "between" things can sometimes be treated so casually (TOO casually) in real life, but they're taboo in novels.

  11. Bringing Up The Bones by Lara Zeises has a guy-on-girl oral sex scene (quickly followed by a full on sex scene.) There's also Doing It by Melvin Burgess, which people still freak out about because it's literally all about sex--but when I say sex, I mean point A to point B and everything in between.

    There's also this book I used for a paper in college called Rats Saw God--I forget who wrote it, but I remember there being a very realistic and tasteful sex scene in it that I appreciated.

    Even fantasy novels, which I feel like are often exempt from some of the issues that YA contemporary has, seem to have trouble dealing with this. There are very few make-out scenes in YA novels (mostly because it always seems like there's a princess to save or a dragon to slay, so that's not much time for a little groping) and the sex characters have seems either very in the style of disaster movies (the castle could go at any second! I must not die a virgin!) or is strictly forbidden (as no one wants a hussy for a queen.)

    Tamora Pierce wrote a quartet--Protector of the Small--in which there are bunch of make out scenes that are interrupted very much in the style of "oh no! mom is home!" that I thought were well-written and hilarious.

  12. Oh, this is a very exciting post. I also believe that teenagers are very much aware of what is going on. Though it's not explicit in my work, sexual content is vey much a part of it. My characters are generally feeling all sorts of awakenings, and sexuality is always a part of that, but I've been careful to go the route of implication, applying several layers of meaning to certain intimacies. IMO, graphic descriptions (whether it's sex or violence, etc.) aren't necessary to convey the same emotion, but I think it's important to confront the sorts of edgy emotions teens experience. That said, I usually handle these sorts of scenes in terms of emotion rather than physicality and then, well, fade to black...

    Excellent post, m'dear.

    Hope you're having a wonderful holiday season.

  13. Fabulous post. It's really tricky to write about that stuff (exactly as you mentioned) without it sounding too clinical or too vulgar.

    I think I'm with Shannon and more of a "fade to black" kinda girl... But, really, who knows what my next project will bring? It's all up to my characters!

  14. Hi Donna :)
    Excellent post.
    I loved the drawings you included too. Very humorous! :)
    Thank you for the links to the other posts too.
    Are you on Twitter? I couldn't find you there.
    Happy Holidays!

  15. I saw a couple of folks brought up Looking for Alaska. Another that comes to mind is Prep (obviously kids at prep schools are getting a lot more action or so the literature would suggest!) by Curtis Sittenfeld, and even though this is technically an adult novel it's about teenagers. In here the guys going down on girls thing is discussed in a pretty detailed way.

  16. Exactly. I hate how on TV and books for YAs or about YA characters all the forward momentum is towards missionary style sex. With no foreplay! Um, ow? Hurrah for more authors championing realistic portrayals of sex. I look forward to your book.

  17. The book that came to my mind when you mentioned characters talking to older siblings about sex was Ready or Not by Meg Cabot. It's the sequel to All-American Girl, and there's a scene in which the older sister brings her some stuff for safe sex.

  18. Lisa and Laura – I haven’t read Perfect Chemistry, but so many people love it that it’s very high on my TBR. And “the good, the bad, and the in between” is right – there’s so much glamorized sexual stuff in the world that people start to have unrealistic expectations, especially for the “firsts.”

    Sara – I should’ve known that Lara would have that in a novel – she’s always so awesome with realism and imperfect characters/ situations/ etc. Haven’t read Doing It either. And yes, interrupted makeout sessions are so funny … that’s why we need more parental presence in YA!

    Carolina – Yay! I hope to read your WIP some day! And focusing on emotions is a great way to get the point across without resorting to graphic description. And my holidays have been busy but wonderful – same wishes for you!

    Sara – There’s nothing wrong with a good ol’ fade to black if that’s what's best for your story and your voice. And I love making very individual approaches to sexuality for each of my characters. That’s a great way to tackle the subject.

    RK – Thanks! Sometimes I think you guys will think I’m crazy with the Paint program drawings, but I hate a plain post, and sometimes Google Image searches don’t come up with what I’m trying to convey! Teehee. Glad you like the links – it’s important to discuss these topics. And no, I’m not on Twitter (though my FNC partner Frankie is nudging for me to be!). If I start, I’ll let you know!

    Alissa – I never read Prep, but yes, those prep school / rich kids do seem to get an awful lot of action! Prep’s a novel with great crossover appeal (I’ve heard) … and my TBR list just got longer. Great suggestion!

    Rhiannon – Hahahaha you have the most refreshing outlook on these topics. I swear it’s because you don’t have the lovely Puritanical heritage in your upbringing that we US-ers do. (Plus, you’re from my favorite Australian city, so that gives you automatic Awesome points.) I can’t wait to read your book too!

    Pepsivanilla – Finally, a book I’ve read! I remember that Ready or Not scene exactly – and I loved it for the frankness that the older sister brought to the situation. The scene especially meant something because, prior to that point, there’d been a disconnect in the relationship between the MC and her sister, and that was a bonding moment.

  19. Thanks for writing about this. It is so funny. My and I was talking about this exact subject today. She sent an exert from the novel she is working on and it was a sex scene. I was very on the fence about whether it was something that would be acceptable in the YA genre. I have a lot of sexual tension and making out in my novel but no actual sex (mainly because I have 2 teanage girl and don't want to promote sex too early). But it is true that they are talking about and doing it; it seems at a younger and younger age every year. I would love to have it addressed but in a realist way that is not glorified. Also, no one wants to talk about the emotional implications of sex, especially for girls. This has given me a lot to think about and I forwarded the post to my friend. Thanks!

  20. Vivi - It's great to have input from a YA writer who's also a parent of teens! Glad that you see the importance of including the topics. It offers a platform to address the possible complications of sexual decisions -- without being preachy, and while remaining true to characters.


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