Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In this latest addition to our Publishing U series, Christa Desir and Carrie Mesrobian, YA authors and co-hosts of The Oral History Podcast, offer heartfelt and indispensable guidance for authors wondering how to write about sex in their own YA novels.
Sex scenes are some of the most closely read pieces of prose ever produced. Kids who like to read and who are curious about sex will PORE over your sex scenes. Those scenes matter. So when considering whether or not to include a sex scene in your young-adult manuscript, always remember that those scenes will not be glossed over by your readers. But how do you write those scenes? Well . . . .
Even if you’re not including sex in your book, it’s worth
considering what your character’s sexual life looks like.
There is no trick and there are no rules. Writing about sex doesn’t involve a how-to recipe or a moral authority holding a giant book of rules. The only rules that matter are the ones that govern the story you want to tell and the people you are depicting. For every time you think I can’t do that, you can probably find an example of where it’s been done successfully, because it’s authentic to the story and to the characters.
Good sex writing comes directly from good character development. You must be solid in the latter to have success in the former. When asking, “what can I do in my YA book?” you need to ask the question: What does this character do? For example, how does your character refer to his boy parts? You may be fussy about the d-word, but is your character? When he’s peeing, is he thinking about his penis or is he thinking about his dick? Crawl inside the brain of your character and make some authentic decisions about this stuff. Even if you’re not including sex in your book, it’s worth considering what your character’s sexual life looks like. What was sex ed like for him? How versed is he in porn? How does he feel about masturbation? Again, it might not end up in the book, but it could inform other points in the plot and who he is as a character.
Writing sex scenes for teenagers is much different than writing them for adults. Adults have completely different motivations, constraints, and expectations for their sexual lives than adolescents. A lot of adolescents don’t even know what they want or need or like. The language, the emotional landscape, the stakes, the access, the buffet table of sexual options—all of these are very different for adults than they are for teenagers. Be careful with varsity-level sexuality in books about adolescents; newness and curiosity are still big things even if they aren’t having “first time” sex.
If you aren’t comfortable writing about sex, then don’t do it. YA novels don’t require sex. If you don’t want to write about that aspect of adolescence, that’s okay. But if you write a YA romance, realize that there has been an historic imbalance in YA, with much more more swoony verbiage than physical and technical specs, which is sort of disingenuous in lots of ways. Ramping up to a kiss with 200-plus pages of heady sexual tension doesn’t hold much credibility in 2016.
If you are writing sex into your YA book, be give it the same amount of time as any other major rite of adolescent passage. Authors who spend 10 pages describing the inside of a castle but won’t spend 10 words on what it feels like to have someone’s fingers inside them are doing a disservice to their characters as well as denying a major aspect of adolescent life. Sex is a big deal at this age. Sure, some adolescents aren’t having sex or engaging in any sexual behavior, but they are certainly considering their feelings about it. Recognize that this as a time in their life when they establish their own agency around sex. Burying the experience of sex, or the questions adolescents are grappling with in figuring out how they feel about it, is negating an important aspect of adolescent development.
Writing sex for YA novels is only a challenge if your own sensibilities and hang-ups are getting in the way of your characters. Authentic characters who are well-developed should have an opinion about their own sexuality. Your main task is to determine what that opinion might be. Consider that a good entrance point into the sex lives of your teen characters. Good luck!