Sex in YA: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why It Matters

There are romance novels, and there are novels with sex in them, and only sometimes do the categories intersect. Few people know this better than YA authors Christa Desir (Bleed like Me, Other Broken Things) and Carrie Mesrobian (Sex & Violence, Cut Both Ways). They cohost the Booklist-sponsored Oral History Podcast, a hilarious and often profound look at sex and YA lit—two things, as they always say, that are better when you talk about them. (This includes you, whoever you are. We’d love your comments! Add them below, or tweet them at @booklistreader. For more romance coverage in YA novels and otherwise, check out #SeptemberRomance, our month-long romance extravaganza.)

Carrie and Christa profile pic

Desir and Mesrobian

KRAUS: OK, origin stories: tell me about an early memory of reading a sex scene and how it affected you.

MESROBIAN: I remember reading this Harlequin romance where the lady had a small child who amazingly fell asleep whenever she wanted to get it on with her hunky neighbor. The thing I remember about the scene was the woman was on top of him and the author described the lady’s pubic area as her “soft curled nap,” which killed me, because I had pubic hair myself by then, and that shit was not soft.

KRAUS: Was that alarming? Or did you recognize it as a literary flourish?

MESROBIAN: I guess it was the first moment where I saw how sex could be prettied up in a way that didn’t match reality. I mean, obviously the writer isn’t going to say, “Her pubes were like a pile of pot scrubbers.”

DESIR: I usually credit Story of O because it was the first time I was introduced to kink and the idea of giving control over to someone. There was part of me that loved the idea that sex and romance wouldn’t be all this work. By that time, I’d been raped and in a fair amount of sexually unsafe scenarios, so I didn’t have a lot of good feelings about dudes. It pleased me that O’s master was pretty straightforward and no bullshit about his interest and didn’t pretend it was about anything more than what it was, which, as a teenager, is what I’d sort of expected from men.

KRAUS: When you found yourself writing YA with sex scenes for the first time, did you expect push-back? Or did you go into it naive?

MESROBIAN: I lucked out with two editors, Andrew Karre and Alexandra Cooper, who didn’t flinch at the content. The sex scenes were left untouched, and that’s not surprising, as I labored over those parts of all the books quite a bit. Sexual content is human content. It’s time we get over our bullshit hang-ups.

DESIR: Part of why I continue to be slightly naive about the sex I include in my books is that my editor, Liesa Abrams, has never batted an eye at anything I’ve included. It was actually only when I started power-reading YA books for the podcast that I saw how few people include this content.

KRAUS: Post-power-reading, what’s your general assessment of the YA depiction of sex?

MESROBIAN: There is so much romance in YA. But sex is a threshold experience; authors who devolve into language that is breathy and sweet without mentioning the bodies involved are missing a big part of the picture. Or they’ll make sex full of terrible consequences. If we’re rational, we’ll realize that having a sexual life is something desirable, not something to be lumped into risk-taking behaviors like drug use. We need to show that if we want to maintain any sort of credibility with younger readers.

dumplinDESIR: I’m interested in the authenticity of relationships and how they evolve. I thought Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ (2015) did a great job of pulling off believable sexual content—that didn’t even involve on-page sex! I also adored Simmone Howell’s Everything Beautiful (2008) for how it portrayed sex with a douche-bag guy and later with a good guy and the contrasts between those experiences. Similarly, Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun (2014) has a great train wreck of first-time sex.

MESROBIAN: Why a book like Dumplin’ excels in sexual content is that Murphy has made it very clear how that character moves through the world physically. A test I would make when reading is, can you picture the characters’ entire bodies? Or are they just giant intellects on top of a lollipop-stick bodies? The body is such a central part of the adolescent experience—its growth, its betrayal, its tortures when it comes to comparison, its developing talents—that must be included to make a YA story come to life.

KRAUS: Do teens even want this authenticity in their lit?

MESROBIAN: Young people tend to want what they are being sold. Which is a totally depressing fact, and probably not the point, but there it is.

DESIR: Books are a source where my teen daughter, at least, searches for authentic content because she’s not getting it elsewhere. So YA novels end up carrying a lot of water in terms of those first-time experiences. Further, I’d prefer my kids to see boys fumbling or girls not having orgasms right off the bat than to have them feel like there’s something wrong with them because their sexual experience doesn’t look like porn.

KRAUS: I assume pornography is one of the things we don’t see depicted realistically enough in YA?

MESROBIAN: Correct, unless it’s a joke (from boys’ perspectives) or anxiety-based (on the part of girls). You also don’t see kids having lots and lots of relationships in succession. It’s either a One Ring to Rule Them All Relationship or nothing. And you don’t see girls having lots of sex unless they’re acting out because of trauma or mental illness. They can’t just be experimenting.

DESIR: I think we’re missing the buildup of sexual relationships. In my experience, the first week we’d maybe make out and he’d cop a feel. And week two or three we’d go further. Then we’d gradually ramp up, and it was all new and exciting and fraught and full of decisions about shaving or what underwear to wear. I feel like a lot of YA ends up being kissing and then, maybe, sex. The ramp-up feels all or nothing without any kind of sexual experimentation and figuring out what you like.

KRAUS: How significant is it that books with realistic sexual content are expressly published as YA?

MESROBIAN: The importance of it is minimal, in my mind. It’s a small sop to a small population of young readers who might find these titles and get some enlarged views on sex. I write about these things because they fascinate me personally. If you want to pursue an agenda to get sexual information into the social discourse, I would think fighting for sexual-education programs in your local school is a more profitable task.

DESIR: I think that there’s something to be said for seeing something played out in a fictional setting that makes it less fraught for a teenager than doing research on it. That’s where I think authenticity is important. But I actually believe that teenagers are reading books and learning stuff from them, whereas I think Carrie is more suspect about that.

KRAUS: Give me an example of an author writing a sex scene who, in your eyes, is doing it right.

uses-for-boysDESIR: I have great love for Erica Lorraine Scheidt’s Uses for Boys (2013). There’s a scene near the end of that book where Anna is so desperate to absorb the solidness of Sam and, frankly, his entire family that she shows up at his house when he’s sick and feverish and basically sits on top of him so she can to get him to bone her. It’s heartbreaking because it feeds on this raging insecurity in Anna where she sees this as her only value.

There’s something so honest and brutal about girls who want to be wanted and how they make that happen through being a sexual object for someone. That truth frequently starts with trauma, or with a girl being unprotected or unloved as a kid. Scheidt’s book hits that note better than almost any I’ve read in the genre. I read Anna and said, “Yes, this is what it means to have a constant mantra in your head: want me, love me, keep me, please.”

MESROBIAN: I also often laud Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer (2009).The sex is a mix of physical and whimsical and true. There’s a line about her panties hanging off her ankle as they lie on the beach, as if the panties tried to flee the scene but failed. Stuff like that is so gorgeous and real. The sex in Eireann Corrigan’s Ordinary Ghosts (2007) really inspired me. It’s perfect in every way, in terms of a boy narrating his first time.

It makes me wonder where in the hell YA is headed, that these older titles knocked my socks off, and now it seems like the genre is flooded with swoony, aspirational romance or sex-positive representations that have very low stakes. The thing about YA in the U.S. is that you can feel the breath of the gatekeepers on your neck while you read. This isn’t the case in YA from the UK or Australia. Christa and I joke about going to live in Australia because of that, but my hope is that the genre will just be about adolescence, period. No didactic missions, no kids-need-to-see-this kinda shit. Just books about young people.

This feature first appeared in the September 15, 2016 issue of Booklist.



About the Author:

Dan Kraus is Booklist's Editor of Books for Youth. He is also the producer and director of numerous feature films, most notably the documentary Work Series, and the author of several YA novels, including Rotters and Scowler, both of which won the Odyssey Award. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielDKraus.

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