Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Sex in The YA Novel

The difference between an adult and a young adult manuscript is not how much you censor the profanity, violence and sexuality while writing it.

The difference between an adult and a young adult manuscript is viewpoint. Not third versus first person point of view, but who can most easily relate to your protagonist, their conflicts, and their character arc. I guess you could call that relevancy, if you like, but don't confuse it with the social commentary relevancy of the manuscript.

Adulthood has always been on a sliding scale. Some of us mature faster than others. Emotionally, intellectually, and sexually. These maturity levels can also vary within the individual. You can be very intelligent but sexually inexperienced. You can be sexually active and not have an adult level of emotional maturity.

Plus, in the past ten years childhood has lengthened. Society now encourages us to be children well into our thirties. Maybe it's to keep the aging baby boomers from having to admit that the successive generation is grown and it's time to pass the torch. Consider that and it's easy to see the youth-obsession of our society has created generation-wide Peter and Petra Pan syndrome. We're not being encouraged to grow up.

Why am I mentioning this? Because we're also a generation of adults who like to read young adult fiction. We're smack in the middle the genre's golden age. There are fantastically written, innovative, brilliantly conceived novels in the YA section. Ones that transcend their target age demographic.

I write YA because of the creative freedom it offers. With the young adult genre, there's less expectation of how a specific sub-genre is written or what it needs to include. (I said less.) Why I hesitated to write a YA manuscript was my concern over whether or not I could produce something relevant for contemporary teens. We watch the same movies and television shows. We read the same comics. But could I add something to their cultural discussion without moralizing, censoring or bullshitting?

My imagination lets me identify with people 10–15 years younger than I am. That includes the current YA demographic, but it won't do so indefinitely. As I age, that range will age as well. In 5 years, I may no longer be able to have relevant conversations with teens. Not just because of the widening generation gap, but because of scientific discovery and technological advancement. (When I was a teen, Pluto was a planet. Facebook and Twitter didn't exist. You called your friends instead of texting them.)

So I had a think about what I could say that maybe wasn't being said. What stuck in my mind was this notion of abstinence-only sex education. A nation-wide pandemic of teen pregnancy, but America continued to pretend teens don't have sex.

Yeah, I could discuss that. Easily. I created a society where teens don't have sex. Everyone participates in abstinence—not for religious reasons, but because it's state-mandated and enforced. (Not much of a extrapolation when there was a time very recently that teaching something other than abstinence could cause a loss of funding.)

Now that Obama's been elected, my thought exercise appears to be on its way to becoming highly unlikely as American schools may finally get proper sex education programs. Covering our ears and refusing to talk about teen sex may be rendered irrelevant before my manuscript is ever published.

Thus, strengthening the argument that sex itself will always be relevant to teens. Which doesn't seem to penetrate the knee-jerk logic of warning them away from "adult" books because of sexual content.

Telling young adults that they shouldn't read a series because it has sex in it is the best possible way to make them want to read it. You make it forbidden and it becomes rebellious and cool instead, so let's also drop this pretense that there's a gate in the bookstores keeping teenagers penned in the YA section.

Maybe we do it because we don't want angry letters from parents. We don't want our work of fiction to offend someone. We're terrified of being labeled as inappropriate for our teen readers by their parents or whichever other "mature" individual is passing judgment on what can and can't be read. (Big Brother approves your reading list because he loves you.)

Or maybe we do it because we're of the opinion that teens should be protected from sex. I would think if you're still reading this you're aware that it's not one of my beliefs.

Whether you write sex into your manuscript or not, the romantic relationships of the characters are something that should be treated carefully. While adults have formed an understanding of what is and isn't acceptable from a partner, teens are still deciding.

There is an element of wish-fulfillment to fantasy. I see the appeal of the young girl being fought over by two eternally beautiful guys. What an incredible boost to her self-esteem! But how about the long term effects? Are these idealized relationships creating expectations that can or should be replicated outside of fiction?

Young adults are dealing with biological changes that cause their emotions to run hot and fast. Teens fall in and out of love a lot—and each love is forever. Of course they enjoy the notion of an eternal romance. But realistically? They're going to have several intense romances that may or may not include sex. They may even be one-sided. (Shakespeare called those unrequited.)

Don't get me wrong, I like those sexy paranormals, too. I write about pretty immortals. But how pretty they may be isn't more important than creating positive role models who help young girls identify and seek healthy relationships in their own lives. That's my responsibility as a YA writer. Not protecting my readers from the adult world and its naughty secrets.


Sarah K said...


Jessica Kennedy said...

Great argument. It's a touchy subject. I'm not a YA (any longer) but it frustrates me when the YA author blatantly skips over sex as if the reader shouldn't be exposed to it.

Chandra Rooney said...

It is a touchy subject. I respect the other side of the argument, but I keep coming back to how we're endangering those teens that have chosen not to follow abstinence.

Leigh said...

I think the best thing we can do for our readers, no matter their ages, is to write honestly. As adults we should be able to place sex and love in context. Just as we wouldn't romanticize drug use unless there was a place for it, neither should we hold up destructive relationships (e.g. Bella and Edward) as an ideal.

Chandra Rooney said...

Excellent point, Leigh. Sincerity gives words power.

Angelo said...

Wow...at first I was skimming through, but then started to read very intently. I'm striving to make it as a writer, aiming more towards a similar audience, and I have plenty of ideas that involve teens and the awkwardness of their lives (of course, dotted with outlandish adventures and situations, but nonetheless).

I on the other hand will write something, and if it makes somebody angry, I'll respect their opinion, but tell them to settle down, because it's not only the freedom of speech, it's freewill for me to think it.

But, we do have a responsibility to the readers, in the same way a celebrity has to their fans, to uphold strong values...yet celebrities can't seem to grasp that.

I remember the whole "I'll get pregnant at 15 because Jamie Lynn Spears is pregnant!" thought-process. But then again...that's also the medias fault.

ANYway, you make a good point!

Chandra Rooney said...

Thanks for stopping by, Angelo. Good luck with your writing!