The Jane Doe Novel Experiment

Creating Two New Novels. Writing One Chapter Weekly. Podcasting As I Go. Welcome to The Experiment.

Experiment Update: Sex in YA. Thoughts?

*Spoiler Alert!!!*

I started writing chapter 6 tonight and came across a dilemma: writing a sex scene between teenagers.

For those of you who have been following the experiment you know that, Enough for Four, is not a YA novel, but there are three teenagers in it and they are a subplot to the story. Sarah and Emmanuelle, ages 16 and Nate, age 17.

MTV has taught me that not only do teenagers have sex, they also get pregnant. That’s real life and art is a reflection of life. These three, while good kids, aren’t exactly waiting until marriage before giving it up. I don’t agree with their decisions, but who am I other than the author?

My dilemma is that I don’t know if sex is ever featured in YA. The most recent YA book I’ve read was, The Hunger Games, and we know that was void of sex.

I’ve chosen to treat sex between these teenagers like a PG-13 movie: they kiss and then fade to black. That is my personal comfort level and I doubt it’ll change anytime soon.

But what about those of you out there who are readers of YA? Is it “normal” to have sex involved in the storyline? If so, to what extent? How do you view it? A quick poll is below, but I would love your comments on this one!


17 comments on “Experiment Update: Sex in YA. Thoughts?

  1. Jean-Luc Gothos
    August 8, 2012

    I think that as long as it’s kept at about a pg-13 level of sex. I don’t see a problem with it.

  2. K in PDX
    August 9, 2012

    Sex is incredibly new, weird, exciting, and important to teens. If you’re going to have a sex scene it should be integral to the story, and it should be written in a way that reflects what sex is really like — messy, awkward, intense, profound, confusing, disappointing, etc. Why are your characters having sex? Do they both feel ready, or not? Is one pressuring the other? Is pressure on them from their peers, or are they perceiving a cultural pressure? What happens after? There is story here, but if it’s not your(their) story then don’t have them “do it,” because if you’re not willing to write their experience of it and their response to it your reader isn’t going to believe in your characters. If it is their story, then you have to write it in a way that does justice to their personal experiences.

    For believable sex scenes between teens look at Forever by Judy Blume, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, and Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles.

    • Nick
      August 9, 2012

      it should be written in a way that reflects what sex is really like — messy, awkward, intense, profound, confusing, disappointing, etc.

      Sex in my teen years was good! Not awakward or confusing or disappointing or messy. jane will have to write based on the character’s experience, not the standard quo for first times is. Is she writing a 1st time experience?

    • Jane Doe
      August 9, 2012

      Thanks for the recommendations. I will look into them. And you’re right, I don’t believe in avoiding a topic because I’m not comfortable with it if it naturally arises in the story. My biggest concern is how to handle it without putting readers off! All of your replies have been great in helping me draw lines in the sand.

  3. Tony Bird
    August 9, 2012

    For an adult book with teenage characters, I don’t see anything wrong with handling it honestly. However, as a reader, if the action descriptions in the sex scenes are graphic between underage characters, I’m going to feel like I’m watching child pornography. If the intent is to make me feel disturbed (as in a book I read recently) then this can actually be very effective.
    That being said, I don’t see anything wrong with including sex in a YA novel or even making it a theme, either. Sex is new and exciting for young people, but the consequences can be life-altering, especially at so young an age. It can be good for young readers to see this, and if they can relate to it, your work may really speak to them.

    • Jane Doe
      August 9, 2012

      “I’m going to feel like I’m watching child pornography. ” That’s what I fear. If I were 17 writing about it, it’s just life, but at my 20-something age, doesn’t that make me liable for jail? ^.^

  4. LadyGrave
    August 9, 2012

    I read a lot of YA novels, and usually they take the PG-13, fade-to-black approach, so that’s probably a good call.

  5. lynnsbooks
    August 9, 2012

    Well, I read quite a lot of YA books and in a way I think to an extent they’re better without the sexual content. The reason I like YA is because they’re usually very creative books with great imagination and I don’t know if they need to have more sex in them. That’s not to say that I don’t understand that teenagers have sex – just not sure I want it in that type of novel. I’m probably not being very articulate here but as an example I didn’t want to read about Ron and Hermione getting it on. If you’re reading a book that isn’t YA and it has teenagers having sex in it then that feels different. Maybe it’s about expectations. I don’t expect a certain level of sex or bad language in YA and I don’t think I’d welcome it. I agree with the fade-to-black approach.
    Lynn 😀

    • Jane Doe
      August 9, 2012

      You explained well, Lynn. To me, even though it isn’t a YA novel, per se, sex with teens is sex with teens. I don’t want to turn a blind eye to the issue and make the story feel less than genuine, but I want to handle it respectfully. I needed all of your opinions to figure out what the “rule of thumb” is. “Fade to black” seems to be winning.

  6. Michelle Proulx
    August 9, 2012

    In every YA book I’ve read, the teens get all hot and heavy, then they are either interrupted before they can get down to business, or the scene fades to black. Although if your book’s genre isn’t YA, and you’ve got teenage characters, a sex scene might be more appropriate. Dunno.

  7. Eva
    August 9, 2012

    Anything is fair game for YA. It depends on how it’s handled. I wouldn’t go all 50 Shades of Gray on your readers, but having them kiss and fade to black might be the other extreme, Something in the middle, not too graphic but realistic, might be best. If this is an adult book and you’re just worried about a secondary YA market, I wouldn’t let that secondary reader dictate limits to the experience of your primary audience. Does that make sense?

    • Jane Doe
      August 9, 2012

      ” I wouldn’t go all 50 Shades of Gray on your readers” – love it!
      “Something in the middle, not too graphic but realistic, might be best.”
      Yes, I think I’m leaning for the sensuousness before and after and not the act during. Thank you!

  8. sarah
    August 9, 2012

    Funny, I’ve always been told that anything is *not* fair game in YA; that sex – if in there at all – should fade-to-black, unless you are writing a really daring book. And it seems if you do have sex it must provide a moral lesson of some kind, or be in some other way a serious matter, instead of being about joy and love and simple good things. I’ve also been told swearing is not okay, which makes me wonder who creates these rules. Someone who has never met a teenager, or been one themselves? Since your book isn’t YA I don’t see that you have a problem, so long as your sex scenes are, like every other scene should be, about character and plot development.

    • Jane Doe
      August 9, 2012

      Yes! The scene is definitely about plot. And, the more I read everyone’s responses, the vote seems to be, “fade to black”. For me that means set up the feelings before and after, but not to “Go all 50 Shads of Gray” (lol, Eva!), by not describing the actual act of sexual intercourse between them. Thank you all again! I have a lot to write before Sunday!

  9. Elisabeth Wheatley
    August 10, 2012

    The last time I talked about this subject, the dear people of my Goodreads group were practically lining up to shoot me. But…

    I’m one of those people who believes in saving yourself for marriage. Incredibly dull, right? I could go into the why, but I won’t bore you. ; )

    Though I hold to that belief like a barnacle to a ship’s hull, many of my friends and family disagree and I’m okay with that. I have read books with teen characters where sex became a plot element, but so long as it “fades to black” like you’re saying, I can keep reading and often enjoy the book. (When I read GRACELING, I actually slammed it shut and sat there staring at it in horror. I’m THAT sheltered.) So long as the couple in question are older teens (17-ish +). I take issue when reading about 14-year-olds having sex (BEASTLY by Alex Flinn).

    So…that’s my opinion. : )

    • Jane Doe
      August 10, 2012

      I won’t shoot you! I, too, believe sex is best within the commitment of marriage. 🙂

      I also believe that in writing you can be true your personal beliefs by only writing in your comfort level: character’s who believe the same as you or write situations where actions -in this case, sex- doesn’t come up as a natural part of the story. (Like, Hunger Games)

      In my case, I’m a true to the storyline type of girl. I’ll never write something, “too” out of my comfort zone. But, I won’t bring up a situation and then ignore it. I will try to handle it with graciousness and not let the reader “hear” my personal thoughts in the pages.

      With this topic, I will focus on the before and after and cut out the during. Total “fade to black” mode!

  10. dbryantsimmons
    August 12, 2012

    Okay, I know I’m late 🙂 Sorry! And I want to admit upfront that I haven’t read YA fiction since I was a YA but back then I was always frustrated that the romantic relationships were … vague, shall we say. I wished that someone had the guts to be truthful about it. Instead of that after-school-special approach. There’s plenty of ways to depict sex honestly while paying tribute to the ages of the characters that doesn’t involve “fading to black.”

    Personally, I don’t want to be pacified by what I read. And I don’t need my personal experiences or preferences mirrored back to me. I want the story to go places I didn’t expect. I want to come across themes and points of view that make me pause and think. In short, I respect writers that lift the curtain and let me peak into a world/experience that’s not my own. This doesn’t mean the sex must be explicit. It’s more important that it is significant to the story and characters but you should give as many details as necessary to accomplish this.

    In the case of Sarah and Emanuelle, I want to feel in my bones what brought them to that moment. I want to know what they’re thoughts and feelings are about sex, relationships, and each other before that moment. I’m assuming Sarah’s perspective will be influenced by her parents’ relationship(s) which would then make the sex between her and Emanuelle an important part of the story. If that’s the way you’re going to go then more details are better because you still have to show rather than tell.

    If sex is a major theme in your story then don’t shy away from it. Once readers sense that you’re not being authentic to the story, you lose them.

    And food for thought – if it makes nobody uncomfortable, is that really a good thing?

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