Can't get no satisfaction (sex in YA literature)

There is an interesting distinction between adult romance novels and young adult romance novels.  It's an obvious distinction, of course, and it has to do with sex.

Well, actually, it has everything to do with sex.

But more specifically, it has a lot do with teenaged girls' perceptions about sex.

Here's the thing:  In adult romance novels, the sex is pretty much the whole point, with the between-sex parts being better or worse, depending on the skill and intelligence of the author.  Okay, that's not fair.  There are often some really good stories in there, and women need the story to really "feel" the sexy parts.  It's the romantic in us.  It's the obvious side of us that needs to be in a "relationship" to open ourselves up to the sex.  We want to fall in love with the male hero.  We want to sympathize with the female heroine.  We want to feel the peril of their love amidst whatever chaos the author creates for us.  And amidst that chaos, we want the sex.

(Here's the point in reading this blog post where you ask yourself, how many times is she going to use the word "sex" today?")

But in young adult romance, for the most part, the sex has to be glossed over, or held back, or handled symbolically, or left out completely.  As a result, the story has to be a bit more engaging for the teenage girl reading it (or the adult woman, as the case may be.)  I cannot help but feel that it gives girls a false notion of boys.  (Much as I appreciate t leaving out the gratuitous titillation.)

I just had a conversation with my tween.  I told her that she was very pretty (whether she realizes it or not), and that boys are going to start paying attention to her in middle and high school.  (Actually, I said that her dad and I might have to beat them away with a stick.)  I also warned her that boys really are only interested in one thing - trying to get into girls' pants.  She laughed.  She said, "Dad wasn't trying to get into your pants, was he?"  I said that by the time I met dad, he was truly interested in marriage and was old enough to consider settling down, but that that was only because he wanted to get into my pants.

Then she said, "What about the knights in shining armor?  They weren't trying to get into the princesses' pants."

"Actually, they were, hon, except the princesses weren't wearing pants."

These handsome champions in YA romances are good guys, for the most part, and willing to wait.  They don't pressure the girls.

They provide a disservice to young literate girls everywhere.  Just a warning, if you are a young girl interested in a young guy and he's saying everything that you want to hear . . . well, he wants to get into your pants. Don't believe me - ask your dad, and your brother, and your male cousins, and your preacher, and your boy neighbors, and the janitor, and the clerk at the convenience store . . . and . . . , well, you get the point.

Why am I blogging about this?  Well, there is a romantic element in both of my YA novels that I'm working on, and I MUST remember, while I'm writing, that I have to weigh two things:  portraying teenaged boys realistically and portraying teenaged boys attractively to teenaged girls.  In other words, they can't be obvious dogs - they have to have charm, wit, and grace in their pursuit of getting into a girl's pants.

I spoke with an agent recently who assured me that YA literature these days is all about "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," that "anything goes" and no concept or theme or storyline is out of bounds - so long as the age of the protagonist is comparable to the young adult reader.  Well, then.  Hmm.  But I simply cannot bring myself to write sex scenes between teenagers; I simply can't.  I'm a prude, that way, I suppose.  So there is a lot of thinking about it, considering it, but not acting upon it . . .

I guess my teenaged boy characters are going to have to be unsatisfied, for now.


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  • The M Half

    I hope you will and give me some concrit, thanks!

  • Fascinating.  Make sure you remind me to look at it.  Thanks!

  • The M Half

    I realize I'm a bit late to this party, but interestingly, I have been dealing with this exact issue on a smaller scale. I wanted to write a blog post about my characters and their first experience. I feel like I watered it down a lot and romanticized it perhaps a bit too much, but I just didn't want to get the backlash of promoting teen sex. I contend that I am now powerful enough as a whole to promote or condone anything, but realize I do have power in the eyes of the teens in my life.

    My post goes up tomorrow and I'll be interested in seeing what you both think of it.

  • A good perspective, Beverly.  I think you have a great point, and I think that's the kind of thing that I would consider whenever I get to "those" scenes.  I guess it also has to do with the essential point of the book - if the romance is the key ingredient or only a side dish . . .

  • Beverly Diehl

    I'm not sure this is entirely true, that you can't write about teen sex.  You could skirt it, a little bit, and write about how the characters felt afterwards, physically and emotionally (good but sore, perhaps, and she hadn't expected it to be so... messy.  Or whatever.) Maybe she regrets it, maybe not.  You don't have to make it erotic, that is, designed to arouse, but more how a teen girl would describe it to her best friend.

    There is definitely a different dynamic between what you describe (boy tries to get into girl's pants, girl fending him off) and the dynamic of what happens if they do have sex.  Certainly sex complicates relationships, especially if the teen lovers are trying to keep one or more sets of parents from finding out.  It could open up all kinds of different endings, plotwise.  Watch the old movie Little Foxes, very interestingly and sensitively handled.