Friday, 11 January 2013

Sex in Young Adult Fiction

'Romeo + Juliet' (1996)

In the next few days, I will be writing a scene for Lucian which has been on my mind for quite a while. It's one of those pivotal, milestone scenes, the ones that feel like a long time coming and, when they do, you're left feeling like a little part of you has washed away with them. If the title didn't already give it away, let me spell it out for you. I'll be writing a sex scene.

I write chiefly for the Young Adult market, and Lucian is aimed at the mid to upper bracket - those late teens who have already experienced sex, or are about to. I recently found a 2009 article in the New York Times which said that 47.8 percent of High School students have had sex, and while this number is down from previous years, it's still higher than I would have expected. Teenagers know sex. Sex is a huge part of the life of any teenager, and if writing is truly about honesty, then sex isn't something that can be avoided.

I'm not saying that every Young Adult novel should have a sex scene, far from it. However as with fiction of any genre, if a sex scene is important to the plot, whether the natural progression of a relationship or the one night fling of a distraught character, then sex can find a place. I've read plenty of terrible sex scenes in my time - ones which have absolutely no place in the story other than to sell a few more copies. Horror writer James Herbert immediately springs to mind, it seems his characters are constantly having sex. I remember one novel in which a succubus fellates the main character in his sleep. After much thought, I think the sex scene in Lucian is crucial.

Why is so crucial? Because it comes from a moment of fear and desperation, at the cusp of the day everything in the novel has been leading up to. David, my main character, is afraid. He's afraid he won't be able to do what is required of him, what he is destined to do, to save the day from an enemy which knows no reason. In fact, he doesn't even know what is required of him, having to rely on faith and fate and the ambiguous riddles of more powerful beings than he.

David's always had self-esteem issues, so having this destiny thrust upon him, and having to appear to be strong and confident, takes its toll. There comes a moment, on the eve of his destiny, that he cannot pretend anymore. He cannot act like a saviour anymore. He finds comfort in his girlfriend, Aurora, who he has fallen for over the course of the novel. There's a touch of fate in their relationship too -- she has a part of play in the coming events, as do they all.

Afraid that he won't be able to protect the ones he loves, David breaks down, and Aurora is there to pick up the pieces. In her effort to comfort him they kiss, and it goes from there. It's a break in the tension, not only for David's worries but for his relationship with Aurora. They both need this catharsis, need the consummation of their relationship. It's entirely unexpected, as sex often is, and it's their first time. It's awkward, and he feels like he cannot stop shaking, but that doesn't matter. What matters is the emotions that pass between them, the taste of tears, the need for each other.

The scene won't be graphic, of course -- no Fifty Shades of Grey here. That isn't what the scene is about. The scene is about the emotions, the catharsis, and most of all the honesty. Aurora and David love each other, they trust each other, and that is what counts. If I didn't feel the scene was necessary I wouldn't write it, and if I don't feel it works when I'm redrafting, I'll cut it.

Literary Agent Sara Crowe wrote an interesting article on sex in Young Adult literature, and lists a few great examples. This is one of my favourites. Although I've never read it, the following is an extract from Jenny Downham's novel Before I Die, in which the terminally ill main character Tessa puts sex on her 'bucket list'. This is her first time, a one night stand with a boy she met at a club.

He lies down, moves my legs apart with his, presses closer, his weight on top of me. Soon I’ll feel him inside me and I’ll know what all the fuss is about. This was my idea.
I notice lots of things while the red neon numbers on his radio alarm move from 3:15 to 3:19. I notice that his shoes are on their side by the door…
He supports himself with his arms, moving slowly above me, his face turned to one side, his eyes tight shut. This is it. It’s really happening. I’m living it now. Sex. (25)
Notice how, in this scene, the most important thing about Tessa's experience is her disassociation with what is happening. This isn't romance, this isn't erotica; this is sex for the sake of it, another thing on the bucket list. What I love here is the focus on everything but the sex -- the numbers on the alarm clock, the seconds ticking away; the boy's face turned away from her's. It's really happening, she's living it, but Tessa's mind couldn't be further away from it if she tried.

Later, now close to dying, Tessa has sex a final time, and this time she's in love.

His hand slides to my waist to my belly to the top of my thigh. His kisses follow his hand, work their way down until his head is between my legs and then he looks at me, asking permission with his eyes.
It spills me, the thought of him kissing me there.
His head is in shadow, his arms scooped under my legs. His breath is warm on my thighs. He very slowly begins.
If I could buck, I would. If I could howl at the moon, then I would. To feel this, when I’d thought it was over, when my body’s closing down and I thought I’d have no pleasure from it again.
I am blessed.
This time the emotions are what is important, and Tessa is really living it. Every moment counts. This is the kind of scene I plan to write, focused on the moment.

I've written one line of my scene, quite a while ago -- perhaps the end of it, before we fade to black. This is what I've written, and it could change.

They rose and fell with each other, letting themselves become lost to the pain, and the fear, and the sadness of it all, until nothing existed but them, in that moment, alone.
Here's hoping I do the scene justice.

If you are a fellow writer, have you written a sex scene before? If so, was it graphic, or more tame? Why was it necessary? I'm interested to hear about your experiences with writing, so sound off in the comments below. As usual, thank you for reading! Until next time.