I sometimes get stymied on what I should write for PubCrawl. A writing topic? A publishing topic? A something other topic? When I’m stuck, I often put out a call on Twitter, and thankfully, Twiter came through for me yet again.
What about writing sex in YA?
What about writing sex in YA indeed? Can you write it? How much can you write? What’s considered appropriate? Is there something that distinguishes writing sex in YA from any other category?
The short answers are: Yes. That depends. That also depends. Yes.
So, as you can see, this might need a little unpacking.
Can you write sex in YA?
Of course you can. There are plenty of YA novels that feature characters and protagonists having sex, most famously Forever by Judy Blume. But I think a lot of the hesitation surrounding sex in YA is due to its complicated relationship with “children’s fiction”, and the pressure many face to write something “clean”.1
Although the majority of YA readers are older teens and adults, YA is still published by children’s imprints, which covers everything from board books, picture books, middle grade, and young adult. YA titles are generally marketed 12+, or sometimes 14+, depending on the content.
As you can see, some people might be hesitant to write about sex for a potential audience of twelve-year-olds.
But I’ve always been of the opinion that you write what is necessary for your own story, and let the market find itself. Children are remarkably good at self-selecting what they’re ready for and what they’re not. And while many children “read up” (i.e. reading about protagonists older than their age), there’s a difference between fiction about 14 year olds targeting a middle grade audience, and fiction about 14 year olds targeting a young adult audience. That difference is not only content, but tone.
When writing for a YA audience, you can absolutely cover the breadth of the teen experience, which includes sex. How sex is handled matters more than if sex is included at all.
How much sex in YA can you write?
Well, obviously erotica is right out. But if you are writing a sexually active teen, then you would tailor your story to include (or exclude) what is necessary. Maybe your character is question his or her sexuality by sleeping around. Maybe your character is looking to take his/her relationship with his/her partner to the next level. Maybe your character has had a history of sexual assault. These are all real concerns for teenagers, and therefore, it’s all appropriate for your book. “How much” does not have a quantifiable response; for some characters, sex may be more part of the narrative than others. For others, it may not be something they’re considering. Adult books are like this: sometimes sex is a large part of the story, sometimes it’s not.
What’s considered appropriate?
The question of “appropriateness” is different from reader to reader, writer to writer, and yes, publisher to publisher. In a romantic storyline between two consenting teenagers, it should be perfectly fine to have sex scenes between the two, but in a book about sex trafficking like Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl, it’s would not be appropriate.2 The level of comfort will vary from person to person, so again, I urge you to be true to your work.
Is there something that distinguishes writing sex in YA from any other category?
So…full disclosure, when I first queried Wintersong, I queried it as a YA novel. It is not being published as a young adult title; it is being published as an adult fantasy novel. This was not necessarily wholly my decision, although I support it wholeheartedly. My agent thought that the writing and tone of my book lent itself to an adult title rather than a teen one, and when we went out on submission, we went out to adult imprints, not children’s.
It wasn’t an easy submission process for Wintersong; we received a lot of rejections because the publishers couldn’t neatly categorize my book as romance, fantasy, literary, etc.—the “neither fish nor fowl” problem. You would think that a Labyrinth-inspired historical love story would be easy to package, but it’s not (for many reasons, but we can discuss that at a later date). Had my agent and I gotten no bites in our first round of submission, it’s likely we would have discussed editing my book for a young adult audience.
What would that entail? In my case, it would likely have involved me scaling back the sexy bits. I’ve joked that Wintersong was titled 50 Shades of Labyrinth when I was drafting it. It’s both a joke and not; I set out to write something sexy and erotic when I first started writing. (Whether or not I succeeded is another matter.) But it’s not the sexual content itself that would have had to been scaled back; it’s the way in which the sexual scenes are written.
The biggest difference between writing sex in YA and any other category is the question of explicitness. You certainly have sex on the page in YA, but a lot of times the language is more figurative (with attendant vagueness about body parts doing what and going where), and the focus of the sex scene in YA is more on the emotions than the physicality of the act.
Why? There is no real good answer, to be honest. I believe part of it is some last lingering bits of prudishness that cling to the label due to YA’s inclusion in children’s publishing. And some of it may be due to accepted tropes. A certain amount of “longing” has become part of the YA category, a sort of fierce infatuation and intensity that encompasses and even sometimes transcends physical attraction. As YA developed into its own distinct category in children’s publishing, emotional immediacy became one of its most noticeable and defining characteristics. This may account for why sex scenes in YA are focused on the emotions rather than the physicality of it.
So those are my thoughts! What do you guys think? Sex in YA: appropriate? Do you think there’s a difference between how it’s written in the category compared to adult titles? Sound off in the comments!
- The Oral History podcast: Two YA authors, Christa Desir and Carrie Mesrobian, discuss sex, sexuality, feminism, and more as it pertains to young adult literature
- For selection into the Scholastic Book Club, for example, the criteria is often minimal swearing, no sex, appropriate levels of violence. There are obviously exceptions to this rule; often New York Times bestselling authors will get their books into the Scholastic Book Club on the strength of their name and popularity, even if the book is very violent or has a lot of sex and/or swearing. ↩
- Although I would argue it’s not really ever appropriate to have graphic rape scenes, regardless of category or genre. ↩