Today, I have an absolutely incredible guest post from Carrie Mesrobian, YA author of Sex & Violence, Perfectly Good White Boy, and Cut Both Ways, who is stopping by to talk about why she thinks YA authors should write novels with sex.
“Only If It Serves The Plot” – or why most advice you’ve read about writing about sex is worthless.
Adults cannot talk about sex without going slightly unhinged.
Even if there’s wine. Even if it’s between friends. For some, even if it’s with their spouses and partners. There’s something about wanting to talk about sex that marks you as someone off-kilter, creepy, and – dare I say it – perverse.
So it’s not a shock that we lose our minds about sex depicted in fiction. We mock the literary/adult side of it via formats like the Bad Sex Awards (where are the Good Sex Awards?) and we castigate and ghettoize books that focus on sex too much in general, like romance novels, so-called “chick-lit,” and erotica.
(Never mind that romance novels & erotica have served as the main supplier of sexual fantasy for women for decades; never mind that authors of such books crush the esteemed lists of “better” fiction when it comes to sales and readership.)
So here I am, standing way out on the creaking, breaking limb of YA fiction, advocating for more sex in stories about teenagers. What profit could this have, you ask?
From a personal standpoint, I don’t write for anyone but me. I’m not motivated by saving people or inspiring youth. I write what interests me and what interests me is sexual behavior. Sex has always fascinated me, because, for being a key biological imperative, it’s always so hushed and mysterious and secretive.
Sex is mysterious, at least, compared to another natural imperative: eating. We talk about eating with gusto and detail. We Instagram our meals, we invite friends to dine with us, we host dinner parties where food and drink are featured highlights. We eat in the street, standing up, among strangers, among friends, with family members, with our children. We learn to cook, we teach others our favorite recipes, we inhabit our cultural heritage over the table, we bond “sobremesa” with others after such meals.
Compare eating with sex. Most of us don’t want to have sex in the street, where others (especially our friends and family) can see. Most of us wouldn’t Instagram it. Most of us don’t want to share our favorite restaurants or recipes either.
This is the world where our kids grow up as sexual beings. They find out The Secret That Is Sex in a few different ways. First, via porn, which is basically the de facto sex educator in the United States. Second, via their friends, who may know more or less than they do.
And third, via books. Research. This is how I learned about sex. The old-fashioned dorky nerd way – by looking it up in the card catalog at the library, back in the dark days before Google. My method was supplemented with romance novels (paper porn was scarce in those days, unless you had infiltrated your father’s stash, and even so, those photos were stills, not action shots) which helpfully detailed the mechanics of sex. My high school health text was less clear on mechanics (this was before Abstinence Education became popular in the U.S.) and its focus wasn’t pleasure but rather risk: how much it would suck if you got pregnant or AIDS. At least romance novels explained the feelings I was having – curiosity, fascination, power – when it came to sexual exploration.
Even so, there was a gap. Romance sex was tidy, the orgasms in those days were breathy, unclear, and usually simultaneous affairs. And so while I could see the emotions involved as well as the mechanics, the sex was as choreographed as visual video porn is today. It wasn’t until I became sexually active that I started to understand this more vividly.
Here is where sex in YA books comes in. In fiction, we have a singular opportunity. We can show action, we can show memory, we can flash back into history, we can narrate the feelings of all characters involved, we can describe everything in long, tender detail, we can festoon the whole scene with metaphors and poeticize it, we can dirty it up with precise, uncomfortable adjectives, we can carry an entire context forward into the scene. All of these options make on-page sex even more striking, realistic, and complex than anything else.
Teenage readers will read these scenes with great attention and will extrapolate what’s on the page to their own lives. This is a very good way to contend with risk, actually. But if you do not trust teenage readers, you might panic that they will rush out to enact what they just read. One imagines them holding the copy of the book splayed open as they strip off their clothes and search for a partner.
However, if you trust teenage readers, as I do, you understand that they’ll analyze the book’s situation and compare it to their own. Deposit it into the fund of their wisdom for later withdrawal when the time arises. I’d wager that the fund of such well-contextualized stories to be scant, at least for American teenagers. Because adults don’t like to discuss their own teenaged fumblings to the youth in their lives. Sex, for American parents, is often treated like drug use. We front that we’ve never smoked any weed or drank any stolen booze because that would be poor role modeling. Role modeling means positive depictions, of course. You cannot learn anything from failure, Americans firmly believe. Success merits discussion; the less said about failure, the better.
When it comes to the sex talk, most parents turn into a textbook and just reel off the lists of risks, not grasping the fact that their kids can summon porn in seconds via their mobile phones and can see, despite the choreography and overuse of spray tan, that something fun perhaps might be involved alongside those risks.
The problem with porn and health textbooks is that there often isn’t any context. The situations are presented plainly and baldly, without much personal detail i.e. That is one lucky pizza delivery guy, or Fluid exchange can be a vector of disease.
But in fiction? We are asking readers to sympathize with the emotional situation and empathize with the physical concerns. If we’re successful, we’re giving readers a holistic view of what first sex is like. First sex, first love, first crushes, first hook-ups, first break-ups. Learning about sex, navigating romance, being in relationships, – this is not something anyone masters on the first try. All of these encompass our life’s work in so many ways. So when we are honest about how it looks at a young age, we give readers something to compare their struggles to. Not something to inspire them, or frighten them, necessarily but to provoke them into critical thought and analysis when it comes their lives, their friends’ lives, their community, their culture.
Which brings me to the title of this post: “Only If It Serves The Plot.” You often hear this guideline invoked about sex scenes in YA fiction – or any fiction, really. We just love to build fences around the depiction of sex, it seem:
“Only if it’s not gratuitous.”
“Only if it’s tasteful, not graphic.” (Here’s what I think of the word “graphic” by the way.)
“Only if the characters consent and are in a committed and loving relationship.”
The problem with these fences is that for many teenagers, sexual exploration is the plot. It is the point. It’s the thing they seek, like a grail or a magic sword. It’s the clue to a riddle, the solution to a mystery. Maybe not all teenagers can relate to this. But many can. I sure did.
The unveiling of The Secret That Is Sex, then, is really what I serve when I write. Not the plot, not the fussy, easily-shocked public, not even individual teenagers I know. I serve the sexually curious and confused teenaged girl that was me. And when you tell me that this interest is gross or perverse or not sticking with the point, you’re insulting that girl that was me, and is me.
YA authors: if you want to write about sex, I applaud you and encourage you to do it. And I don’t care how you do it: if it serves the plot, if it’s graphic, if it’s romantic, if it’s funny, if it’s tragic or traumatic. Just be honest and brave and write without fading to black or to timeworn clichés. Because when you write your version of The Secret That Is Sex, know that so many readers are privately and quietly rejoicing about getting to see it. Getting to know what is was like for you. Understanding what it could be for ourselves, and others. That is what I believe you should serve when you put sex in your stories. No other rules are necessary.
Thank you so much, Carrie, for such a fantastic post! I have to say, I think I agree with Carrie here. What are your thoghts on Carrie's post? And check out my review of Cut Both Ways which I posted testerday