Today, Donna Frietas, the awesome YA author of The Tenderness of Thieves, is stopping by to answer some questions. Back in May, Donna wrote an article for The Salon, Sex: The Last Taboo of YA Literature? Not Anymore!, which is a fantastic look at what including sex in YA novels can do for its readers. Donna was kind enough to talk to me about her latest novel and her article.
Can you tell us how you came up with the idea for The Tenderness of Thieves?
It’s actually a bit of a play on the movie (and novel) The Town. When I saw the movie I was fascinated by the romantic tension between this man and the woman he held hostage in a bank robbery—a woman they nearly had killed. The woman doesn’t know, of course, that the man she’s fallen in love with was the one who held her hostage, but the audience does, and I found myself liking him so much that I almost didn’t want her to find out that he was one of the bank robbers. I thought that this sort of star-crossed love would be fascinating to play around with in a YA novel, so that’s what inspired me in thinking about Handel and Jane’s relationship and romance.
There is a scene where Jane and Handel start to get intimate, but Handel stops them from going further. We don’t often see the guy stopping things from continuing in YA, or the conversation they have after where Handel says he wants them to wait, “For the right moment. The right time,” (p221), wanting them both to know everything about each other first. Was it important to you to show a couple in a relationship having a conversation beforehand, taking sex seriously?
Well, in my other life as a professor, because of my research on sex and hookup culture on campus, I spend a lot of time talking to college students about sex, sexual assault and consent, but most importantly the role and importance of communication between partners, not just because consent is paramount, but also because they will have a better time! I speak about this because hookup culture actually discourages communication during sexual intimacy, because when you communicate you get attached. (What a mess for consent, right?) So, I wanted Jane and Handel to be able to talk about sex and what they desired from each other, and I also liked writing a situation where Jane, the girl, was more ready and eager than Handel, the boy, to have sex. We often assume it’s the girl who does all the stopping, and almost never the boy.
Another conversation we don’t see often in YA is the conversation between Jane and her mother the day after she first has sex with Handel, which I loved! Why did you choose to have Jane talk to her mother about her first time?
I kind of love Jane’s mother. :) She’s kind of my fantasy of moms—very cool and talks to her daughter, but still definitely mom-like. They have a close relationship, and also Jane has just lost her father, so it felt right that Jane wouldn’t be able to keep it from her mom. Jane is happy about the sex she’s had with Handel—very—so that’s one reason she can’t resist sharing the news (even though she’s also totally nervous and embarrassed doing this). But also, there is something so vulnerable about taking that step to have sex for the first time and, given Jane’s recent loss of dad especially, I felt like she wouldn’t want to be alone in it. Her mother is her rock, so I didn’t think Jane would keep it from her. And I also wanted to have those conversations in there about safe sex, too.
Jane thinks about how her various experiences shape and change her; a new Jane being created after each experience. How does she feel about herself after her desire for Handel is woken, and again, after she first has sex with him?
Jane is surprised by how different she feels because of her relationship with Handel, and because she finds herself . . . wanting things and desiring someone in ways that she hasn’t really experienced before. Even though she thinks of it a bit as her “bad girl” side, she likes this side of herself that she’s discovering. It feels right and good to her.
Jane’s friend Michaela has had a problem with her relationship with Handel from the very beginning. Although Michaela’s worried about Jane, she’s very heavy-handed, and practically sex-shames her friend when things get physical with Handel. Michaela’s quite aggressive and judgemental towards Jane and the decisions she makes, and I had a serious problem with her dictating to Jane what she should and shouldn’t do over something that is none of her business, something so private.
Hmmm. My intention was not to make Michaela that over-bearing and certainly not a slut-shamer! No way. I tried to make Michaela’s disapproval grow out of concern for her friend since Jane has had such a difficult and traumatic year, and Michaela knows that Handel is associated with less than desirable people in their town. Also, Michaela’s dad is a cop, and so she’s well aware that her father is involved in the search for Jane’s dad’s killer, and that the people who did it are still at large. So I wanted her concern for Jane to come from her heartfelt worry for her friend.
Jane talks about her desire for Handel and the want he brings out in her quite a bit, yet the actual sex scenes are subtly described rather than detailed. Can you tell us why you chose to focus more on how Jane desired Handel than the sex scenes themselves?
Well, I think the desire is often the most important and best part—all that anticipation, and discovering that you want someone. I also think that the best sex scenes are often the least graphic sex-wise. Simply talking about body parts doesn’t mean a scene is going to be all swoon-worthy. I think it’s evoking the desire between two people and how that unfolds that’s the really exciting part.
Also, to go back to the research and work I do with college students: it took me forever to realize that a lot of sexual intimacy that happens in the context of hookup culture has little to nothing to do with sexual desire—sexual desire often takes third or fourth place (or even, sadly, no place) in students’ reasons for hooking up. They are often just “doing it” to say they did, to “get it done” because that’s what people expect of college students, and when I ask them what their desires are around sex and their partners, they often have no idea what to say, or have never thought about their own desires or how maybe it’s important for them to lead with that into sexual intimacy.
If teens and young adults are going to be sexually intimate, I want them to want it! So desire is an important part of that—recognizing that you feel it, and then going from there.
You say in your article for The Salon that for college-aged people, sex is something they do “not for the sake of passion, love and desire, but because it’s what seems to be required of someone [their] age.” How do you hope you and other authors will address this in YA novels?
Stories and novels are such a great way of bringing to life possible experiences, and giving us examples and frameworks for how relationships might unfold, so I hope that we can provide some good (and inspiring!) examples, that show people that sex doesn’t have to be so robot-like, or also very drunken (as is the case within hookup culture). Jane and Handel are completely sober during all the sexual intimacy of the novel and they communicate well around it, I think (I hope). I think writing sex-positive scenes are really important for teens and young adults, as they think on this issue.
What do you think about how teen fiction deals with sex generally?
I think there is a lot of great sex in YA novels (and I listed some of my favorite examples in the Salon article), which makes me happy, and I like that they are diverse too—sexually diverse—and that you can find good lesbian and gay sex scenes in YA. Occasionally I read a novel that has a lot of sex but very gratuitous sex—lots of sex scenes that seem to be there to shock or to prove that YA can be “edgy.” These novels kind of bum me out, because we get so much of that across our culture already. But I think that the vast majority of YA novels deal with sex in wonderful and diverse ways, and that this is excellent---we need good sex in YA.
Anything else you would like to add?
Hmmm. Just that, it would be amazing if somehow we can begin to use YA novels that deal with sex in positive ways as part of our sex education with teens and young adults. Teaching the mechanics and the dangers and consequences of sex is important, to be sure, but only one part of the conversation, and such a negative and limited view of sexuality. I worry a lot that our conversations start there and stop there, too.
One of the great things about novels, of course, is that they give us a broader, richer picture of the relationship between two people, and in my opinion, this broader picture is just as important if not more so than the dangers/consequences conversation. If we educate well about communication around sex in general, not just to prevent assault and STI’s, then we are equipping the young people we care about with far better tools for having a positive relationship and experience of sexual intimacy when they are ready for it, than when we are only teaching them to say stop and ask about condoms (which, again, is also important, but simply not the whole story), without ever talking to them about the many pathways by which they might arrive at those all important decisions.
Thank you so much for these great questions and for having me! I really enjoyed answering them.
Thank you, Donna, for such great answers! What do you think of what Donna has said? Do you think YA can be a helpful tool when it comes to sex education? Do you agree that the desire between two characters is more exciting than the sex scenes?
Be sure to check out Donna's website, and my review of The Tenderness of Thieves!