Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sex for the Younger Reader




I’ve been working on a story that I started a couple years ago.  At this point, I’m at the beginning and I’m not sure if it’s something that I’m actually going to wrestle into a full story or if it’s just an exercise for my muse, to get me back in the saddle.

As I mentioned, though, I had the idea two years ago.  I wrote two chapters and then stopped.  Something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  I loved the idea and I loved the heroine.  Vegetarian Willow who remained in her small (SMALL) town to care for her grandmother who raised her because her parents were hippies and off exploring free love and drugs.  And I loved Shane, my hero, a Special Forces soldier who’d risen above his foster care upbringing  but felt empty inside.

But, something was wrong.

So I stopped and wrote AFTER THE SCANDAL.  Now, though, this story is calling me again.  This rarely happens.  Usually if I start and stop something, it stays in the past.  Like the year I was pre-med in college.  Nice memory, but nowhere I want to revisit.

This story though…. I reread.  Still liked the hero and heroine.  But I figured it out, that thing that was bothering me.
  
The characters are younger.  

A year ago, Willow chose not to go to college.  Her grandmother has had two heart attacks and a slight stroke. They don’t have money for her grandmother’s medical bills and college tuition.  Shane is training to go to war, is almost finished with his Special Forces training.  Another character, Jack, has everything ahead of him.  Scholarship to USC, budding football career, and he’s irreparably changed by the events in the story.  He has to deal with what happens when your life takes a turn you can’t turn back from.

Ter assures me that editors are looking for stories for this age group.  (Sigh of relief.)  But I’m not sure how to write this story.

For the past five years, I’ve written romance.  Read: I’ve written stories where sex is a game changer at some point in the story.  And, in my mind, Willow and Shane have sex.  Shane’s almost 21 and Willow will be 20 in a few months.  They’re adults.  The fact that they both make themselves vulnerable is integral to what happens in the story.  I bet I could do it some other way, but I don’t think it would work quite as well. 
After all, that’s how my mind works.  To me, making love can inspire, empower, and make vulnerable. Sex with the right person is life-changing. I’m not sure there’s another event that does the same thing quite so well.  And for two people who fear they are unlovable, who’ve been abandoned and have sought to find where they belong, I just think it works best.

But, well, sex for the teenage audience is pretty risqué.  Hack away at people, murder and gore and dismemberment, all acceptable.  But take off clothes and people start throwing bibles at you.

So, folks, what do you think about sex in stories written for the young adult/new adult audience?  Is it wrong that I'm going to toss some college age kids in the sack?  How much detail is too much detail?  Is this a strictly, close the door behind them thing? 

29 comments:

Marnee Bailey said...

I have no idea why part of this post is highlighted in white.

TerriOsburn said...

That keeps happening to me too! I've had to go in and fix my last two blogs to get rid of it.

TerriOsburn said...

I fixed it! Now I should read the blog. LOL!

Marnee Bailey said...

Thanks! I have no idea how that happened but I was afraid if I tried to fix it I'd mess something up worse.

TerriOsburn said...

Sex is absolutely fine. And this is from a parent of a YA reader. (NOT that she'll be reading sex for a couple more years. Yes, denial is a powerful thing.)

Marnee Bailey said...

LOL!! I feel like a lot of the sex I read in YA is like negative experience sex. Does anyone else feel like that or is it just me not reading the right books? It just always feels like the teenager has to deal with something after the sex that has more to do with regret than the kinds of regret that happen in Romance. Romance regrets after are more about how they're afraid of being hurt. Regret in YA seems to be, "I'm too young to do this."

Is it just me? Because I'm planning more of the, "I'm afraid of being vulnerable and getting hurt" kind of regret. Is that appropriate?

Marnee Bailey said...

And Ter, I'm sure she's never read any of the sex in any of the books you have in your house. (I will add here that I was reading the sex scenes in my mom's books in middle school. Maybe that makes me a delinquent but I was curious how it all worked. In my defense, I was a little bit horrified. Okay, horrified and curious too.)

MsHellion said...

I thought this blog was going to be about teenagers having sex--LOL!--so yes, I would definitely expect this age group to be having sex. And I think your first love and occasionally your first sexual experiences to be bittersweet, magical even, if it's with someone you're really, really in love with, who gets you. I don't think it's necessarily something you regret.

I can see if you're 13 or 14 and have sex with the popular boy, that would cause regret you're too young for sex...but not 20. Not even 17 per se.

I don't know if I'd want a lot of detail, per se; I usually read YA that keeps a lot of it behind closed doors, but I feel that adds to the magic and specialness of it. Like Becca Fitzgerald's HUSH HUSH series, those books are sexy, but some of it is hidden, I think, to help build the tension. The more secrets you have and the reader gets to fill in, it can be better.

I love a great sex scene, but sometimes I prefer the less is more method.

MsHellion said...

(I will add here that I was reading the sex scenes in my mom's books in middle school. Maybe that makes me a delinquent but I was curious how it all worked. In my defense, I was a little bit horrified. Okay, horrified and curious too.)

Same here.

TerriOsburn said...

I was reading regular Romances in middle school as well, but I also watched Porky's (google it) when I was 9. My upbringing was a bit different. ;)

But I don't read the books she does so I'm sure there's smexy stuff in there. Some have the premise of the heroine's BFF getting knocked up or what have you. And she's read HUSH HUSH, I think.

I'd be surprised if this age (20/21) was not having sex. And in the circumstances you've described to me, the act can cause a great deal of problems and conflicts for the characters.

Always write what the story requires. Forget about everything else.

Marnee Bailey said...

Hells - I can see if you're 13 or 14 and have sex with the popular boy, that would cause regret you're too young for sex...but not 20. Not even 17 per se.

I agree with this. I think maybe the regrets I am thinking of are things that come out of the conflict. Like the 13 yo who's so desperate to fit in that she has sex with the popular boy.

And I do think keeping some of it behind doors is probably necessary. Even though it's 18-22 year olds, I'm sure that kids who read books with characters that age are probably a little younger too. I mean, most YA books seem to have 17 year old protagonists and those books are read by younger kids (13-15). So I'd guess the same would hold true for a few years later.

So I think it's about balancing. I mean, adult books run the gamut of sexy levels. I'm sure the same goes for the YA. I'm not sure I can shut the door completely but I can probably leave out some of the tab a, slot b details I would generally give in my adult audienced romances.

Ter - Always write what the story requires. Forget about everything else.

I'm gonna give an AMEN here.

As a random tangent, I was thinking of the sex in Breaking Dawn earlier, about the regrets. Even though Bella doesn't "regret" it per se, having sex with Edward implants a monster in her stomach that tries to kill her. I'd say that message is pretty loud and clear, ya know?

MsHellion said...

*LOL* Marn, I never thought about that in Twilight. *LOL* It is a little Anna Karenina, isn't it? You'll have really good sex, but you'll die for it!

I don't know if I would have thought that about sex, per se, but Bella does want Edward despite the very real threat he causes her. There does seem to be a theme about wanting things that are "bad" for you--and she wants someone who can kill her. *LOL* But by the time they marry, it's clear Edward would never harm her, so the author had to raise the stakes by having him inadvertently harm her. It's almost like once you have that darkness within you, nothing you can do to not destroy anything you touch. It's almost more Biblical to me than sexual. Though Biblical and sexual do seem to go hand in hand...so you're probably right. It's all about the sex and how we'll die if we enjoy it.

TerriOsburn said...

I'm totally using that. "If you have sex, you'll die!!"

Though being raised Catholic, I was told if I had sex I'd go to hell. Deterred me, but not forever.

P. Kirby said...

(NOT that she'll be reading sex for a couple more years. Yes, denial is a powerful thing.)

Hee. Yeah, it's a mighty big river too.

Evil, sex-positive, femi-nazi that I am, I have no problem with acknowledging the fact that teens have sex. I did, and while it caused some short term angst, I don't regret it one bit. It was part of growing up.

As for young twenty somethings, unless your characters are part of the abstinence-only crowd, of course they're having sex. You certainly shouldn't censor yourself and the story because..."omg, younger teens might read it."

Younger teens have been sneaking reads at smutty books since the dawn of time. Young cave people probably crept into the naughty section of the cave painting back in Neolithic times. We all did it; we all lived to tell. Heck, in some cases, the sex scenes in books were sex education.

Write the story as it needs to be told.

TerriOsburn said...

It's funny, Pat, there was no sneaking smexy stuff in my house growing up. Everything was open and fair game. But somehow Kiddo inherited her father's prudish nature. Sometimes I marvel at how prudish she can be. But she's coming out of it.

Sabrina Shields (Scapegoat) said...

I'm going to say Terri hit it on the head with writing what the story calls for. I think that says it all. :)

P. Kirby said...

I grew up un-religious, but I don't recall sex being an open topic at my house. I think my mom didn't know how to approach it and probably hoped that if she avoided the topic it would just go away. OTOH, my neighborhood was primarily Hispanic and very Catholic, with all the requisite guilt and slut shaming. Everyone was having sex, but no one admitted it. At least, not the girls, because...SLUT!

College and twenty-something sex represented a transition from repressed teen-age sex to somewhat more grownup sex. Birth control was now available, via the health center or PP, without parental permission and sex was an open, acknowledged aspect of romantic relationships. People actually talked--Le Gasp!--about sex. (Well, except with their parents, who apparently continued to believe that their little darlings were Vestal Virgins.) Twas a whole new world.

Marnee Bailey said...

Hells, and having a kid think they could inadvertently spawn a monster... well, that takes teen pregnancy to a whole new level.

Ter - Ugh with the Catholic guilt. Ditto. Deterred, but not halted. LOL!!

TerriOsburn said...

Must be generational, Pat. And that is not my way of saying you're older than I am. ;) My parents are baby boomers (both born in '46) and though my mom was conservative in behavior, she was never strict or conservative about sharing information. When nothing is taboo or secret, there's no need to go seek it out to learn for yourself. Usually the hard way.

I wasn't overly curious because there wasn't much I didn't know about. Except for the actual experience of it.

Janga said...

Marn, Tammara Webber's Good for You is one of my top reads of 2012. It's YA: the heroine has just graduated from high school; the hero is a little older. The characters, are sexually active. One of the things I like most about it is that various points of view about sex are represented--recreational sex, sex regretted, sex as the natural expression of love in a committed relationship,choosing to wait. The characters are complex, the plot is credible and responsible, and while it's not a book I'll share with the turning-13-on-Friday grand, I wouldn't hesitate to pass it on to my other YA experts, my young cousins--16 & 18. I highly recommend it to any of you who read YA.

I don't know about the cave dwellers since I'm not quite that old, but I do know when I started reading my mother's romances the summer I turned ten, there was sexual tension but very little action in them. One scene where the hero puts his hand down the heroine's neckline to retrieve a key was deliciously shocking. On the other hand, the True Confessions mags a girl in my class sneaked from her mother and shared at recess were more graphic. They were the only thing I ever got in trouble for reading because my mother considered them trash. My real sex education via books came later from literary fiction--D. H. Lawrence, James Baldwin, Anais Nin.

Maureen said...

Interesting! The DH and I were listening to a Dan Savage podcast on our drive home and there was a comedy musical group on that did a song about how they never learned how to give hand jobs... Okay, now, I know that seems really not part of this discussion...but!

The thing is, kids seem to fall into two categories, those who are doing stuff way too early...I mean, there is no real foreplay and petting. It's straight to BJs and sex. Or, you don't date, you do nothing until you're in college, when you go wild.

I know a lot of writers who are struggling with writing for the early college age group and what to do about sex and relationships. And I do think part of it is the struggle between who your characters are. The thing about the kids going straight to BJs, etc...they aren't sluts or tramps...they are still just kids, period. And those who do little to nothing until their twenties? Just kids, too.

It isn't the sex that changes who they are, though I think how one presents them is the real challenge. Our society pushes us to 'write' the sexually active as sinners, fallen, actively dangerous... When in fact, they are just kids.

And kids push boundaries, don't know where the boundaries are, aren't sure there are boundaries...and they may be right.

How to write this? I have no idea and wish you tons of luck.

Me? Still a bit mentally fatigued after my dash to Denver and back... If none of this makes sense...that's my excuse...

Marnee Bailey said...

Pat: As for young twenty somethings, unless your characters are part of the abstinence-only crowd, of course they're having sex. You certainly shouldn't censor yourself and the story because..."omg, younger teens might read it."

My characters aren't part of the abstinence only crowd. But a couple are virgins, not because they're morally opposed, just because they haven't found the right situation. They're interested but not just running out to have sex to get it over with.

And I agree, that I can't pull back just because younger kids might read it. In fact, I might have learned a lot less if other authors in my past had done that. LOL!!

There was a big difference between how everyone acted about sex in HS (hush hush, even though lots of folks were doing it) and college when it became much more chatted about and done with much less stigma. That's kind of where I'm at. I'm not sure why there's that line, like "you've graduated from high school, here are your birth control pills." Because in reality, kids are not any different at the beginning of that summer than they are at the end of it. But that's how our society views them. I think that's weird.

*Waves at Scape!* Hi!! How was your trip!?

I think that's what it's going to have to be. I'll just have to write what feels like the right thing and then figure it out from there.

TerriOsburn said...

This is what cracks me up. I went through 12 yrs Catholic school and by the time I was a senior, most of my fellow students were sexually active. And it was known. I had friends who had been active since they were 13. Others started around 15 or 16. There were girls who were known sluts because they weren't choosey and didn't have to be dating a guy to do him. But the ones who had steady boyfriends and having sex with just their partners weren't looked down on at all.

Marnee Bailey said...

Janga - I'll add the book to my TBR. :) Thanks! I always appreciate your recommends. :) And I think maybe that book sounds like it might manage what I'm trying to do.

My biggest problem here isn't so much about whether I should include it or not. I think I'd kind of decided to include it already. My biggest issue is how much detail is TMI. And, more important, can I just skip all that moral sex education, after school special stuff. I mean, in regular romance, no one is talking about all the different kinds of sex. They're just doing it and learning what they learn from it. I kind of wanted to do that. I'm not trying to tell everyone what's right and what's wrong about sex as a young person. I just don't think it's something I can do because I don't think there's a right and wrong. I just wanted to write that part like I would write it for adults. If I don't, I feel like I'd be pulling a punch.

Chance - It isn't the sex that changes who they are, though I think how one presents them is the real challenge. Our society pushes us to 'write' the sexually active as sinners, fallen, actively dangerous... When in fact, they are just kids.

And kids push boundaries, don't know where the boundaries are, aren't sure there are boundaries...and they may be right.


This. This is exactly what I'm talking about. I don't want to sound all judgy judgy. And I don't want it to read like Twilight, all, "The consequences of teen sex are pregnancy with a monster baby."

In my college/young adult experience, the bulk of the "consequences" after sex were emotional ones. Girls who wanted more from guys who weren't ready to give it. Guys who wanted sex but couldn't handle the emotional attachments girls attached to it. Vice versa in some cases, though that in my experience was less common.



It feels to me like I really have to come at this from character. Each of them will feel about sex in their own way and I need to just grow it out of that.

Marnee Bailey said...

Ter - I had friends who had been active since they were 13. Others started around 15 or 16. There were girls who were known sluts because they weren't choosey and didn't have to be dating a guy to do him. But the ones who had steady boyfriends and having sex with just their partners weren't looked down on at all.

My experience is similar. And I went to Catholic school until 8th grade. I remember the 8th grade "couple" who gave the first blow job. It was quite talked about stuff in my little private school. I remember looking at that girl and being both grossed out and a little in awe.

Maureen said...

This is one of those places where writers can be trapped by the idea that they 'have to' use their positions to advocate and preach, etc. Which is bullshit.

The individual rational behind why kids are sexually active can be so convoluted...from hormones to pressure to real love and every nuance in between. It's all individual and you have to put aside the 'mom' in you that is thinking about your kids or your nephews or nieces or cousins, etc...and just write who these kids are and what/why they make the decisions they make.

Hell, I took a 17 year old girl in The Pirate Circus and at the end of the book she was a he...which was exactly what had to happen for Lee... And if you want to figure that statement out you'll have to read the book. ;-)

Age is relative, too. In England the age of consent is 16, I believe...

Maureen said...

Though if you were writing horror, the minute they had sex the maniac with the chainsaw would kill them. The only survivors in horror movies are virgins. The great modern morality tale...

Marnee Bailey said...

Here here!! I agree, I don't want to have to advocate anything. Because I'm not any better to preach than anyone else.

just write who these kids are and what/why they make the decisions they make

I'm going to put this by my computer.

Janga said...

It feels to me like I really have to come at this from character. Each of them will feel about sex in their own way and I need to just grow it out of that.

Marn, that's it. That's all you can do really and be true to your story and yourself. That's exactly what Webber does, I think.

As for personal experience, I wonder if the difference in perspective here is the difference between growing up before the pill and Roe v. Wade and the effects of the cultural changes of the 60s and growing up after them. Or maybe it's just that I grew up in small town in the Bible Belt. At any rate, I was in college before I knew what a blow job was. And I taught kids (not all of them, but some) my first years of teaching who were far more experienced at 15/16 than I was at 21.