Thursday, December 11, 2014

10 Thoughts: Writing About Sex in YA Fiction & Otherwise, Part I


I think writing about sex shouldn't have rules. Or maybe just "rules" in the way we have "rules" in fiction-writing. Those fiction rules tend to be quite bendy.


Anyway. Here are some things I think about when it comes to writing about sex.

1) Have characters use terms for their body parts in a generally consistent manner. Think about your own body. Do you call them your "boobs" or "tits" or "breasts" or "mammaries?" No judgment; call things what you want. But realize that you have go-to words for body parts, even your genitalia, and there's no need to revert to technical language ("vulva" or  "glans") or softer kindergarten teacher terms either ("bottom" "rear" "bosom"). Make a decision on this and try to stick to it, even when you feel weird about mentioning these unmentionables. A somewhat ranty take on this here.

2) Acknowledging during a romantic/sex scene that there are feelings below the belt will come as a huge relief to some readers. Some readers might not be there yet, but don't worry about them. They have plenty of non-sexy books to occupy their brains. Instead, think about the ones who are grappling with their body's changes and needs and think about how to connect to them. Say the things you wished had been said to you at that age. Not advice, but acknowledgment.

3) No one cares about abs. No one cares about boobs, either. I'm talking about the people interested in touching abs or boobs. They care about access, not shape or form. Let's be real. If we like someone, we like all of them. Their separate parts aren't turn-offs. How could they be, if we've never touched a penis or a breast before? (Note: I never call it a penis or a breast in my real life. Just trying to be technically precise here. I'm fine with the word 'penis' but the word 'breast' is gross. It kind of goes on forever: breeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaasssssssssttttt. Yuck.)

4) How people smell is very important. In real life. In fiction, too. I like to read about how people smell. How their mouth tastes, how their skin smells. When you are sexually inexperienced, another person's body is undiscovered country. Let us explore it alongside your characters, in all these details.

5) There are details about first sex or first physical acts that aren't physical or erotic but are just as important to engaging the reader. Details about logistics. Where are the bodies? Are they standing? Sitting? Is there light? Can they see or are they just feeling around? Setting is big here, even though it might feel like the only thing that matters is the touching going on between the people involved. Getting people from clothed to naked doesn't happen magically, though it can feel that way when we recall it in our memories. The process of disrobing, who pulls off what, who moves or shifts or lifts up their hips - this is all key for YA sex scenes. The milestones that adults have blown past and might not occur to us any longer are central for young people. Hark back to that time. This is your job.

6) There are lots of cliches in YA sex scenes. But the dude fumbling to unhook a bra is one that can probably take a rest for a bit, in my opinion.

7) The word "forever." Ugh. This is probably another descriptor you might want to re-think when it comes to thoughts characters are having during first sex or physical contact. It's pretty much data-free when it comes to actual emotions, I think.

8) I know we want young people to use birth control but they don't always do that. Quit treating every sex scene featuring teenagers as an opportunity to showcase perfect consent and appropriate behavior. I mean, those are fine scenes to write, and they're necessary, because we want to show sex that happens in a good way, too, but it's not required. There will be people who will certainly piss all over any sex scenes between adolescents that involve poor decision-making. They may call you names, such as "irresponsible" and "gratuitous" and "misogynous." You have to be braver than those people and trust your readers more. They're not reading your book as an instruction manual. Go with what you think fits your story best, not what a high school health instructor might advise.

9) Ye Old Poetry and sex scenes. Not my thing anymore, poetry, so I'm biased. But please don't cloud the details of sexual behavior with Ye Olde Poetry. At its best, in my view, poetry is about specific sensory data. So is sex. Don't quote a bunch of Romantic poets hoping everyone "gets the idea" about what you're discussing. "I'm talking about a hand-job here, because Rilke!" No. Fuck off. It's another elitist way of looking at both poetry AND sex, a way for people hide their shame/embarrassment about talking about sex by cloaking it in high-minded fanciness, and I'm just not down with it. You might be able to convince me I'm wrong. But so far, I take a dim view of laying this kind of thing side by side. Am open to hearing reasons I shouldn't. But so far, a few too many YA guy-narrators deploy poetry when things get to sexy naked times and I can't handle it. It's grossly unrealistic. Also, gross.

10) More first sex scenes from the point of view of male adolescents would be highly illuminating and important for younger readers of either gender. Gay or straight - what in the hell is in a young man's head? This is also undiscovered territory for many of us, as our culture likes to revert to lots of clunky cliched shorthand when it comes to male concerns. More on male virginity here.

Like this post? Have feedback? Leave a comment and stay tuned for Part II...

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