|Figure 1. I am troubled, yall. It is difficult to know how to say what I think.|
I am troubled by the notion of "positive representation" of sexual experience in YA.
I'm not talking about sexual identity or orientation.
Once more: I AM NOT TALKING ABOUT SEXUAL IDENTITY OR ORIENTATION.
I am talking about the conversations that I've read that place a lot of value on seeing on-page sex between teenagers that is "positive" or "sex positive" or "features clear consent and birth control."
I've decided that I don't place a lot of value on such depictions.
Okay, so hear me out. I've thought about these things a little bit. I get that writing sex as outlined above seems like a thing that is a no-brainer to support. Why shouldn't we see young people having sex that is affirming and healthy and happy?
Well, fuck. I'll just say it. I don't believe that this is the job of fiction. At least not mine. Personally, I don't believe I'll be moved to write such sex scenes. And here's why.
Sex is goddamn messy. First sex experiences between young people are messy. Sex between experienced adults? Also messy! Fraught. Lacking communication. It takes lots of experience, getting to a comfortable place about having sex. Some people never achieve it.
Again, I'm not talking about sexual identity or orientation. That is a separate topic, one where I see the need for positive representation.
What I'm talking about is FICTIONAL SEX SCENES. The Experience of Negotiating Physical Touch With Another. The Experience of Being Naked With Someone Else. The Experience of Fucking. The Experience of Learning About How To Please Yourself and Someone Else While Naked.
Maybe I am jealous of people who figure out how to get off, how to be smooth, how to read romantic signals, how to feel comfortable in your skin, how to ask for what feels good. Because I'm 41 fucking years old and have been with the same dude for almost twenty years, and I'm still working on these things.
Yes, I have had magical romantic kissing moments. I have had sex with people that unexpectedly surprised me with its goodness. But it sure didn't happen the first few times.
What's more -- I've had these magical moments, and they even occurred in scenarios of suboptimal brokenness. Like:
-when I was cheating
-when I was drunk
-when I was with someone I didn't really even like
-when I was being risky about birth control and disease prevention
-when I was being impulsive and sleazy
-when I was unable to express what I needed or wanted
-when I didn't even actually know what I needed or wanted
-when I was wearing a brand new ball gown my mother had delightedly bought me from Nordstrom and we were rolling around on a wet lawn in the middle of the night because my college roommate was a pain in my ass who never left the dorm to give me a little privacy and grace
Readers, no matter their age, are not HARMED by seeing the mess of sex.
This is not how reading works, for one thing.
Myself, I have trust that readers - these lovely people who spend their time in deep, thoughtful, imaginative concert with story - can evaluate what is on the page and what is in their own hearts.
And I am arguing here that seeing all the hazardous, horrible, awkward intersections of sex is extremely illuminating for readers.
What are some examples that I find illuminating with respect to sex in fiction?
- poor decision-making
- impropriety and ugliness
- the mechanics of sexual arousal and stimulation
I want to see such scenes, in YA books and other fiction, because nobody gets anything right the first time. Certainly, nobody gets anything right in that phase of risk and enterprise we've decided to call "adolescence."
You must cross the bitter waters before you reach the sweet. A saying that is both Biblical and from Bram Stoker's Dracula, and which I say all the time to the annoyance of my family. Regardless, it remains true: you do not gain wisdom that you have not earned.
Like figuring out relationships, family and careers, our sex lives represent a lifetime of work. And we learn the most when we are uncomfortable, when we are hurt, when we are vulnerable, where we are ignorant, when we are taking risks.
Failure has always been the better teacher, when compared to success. And I believe the same is true when it comes to sex.