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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sex and YA Novels

By Jenny Ramaley

A  few weeks ago, some of us Route 19 Writers gave ourselves an assignment: write a sex scene.
(not porn, mind you, but a literary scene with story, character, etc.)
         Huh?, you might be thinking. Don't most of you write for children?
         Yes.  But Carol is working on an adult murder/mystery/suspense/thriller and we were encouraging her to raise the 'steamy' level in some of her scenes where the characters were peeling off various layers of clothes. "Hey," she protested. "It's not that easy. You guys should try it!" And being a supportive group, the rest of us, even the picture book gals, thought, "Yeah, this would be a good experience, a challenge that will loosen up our writing."
         Long story short, we had a blast one evening drinking wine and reading each other's stories out loud. Overall, group members surprised themselves. We produced good stories, rich in character and setting, where the physical act meant something – whether it was misguided love, first kisses, pure lust or corporate climbing.
         The project was especially useful for those of us who write YA novels because sooner or later we're faced with a physical situation in our stories. Whether a character suppresses his or her desires or tries to satisfy them, most teens have raging hormones. Because of our 'assignment', I spent some time picking through YA books to see how different authors handle sex in their stories.


         First I turned to Gossip Girl. Although written in 2002 by Cecily von Ziegasar, the concept was brainstormed and controlled by Alloy Entertainment. The book morphed into a well-known print and TV series with a reputation for copious amounts of drugs, alcohol and sex. The story focuses on a group of neglected rich New York teens and drips with sexual innuendo. But if you really study the book, there's a lot more talk than action, and when there is actual action, it's barely mentioned.
         Here's the scene where Serena has sex for the first time with her old friend Nate, who is also her best friend's boyfriend:

They both had sex for the first time. It was awkward and painful and exciting and fun, and so sweet they forgot to be embarrassed. It was exactly the way you'd want your first time to be, and they had no regrets.

         If you ask me, that sounds pretty vague. And tame.
         Compare that scene with another first-time experience and young love found in Forever, the YA book written by Judy Blume in1975:

I whispered "Are you in . . . are we doing it?"
"Not yet," Michael said, pushing harder. "I don't want to hurt you."
"Don't worry . . . just do it!"
"I'm trying, Kath . . . but it's very tight in there."
"What should I do?"
"Can you spread your legs some more . . . and maybe raise them a little?"
"Like this?"
"That's better . . .much better."
         Due to its explicit, almost clinical, physical scenes, I can't help but wonder if this story would be published in today's conservative anti-sex-education world. Marcy said this book has been hard to find in recent years, although it's still highly sought after. Apparently, when a library gets a copy, it often disappears. I found my copy on a shelf at Target a few weeks ago, so someone in retail land is recognizing the demand and putting it back in stores. Isn't it interesting that a book first published in the '70s still has an audience?
         Although our pop culture is drenched with sex – think MTV rap videos, Jersey Shore and a relentless avalanche of sexy advertising -- teenagers still seem to covet information about the nuts and bolts of sex from sources other than reality TV, Glamour magazine, and weird stuff on the internet. Carefully crafted YA books that deal with the subject of sex, openly, honestly, with the pros and cons of these decisions worked into the stories, can help fill this need.
         I wonder if any teens will be searching for Gossip Girl 36 years from now.

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