Sex and the YA Novel

I currently have four YA novels in various states of completion, three of which I expect to be prepping for submission over the next six months or so.  The question, of course, is where to submit them?  There are, thankfully, YA publishers now who don’t consider the mere fact that the main character is gay to be cause for rejecting the book as unsuitable for teens.  Many people in the country would disagree, but I’m not going to send the novels to them.  They can read what they like.

Several publishers have sprung up in the past few years, specifically dedicated to providing novels with gay protagonists.  This is terrific, and could certainly be a boon for me, since I no longer write anything without gay protagonists.  But there’s one little catch: 


Oh, wait, that wasn’t nearly sinister enough.  Let’s try that again:


One particular publisher that’s begun to make a name for itself has a strict “No underage sex” policy.  While this certainly sounds good, on the surface — underage sex is bad, right? — it doesn’t just mean no adults having sex with minors.  It means no minors having sex with each other.  At all.  (Because, of course, we all know that would never happen, in real life.)

It certainly means I can’t submit any of my YA novels to this publisher.  Not that any of them are porn aimed at teenagers, or porn depicting teens engaged in sex.  Since I’m sure you’re now thinking, Methinks he doth protest too much (because you’re a lot like Hamlet), I offer the most sexually explicit passage from  Seidhman as exhibit A.  The characters are probably about fourteen and fifteen, at this point — I forget, exactly, without going over my timeline.  (They grow up during the course of the novel.)  At this point in the story, my two heroes have been apart for two years, and they were just beginning to realize that they were falling for each other, before they were separated.  In the intervening time, they have, of course, both discovered masturbation.  Now, they finally have a moment together in a hot spring on the farm. 

Prepare to be shocked:

They wasted little time. As soon as they were out of their clothing, Thorbrand grabbed Kol and drew him close, kissing him with a passion that left no doubt as to his desire. He hadn’t outgrown it, as Kol had feared. The moment their lips touched, Kol felt happier than he could ever have imagined. His hands caressed Thorbrand’s strong back, already becoming slick with sweat, and suddenly his feet flew up, as Thorbrand scooped him up in his arms and carried him to the wooden benches.
“We can’t do this in the pool,” the older boy said, grinning, his hand sliding down between Kol’s legs and cupping his erection.
No, Kol thought, the spirit won’t like it, if we make a mess in his pool.
And then he ceased to think at all, lost in his explorations of the body he’d been fantasizing about for so long, the solid muscles of Thorbrand’s stomach a thousand times more wonderful than his fantasies had ever been. And even more incredibly, Thorbrand’s hands and mouth slid over Kol’s torso with an insatiable hunger, as if he, too, had been longing for this forever.

Okay, so reading that now, I’m thinking it needs a bit of a rewrite, to forcibly extract some cliches I no longer use, and Thorbrand should probably act a bit less like he’s done this before, but…yes, they’re definitely having sex.  Still, that’s the end of the scene.  Fade to black.  It doesn’t get any raunchier than that.  Yet this would be cause for the book to be rejected by this one particular house.

On the other hand, Thorbrand does touch Kol’s erection.  Considering the fact that Cory Doctorow upset some readers, when his 16-year-old protagonist fondled his girlfriend’s breast in Little Brother — and that book was nominated for a Hugo — I’m sure Kol’s erection could cause an enormous hullaballoo somewhere among YA readers (or, more likely, their parents).  For some reason that makes no sense to me, penises disturb people far more than breasts do, even though many heterosexual men find breasts to be the most erotic part of a woman’s body.  But that’s a discussion for another blog, I guess.  The more important issue, perhaps, is that they are fourteen and fifteen years old. 

It boggles my mind that any adult could seriously not realize that their fourteen-year-old is masturbating.  Oh, sure, it’s conceivable that this isn’t happening, but likely?  No.  Even with no education whatsoever — and assuming he has absolutely no friends with information to impart to him on the subject — a boy this age will be experiencing erections and possibly nocturnal emissions.  Did we learn nothing from Jurassic ParkNature always finds a way.  Teens will figure it out. 

But of course, there is no convincing many people of that.  And those people put a lot of energy into making sure any books that try to educate teens about sex, or merely acknowledge that teen characters are having sex, sometimes using aphrodisiacs as meloid beetle for this purpose.

So, perhaps that publisher is wise to avoid the controversy.  And you might wonder why I really care.  Certainly, you might wonder why I can’t “tone it down” a bit more.  Why can’t I just get rid of Kol’s erection?  (Ouch!)  Well, perhaps I could.  I could omit the line, or rephrase it as “Thorbrand slid his hand down to Kol’s crotch.”  But if I did that, it would be because I’ve decided the scene needs a rewrite, and it works better without mentioning erections.  It would probably not be for the purposes of “toning it down.” 

Why?  It’s not because I consider myself to be brilliant, and everything I produce of such high artistic quality that it shouldn’t ever be edited.  It’s because I believe that, as a society, we have a responsibility to young people.  Not just to keep them safe, as children, but also to help them transition into adulthood.  And we can’t do that by refusing to talk to them about the issues they’ll be facing, as they grow up.  And if they’re boys, one of the things they’ll be facing is erections. 

So, in addition to dealing with other issues teens might face, such as suicide, religion, taking responsibility for yourself, becoming a leader, facing down Viking raiders…my books must also deal openly and honestly with sex.  In particular, gay sex, since there are now a number of books out there dealing with straight sex.

Of course, the story still comes first.  Seidhman is a story about a young boy becoming a sorceror in Iceland.  It’s not a sex manual.  (I’ll leave that to the kids smuggling Playboy into school in their backpacks.)  But it’s hard to write scenes in which two boys with the hots for each other are snuggled up under the furs at night and not coming up with something to occupy their time.  I don’t need to describe these moments in explicit detail, as I might in an adult novel, but to pretend they wouldn’t happen seems disingenuous.

Still, not everything in life is sex, sex, sex.  Teens do think about other things.  Occasionally.   Additionally, there are plenty of adult books that avoid sex scenes, so it would be overkill to insist that all, or even most, YA novels contain mentions of sex.  It depends upon the demands of the story.  In the GLBT community, we are also having to fight the misconception that being gay is all about sex, rather than love.  So there should be YA novels — and adult novels — out there that show people that gay men and women are capable of love and romance, without having to hop in the sack (or hot spring). 

Ultimately, I can’t fault a publisher for not wanting to publish anything with sex in it, and I can’t fault a writer for not including sex in their novels.  I’m simply defending those of us who believe teens deserve honest depictions of what it’s like to be teens, without everything being sanitized and watered down. 


Filed under Writing, Young Adult

5 responses to “Sex and the YA Novel

  1. No, I totally DO fault them. While capitalizing on underage sex is reprehensible, the mirror of that is pretending that teens don’t have sex or are not sexual beings. As you say, that’s utterly unrealistic.

    One of the most formative sf books of my youth was Alex Panshin’s “Rite of Passage” which included a relatively explicit sex scene between his two mid-teen protagonists. But what made the book formative was not the one-page or so sex scene, but the stories of the characters and the trials they were undergoing. The sex was just a part of their growing up, because it IS a part of growing up. To deny that is to create an atmosphere of shame, IMHO.

    Those publishers who are such prudes, while fielding important issues both legally and ethically, are shirking their duties to their YA readers. I would not be the writer I am now without “Rite of Passage” – I shudder to think that Panshin had never been able to get it published.

  2. While I don’t know, of course, my first impression, when I saw that on their Submissions page, was that they were afraid someone would accuse them of child pornography, specifically because they’re a gay press. Straight YA presses are already dealing with this issue. Although, they do get flack for it. If anything, things seem to be getting more uptight, than less. One book was banned about a year ago, and created an enormous stir, simply because the female protagonist used the word “scrotum.”

  3. george allwynn

    I’m not too sure if this will help you – BUT it may put you in contact with other GLBT YA authors (or network to others who have the same concerns)

    Savvy Authors is having a FREE Internet convention this week at their sight – – and I saw this hour chat listed and thought of you

    “With June Diehl. How far can or should an author of YA fiction go? Today’s YA fiction is ever changing in terms of what publishers and agents are accepting when dealing with issues facing teenagers. Sex, drugs, alternative lifestyles, racism, and other topics are often found in YA fiction with varying degrees in the way these topics are portrayed. How deeply you delve into these topics depends on your level of comfort and that of your publisher and reader. When dealing with difficult issues, what does the teen reader want verses what adults think is needed or not?

    WHEN: Feb 20, 2011 1:00 PM EST – Feb 20, 2011 2:00 PM EST ”

    Hope you can use this information.

  4. george allwynn

    PS – sorry the title got cut off –

    The title of the chat is “Ethical Dilemmas in YA Fiction – Pushing the Edge”

    Now maybe the above post makes more sense to you.

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