I was lucky enough to moderate a panel on sex in YA literature this weekend at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference. Our panelists were four extremely talented writers: Donna Freitas, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Brendan Kiely, and Barry Lyga.
Since I was moderating, I obviously wasn’t able to live tweet the event. But I did scribble down some standout quotes, which I’ve attempted to transcribe here. When I’m paraphrasing, it’s out of quotes. Any imperfections are entirely my own, but it was such a fascinating conversation that I wanted to share.
JENNIFER: To start, why--why do we include sex in YA literature, and why is it important that we're talking about it here?
BRENDAN: We need to create a “language of experience for young people” and “put the reality of young people into books.”
ALAYA: “When you’re writing to an audience that’s often pandered to, they can tell.”
DONNA: “It’s such a huge and wonderful part of writing for children.”
BARRY: “Every single one of us is here because of sex.”
JENNIFER: What do you think the guidelines are for sex in YA currently; what's still taboo? What do you think those guidelines should be? And have you gotten any pushback for the way you've portrayed sex in your work--either from an agent, editor, critic, or reader?
BARRY related that the one time he got pushback from an editor was for an oblique reference to anal sex in BOY TOY. He removed it but has always regretted that decision, feeling that the book is incomplete.
DONNA: “From kids you get curiosity…” She went on to note, “I do not like when people use sexual assault as a plot device.”
ALAYA agreed and then added, “Masturbation is a harder thing to get in books than sex, especially female masturbation.”
DONNA pulled out an advanced copy of THE NERDY AND THE DIRTY , highly recommending its frank portrayal of sex, including female masturbation.
BRENDAN said that in terms of guidelines, the question is “why are you including a certain type of scene…There’s no need to be gratuitous about it; that’s not what the book is about.”
JENNIFER: In terms of craft, are you thinking solely in terms of what should happen for the story and the characters, or do you feel any type of responsibility to educate teens?
BARRY: “Maybe this makes me a bad person…I don’t think about the reader when I’m writing. My primary concern is being of service to the story.” He acknowledged that this may limit the audience.
ALAYA: “I more have a responsibility to show things in a true way.” She went on to discuss “sexuality and the intersection of race,” noting that “Jezebel tropes—you have to be pure—fall particularly hard on black girls…The problem is not having sex. The problem is being shamed for the sex you want to have.” In her writing, she said, “I don’t want to fall without thinking into a certain cliché.”
ALAYA also mentioned that while most panelists said there weren’t guidelines, from a business perspective, including certain scenes may mean that your book won’t get into Walmart or Costco, and she’s heard of writers getting pushback from publishers because of that.
DONNA: “You owe your story and the characters in your story, period number one.” But she then went on to tell two stories from her “other life” as a college professor, which make her feel the importance of portraying good sex. Her students told her, “‘Hookups are efficient…we’re so overscheduled…but you gotta get your sex done in college.’” Then after reading JUST KIDS, they said, “‘You can’t fall in love anymore at 17….Love makes you weak.’”
JENNIFER: What about instances of problematic sex--rape, assault, or abuse? How do you think we should be addressing that in YA literature?
BRENDAN: “I do think it’s important that we don’t try to censor problematic sex….There’s a theme emerging on the panel about promoting good sex.” But you want to be “showing the development of relationships that can lead to good sex….It’s really important to be to talk about why consent is important in relationships.” He discussed one of his works in which consent was repeatedly asked for, with “yes becoming a mantra for the characters.”
DONNA: “When I think of sexual diversity,” it’s not just sexual orientation, “I think of diversity of experiences.” With traumatic events, characters “have to process them…contend with it…not just sexual assault and never talk about it.”
BRENDAN added that it was part of the overall “processing of emotion.”
BARRY: On BOY TOY, “one person said it was like badly written MILF porn…I disagree, I think it was exquisitely written MILF porn.” But it’s “important that you go through the porn to understand the guilt, shame, pain, and fear” the character feels later; it’s necessary for the character arc.
JENNIFER: Earlier Donna recommended THE NERDY AND THE DIRTY. Do you all have any other recommendations for books besides your own that handle sex particularly well?
BARRY: ANATOMY OF A BOYFRIEND
BARRY: “If you can subtly make the reader think it…that’s even more powerful.”
DONNA mentioned she never thought she’d write a kissing scene, let alone a sex scene. “Maybe I still do turn red…”
BRENDAN: “Do I want to describe lips smashing together…or the emotion?”
ALAYA: “Emotions and lip smacking!...We hit our teeth; it’s so awkward.”
JENNIFER: For aspiring YA writers in the audience, what advice do you have for approaching sex in their writing?
BRENDAN: I try not to be a camera from a distance, “more like an improv actor, immerse myself in the moment and feel what it’s like.”
BARRY: “If you write something you’re not enjoying, whether it’s a sex scene or anything else,” others probably won’t enjoy it either. “You’re the first reader.”
ALAYA: “Be honest and don’t patronize and try not to be afraid.”
AUDIENCE QUESTION about portraying different body types. I said that I thought Alaya did this very well in her book LOVE IS THE DRUG.
ALAYA: “On the small canvas I have, I wanted to show people…” Her protagonist Bird has “large thighs, long neck, small breasts.” She’s self-conscious of them in a scene where she’s walking naked towards her boyfriend, but “she feels her power.”
AUDIENCE QUESTION about word choice.
BRENDAN shared a funny story about sitting next to an older woman while on the phone with his agent discussing whether they should use the word cock or penis. “You write and do your thing,” but then you “collaborate with agents and editors; that’s what I rely on them for.”
DONNA: “I haven’t used the word penis or vagina…it’s implied.” She then read a passage from THE NERDY AND THE DIRTY, though, which does use those terms, and brought our panel to a close, laughing.
I know that write-up was a bit disjointed, but I thought there were some beautiful moments that came out of our hour together—and, of course, it was so much fun. Hope you all enjoyed the glimpse at our discussion, and I encourage you to check out the panelists’ books.