Back in May I attended a hypothetical session entitled “So you want to be a YA writer?” Run by the State Centre for Youth Literature as part of their annual Reading Matters convention, it was a fun night.
The hypothetical YA manuscript up for discussion included a bodice-ripping lesbian sex scene, prompting the question ‘How far do you go in relating sexual encounters in YA fiction?’
One of the author panellists was lost for words. Another, New Zealand’s Bernard Beckett, essentially said “Go for it. It’s important. It’s on the minds of teens.”
A representative of the Penguin marketing team cited the Twilight series and said the safest bet is to go for URST (unresolved sexual tension) rather than explicit encounters.
I like the URST option, partly because writing these scenes without sounding cliched, crude or gynaecological is tough. URST is also a reason to keep reading. We all want to know whether the “unresolved” ever loses the prefix.
Alternatively, I introduce the idea, tease a little and then drop the curtain. Sometimes the reader’s imagination is the author’s best friend.
John Marsden writes about adolescent sexuality matter of factly in his Tomorrow series. Scot Gardner does it really well in his Wayne books (One Dead Seagull and White Ute Dreaming). There’s nudity, desire, humour, anxiety and absurdity. It’s utterly believable and never crass.
Then there’s Tim Winton’s Breath. I highly recommend this book to male readers because the narrator lives and breathes that phase of adolescence when immortality (seemingly) applies and risk is appraised differently from any other stage of life.
My reservation in recommending the book is in one of the ways the risk-taking manifests. As a journo, I’m aware of stories of teenagers experimenting with erotic asphyxiation – and justified police alarm at the numbers of deaths and near-fatalities. We’re all aware of the celebrity cases that went tragically awry.
In recommending Breath, which is a terrific read, do I risk a teenager absorbing the novel and then doing some experimenting at home? If so, how culpable am I if things go terribly wrong?
I guess the same reader could admire the surfing scenes and then drown searching for the perfect break. Would I feel responsible then too?
Here’s part of what Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan had to say about Breath on July 13:
“Winton does not simply exploit erotic asphyxiation for dramatic purpose; he tries to understand why people, like the extreme surfers in his novel, go to the edge of oblivion for pleasure:
“It’s like you come back pouring into yourself. Like you’ve exploded and all the pieces of you are reassembling themselves. You’re new. Shimmering. Alive. Unless you’re dead.
“The mainstreaming of erotic asphyxiation in this novel is another element in the process of mainstreaming the values that have exploded out of the largely hidden margins of society thanks to the advent of the internet. The porn industry, more than any other, has been able to export some of its sensibilities into schools and homes, to the point of social conformity among the young.”
I rarely find myself agreeing with Paul Sheehan. I do find myself worrying about the social conformity he refers to. Young people are exposed to sexual material much earlier now. (My five-year-old daughter just requested Lily Allen’s catchy It’s Not Fair on her playlist, prompted by her older brother’s preferred choice of radio stations. I refused.)
As authors, do we write more sexually explicit stories because our readers have greater awareness? Because kids are trying more stuff? I suspect that the answer is yes. Fiction strives to be contemporary.
Should we write more sexualised stories? That’s trickier.
As Bernard Beckett said, sex is on the mind of teenagers. Believable characters will think about it and talk/brag about it. Some of them will actually do it.
So where should an author draw the line? I’m going to sit on the fence and say the plot will determine how explicit the story needs to be.