Friday, August 11, 2017

Sex in Fiction: The Controversy Continues by Jacqueline Seewald

A recent New York Times opinion article was on a topic of interest to those of us who write novels, especially i YA.  The topic: “Want Teenage Boys to Read? Easy. Give Them Books About Sex”. The article was written by Daniel Handler. The author has a forthcoming novel “All the Dirty Parts.” He has written many children’s books under the pen name Lemony Snicket.

Handler states that his new novel has been classified as an adult book rather than a YA. He wrote it for teens and believes it should be classified this way. He has run into a common problem of censorship in YA fiction in regard to sex scenes. He asks why it is acceptable to allow books about teenagers slaughtering one another in a post-apocalyptic landscape” but not allow realism in regard to sex. He has a definite point.

Writing for teens has never been easy. Writers want to be honest. Yet sexual descriptions are frowned upon as unacceptable. It is often a questionable matter in adult novels as well. A lot depends on the classification of the book. That remains a matter of significance.

My own YA novels are “clean reads.” This is not to appease censors. It’s merely my personal preference. THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER and STACY’S SONG are classified as romances. However, they are also coming-of-age novels. They can be read by teenagers and their mothers alike without embarrassment. Adults can also enjoy these novels because they have depth. But they don’t require explicit sex scenes.

As to getting boys to read, I think many enjoy a good mystery or adventure story. Sex scenes are not a requirement. When my sons were teenagers, we wrote a mystery novel for teenage boys entitled WHERE IS ROBERT? It was based on a true story that happened to my older son, Andrew. The novel was well-received by teenage readers.

A few years ago, Andrew and I wrote a mystery entitled THE THIRD EYE: A PINE BARRENS MYSTERY published by Five Star/Cengage. It’s a crossover novel suited to both teen and adult readers. Again, no sex scenes, just a good story with realistic characters.

Black Opal will soon be publishing another of my YA novels—you guessed it--no explicit sex scenes, just a quality book for teen readers.

However, are sex scenes needed and appropriate in certain novels? Shouldn’t the author be allowed to express his or her artistic vision free from censorship?

Your thoughts and comments welcome here.




Maris said...

Good questions, Jacqueline. I'm afraid I don't have any easy answers. I do believe, as you've stated, that sex isn't necessary to entice boys as well as girls to read a book. A good story is what's necessary. To simply include sex, just to sell books, is poor writing. I guess my position would be: if it's really necessary, then include it, but, if the story stands on its own without adding sex, then leave it out.

Susan said...

An excellent post as always. As for vivid descriptions of sex, I don't think a good story - YA or adult - requires them. The imagination is always more exciting than the limitations of words on a page. There are many who disagree with me, and that's all right. There are - or should be - enough good books of both types for all. Susan, aka Janis

Patricia Gligor's Writers Forum said...

I agree with Maris and Susan.
Like you, I saw no need to include sex scenes in my Malone mystery series. They're "clean" adult novels, which can be read at any age. I once sold the first three books in my series to a ten year old little girl who loved to read. And, because there is no profanity, sex scenes or over-the-top violence, I felt good doing that.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Maris, Susan, Patricia,

I'm glad to have you state your own opinions as writers of quality fiction yourselves.

Alice Duncan said...

I guess it all depends on your target audience (whether or not to include sex scenes, I mean). I stopped writing romance novels because I couldn't stand the mere THOUGHT of writing one more sex scene. Sigh.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I agree with the general consensus--I see no need for sex scenes in YA fiction or in most adult fiction. In some novels the story comes to a complete halt because the author seems to think a sex scene is called for (or perhaps the editor asked for one), and that seems to ruin the trajectory and pace of the book. I'm glad to see this discussed here. Perhaps more writers will think about whether that sex scene is really necessary and if it contributes anything to the story.

Susan said...

And let's face it - talking about adult novels here, not necessarily YA - people do have sex. I have no objection to that IF it is right for the story and the characters. I only object to the writing out of the lubricious minutiae of each move. This should be a novel, not a step-by-step technical manual. Some of the most exciting scenes I've ever seen were in the censor-heavy movies of the 40s-50s. A look, a glance, the slow drawing of a finger up an arm, a passionate kiss that fades to black... some of these are much more sexy than the tech manual scenes because it excites the reader's imagination. Now some books don't need anything like that, but in some it fits. Again, it depends on the characters and the story - as should everything.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I've written sex scenes for adult romance novels that called for it, but I still left much to the imagination. I think how you approach this has to do with the genre and the type of story. It all depends.

Susan Coryell said...

I have read both The Devil and Danna Webster and Stacy's Song. Both are excellent theme-rich stories surrounding important moral choices for teens. Like you, Jacquie, I feel sex is not necessary for a good YA novel--for boys or girls. Thanks for an interesting post.

Earl Staggs said...

I write adult mystery stories and have yet to write one I felt need a graphic sex scene. In my opinion, there's no way such a scene can move a mystery plot
forward. (Unless, of course, one partner murders he other in the middle of it. Yuck.)

That doesn't mean I don't include some romance in a story. That's a normal part of life if you have male and females characters. In my novel JUSTIFIED ACTION, for instance, Tall Chambers meets and begins dating Victoria, and it goes like this:

"When he dropped her off at her apartment, she invited him to a home-cooked dinner on Friday and suggested he bring a toothbrush. He did, along with a change of clothes, and stayed until Monday morning."

And that's as close as I've ever gotten to writing a sex scene. What the heck. Everyone knows how to do it (well, most everyone) so why do I need to describe it to them?

Jacqueline Seewald said...


I agree that sex scenes are not needed in mystery or thriller novels. As Susan Oleksiw observes, they often force the story to a standstill, something you do not want. Pacing is important.

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Excellent post!
I wouldn't want my teen granddaughter reading sex scenes....or grandson. But I do know parents who openly read and discuss this with theirs.

guess it's just a matter of opinion

Good luck and God's blessings

Jacqueline Seewald said...

You're right, Pam. Opinions vary. It does remain controversial.

Unknown said...

Great topic for discussion. I don't have kids, but I was one long ago. I read some YA books now and then when they cross my path and seem interesting. I have been shocked by the sexual content before because of the target audience and wondered if the book would have been better without it. I know we don't give YA credit for their very adult sensibilities. I know at 16-17 I read historical romances and enjoyed reading the sex scenes, even though I had never experienced sex. It didn't ruin me, and it actually made me respect hanging on to my virginity longer than I might have, waiting for that one true love. In the end, the reader needs to choose what they want to read and the writer needs to write what the characters tell them. After that is settled, maybe books should just get a rating like movies do, so the reader knows what they are getting into.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thanks for commenting, Zari. Your thoughtful response is appreciated.

Craig Faustus Buck said...

As a former teenage boy who's still one at heart, I have to say the promise of sex scenes is what got me to read this blog (jk). All that aside, I read a lot when I was young. Outside of required school reading, I read a lot of mysteries. I didn't have much access to sexually explicit material, but when I did, I'll have to admit it was especially engaging. When I discovered Henry Miller hiding in my parents bookcase, I couldn't get enough.

Sex is a powerful attractant to a teenage boy, and in today's climate of overabundant internet porn, I think sexed up YA might be just the ticket to undermine the often-dehumanizing power of porn.

Karen Cross said...

I just have to point out the irony of a male author stating that there needs to be more 'sex scenes' to make boys read books. After all, isn't the romance genre (which a lot have those scenes) usually mocked by male author and readers alike?
I do think sex scenes should be left out of YA books. Granted, I don't think it should be a completely taboo subject, but I believe in the 'closed door' policy in YA fiction. Older teens are able to read the adult books if they really wanted, but a lot of pre-teens read YA fiction, and I think they should have clean books to chose from. I personally love reading YA because they're clean, or at least they used to be. I'm a lot more picky about which ones I pick up lately.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Craig and Karen,

I just read and appreciated both of your viewpoints. Thanks for taking the time to express them here. Older teens are both interested in sex and generally mature enough to deal with its portrayal in fiction. But those of us to want to be inclusive of younger teen readers do need to walk a tightrope.

Unknown said...

Interesting comments. Thank you,
Allita Irby

Unknown said...

if the story stands on its own without adding sex, then leave it out.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the sharing your review of the novel.As it sounds of sexual topics and so I don't allow to teenagers to read this novel. But the story really seems interesting and I will download eBook copy for me.

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