CW: Sexual references
Sex has been a source of controversy across the history of Queer YA. Books have been banned, manuscripts rejected, authors harassed and readers shamed over even the most basic of sex scenes. It’s 2017 though, so I think it’s time to be bolder with our depictions of sex within Queer YA, show a greater range of sexualities and bring the ‘acceptable’ standard of Queer sex scenes in line with non-Queer YA and visual media aimed at the same target age. There are a lot of politics involved with censorship and these politics rear their ugly heads in basically anything Queer ever. If you’ve read a Queer YA with any sort of romance in it and then compared it to a non-Queer YA with any sort of romance in it, then read the reviews on both books, you will understand what I mean (um that first Mortal Instruments book anybody?). Heterosexual privilege extends deep into the YA publishing world, so we as writers need to know how to navigate this.
Recognising how Queer sex/romance can fire up the haters is the first step in tackling it. So way to go. Next is to consider these three things: who you are, what the scene is saying, and who you’re writing for. Here’s a crash course on the do’s and don’ts of writing Queer YA sex scenes.
Do use your own experiences as a base. Who you are plays a huge role in how you write, why you write and what you’re trying to achieve. To write an authentic, realistic sex scene in your Queer YA novel, you need to have a strong understanding of your own views on sex. If you have issues/reservations around sex, this will show up in your writing. If you are uncomfortable with sex acts within or outside of your immediate identity, but wish to include these in your novel, sort that out before you start writing. Don’t use your novel as a way to work through your personal issues. That’s not to say you can’t include scenes where your characters are uncomfortable, awkward or otherwise completely freaked out. That’s normal. I’m asking you to seriously consider how those scenes might be interpreted by your readers. Do they promote shame? Are they worded to imply that young Queer sex is unhealthy? Or does the scene promote exploration, consent and sexual freedom? If your scenes are designed to be ‘issues’ based (like, about the notion of consent or safety) make sure you’re clear on that, so that you give your readers the best chance of being clear on that too. There is nothing worse than reading a sex scene and thinking, ‘Am I the only one who thinks that’s fucked up?’ or ‘Am I doing it wrong then?’.
Don’t make up things about any character across the Queer spectrum if you’re unsure how they might engage with intimacy/sex/ (*coughscissoringcough*). If you don’t know, research it. Maybe keep the safe-search on while you do so (typing ‘lesbian sex’ into Google is probably only going to make things a whole lot more confusing for you). Read articles, watch videos and ask people from various sub-cultures about how they express themselves, rather than just making up random, unrealistic things. This will be better too if/when an editor asks you to tone it up/down. You should 100% be able to say why your scenes are necessary, authentic and realistic.
Do remember that your experiences of Queer sex/intimacy, while totally valid for yourself, may not necessarily be reflective of current views on sex within the young Queer community. People have greater access to information, role-models and media representations and are coming out younger, with more sexual/gender identities than ever before. It is the job of the writer to keep up with that. The attitudes toward sex of Queer youth in 2017 will be different to those in 2007, which are different again to the youth of 1997. They will be different in public vs private school, in the city vs the country etc, etc. There is no one-scene fits all for sex of any kind. Again, research is your friend.
Don’t be a creep. One of the worst things with mainstream (TV/film mostly, but books too) sex scenes (particularly lesbian/female bisexual story lines) is that they are mostly written for the male-gaze. The male-gaze refers to when, for example, a Queer sex scene is not written/filmed for character development or for Queer readers/viewers to relate to, but to make sexual objects out of the characters and ‘entertain’ the audience. This is so deeply ingrained in mainstream patriarchal society that it is often a subconscious act and even female writers can be guilty of it. It’s literally everywhere. Like the Eye of Sauron. So how do you tackle this in your Queer YA? The simplest way is to ask yourself every time two characters kiss, hold hands, flirt, have sex etc. is, ‘Is this for my character or for my readers?’. It should always be for your character’s sake that they engage in sexual acts/intimacy, not for your reader’s insight/entertainment (although this will undoubtedly be a by-product of writing for your characters, which is fine! It’s ok for your readers to ship a couple, but it’s not cool for you to force a couple into an unhealthy relationship simply because your fans like them). The reason to write for your characters is that it forces us as writers to check our privilege and wonder if we are adding a sex scene at this point because the characters want/need this, or are we just trying to be edgy/controversial/drum up a massive Queer fandom? Are you being true to your characters or forcing them to do something they are uncomfortable with? If you’re still not convinced consider your own sex life. Do you do it for the entertainment of an audience or for yourself?
Don’t be naive. There seems to be this trend (particularly by cis-male and heterosexual female authors) in YA that two females cannot have a harmful or unhealthy relationship. This needs to stop. Relationships, especially those involving sex, can be problematic no matter what the gender identity of its participants. If one character is manipulating another into acts (even if the two characters are both ‘beautiful women’ *spew*), then you need to address this head on within the text. Show readers that consent and safe-sex are still the number one priority, even though their sex-ed class might never have mentioned it within the context of Queer relationships. If you allow harmful depictions of sex/intimacy to exist in your text without repercussions, then you are submitting to the male-gaze.
Do keep in mind your target audience. If you dream of having your book in school libraries and on teaching syllabuses, you probably can’t get too graphic with your work. There are things like the legal age of consensual sex in your state to consider too if you want to target a younger audience or have younger characters. My advice though is to forget the school system, forget that your mum might read your book and write with the first two points in mind: who you are and what you’re trying to say. If you are true to yourself and not some curriculum/parental standard you will write a better novel. And really, the fastest way to get a lot of people reading your book is to get it banned, so don’t hold back for the sake of someone else’s ideals. Write truly to yourself and your characters and you’ll be alright (mostly).
Do you have any concerns about pushing the boundaries of Queer depictions of sex in YA? Let us know in the comments below.