Let’s Talk About Sex…Positivity in YA, a guest post by Jenn Bennett
My latest YA contemporary, Serious Moonlight, is a book about Birdie and Daniel, two teens who meet one rainy afternoon in Seattle and impulsively decide to hook up. Unfortunately, the experience is bumbling and embarrassing. Birdie’s only solace is that she’ll never see him again, but alas, when she lands a job working the front desk at a historic hotel, Daniel is the hotel van driver. Awkward. Do they ignore each other? Pretend it never happened? What if they still like each other? What if they are both just bad at sex?
All of my YA contemporaries are romances; all of them include sex on the page. It’s by no means the driving force of my stories, which also include a lot of other big-ticket items—themes about non-traditional families, exploration of mental health issues, and the importance of self-expression. But when you write about two people falling in love, just like Real Life, that connection sometimes gets handsy.
Luckily for me, this is one of my favorite subjects to write about, because sex is such a complex and wonderous thing filled with weird emotions and meaningful conflict. How can something so simple go so wrong, so often? How can something so pleasurable be plagued with baggage, shame, and guilt?
I never once considered not including sex scenes in my YA books, nor did I want to “fade to black” during the kissing, or skim over the good parts. And by good parts, I don’t mean the actual sex—though that’s in there, too. (Three cheers for joyful female desire!) No, I mean the talking about it. Because my characters talk about sex a lot. They talk about birth control. Previous partners. Lack of experience. Pain. Rejection. Body image. Masturbation. Pregnancy.
My characters are curious. They ask permission and respect boundaries, but they also get confused and make mistakes. They know exactly what they want, and yet know nothing at all. Like all of us, really.
The subject of sex is strange when you’re a teen. It can be both alienating and blissful, both scary and alluring. It can change your life in terrifying ways (pregnancy, STDs) and in unexpected ways (establishing an intense, beautiful connection with another human). Sometimes it’s all of the above, and that’s a heady thing to explore when you’re trying to figure out who you are while also surviving the day-to-day pressures of finishing high school.
I’ve never once had a teen reader tell me they were upset with the sexual content in my books. Occasionally I see reviews from parents who like my books but warn other parents about “intimate situations,” like it’s something they can’t even bear to say out loud. It’s bizarre, really, that in America, sex is still one of the big taboos. We are A-Okay with violence in our fiction, on our televisions, in our streets. But when it comes to sex, we seem to be perpetually stuck in arrested development—censoring it, hiding it, shaming people who do it too much, laughing at people who don’t do it enough.
Sometimes writing these kinds of stories make me feel like everyone’s cool auntie, the person in who you feel safe confiding. My sister-in-law asked me if I thought it was okay if my nephew, who was twelve at the time, could read my YA. Was it? Did I want to be the person who taught this kid about sex? WAS THAT WEIRD? I recommended that she wait until the kid was thirteen, at least. I didn’t want to scar the kid, for the love of Pete. (Spoiler alert: he’s now almost fifteen and turned out just fine.)
Being a YA author comes with a certain amount of responsibility. I always tell my editor, when we’re both in doubt about a certain piece of dialogue or the direction a scene’s taking, that my personal philosophy as an author is much like a doctor’s oath: do no harm. That’s a lot of pressure, especially when I don’t have all the answers about sex, love, and relationships. But I think I’m okay with it. I do my best, and that’s all any of us can do.
Who knows? Maybe Birdie and Daniel’s journey in SERIOUS MOONLIGHT is not the experience you remember having with your first boyfriend or girlfriend. Maybe you’ll judge Birdie for having sex with someone she didn’t know very well. Maybe you’ll empathize with her. Fiction is part escapism, part mirror…and sometimes, it’s rebuilding the world how it should be. To that end, I hope that teens (and adults!) reading Birdie and Daniel’s story will see two people on the page who make a few mistakes but eventually get to know each other, talk frankly about their hopes and fears, and eventually build a stronger, lasting connection.
And what could be more positive than that?
Meet Jenn Bennett
Jenn Bennett is an award-winning author of several young adult books, including: ALEX, APPROXIMATELY; STARRY EYES; and SERIOUS MOONLIGHT. Her books have earned multiple starred reviews, won Romance Writers of America’s RITA® Award, and been included on Publishers Weekly Best Books annual list. She lives near Atlanta with one husband and two dogs. Find her online at Twitter: @Jenn_Benn, IG: @J3nn_Benn,and at her website http://www.jennbennett.net/
About SERIOUS MOONLIGHT
After an awkward first encounter, Birdie and Daniel are forced to work together in a Seattle hotel where a famous author leads a mysterious and secluded life in this romantic contemporary novel from the author of Alex, Approximately.
Mystery-book aficionado Birdie Lindberg has an overactive imagination. Raised in isolation and homeschooled by strict grandparents, she’s cultivated a whimsical fantasy life in which she plays the heroic detective and every stranger is a suspect. But her solitary world expands when she takes a job the summer before college, working the graveyard shift at a historic Seattle hotel.
In her new job, Birdie hopes to blossom from introverted dreamer to brave pioneer, and gregarious Daniel Aoki volunteers to be her guide. The hotel’s charismatic young van driver shares the same nocturnal shift and patronizes the waterfront Moonlight Diner where she waits for the early morning ferry after work. Daniel also shares her appetite for intrigue, and he’s stumbled upon a real-life mystery: a famous reclusive writer—never before seen in public—might be secretly meeting someone at the hotel.
To uncover the writer’s puzzling identity, Birdie must come out of her shell…discovering that most confounding mystery of all may be her growing feelings for the elusive riddle that is Daniel.
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 04/16/2019
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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