Monday, March 3, 2014

Consent and Sensitivity: "Good Sex" in YA Literature

I live in an unusual world where most of my conversations on a daily basis are either about good sex or bad sex. It is a strange thing being a rape victim activist/author of a book about sexual violence and also a romance editor. But to me, these things are compatible. They have an overlapping theme: how can we integrate intimacy, sexuality, and positive experiences into our culture so that both men and women feel empowered to make good choices with regards to sex.

So when the Sexual Violence in YA Lit Project team started talking, conversations naturally flowed from “how is sexual violence represented in young adult literature” into “how is positive sex or sexuality represented in YA”. Which began a conversation about what teens know, what they don’t know, and the importance of books in helping them see their own sexual agency in the best possible light. Whatever choice they want to make about it.

And we started a list of books that have positive representations of sex. Below is my list, but please go check out the lists of Karen Jensen, Carrie Mesrobian, and Trish Doller. (SPOILERS AHEAD)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: I wanted this book to be first on my list because I think it has an amazing scene of respect for the main character’s emotional landscape and inability to consent. Charlie pulls back from sex with Sam and is listened to and honored for his choice. Charlie is a sexual trauma survivor and he’s not ready to be in that place with Sam even though touch feels good. I was pretty much sobbing when Sam said, “It’s okay that you’re not ready” and then helped him get dressed. This. Yes. Perfect.

How to Love by Katie Cotugno: This is a beautifully written “consent” scene in which Sawyer asks “are you sure?” twice, and Reena is solid about her yes. But more than that is the part of this adorable scene where he promises to go slow. And in that promise you understand something important about these two, which is that not only do they both want to be there, but there is no “let’s get it over with” backdrop to this conversation. It’s a scene where it’s made clear they both want a positive experience from it.
Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma: I wanted to include this book because the author puts the reader in a uncomfortable place of witnessing the growing sexual attraction between a brother and a sister, understanding their shared trauma and how they got to that place, and drawing us into an incredibly intimate sex scene between the two of them that is equal parts horrifying and heartbreaking. It is incredibly difficult to write sex scenes that are not at all sexy but are still emotionally devastating. Suzuma does it beautifully.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman: So the “play me” scene where Adam teaches Mia how to be comfortable with him intimately by having her hands on him like she’d play the cello and then he plays her like he would the guitar, well, holy hell, it’s beautiful and sexy and perfect because it has this shared understanding of something they’re both passionate about (music) and how they can use it to get past the awkwardness of Mia’s first time. And it takes the reader through all the emotions of first time sex and awkwardness and honesty and yes, this scene is one of my favorites I’ve ever read.

The Summer I Found You by Jolene Perry: This book has an absolutely beautiful scene with a one-armed guy back from combat having sex with his girlfriend for the first time and it’s so perfect and awkward and sexy. And it starts with him saying this, “The second you say pause, we pause or we stop”. And then he says, “I’ve never done this with one arm. I mean, I might need some help.” And then I just about died of cuteness and all the awesome sexiness in this scene. And gosh, Jolene does awkward in the best way and makes it way more awkward for him (who has had sex before) than for his girlfriend (who has not) because she is the instigator of the whole thing and he’s the one who keeps wanting to make sure that she’s sure because he likes her and doesn’t want to screw things up. PERFECTION.

And now, I'm going to add one more that was originally pubbed as a YA and has since been re-categorized as an NA. I want to include it because it involves gay characters and it also involves something that is important to include in the discussion: "good sex" that happens even though it is a bad idea for both characters. 

Hushed by Kelly York: I loved this book because it’s what I call the gay Dexter book. Serial killer, high stakes drama, a girl who has gone off the edge and the guy who has pretty much followed her there, and then in the midst of it all is this other guy named Evan. And I love the shower scene between Archer and Evan in this book because it comes amidst drama and all sorts of questions but it’s so natural for these two guys. And the way it’s written is sexy but also frantic and you are deep into Archer’s emotional landscape and you understand how much he is craving solace and you also in the back of your head understand that this is not a good idea for either of them, and I think there’s something really important about seeing good sex done for the wrong reasons. Because that happens too, and the raw honesty of it is really important to add to this conversation.

Now, it’s your turn. YA sex scenes that you think are done really well and why.