Friday, September 14, 2012

Writing Teen Sex: Should We?

I've been on a mission the past few months to watch a lot of indie gay-themed films. Unfortunately, that means that I have to watch many more foreign-made films than American: not only are they just plain better quality (the American films tend to be cliched and cheesy), but they are braver. According to European filmmakers, teenagers actually have - gasp! - SEX.  Not only do they have it, no one is punished, lightening does not hit, God strikes no one dead.

One can't help but be struck by the way teen sex is presented in many European films as healthy, a normal part of life. American films have established a sort of Porky's mentality - when teens are shown as sexual beings, they are shown as pigs, sluts, or whiney, self-righteous virgins. Is that a fair - or even an ethical - portrayal? Everyone knows about the slasher film cliches - the victims are usually female, have just had sexual relations, and are clad in lingerie. Are these portrayals that promote a healthy attitude toward teens in this society? Have we become a society that condones this garbage but shies away from the portrayal of a caring, equal, non-violent sexual relationship between teens due to some misplaced moralistic logic?

It has always been interesting to me that statistics consistently show that European teens practice safer sex, get pregnant far less often than American teens, and are generally more knowledgeable about sexuality. I don't think it is coincidental that these realities occur in a population that presents teen sex in media as a normal acceptable behavior. Now, I am not saying that American teens - or any teens - who choose to abstain are misguided - each individual needs to choose what is right for him or herself. But moral codes differ according to culture and family. I have to wonder if we - in our zeal to paint sex as a no-no to our teens - fail to speak to the real moral issues: we criticize the act itself and don't address the immorality of using another human being, without affection, without compassion, for one's own gratification. 

But this is not an article about the morality of teen sex; it is an article about the morality of the unrealistic, timid, hand-wringing (or worse, hands-off!) way the subject is treated in American film and literature. In 1975 Judy Blume wrote a courageous book called Forever - the first that dealt frankly with teen sexuality. It was a coming of age story, written for a young adult audience. It immediately became the subject of wide-spread protest and book bans. By today's standards, the story is tame: two kids having a first sexual experience, in the context of puppy love, who then go on to break up and move on into adult life. There is a broken heart involved, but that would have been there with or without consummation. The dramatic movement of the story is not tied directly to the sexual relationship; rather, the sex is presented as part of a healthy relationship.

What concerns me as a writer is that in this society there is an implicit rule that writers are expected to avoid talking about teen sex in a positive light, whether in YA novels or adult.  Sex between teens must contain angst, someone must get a disease or become pregnant, there must be enormous negative emotional consequences. Sex is presented as a frightening thing, a thing present only in the lives of stupid kids; never is it something positive.

Many of you are familiar with my short work of fiction, QUANDARY, which is now available at and other retailers. In it, a young man pushing thirty finds himself seduced by and falling in love with, a seventeen-year-old boy.  James questions his own motives, questions the moral implications, loses sleep over it. The younger man is street-wise, savvy, sexually experienced. In my mind this is a realistic scenario. Seventeen-year-olds have sex: it is a fact. It is also a fact that some of them do it responsibly and happily. The fact that it occurs doesn't necessarily mean something psychologically damaging is happening.

Interestingly, one of the beta readers for the story emailed me to say that she thought I needed to make the younger man older by a year. The number of his years was making her uncomfortable. To be fair, she has a teen-aged son, and it may have hit too close to home. However, I think she was misguided: the character in the story is wise beyond his years, and more experienced than the older man. The literary tension is created by the fact that he is so young, and by the age difference. But I found it fascinating that she could say in one breath that she loved the story and in the next that I needed to change or remove the most interesting element because it was offensive to her.

When I was a teen, I lived for a time in Denmark. Scandinavia is one of the most liberal places in the world. Teen sex was common and accepted (however it was happening too young: there was at the time an epidemic of cervical cancer in Danish women who had begun sex at 12 or 13).  It was seen as healthy, normal, an expression of affection and libido, a part of experimenting with the intricacies of adult relationships. It was occurring by the way between teens themselves, not between teens and much older people, which is an issue in some less progressive societies. We are talking here about sexual relations between equals. (If you are interested, no I didn't lose my virginity in Denmark!)

I am nowadays most familiar with what is happening in the world of gay-themed fiction of course, and in it I see some of the same problems. A series by Diane Adams collectively called The Making of a Man deals with the relationship between boys three years apart in age. As the story opens, one is under eighteen and much of the literary tension in the books revolves around the two inching slowly and painfully toward a full-fledged sexual relationship, which occurs when the younger is eighteen. The attempt by the author to present moral issues and to paint the older character as one who wants to behave responsibly and with integrity is a valuable part of the story and creates the main point of dramatic tension in the series; still, one has to blink at the subtle prudishness of the premise in this day and age - after all these young men are a mere three years apart. (Note here that the books offer an extremely positive view of a gay relationship, and for that Ms.Adams should be commended.) Writer J.P. Barnaby is known for more realistic situations involving teens, such as that which she portrays in her Little Boy Lost series - these stories are written for an adult audience and pull no punches. But perhaps because they are realistic they are more respectful toward readers, the GLBT community, and even toward teens that are reading them.

For me, literature at its best does not only entertain, but inspires and informs.  It might inspire the reader to open his or her mind and let go of prejudices; it might inspire him or her to greater courage in living everyday life; it might simply inspire the reader to do some further research on a previously unknown subject. When it informs, I believe it has the responsibility to inform based on reality: after all, the value of information is that we as readers can apply it to our own lives in some way. You can't apply bad information. Unrealistic discussion in a novel is bad information. Now I'm not saying that one can't write a wonderful fantasy novel, but within the context of that fantasy story should be a realistic discussion of the human condition, otherwise the work is unable to inspire or inform and is rendered worthless.

I believe personally that any story is permissible and possible in a novel. (And as a reviewer I commit to never commenting on the moral value of a story - which is no one's business but the author's - but rather on the technical merit.) To the extent that we tell difficult stories, to the extent that we tell honest stories, we celebrate the human spirit.  To the extent that we tell stories about the world the way we insist that it is - ignoring reality - we kill the human spirit a little bit, because when we do that as authors, we fail to live up to the wonderful tool that literature can be.

For that reason, we need to present teen sex how it is: never black and white, but complicated, joyous, frightening, experienced, not experienced, laden with emotional consequence, or simply carrying the potential of wonderful individual growth.  Presenting it, as is the American habit, as raunchy, disease-carrying, irresponsible, and always carrying the direst of emotional damage, is simply to perpetuate a myth. If we care about teens, we have to present them as they are, and respectfully celebrate the intricacies of their experience.

See Diane Adam's Making of a Man series at:
See J.P. Barnaby's Little Boy Lost books at:


  1. I appreciate your candor here. And you make an excellent point. Thank you. XO.

  2. Aw, thanks Alana. I should have thought to mention your story Genflection as well, as dealing bravely with teen sex.

  3. Brilliantly put! And I look forward to your book!

  4. Excellent post (as usual). I also watch many more foreign gay-themed films than I do American ones.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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