Non is the author of two YA novels, the latest of which, Remix, is reviewed in our fiction section here. She recently took part in a panel discussion at the Young Adult Literature Convention called ‘Bringing Sexy Back’ – talking about sex and sexuality in teen fiction. She expands on that theme for us below, discussing the presentation of sexual experience in YA literature.
With photoshopped bodies and orchestrated sex shows, what is REAL sex supposed to be like?
Sex is embedded in our society – it provides the bedrock for advertising, a visual and lyrical currency for music videos and a way to sell a magazine that answers your insecurities over how well/frequently you’re Doing It. Sex is a spice we use to season our stories in films, TV shows and books.
Sex sells itself to us, but what is it we think we’re buying into? As adults, we might have some experience of the realities of sex (not all of us – the prevailing belief that everyone wants sex is part of the self-perpetuating sex myth), but what of those people who only have the media’s portrayal of sex to go on?
Teenagers have access to the internet, but beyond a Google search that can throw up anything from hardcore pornography to a wikihow step-by-step, they have remarkably little access to real information. PSHE (Personal, Social, Health & Economic education) is not a statutory subject in the UK and not every child/parent dynamic allows for frank and friendly discussion. The conversations teenagers are most likely to have are with their peers, when fiction can sometimes be presented as fact for the purposes of protecting one’s own naivety.
On a recent panel discussing sex in teen fiction at the Young Adult Literature Convention in July, I said that books featuring sex are in a unique position to connect emotion to the act, but only if we are honest with our audience. The books I write are contemporary tales of teenagers that I would have wanted to read at fourteen and the characters within are in a position to tell fourteen-year-old me the things she wanted to hear and the things she needed to hear.
“Reality hadn’t measured up to expectation.”
If you don’t know any better, it would be easy to believe that sex between happily consenting parties is the sort that results in sex-noises until the earth shatters and rebuilds itself. In many fictional relationships that lead to the bedroom, every encounter is a move in a cleverly layered game that is impossibly romantic (or maybe impossibly sexy, depending on the speed of the relationship). In reality there’s a whole spectrum of sexual experience and the messy, confusing and myth-laden middle ground is in need of further exploration – after all, this is the area in which most young readers are likely to find themselves floundering.
“I realize how naked I am, how tight and sore.”
The euphemism ‘privates’ is a telling one. Sex involves an exposure that those starting out might not have considered before. It’s intimate and awkward and personal and there are some physical aspects that are a far cry from the ‘perfect’ sex used to sell things to us. There’s nothing inherently bad about any of these things – it’s meant to be part of the joy, but forewarned is forearmed.
“Sex is a big deal – at least to me.”
So much of the sex we’re presented with is disposable, not just in the form in which we digest it, but often in the type of sex we’re told people are having. Much of the sex we see onscreen is of the one-night variety, where a relationship accelerates from a drink to sex across a single evening. This may well be true for the Tinder generation, but teenagers aren’t of this generation (yet). Early days sex can come with feelings of nerves and excitement, pride and regret. Pretending otherwise is only going to make that emotional impact more confusing.
“[He] only sleeps with people prepared to worship him.”
The people it is easiest to fancy are the ones with bags of confidence. Sometimes confidence comes from within, from knowing who you are and what you stand for – that’s the kind of confidence we all strive for, whether we’re a young adult or an old one. It’s a healthy kind of confidence and when encouraging an insecure teen into loving themselves before worrying about others loving them, that’s what we mean. Then there’s the other kind of confidence that comes from other people loving you. This brand is a bit more dangerous and a lot more intoxicating (sometimes just plain toxic). It is easy to be seduced by someone with more swagger, but we should all be wary of a confidence deficit between you and the person you’d like to have sex with.
“I do not let myself consider that this might not be what I want.”
Sometimes the sex we think is a good idea turns out to be a terrible one. It’s a sad fact of life that sexual confidence doesn’t necessarily come with an equal helping of emotional maturity. My fictional characters make the same mistakes that real people make – not to stop others from making those mistakes too, but to reassure those who have that they’re not alone.
“It’s not usually an issue.”
ISN’T IT?! This is a line used to shame anyone into doing anything, in bed or out. Sex is supposed to be between you and the person you’re doing it with, not you and all the people that person has had sex with before. Teens are used to being measured against improbable standards and this kind of line works its black magic all too easily on a young ego.
Despite the pragmatic slant to what I’m saying, I do consider myself a sex-positive writer and I think everyone should expect to enjoy sex when the time comes, but it doesn’t guarantee that we all will. Like anything you’ve never done before, you might not get it right first time. With any luck, you’ll have done it with someone you trust and respect enough to do it again, but just in case your real partner isn’t prepared to say it, someone should (even if that person is fictional):
“Great sex isn’t something magical. It’s a skill you learn, not a talent you’re born with.”
Remix is reviewed in our Fiction section here.
Non Pratt, Remix (Walker Books: London, 2015). 978-1406347708, 304pp., paperback.