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Sex In YA, Part 4: YA vs. Romance Sex Scenes

This is the last post in our Sex in YA series, and I think I've saved the most controversial for last. Thus far we've discussed taboos, stereotypes, and the use of contraception. This post, however, is a little different. Instead of looking at the politics of sexuality in YA, we're getting down to the nitty-gritty; the anatomy of an actual YA sex scene and how it compares to a sex scene in an adult romance novel.

Why is this controversial? Look on any writing focused message board and you'll see the same question, "How far can a sex scene go in YA?" Often times, someone will answer that "anything goes" or that "you can do anything in YA that you can in adult!" Honestly, though, I have to disagree with both of these sentiments.

Don't get me wrong - I"m not saying sex shouldn't be in YA at all. I'm actually a huge advocate of sex positive and authors writing honestly about teen sexuality. Censorship is no friend of mine. But as an avid reader of both YA and adult romance (I love the occasional bodice-ripper! What can I say?) I have to be frank in that there is, in my experience, a huge difference between a sex scene in adult romance vs. in a YA novel.

How are they different? Well, I like to think of it on a sliding scale, in a sense. Let's say sex scenes are ranked on a scale of 1 to 10. A 1 means the sex scene is entirely about emotion with very little graphic detail about body parts. A 10 is a sex scene with a great deal of detail about body parts (all of them) and very little text spent on the emotion. If that's the case, I feel like the scale looks something like this (though there are always exceptions).

YA Sex Scenes - ranked 1 to 4
Adult Romance Novel Sex Scenes - ranked 5-8
Erotica Sex Scenes - ranked 8 - 10

Now, to be clear, I think there are is definitely room to cross over, and this is a very generalized scale, but it will give you an idea of what I've observed.

To put it into more specifics, YA sex scenes tend to be much more about the emotion. I think this is because, as teenagers, everything is emotional. Everything is a big deal. So it seems natural that characters would be so absorbed in emotions when it comes to something as big as sex. Another thing I've noticed is that specific body parts you'll see focused on are hands and lips as opposed to any, ahem, naughty bits. Even the most graphic of YA sex scenes never get as detailed as most romance novels do.

In romance novels, sex scenes are different. They are racier, but still not quite to the level of erotica. Emotions play a big part, but they aren't the key focus. Hands, lips, and naughty parts (usually shaded with entertaining euphemisms) are all brought to our attention. These scenes are often longer than a YA sex scene and a lot more specific about the details. And yet, as I said, they still aren't to the level of all out erotica because, as a general rule of romance, the "romance" and not just the sex is key to the plot.

So, to sum up, the idea that anything that goes in an adult sex scene goes in YA seems a little skewed to me. I think there's definitely a difference when it comes to the writing of sex scenes.
But I want to hear what YOU think. Do you agree or disagree? What differences do you notice between YA and adult sex scenes? Should there be a difference at all? Let us know in the comments!

Kody Keplilnger

Kody is the NYT bestselling author of The DUFF, Shut Out, and A Midsummer's Nightmare, all from Little Brown/Poppy, as well as Lying Out Loud, Run, and the middle grade novel The Swift Boys and Me, from Scholastic. Born and raised in Kentucky, she now lives in NYC.

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  1. I definitely agree that sex in YA is more about the emotional aspects--particularly when the character is deciding on his/her first time. The emotions seem to be the focus in deciding if this is right or wrong for the character.

    I also read adult romances and I feel like a lot of times the emotions in those scenes have to do more with increasing the tension (and consequently the search for release) than to evaluate the situation.

    Just my humble opinion of course. :) Shanan (

  2. There is definitely a difference. I write YA and adult (not erotica, though). I will go a bit further with the physical details in an adult story. My YA tends to me more thought and emotion-focused.

    I like the scale you came up with, and I agree that sometimes the lines are crossed or blur. Sometimes a YA scene will have a bit more physical, or an adult scene will have a bit more thought/emotion. It all depends on the needs of the character and the individual scene.

    Thank you for this! You explained it very well. :)

  3. I totally agree with the scale. But YA sex scenes have definitely been getting racier over the years. I don't remember reading any detailed sex scenes at all until recently... like over the last 2-3 years. And by detailed I mean like... "he pushed inside of me" and stuff like that. So on that 1-4 side of things.

  4. I agree. There is a difference, and that difference is important, esp for first time writers.

    I also this it is somewhat related to the "politics" of sex in YA. Focusing on emotion over body parts helps keep the writer from crossing that ambiguous line into "gratuitous"...a line that can vary from editor to editor or agent to agent.

  5. I prefer the less explicit sex scenes. The fun part of reading is using your imagination to fill in the story. Let the reader decide how graphic or tame they want to picture the scene, unless it's pertinent to the story. It's like a horror movie. The scariest parts are what you don't see, what your mind imagines.

  6. Ok - not to get too personal - but are we doing a disservice to YA readers?

    I remember my first 'truly intense' sexual act with vivid clarity - and though the lead up to the act was all emotion - once the physical sensations started it was ALL about the physical. In fact, if someone had interrupted and asked my name I would have been unable to tell them. The physical was THAT powerful.

    I think we sometimes color what we write or what we read with an adult sense of prudery. As older humans, we have weighed and balanced the sexual experience - we know the pluses and minuses - we understand the give and take. This was the number one problem with Twilight's "I'm waiting" philosophy - there was FAR too much consideration going on.

    Currently YA sex IS less graphic - but in a way, wouldn't it be more honest if it was MORE graphic - or at least more focused on those crazy explosive physical feelings?

    You have inspired me - I think I will write a post on this myself on my Blog!

    Great discussion!

  7. I've been well-schooled in this by my editor who works with both YA and romance books. She read my WIP and highlighted exactly where I went to far and I think you hit it one the head, Kody. Nice post.

  8. I did go ahead and Blog about this:

  9. I totally agree with your post. I think YA should be a bit tamer than adult. These are teens reading these books after all, not adults. When I think of my daughters growing up and reading books, I would be nervous if every book they read had major sex scenes in them. It's nice that you can really have your pick of YA books. Some of the books do deal with sex and some don't, and I like that there's that choice out there.

  10. I think if you aren't writing erotica, in which case the goal seems to be to titillate the reader, then the goal of a sex scene should be the goal of any scene - move the story forward, reveal interesting things about the characters, create conflict.

    Most stories are first person or third person limited, so you're in the sex scene from a particular character viewpoint. How would that character experience sex? Describe the sex scene in that way, whatever it happens to be. Are they visually or kinesthetically oriented? Is it emotionally charged or something they're used to? Why are they having sex - for money, for social standing, to prove their love to someone, out of peer pressure, etc. What about the sex did they want, and what about it did they not want? Surprises? Consequences?

    Framing the question as political, you gave a political answer, but I'd rather an answer that is rooted in good fiction writing. I personally use sex scenes for intimate characterization, because sex can have intense consequences for the characters and the story, and because they are exciting, just like an argument or fight or chase-scene or whatever.

    Anyway, that's my two cents. Reading, I would want a sex scene to follow logically from the story and characterization so far, no matter where that takes the writer.

  11. I totally agree with you Kody, that YA sex is more about the emotional aspect, and I also agree that the lines can blur a bit, depending on the character. Depending on the story. And the scale was a nice mathematical way (yes-this is a math teacher talking) of summing (haha) everything up.

    Two things to add, and a question.

    First, one of the things that I really liked about the numbers is that it is a helpful gauge for first time writers. I will never say ban sex in YA (because I write it in myself), but we all know kids are reading up these days - WAY up. My twelve year old practically reads every book on my bedside table once I finish with it, but I hide my Ellen Hopkins until she's ready for such explicit content. My point is, and the reason I liked your scale, is that some kids don't have a Parental Guidance and I don't know that ten year olds or even some fourteen year olds need to be reading some of what's out there. I know I’ll get the big refute on this – that it’s all over TV, but there’s a difference when you read it. Reading the physical aspects of sex can be way more intimate and erotic than seeing it on the screen.

    Two - yes - agreed that with teens it is about the emotion. With teenage girls. Now maybe I'm wrong here and I really don't know my guys as well as I should, but where as a girl will perform three inner monologues and describe everything in a very emotional way when she’s with her boy, guys are not so, uh…emotional. For them it IS more about the physical.

    The timing on this post is uncanny. I just wrote a sex scene today for my mc and his love interest. Yeah. HIS. And I am scared crapless that I haven’t done it justice. So my question is (for anyone who’s made it to this point in my most long-winded comment), are there good “boy books” out there that might help me figure out if he’s “done it” right? I’ve read all of John Green and Don Calame. The closest I’ve come to sex in boy YA is The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but Charlie’s fragile nature is not a great comparison for my recovering manwhore.

    So any suggestions?

    Gosh, I think I may copy this and blog about it with everything I just wrote.

    Thanks for an amazing and insightful post, Kody!

    1. "recovering manwhore" -- I so, so want to know how this turned out. And, actually, I think the idea is a good one--a dude who's motivated to be purer (as in more faithful) because of the force of his attraction to a chica who really counts.

  12. Seeing as how YA is a marketing term used to shelve books in stores, I don't see how it applies to the actual writing of a book.

    Whether or not a book has sex in it, the nature of the sex, and the graphic detail or lack thereof, is all determined by the needs of the story and the style of the prose, not by whether you think someone in the sales dept. of a major retailer is going to stick the book in Young Adult versus Literature & Fiction. Figuring out where to put your stock so the customers most likely to buy it will find it is the business of stores, not the business of authors.

    You can certainly choose, for a target audience, someone of a certain age, and write your story so that it will reach out and connect with that someone, but whether or not that means emotional sex scenes versus physically graphic sex scenes doesn't depend so much on the target reader's age as the purpose of the story. Judy Blume made a particular book physically graphic because that served the book's purpose. In contrast, SHIVER had a sex scene focused on tenderness and shyness and it worked, because it worked with the tone of the entire book. Both books had a teen audience in mind, but the prose was written for the sake of the story, not for the sake of presuming every teen who reads a book wants or needs sex to be written about (or not written about) in a certain way.

    Teens read romance novels, as you noted. They also read extremely graphic, erotic fanfic with teen-aged characters in it. The fact that the majority of books shelved in the YA section lacks such graphic detail is not a reflection of how authors write (or should write) for a teen audience; all it is is store managers making assumptions about what an audience reads, and shelving what they think that audience will buy in that section of the store. It's business, pure and simple, and has nothing to do with the actual desires or interests of individual readers.

    As a writer, I don't decide to include or not include, to make graphic or not graphic, sex in stories based on the ages of characters. I make that decision based on the tone and goals of the story. I don't give a frak if that means it goes in the "adult" section versus the "YA" section -- that's for someone else to give a frak about, someone who's about making money.

    I'm about making art.

  13. As a person who reads both YA fiction and Adult fiction, and the occasional "bodice-ripper" (I'm going to be using that one from now on), I always notice the divide between YA sex scenes and Adult fiction sex scenes.

    I agree with you. There tends to be a deeper focus on emotion rather than "naughty bits" and what goes where in YA. In Adult fiction, there's usually a blend of emotions and naughty bits, which makes the sex scenes longer and, honestly, more satisfying.

    I love reading YA, I love it when an author feels comfortable enough to write a sex scene in their story. I love how it seems like sex in YA is becoming less of a taboo and something more talked about, thus resulting sex positive books. There needs to be more of this.

    What I don't love is the sex scenes (in some YA and Adult fiction) that gloss over the sex with unrealistic portrayal and vague descriptions so that it feels like your reading a really bad mash up of Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter instead of reading a book. Ex: "Fireworks lit up the room as his lips traveled to hidden treasures lost deep in a sea..."

    I'm not saying I want YA sex scenes to become as visually graphic as Adult fiction sex scenes. I'm saying that I want them to become more real and unashamed. Sometimes when I'm reading a YA sex scene I almost feel like I'm talking to my mother in terms like "he has a pee-pee and it's different from yours, because birds and bees..." Well, you get the point.

    So, I guess what I'm saying is that there's some awesome changes happening to sex scenes in YA fiction, just not as much as I'd like to see.

    Great post, Kody.

  14. As an author who writes romance novels and YA, I think you've nailed it when you said it's about the emotion.

    Sex scenes should be more than the 'docking' procedure, they should focus on the emotional aspect, staying true to the characters' motivations regardless of age.

    Interestingly, I'm not a fan of euphanisms for 'bits', I call it as a I see it :)

    That said, I haven't written a sex scene in YA yet. Looking forward to tackling the challenge!

  15. Great post, Kody! I've really enjoyed this series. And I think the scale is dead-on.

    I like emotion in the YA sex scene but what I really love are scenes that show the awkwardness of first sex experiences. I don't need to see fluids exchanged but I like to see unscripted things like taking off your socks or being an uncomfortable place like a car or a house with no privacy and how that affects the characters.

    Alison, some of my favorite boy-led sex scene scenes can be found in Eireann Corrigan's Ordinary Ghosts, Steve Berman's Vintage, Mindi Scott's Freefall, Melina Marchetta's The Piper's Son and there is an amusing but good one in Lish McBrid's Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. I really like exploring this side of it, because the girl POV is familiar to me and I think the boy's view isn't seen as much, or is seen as stereotypically thoughtless or without care or caution.

  16. As usual, what a great and thought-provoking post! (Inspired me to write my own post on this matter). I feel as though YA novels are simultaneously getting racier (but not about sex) and more tame/oblivious about sex itself.
    @ Carrie- agree. A teen boy's perspective is definitely not described as much as a girl's. Or not given the same attention.

  17. This is really interesting. I never thought about it this way, but you're right. Sex in YA is much more about the emotions.

  18. Me on why sex in YA matters:

  19. Thank you for this series of posts. I found you via a google search. I recently started writing YA, myself, and need all the guidance I can get, outside of channeling my inner fifteen year old!


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Item Reviewed: Sex In YA, Part 4: YA vs. Romance Sex Scenes Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kody Keplinger