” I don’t think we should talk about this
Come on, why not?
People might misunderstand what we’re tryin’ to say, you know?
No, but that’s a part of life.”
Salt ‘N’ Pepa – Let’s Talk About Sex
Attempting to write fiction for teenagers is tricky.
For starters, there’s the whole ‘getting in the mind-set of today’s Yoof’ thing that’s expected. I mean, teenagers are way savvier, more street-smart, and achingly cooler than I ever was (you can tell this from the fact that I just said “achingly cool” like a complete and utter nerd). It’s such a challenge to try and imagine the thought process, opinions, and worries that a teenager might face in the digital age. The world is a far different, more tech-orientated, and slightly scarier place than when I was a fifteen year old.
But, obvious stuff aside, there’s also the challenge of what’s deemed “appropriate ” for a teenage audience.
Even now, parents are calling for certain books to be removed from the shelves. We like to think we’ve come a long way since the 70s where books like Forever by Judy Blume were deemed unsuitable and taken off library bookshelves, but have we really?
For a generation where having a smartphone is the norm, and access to the internet in all its weird, wonderful and dangerous glory is rife – don’t we have bigger fish to fry when it comes to deciding what material is harming our children?
Now, I’m one of these people who believe teenagers are wonderfully bright beings who know far more than they are often given credit for. Even that sentence makes me ashamed as it sounds so patronising. You only have to look at the wonderful teenage bloggers doing the rounds on the Twittersphere to realise they know exactly what is going on. More so than us twenty/thirty-somethings do anyway.
I swear like a trooper and this can be reflected in my writing. Should I keep this sort of language out of my novel? Is there a formula? Twenty pages of fluff for every ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’ used? Should the same rule apply for sexual content?
I mean, come on!
With the exposure to online media, teens are also less sheltered than we’d like to imagine. The stuff I got up to, and knew as a teen, pale in comparison to the sort of knowledge teens have access to in modern society. At the age of 15, the most shocking thing I got up to was getting pissed in the local park and snogging boys (I still remember my mum catching me kissing a boy at the end of our road – it is still mortifying to this very day).
It was a different time – our internet connection was slow at best, my dad always knew when I was online just by picking up the telephone, and Facebook and Twitter just didn’t exist. We had Myspace of course, but all I was concerned about was rearranging my “Top Friends” list and picking the perfect profile song.
It’s a whole different ball game now young people have smart phones – Snapchat, Youtube, Whatsapp – it’s so much easier to hide things.
While researching this blog post, I came across a 2013 article in The Telegraph about sex in teen novels (read the full article here), in which Dr Lucy Pearson, a lecturer in children’s literature at Newcastle University, says its nothing new:
“Sex has always been an issue in Young Adult fiction, but historically a problematic one… A turning point came…with Forever by Judy Blume (published in 1975). [Forever] is noticeable as a book which tells of teens who want to have sex and do have sex and nothing bad happens…It’s still rare in that aspect – there aren’t many Young Adult novels out there which feature healthy sexual relationships.”
In my opinion this is sort of terrifying.
In a recent study, 45% of teens said that sexting (pictures and graphic content) were considered the norm. It’s got so bad that police are even warning that teens will face criminal charges if caught circulating explicit pictures. After all, the people involved are minors.
With this in mind, I think teenagers have a right to be informed about life – about love, sex, death – and, in my opinion, this is exactly why YA is such an important –and popular – genre. It addresses these issues. Or it should do.
It provides a platform – in a world where sexualised images can be seen on the side of a bus or on a magazine at the supermarket, and more graphic images can be passed around an entire school at the push of a button – where issues about sexuality and body image are explained and explored.
It’s a genre that makes young people feel less alone in what they are thinking and feeling, and reaffirms that whatever these thoughts and feelings are, they’re OK. Its all fine.
I struggled when I found two of my teenage characters discussing sex.
Firstly, I was worried that the conversation they had would portray female sexuality in a bad light. I didn’t want to be seen as suggesting that women who enjoyed sex should be vilified for doing so, or that women were only seen as sex objects by young men. This is not only dangerous, but its annoying. I hate reading about stereotypical young people who fall in to roles – the outsider, the popular kids, the geek – and I really wanted the character of Sarah to be more than the girl who sleeps around. I wanted her to be carried along by a certain attitude – an attitude that is perhaps perpetuated by these views regarding sexting, porn etc. – widespread amongst our younger generation. The girl that, like many others, accepts these behaviours as “the norm.” She’s also a bit of a bitch but there’s not much I can do about that.
Secondly, it also occurred to me that my central character would regard Sarah’s behaviour in a negative light. She overhears her “rival” talking about a boy she has a crush on and reacts with jealousy.
And thirdly, is the sex necessary to the narrative? I think in this case, it is. There’s a danger of putting sex in for ‘shock value’ in any genre of literature. I think the best thing to do is make sure such scenes are never too graphic, over-descriptive or included unnecessarily. Teenagers talk about sex. Some of them even have sex. And most the time nothing bad ever happens and people go on to live normal and brilliant lives. Shock. Horror.
But it’s a tricky one to get right. It can easily come across as contrived.
Is it even possible? Take a look and see what you think of my writing below. Does anyone else experience the same problems when trying to write for teens? Is sex – and changing attitudes to sex – best left out of YA fiction, or do you – like me – believe it’s the best way to explore such issues?
‘But it was nothing like I thought it would be.’
I’m sat in the toilet with the door locked. I came in here to eat my lunch because they’ve made it clear I’m not welcome in the tutor room anymore, and you can’t eat anywhere else in school without getting a detention. Well, apart from the canteen, but eating in there on your own is social suicide and I’m already dying.
‘It was nowhere near as nice.’
I’d recognise that voice anywhere: the bratty, dissatisfied tone, and I know if I could see her she’d have a pout bigger than one of those girls from that TV show about Essex.
Sarah laughs. ‘What did you think it would be like?’
I hug my knees closer to my chest at the sound of her voice, place my feet firmly on the toilet lid. I feel exposed, like all of a sudden the door is made of clear plastic and my heart is beating as loud as drum.
‘I don’t know. Better, I guess. More…’
Sarah laughs again, like someone’s told her a joke. ‘You are too cute.’
‘Don’t be like that, Beth.’ Sarah’s still laughing. ‘I just mean you should probably get your head out of that Twilight crap and back into the real world.’ I hear a zip being unfastened, the clank of someone rifling through make-up. ‘Look, I lost my V-plates in, like, year nine or something. It’s not that great.’ She sounds proud, almost boasting and I wonder why, if it’s not that much fun, she even bothers doing it.
‘Yeah, I mean sometimes it can be good, you know, when they know more stuff, like with older guys, and then you start to know more stuff as well, but at the beginning… I mean it’s totally normal not to enjoy it when they’re slobbering all over you like a dog.’
At this point I want to open the door and tell Sarah to shut up, perhaps suggest she go see a psychiatrist because she’s obviously got issues if she believes the advice she’s spewing out. Of course I don’t do that. I just keep my eyes fixed on the door because I am me. There’s a metal thing on the back of the door that people use to hang their coats or bags on and it kind of looks like a drunken octopus. I keep my eyes focused on that instead.
‘Seriously, Beth. All boys at this school care about is getting themselves off. It’s the older ones that really know what they’re really doing. You should come with me to Redditch one night. I know a doorman who’ll let us in for a favour.’
‘Really?’ Beth says. ‘What kind of favour?’
Sarah laughs. ‘He’s a friend of my brother’s and totally gorgeous.’
There’s a pause where I’m not quite sure what’s happening but then I hear Beth say, ‘My mum says with the right person it’s better than anything else,’ Beth’s voice is small and young. I imagine her looking down at the sink or twiddling a strand of hair around her finger like kids do.
‘Are we still talking about this?’ Sarah moans. ‘Look, your mum’s a massive hippy. She’s probably off her face whenever she’s doing your dad
‘Ewwwwww!’ Beth screeches. ‘My parents do not ‘do it.’
I look down at my shoes. I wonder what Beth looks like now. I guess she hasn’t told Sarah about her Dad’s affair and the thought makes this tiny bubble of hope form inside my chest. He’s been at it for years with a woman from work. They go off on fake business trips to Skegness or Leeds or somewhere shit like that, but really they’re just screwing in cheap hotel rooms. Beth told me her mum knew but didn’t care. He paid the mortgage and the bills. They barely speak to one another anymore. It’s kind of sad when you think about it.
Sarah starts laughing in her cruel-girl way again. ‘I bet they do. I bet they shag all over that big house of yours. I bet your mum is filthy and your dad loves it.’
‘It hurt,’ Beth continues. ‘And he kept saying all this stuff to me.’
Beth lowers her voice and I wonder if they’ve noticed the locked door yet, start thinking of an escape route. There’s a window above the toilet but its proper high up and I’ll never fit through it. Knowing my luck I’ll most likely slip and land in the bowl and then I’d have to walk around all day covered in bog water. ‘Like really rude stuff…’ Beth’s voice trails off and I can tell she’s on the verge of tears.
‘Defo. Boys love saying stuff like that,’ Sarah says matter-of-factly. ‘Have you never watched porn?’
‘Speaking of which, let me show you this really rank thing on my phone that Michael sent me. It’s these two girls who-’
‘-Have you ever been with him?’ Beth’s voice is biting. I stop trying to figure a way out of my imprisonment and start listening.
‘Of course not.’
I read somewhere that when someone’s voice rises in pitch they are lying. Sarah’s answer is bordering on shrill. ‘I promise!’
In the safety of the cubicle I allow myself an unkind smile. But then she says it, the thing that I’m not expecting, and it’s like all the wind has been knocked out of me like when you have a bad fall and you can’t breathe for those first few scary moments:
‘Anyway after what happened Friday night, you know I’ve only got eyes for Kyle.’
SLAGGY SARAH. SLAGGY SARAH.
‘I thought you were over boys at this school?’
‘He totally knows what he’s doing,’ Sarah says and I’ve never wanted to punch someone in the face more in my life.