Sunday, August 05, 2012

LeakyCon Fun! But I need your help...

So as some of you know, I'll be attending LeakyCon for the second time next weekend. I'm excited because last year was SO fun. I love Harry Potter, I love Chicago, I'm basically obsessed with all my fellow LitDay participants....basically I'm going to BE NERDY and GET MY RAVENCLAW ON.

But sadly I don't JUST get to guzzle butterbeer and run around a hotel in a cape. I'm also, you know, doing official stuff.  I'm on a Diversity in YA panel, I'm on a "How Not to get Published" panel... and I am MODERATING at panel too!

Moderating? Me? YES!
Is This Panel Too Dirty? For many, sex is a tricky and sometimes squicky business. How do you write a sex scene? Should there be sex in YA novels? Our panelists discuss the pros and cons and talk about how it’s done. (Possible graphic content.)

Panelists: Daniel Ehrenhaft (editor & author), Laini Taylor (author), Kate Schafer Testerman (agent), moderated by ME!
So here's where YOU come in. I want more points of view on this stuff. I have some questions - what do you think? How would you ANSWER them? And what other questions would YOU ask the esteemed editor, author and agent on this panel?

* Lot of people say there can be sex in YA books as long as it is not "gratuitous" - what does that even mean?

* How far is "too far" -- is there any topic TOO TABOO for a YA book?

* For the editor and agent: Have you ever asked an author to tone down sex scenes? Why?

* For the author(s): Have you ever been asked to tone down (or ramp up!) sex scenes?

* For editor: Do sales & marketing departments ever have a say on a books content? Does "cleanness" or "edginess" affect how you publish & promote the book?

* Sometimes books come under fire or are banned because of content issues. How does this affect the authors?

* What are some of your favorite "sexy" YAs?  Are they actually "dirty" or is it more sexual tension than outright s-e-x?

Anything else I should be sure to ask?


*comments are moderated - if I'm not at my computer it might take awhile. sorry!*

26 comments:

  1. What a great topic for a panel! The obvious example of sex in a YA would be -Twilight-, I suppose, but I find the sexual interactions in that book highly problematic. Bella is rewarded for her sexual desire for Edward by losing her human life and having her baby gnawed out of her stomach, not to mention being rather beat up during the encounter itself. The book seems to censure sexual desire for girls at the very same time it promotes it - throughout the entire length of allllllll four books. Good luck with the panel!! Hope it goes well.

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  2. I'm curious if Justice Potter Stewart's "I know it when I see it" is basically the guide editors use when deciding how much sex is okay in YA. Is it just a gut reaction of "this is appropriate given the parameters of the story" type of feeling versus something truly quantifiable?

    I also wonder what sort of obligation editors especially feel about how sex is portrayed in the books they publish. It feels like the status quo in popular culture is for the girl to get pregnant instead of having a good first time. I don't think it's writers--or editors--jobs to teach morality, but that has to seep in what's published. (The pregnancy as punishment feel really bothers me but I might have missed a number of books that don't go this route.)

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  3. * Lot of people say there can be sex in YA books as long as it is not "gratuitous" - what does that even mean? - When the nitty gritty is explained in explicit details. (I'm not a particular fan of gratuitous sex scenes.)

    * How far is "too far" -- is there any topic TOO TABOO for a YA book?
    - well, given that most of the real squick has been written about, I'd say that as long as the themes are well-intentioned and not a purveyor of something taboo, then no, no such thing. YA, in particular, has the freedom to explore and push the boat out and should continue to do so.

    * Sometimes books come under fire or are banned because of content issues. How does this affect the authors? - no publicity is bad publicity. The notion of banning something only makes it seem more interesting, though I'm sure it'd piss an author off.

    * What are some of your favorite "sexy" YAs? Are they actually "dirty" or is it more sexual tension than outright s-e-x?
    I don't really have a favourite sexy YA. I'm writing YA romance at the minute so I went and read a bunch of the best rated ones. If I had to pick a couple it'd be Wes and Macy from The Truth About Forever.


    As it so happens, I have a question I'd like an answer for. Of late, particularly with the rise and rise of 50 Shades, the glorification of abusive relationships has become a real thing in YA.

    In Beautiful Disaster, Travis is an asshole. Twilight's Edward is a 100-year-old control freak. Hush Hush, again, controlling male protag. Why is this a thing? When did the bad boy get so bad he became abusive? Does no one else find this worrying?

    (I ask this as a twenty-year-old who has friends who think these YA relationships are aspirational. Da fuq?)

    Sex is a very important part of everyone's life. It's something that's magnified when you're a teenager. It's also something that needs to be honestly and brutally discussed in YA without censorship or anything but the truth.

    Sorry for the long answer. I have a lot of feelings about this.

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    1. As a psychologist working with young girls, I agree with you completely. When a girl reads sex scenes, it is with interest and an eager educational eye. She wants to know what sex is, how it is done and how it feels. She will then make her choices accordingly. If the male is demeaning, belittling etc., she will think that is the model for relationships. This pretty sums up my problems with the Twilight books. We should be writing sex scenes hat teach our girls to grow up to be powerful sexual women, not battered ones.

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  4. sexual anything in YA needs to be organic and critical to the story and plot, like everything else, but, on a personal level, specifically I don't like intercourse in the storyline. I've read extensively (183 books, about 126 of them YA in the past 3 years) and I've yet to find one of those stories where a detailed sex scene was necessary or critical to the plot. In 2 books--THE UNBECOMING OF MIRA DWYER and TOUCH, the repeated sex scenes completely destroyed what could have been really exciting high concept stories. Based solely on the age range that YA Books are supposed to be, I don't think readers need it and honestly, it makes the characters and story far less authentic and believable to me. Good luck on the panel, I've a feeling its going to be quite animated.

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  5. Anonymous12:48 PM

    I would love to know how much weight agents and editors place on the possibility of a school market and how the inclusion sex (or just references to) might impact this.

    Thank you for your twitter, it always cracks me up. Especially about that guy who mistook your carrot cake for chicken tenders.

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  6. My favorite "sexy YA" is all about the sexual tension: The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. Obviously there are a lot of reasons why this book is so great, but the sexual tension was a huge part that certainly grabbed and held my attention.

    Likewise the anticipation leading up to those first kisses in Stephanie Perkins' novels show how important sexual tension can be. Neither of those novels would have been the same if the couples had just got a room earlier on. ;-)

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  7. Gratuitous does not mean explicit. Gratuitous means "lacking good reason." So a less explicit sex scene could be gratuitous if it seems to come out of nowhere, and a more explicit sex scene wouldn't be gratuitous if it was important to the plot. Totally subjective, obviously.

    My big issue with sex in YA is that it always seems to be presented as a mistake. Typically the girl decides to do it for bad reasons (e.g. for attention or to make a boy happy, not because she WANTS to) and is sorry afterward, if not because she got pregnant then at least because her feelings are crushed.

    I think we've really gone downhill since Judy Blume and Norma Klein portrayed teen sex realistically. Of course, I haven't read every YA novel out there, so I may be overgeneralizing from the ones I have.

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  8. Not a fan of explicit sex in YA; no graphic depictions of body parts or fluids, please! Besides, good sex scenes are hard to do well without coming off as either ridiculous or gross; leave it to writers of erotica.

    For sexual tension, the book that springs to my mind is BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE, by Annette Curtis Klause. The entire book vibrates with physical as well as emotional desire.

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  9. Ooh, I love the pregnancy/demon baby as punishment questions.

    I'd personally be interested in hearing about the different approach to sex/taboo topics in contemporary vs. speculative YA. A lot of the speculative YA I've read feels cleaner/safer than contemporary in terms of underrepresented/minority protags and 'adult' topics. In contemporary, it's often what the book is *about*, while in speculative fiction, the focus is more likely to be on demons/magic wardrobes/zombie lovahs than on sex/drugs/racism/etc. That's understandable. Still, given the age of the characters, I'd realistically expect those topics to show up more often than they actually do.

    This makes me wonder: Is it just my reading selection? Might publishers not want to risk sales by including risky material when it's not directly relevant to the plot?

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  10. I agree that the most important criteria for a sex scene in ANY media is whether it is organic to the story. That is, whether or not it is "gratuitous." For me, the best measure of this is to think about watching a television show or a movie that is really engrossing and really pulling me in... and then someone uses a 555 phone number. It's an immediate reminder that this world isn't real, and it can sometimes be a bit jarring. And I feel the same way when shows avoid sex scenes and nudity that would naturally occur at that point in the story. I'm immediately reminded that even though in real life there's a sex scene, on tv there's just a fade to commercial.

    I can understand the argument that ALL sex scenes are gratuitous, because I suppose that you can always choose not to include them. But I feel like the lack of sex can sometimes feel gratuitous as well. For example, if a couple is having a moment of heightened emotional honesty that leads naturally to sex, the reader is going to continue learning things about the characters while they're having sex. How they touch, look at, and talk to each other can reveal new things about these characters and the state of their relationship. Communication does not cease when people start having sex. In fact, it can become much more interesting because the situation is so unique.

    In YA, I think an equally important concern for sex scenes is how explicitly they should be written. In this area, I actually don't think that serving the story is as important as keeping in mind the wide variety of knowledge and experience levels among the readers. While most older teenagers probably know about the basic mechanics of most sex acts, a lot of younger ones won't. I never had any type of sexual education or discussion, from school or from my parents or from visual pornography, and the first sex scene I read (which was some X-Files fanfiction, of course) was extremely confusing. In fact, sex scenes were deeply confusing to me for a long time, until I read one that was sufficiently explicit for me to know what was going on. Though I don't think my experience is typical of most young teens, I still think that a non-trivial part of the YA audience cannot be expected to understand a lot of the vague or shorthand sexual references that adults would easily catch.

    Even a great sex scene that is tasteful, meaningful, and important to the story and characterization will be worthless if the reader is left scratching their head and saying, "Wait... what's happening right now?" Even now that I'm an adult who's knowledgeable about sexytimes, I'm still sometimes confused by sex scenes in books, when authors make them so vague that I can't figure out who's doing what to whom and how.

    I'm surprised that so many other commenters seem to be opposed to explicit sex scenes in YA. My opinion is that - especially in YA, where reader knowledge is so varied - sex scenes should be as explicit as necessary to ensure that the reader can tell exactly what's happening. A sex scene doesn't have to be sexy; sex can serve a lot of different purposes, both in life and in the progress of a story. But all writing should be clear and concise, no matter what activity is being described. The author should either be sufficiently descriptive, or avoid the scene entirely.

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  11. This is kind of ironic, since I was wondering the other day what the rules ARE for YA -- most of the YA novels I've read have had little or no sexual content in them but lots of tension (which is one reason Bella/Edward worked so well for three books -- all that sexual chemistry going nowhere) -- and then I read "Breaking Dawn." Ugh... did not like how it was written at all; the innuendo and squickiness of it all made me much more uncomfortable than a well-written love scene would have.

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  12. Anonymous4:34 PM

    Tamora Pierce does what I call the "curtain fade away." You know how you're watching a film and the two main characters are kissing on a bed, and the camera discreetly shifts away to the window curtains and then fades. Everyone knows what's happening and it has nothing to do with curtains. Tamora Pierce does that in her books.

    I remember being in a bookstore and seeing a girl with her mother in the YA section. The girl picked up Trickster's Queen (my favorite Pierce book) and I said, "Oh that's such a good one! But it's got one scene... Did you by any chance read Twilight?" And the mother said, "Yes, she read all of them." So I replied, "Then this book is completely innocent."

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  13. Here's a link to my blog post on the topic, as both a reader and a writer: http://ginadenny.blogspot.com/2012/06/sex-in-ya-books.html

    And here's some responses: (via vlog)
    http://ginadenny.blogspot.com/2012/07/sex-in-ya-books-follow-up.html from other writers.

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  14. The way for you to start the panel is by asking the audienc to "Please raise your hands if you support explicit sex scence in fiction for adults over 20 yrs old." Once many raise their hands, ask again to "Please raise hands if you support explicit sex scences in fiction for middle grades under 12 yrs old." Once nobody raise their hands, you are ready to start.
    Explicit sex scences are acceptable in fiction for adults because almost all adults had full sex. It is unacceptable in YA fiction because some teens had full sex, other teens had partial sex and the rest had none. It's unfair to impose YA fiction with explicit sexual acts on shy girls and boys who never experienced them. In essence it will encourage these shy teens to go out and seek to experience explicit sex that they are not ready yet for it. That's not what YA fiction is about or should be. Naturally, these are just my views. You might wish to read YA fiction by Kody Keplinger who will beg to differ. And if you are brave and also wnat to sharpen the discussion by shocking your audience ... go and read the first pages of "Wetlands", the German YA fiction, that I read as research for my German novel. Read some passages about sexual acts and bodily fluids told by the teenager Helen from this novel by Charlotte Roche. Have a safe flight to Chicago.

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  15. As a criminal defense attorney, I'd love to have YA authors more aware of local sex offense laws in the setting of their stories. So many YA books suggests to teenage readers that older men, teachers, college students, etc, are "sexy" and desirable. Maybe they are, but after their encounters--in real life, anyway--many of the heroes of these books could properly be classified as sex offenders.

    Sex offenders aren't sexy, but teenage girls rarely think about the consequences when they encourage a young horny adult--often concealing their true age.

    Most states say that, if you're under 18, you can't consent to sex with someone more than 3 years older than you. If a 16-year-old agrees to have sex with a 20-year-old, her parents find out (or she's hurt in the break-up and lashes out), and the local prosecutor is at all hard-nosed, her boyfriend could be branded a sex offender for the rest of his life. Absolutely no consequences for the girl--even if she lied and said she was 18.

    If your panel could help spread the word, I'd sure appreciate it. :) I guess the question would be something along the lines of "How do you feel about teenagers having sex with adults in fiction? As authors, do you take the time to get to know the local sex laws for your setting?"

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  16. I would just also bring up the issue that it's often banned because it's not something teenagers SHOULD go through and people/banners forget that it's something that people DO go through -- is it an author's job to express more than just the socially expected teenager's experience? What about those more comfortable with their sexuality, doing it safely, etc?

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  17. I've never heard of LeakyCon and now I want to go! I love the Harry Potter world. I hope you have lots of fun!

    As for sex in YA books, I think it needs to be represented as safe and responsible. A lot of protagonists in YA books are role models for young people. It's important to remember that. I don't think gritty and explicit details are necessary. Romance is more about the dealing with the emotions any which way.

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  18. I definitely think there can be sex in YA. I personally lost my V-Card well beyond my teen years, but several of my peers had given theirs up at the ages of 15-16-17. In one of my classes, there were only two virgins. Me, and my best friend. Sex happens when you're a teen. At the same time, the sex in the novel needs to fit the character. Chances are they're not going to go all Fifty Shades on you. Most young adults are still experimenting, finding out OH GOD, MY BODY MAKES THAT NOISE? and having other horrific experiences. If I read a novel with a male or female losing their virginity and deciding "Wow, it's be awesome to be tied down right now!" I'd probably punch the author in the face.

    I am one of those people who HATE putting TABOO on any subject, though at AWP this year an panelist said that abortion is taboo. She proceeded to tell the audience that if there are writers in the audience with that as their subject, it's our time to rise up. She gave examples of YAlit with scenarios of rape, incest, sex, dirty sex, etc, but not a single person could think of an abortion novel, and that is/can be a part of sex.

    I've never been asked to tone down a sex scene, because I actually can't think of any of mine. (Unless it's in my memoir). Sure they'll kiss, feel each other up, but I think most of mine stay virgins because it stays more true to the story, or the story revolves around something other than sex.

    ONE OF MY LIFE GOALS IS TO BECOME A BANNED BOOK! IF YOU DON'T GET BANNED, YOU'RE NOT DOING SOMETHING WRITE! (Yes, I meant write there :) )

    "Sexy" YA's, I'm taking to mean they have sexual content, not like I'm reading and getting steamy over here. I loved How I Live Now, and Such a Pretty Girl, because they were both dealing with incest and incredibly written. (One made you want to vomit, one made you want to cheer for the cousins getting it on.) I enjoyed Looking for Alaska, because you got the idea that Alaska had a lot of sex, but never really saw it, except that time she demonstrated on the tube of toothpaste how to give a BJ. (Still amazing writing there). I also LOVED Go Ask Alice, and Speak, and you know...anything I can get my hands on :)

    Hope this helps. It was awesome meeting you at last year's conference. Sorry I can't make it this year!

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  19. Anonymous10:53 AM

    This is a really interesting topic that I've thought a lot about. It seems like there are many different considerations. The one I feel should be the most important is teens should be fairly represented in books written about and for them. As any other type of human being there is a wide range of experience and personal choice among teens, including the choice to have sex, and sometimes that choice is later felt to be a mistake, and sometimes it's not.

    I don't feel that YA books should only be written as some sort of moral guidance for teens to live up to, especially since it can only represent what the author thinks of as the "right" way to live. I think teens, like anybody else, want to read books for a variety of reasons, for entertainment, to learn and experience vicariously and because they're looking for something to relate to. There should be books that represent all teen experiences and that includes sex, as well as the choice to wait for whatever reason. Neither choice is wrong, it just depends on the teen. Books for teen should fairly represent both choices.

    That being said I also understand why some sex scenes would be explicit. As a teen just navigating sex the details are what some teens notice and react to on an emotional level. Some aspects might be gross to the character, or some might be confusing, or funny or wonderful or painful. Those are emotions that deserve attention and not scorn. It is not necessarily wrong for teens to experience these things and therefore it is not wrong to write about them.

    The only criteria I feel there should be is; is it emotionally honest and real? Is the character being represented? Do they react in a real way to real life situations? We should treat teen readers with respect and expect them to be able to handle mature emotional concepts. I'm absolutely sure they do not want to, and should not be preached to or condescended to.

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  20. * Lot of people say there can be sex in YA books as long as it is not "gratuitous" - what does that even mean?

    When I talk about content in YA books, I usually say anything goes as long as said controversial topic (including sex) feels authentic to the story, realistic to the characters, and not over-the-top explicit. By that I mean, and this is completely my opinion, that a sex scene should not be so descriptive that it can be used as porn. Think about movie ratings---R is OK, maybe even NC-17 if the book has an older YA feel. But never X. I'm OK with characters commenting on their partner's body in vague terms, the pain, discomfort or pleasure (again in vaguer terms), or the emotions that go along with the sex, but I would prefer not to read about details like length, girth, taste, texture, or any sort of bodily fluids.

    * How far is "too far" -- is there any topic TOO TABOO for a YA book?

    I don't think any topic is too far or off-limits for YA, again as long as it's handled authentically. The fact of the matter is, real life teens are going through, or know someone who is going through, more horrible things than will ever be written about in fiction, and you never know what book will change or save a teenager's life. When I was in middle school and high school, I knew teens who were having sex, getting pregnant, teen parents, doing drugs, selling drugs, being or had been verbally, emotionally, and/or sexually abused, struggling with virginity, struggling with their sexuality, cutting, suicidal, had been raped, classmates killed in car accidents, met strangers off the internet, were victims of racism, homophobia, or bullying, and much more. And I was incredibly sheltered and overprotected, so if I saw all of those things happening around me, there are going to be even more teens who have, or who are going through them directly. Those teens deserve books that reflect their reality.

    * For the editor and agent: Have you ever asked an author to tone down sex scenes? Why?

    I worked with one author who had written a sex scene that was incredibly explicit. She wanted to portray a realistic portrayal of a first-time sexual experience, but me, my boss, and the publisher all felt the scene was just too detailed and graphic. It felt more than authentic...it felt X-rated. This was discussed extensively with the author, as she was reluctant to change it. She felt it was authentic and important, but we were all uncomfortable (myself included, and I'm probably the last person to get wigged out by a sex scene). Ultimately the author felt she would rather remove the scene entirely than change it.

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  21. And continued because my first was too long:


    * For editor: Do sales & marketing departments ever have a say on a books content? Does "cleanness" or "edginess" affect how you publish & promote the book?

    I think the only place I've seen sales & marketing step in with regard to content is during the acquisitions committee discussion. In those cases, the editor can speak to how they feel about asking the author to change or cut or adapt the content in question and they can also discuss this with the agent before an offer is agreed upon. I only remember one time when a book didn't go forward because of content, and it was more about the way the content was handled than the content itself. It was a decision made by the team, however, not just sales, marketing or editorial, and it was one I didn't necessarily agree with. But since I wasn't the editor, I wasn't a part of the conversation. And the book did end up published somewhere else with no negative repercussions that I'm aware of.

    * Sometimes books come under fire or are banned because of content issues. How does this affect the authors?

    I can't speak from an author's perspective, but I will say that personally, as a reader and an editor, I think banning and controversy tends to boost sales. So if a book was amazing and had content I thought might get it banned or flamed, that wouldn't stop me and in many cases might be a selling point to help convince the rest of the team (though of course it depends on the book and how the content is handled).

    * What are some of your favorite "sexy" YAs? Are they actually "dirty" or is it more sexual tension than outright s-e-x?

    I don't necessarily have a favorite "sexy" YA, but one YA novel I think handles it's sex scene incredibly well is 20 BOY SUMMER by Sarah Ockler. The scene is perfect---it is important to the story and the character's development, it feels realistic to the teen experience, and it has emotional resonance.

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  22. Heyyyy! so we were talking about this a little on Twitter last night and I thought I'd run over and answer these questions (the ones I feel like i have something to say about, anyway,) because they are GREAT ones.

    * Lot of people say there can be sex in YA books as long as it is not "gratuitous" - what does that even mean?
    *** I thought "gratuitous" meant something that doesn't move along plot or character - it's just there for the sake of being there. To me, one problem with saying that sex in YA can't be "gratuitous" is that "gratuitous" is a very subjective measure. I might think something needed a sex scene, other people might be glad it was left out.

    Another - and a bigger - problem with making this "gratuitous is not okay" argument is that I think sometimes having sex in a book for the sake of having it there is a GOOD thing. It can demonstrate sexual relationships - good and bad - and open up a conversation to them. And it can serve as a venue for teen readers to learn about sex in a safe and culturally acceptable way. (reading, obviously.)

    * How far is "too far" -- is there any topic TOO TABOO for a YA book?
    ***I don't think there are topics that are too taboo. Teens can deal with a lot. I do think there are topics that might not sell. Violence, prostitution, YA erotica. Just no market because it squicks people out. But I'm just a writer, I don't know too much about that.

    * For the author(s): Have you ever been asked to tone down (or ramp up!) sex scenes?
    ***I haven't yet, but I wouldn't be shocked if I was lucky enough to attract an editor with my MS if she asked me to add a sex scene.

    * Sometimes books come under fire or are banned because of content issues. How does this affect the authors?
    ***I think it's great publicity. :D


    These are all really wonderful questions. So glad you're doing this panel.

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  23. Wow thanks EVERYONE this is all great food for thought. I haven't had time to sit down and comb through all the answers -- but I have a whole flight to Chicago to do it on. :)

    You're the best!

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  24. I'm finishing a YA WIP right now, and though it has some incidental nudity and some close touches and kissing, there's no sex. However, I think sex should absolutely be included in YA if it's important to the story (can you imagine Judy Blume's Forever with no sex?)

    The way I see it, YA literature is about how it feels to be growing into an adult, and what effect each experience and decision has on the person the protagonist is becoming. I think anything can be appropriate--sex, love, violence, illness, the death of a friend or loved one, experimentation with drugs, as well as more innocuous things--as well as the author pays due attention to how those things affect the minds and emotions of the characters experiencing them. Teenagers go through all kinds of things, and make all kinds of decisions. It would be silly to keep a book away from a thirteen-year-old who's already sexually active because it has a sex scene in it.

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  25. If I were in the audience at this panel, I'd be less interested in hearing about what SHOULD be done and more interested in hearing thoughts on what IS done, and why, and what writers should think about while crafting sex and make-out scenes.

    Lately, I've come across a few books that show characters making out and feeling sexual desire but not going all the way. I thought THE OPPOSITE OF INVISIBLE by Liz Gallagher was a good example of this. I really liked how intense the main character's feelings were during the make-out scenes, and how unsure she was about going further. The boy seemed to have similar feelings. I thought the feelings and choices felt authentic for the characters in the story, and I liked that the author didn't cast judgment, one way or another. There was no suggestion that it would have been bad for the characters to have sex; they just happened to decide they weren't ready.

    If I could attend your panel, I'd love to hear the panelists' thoughts on BEAUTY QUEENS by Libba Bray. She really grapples with women's issues in that book, and she juxtaposed several different sexual experiences. In my opinion, that story got overloaded with its agenda, but I liked the way sex came across as varied and complicated. And not necessarily heterosexual.

    Good luck!

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