Sex/Consent Positive YA Books: The #SVYALit Project
While the Sexual Violence in YA Literature project is about rape, rape culture and awareness of the impact of sexual violence, Karen at Teen Librarian’s Toolbox also challenged Christa Desir, Trish Doller and me to come up with our favorite YA books that feature sex scenes that are positive and where consent is clear and enthusiastic. (Here is Christa’s list and Karen’s list!) If we want to imagine into existence the sexual agency and empowerment of teenagers (and adults!), we need to define not just the undesireable but also what we desire.
Karen had no idea that I’ve been privately curating a list of my favorite YA sex scenes for that last few years and now it’s my pleasure to share them with you. (I had to whittle down my list, too, so this may not be the last word when it comes to my Favorite YA Sex Scenes; stay tuned.)
Without further ado:
Look, maybe people who read Sex & Violence assume I’m this brittle, edgy badass about sex but I am so romantical and goopy it’s not even funny. And dammit, I love that Sarah Ockler has her girl get laid on a beach under the stars with a sweet boy. And the boy is sweet, too, but not too sweet that I want to barf and tell him to ease off on the poetry-quoting already.
There’s consent and there’s sexiness, but I think this is my favorite line:
At first I hold my breath, my shorts and bikini bottoms clinging limply around one of my ankles like they didn’t run off in time and now have to sit through the whole act without making any noise, lest they be discovered.
So realistic, and wryly funny, but tinged with some little embarrassment, too. In other words, perfect.
Okay, so Steve Nugent and Silent Starla’s sex takes place in a supply closet. Both are in a psychiatric ward. And Steve, as the story unwinds, is pretty much filled to the brim with sorrow and fucked-uppery. Maybe, though, that’s why I love this moment of grace and sweetness that Adam Rapp gifts to both of these characters. I can feel Steve’s gratitude in every damn word:
Then she took my clothes off—all of them—just like that, and I was standing there naked, trying to sort of cover my erection, when she started touching me. At first she sort of touched my stomach and then she touched my knees and then she touched the scar on my shin and then she did some other stuff that I won’t gross you out with, and then she took her clothes off, and she has a pretty masterful body, I must say, and her pubic hair was nice and trim and sort of glistening, and then she produced a condom from some unknown region and then she was putting it on me and then leaned back and sort of pulled me on top of her and she made me touch her between her legs for a while and then she pushed my hand away and put my penis inside of her and we made love.
Oh, Steve Nugent. I love how you try to protect us from the ickiness. I love how you cover up your boner. I love your clinical words. Bonus points for the word ‘masterful.’ And bless your beautiful beleaguered soul for using the phrase ‘made love.’ You are perhaps the one person in the world who gets a pass for saying that.
Ordinary Ghosts by Eireann Corrigan
This book remains plastered to my brain because it cemented my deep love of Boy Narrators in YA. Emil Simon, where were you when I was in high school? I WOULD HAVE LOVED YOU SO MUCH AND SO WELL.
Ahem. Anyway. As evidence by the Adam Rapp love above, you might have guessed that I’m a total sucker for male vulnerability. And Emil, a virgin when he meets Jade, is full of it. And he’s so funny. And so deserving of more than the sorrow his life has given him. I almost want to write Jade a thank you note for sleeping with him. I also love how everything’s mutual and there’s asking and the whole thing unfolds so beautifully. You’ll have to read the scene yourself-it’s worth the price of the book, no doubt, but here’s a lovely bit to sustain you until you can order your own copy:
We sleep together. I mean we do the other stuff, too, and that’s unbelievable. I understand how people write songs about sex and manuals on it. I get why people buy it. And why people tell you not to have it. Because, I mean, there doesn’t seem to be any point to doing anything else afterward.
Emil Simon, the man you are going to be pleases me so so much. Yes, I know you don’t really exist. But I don’t care.
Look, this book has a million other merits, namely for depicting feminism among high school girls in a complex and nuanced way. So, yes: 50 points for Gryffindor for not being all prescriptive and shit about female friendships and sexual behaviors and sexual equality. But beyond that – goddamn is Natalie Sterling a great character! Idealistic and motivated and annoying and rigid. In denial about how Connor Hughes makes her feel. In denial about her own growing sense of herself as a sexual being. There’s a beautiful scene where she looks at herself naked in a bathroom mirror that fucking KILLS me every time I read it.
And then, as gravy, we have Connor. Who is gorgeous and athletic and nice and libidinous and can’t wait to run his family’s Christmas tree farm. Who keeps on his socks when makes out with Natalie in secret in one of the sheds on his family’s property. Who never pushes her into anything. Who always listens to what she says. Who carries her up the stairs on his back the night they finally have sex so nobody in the house hears two sets of footsteps. Whose body is bruised and sore for getting beat in his last high school football game, so Natalie must be gentle with him (*swoons, dies*) Here are two sweet bits:
Connor reached to turn his lamp off, but I guided his arm away. I wasn’t scared of the light, of what Connor was about to see. I didn’t want to hide anymore…
Connor kept quietly asking if I was okay. He seemed more unsure than I was, his quivering hands holding onto me, like he was off balance.
Again, it’s a beautiful book. What Connor and Natalie have could be called hooking up. Yes. It is hooking up. But not hooking up the way stupid news shows depict it. It’s experimentation and negotiation at its finest.
This sex scene should be everything I loathe in YA sex scenes. It fades-to-black. There’s no explicit discussion of birth control. There’s not a ton of physical information offered. It’s penis-vagina sex and it hurts the girl character but she persists anyways.
But it does not matter. DOES NOT. Because Melina Marchetta has created in Jonah and Taylor two characters who are so brilliant and flawed and deserving of sexual healing that the scene flows perfectly in sealing their already-emotionally-intimate relationship in the physical realm. For those people who think they can’t write an absolutely transporting sex scene because they are afraid of graphic details or lavish description, please read this book. You don’t have to deploy every adjective and adverb. You don’t have to spend pages and pages of text on the act. You just have to make characters who are so hungry for love and for each other’s strength that by the time they strip down, we are right there with them, in that dark hostel bed, frantic and crying and not giving a shit about protocol and beauty any longer.
Think of it as literary foreplay, then. So many YA novels already do this, ratchet up the sexual titillation and innuendo and then draw back from actual coitus or anything going beyond second base. (That is even more egregious, if you ask me, than using plummy language about nipples or describing awkward sucking sounds. It’s teasing and it’s bullshit and there’s no THERE there. For more on this line of complaint, see this.)
I will give you no excerpts from Jellicoe Road. Not even one line! You must read it, I’m sorry – there is no way around this. There is a reason I named Evan’s mother in Sex & Violence after this writer. A reason I got a tattoo based on another one of her books. The woman is a gorgeous, gorgeous writer. Plunk down the cash for her book and you’ll see why.
Now, then. What do you think? Add your favorites in the comments. Let’s make this list longer and longer!