Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Gillian Philip on Sex in YA

 Today please welcome Gillian Philip to the blog! She's the author of upcoming release Opposite of Amber and I've asked her to give us her take on sex in Young Adult books. But first here's a little about her:

 I live in the north-east highlands of Scotland, with one husband, two children, one labrador (Cluny), two psychotic cats (the Ghost and the Darkness), and four nervous fish. But I like it that I never know just how it's all going to end - not till the fat lady sings, the villain meets a suitably sticky end, and the boy gets the girl (or indeed the boy).Writing for a living is a lot of fun - like taking dictation from the characters in my head, who spend their lives telling me what's going to happen next. 

How do you feel about it? Should it only occur in Adult books? Should there be a limit to how graphic the scene is?

Of all the subjects that come up when queries arise about the 'suitability' of any of my books, sex is the most frequent. For some reason it causes far more problems than violence, murder, drugs or drinking.

I don't think sex should happen in a book for its own sake, but then that applies just as much to adult novels as to young adult ones. Take the sexual subplot in Peter Benchley's Jaws, for instance: Steven Spielberg dispensed with it altogether in the movie. No offense to the book, but I reckon the movie is as close to perfect storytelling as you're likely to get. The extramarital affair was irrelevant to the drive of the movie's plot, and it would only have got in the way of some splendid interplay between the three male leads. All of the characters, including Chief Brodie's wife, developed just beautifully without it.

But when it makes sense in the context of the story? I think it would be wrong to leave it out, and that's especially true of young adult books. After all, the teenage years and the early twenties are when sex becomes the driving, confusing, bewildering, untameable motivator for so many decision. Let's face it, at that age we're seething cauldrons of hormones. It's downright exhausting, physically and emotionally. It would be a bit odd to ignore it.

Of course that doesn't mean characters should have sex on page 82 as if they're remote-controlled automatons--but when I get to a point in the story where I'm thinking well, they just would, right now, wouldn't they... then I'm not going to deprive them.

Like any other factor in a plot, though, it has to mean something, it has to contribute. Sure, it might mean they're being downright irresponsible, but it should mean something, illuminate some aspect of their personalities or actions. Thinking about my four full-length novels so far, all of them includes sex, but that wasn't a deliberate strategy-- I didn't get close to the end and think, uh-oh, I haven't put the sex in yet. It's just that all stories - at least, the ones I like to read and write - contain danger, high emotion, mystery, conflict... and in such a heightened atmosphere, there's quite likely to be sexual tension. Wars kill people, but they also send the birth rate soaring. It isn't just jealousy, fear, anger, apprehension or excitement your characters will feel more intensely -- it's also love.

Now, theoretically speaking, I don't see why there should be a limit to how graphically the sex is depicted. In practical terms, though, the cringe factor is huge. It's incredibly difficult to write a good physical description of the sex act -- that's why in the UK we have the Bad Sex Award, for the purplest prose with the biggest wince factor of the year. Euphemisms for the male sexual organs in particular tend to provoke not titillation, but hearty giggles. And quite right too.

So having said that there's sex in all four of my published books, there's no actual description of the moment. In that sense, I think sex is like violence or horror -- it's so much more vivid if it's only just offscreen. Sex is the Blair Witch of fiction--so much more real in the imagination.

And that's why I'm liberal about fictional sex, but averse to descriptions of anyone's 'manhood' and what they do with it. And it isn't only because my mother's likely to read it.

They found the fifth girl right after the snow melted ...the place where he left her was winter water, crazed with ice-feathers and dusted with snow. The traces from her body were gone, the ones that said his name, but she had an extra skin of ice that protected her and she looked perfect, like Snow White'. Ruby and her older sister Jinn live together on their own, just about making ends meet. Jinn is beautiful, with glittering blonde hair, and makes it her business to look after Ruby. They are horrified by, but try to ignore, the local newspaper stories of prostitutes who are murdered, their bodies eventually discovered underwater. Then the no-good Nathan Baird turns up on the scene - again - and Jinn starts to change. First Nathan moves in with Jinn and Ruby, making Ruby feel an outsider, and then Jinn and Nathan move out, leaving Ruby alone. Jinn no longer has time to look after Ruby. And it seems to Ruby that Jinn herself needs looking after. Her beautiful glittering hair starts to lose its shine. And then Jinn disappears. A deeply moving, chilling, and incredibly powerful thriller that celebrates the love two sisters have for each other and mourns the events beyond their control that will conspire to drive them apart.


  1. Hi, Girl On A Mission - thank you so much for inviting me to guest on your blog! I really enjoyed thinking about your question and my answer... great to 'meet' you!

  2. Anonymous11:02 AM

    I do so love a sexy book - and a well done sex scene is something I can read over and over again. Bad ones though ...
    It's a talent to write them (one I haven't got) and since I know how great your writing is (I loved Firebrand) I'm now planning on tracking down yours'.
    Thanks for a great post.

  3. here here! Oh that awful sex scene in Tony Blair's autobiography - it still makes me shiver....

  4. I agree both with the need for sex to have meaning within the plot, and with the necessity of omitting descriptions of male members, throbbing or otherwise. And oh I love that phrase "I think sex is like violence or horror " - perfect for quoting out of context! :--) And wouldn't it be great for a honeymoon scene?


I truly appreciate your comments!