Friday, October 18, 2013

Alexandra Duncan Takes the Truth!

Today is the day when I offend everyone. I’m answering the following Truth, Be honest: have you read Fifty Shades of Grey? (and thoughts on New Adult/sexy YA/or whatever)

Short answer: yes, I have read Fifty Shades of Grey. Sort of. I mean, I read the first three chapters and skimmed the rest. That counts as reading, right?

Let's rewind about thirteen months. Late last summer, the director of the public library where I work asked my boss to read Fifty Shades to help decide whether we should carry it in the library. There weren't a lot of critical reviews available at that point, which is one of the main ways we decide which books to carry, but we were getting flooded with requests for "that sex book. You know the one." *significant look*
After about ten minutes of skimming, I found my boss sitting in the workroom with this look on her face. . . .

She looked up at me. “I can’t do this. Will you read it?”

How could I resist? Clearly, from her expression, there was something magnificently horrifying happening between the pages. I had to know what had brought that look to her face. I took the book home and managed to stop giggling like a 12-year-old long enough to crack open the cover.

In the end, I couldn't do it either. I stopped reading and started skimming around the time Bella and Edw. . . I mean, Anastasia and Christian have an extraordinarily awkward conversation (that was maybe supposed to be sexy?) at a hardware store. To me, the steamy scenes were just. . . kind of squicky.* It was not my cup of tea.

This Truth has me thinking about how we write about sex in Young Adult literature versus how it’s portrayed in New Adult like Fifty Shades. Granted, not all New Adult is straight-up erotica. Take the insanely talented Gayle Forman's novels, for example, or Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell, which I am dying to read. But Fifty Shades has brought erotica to the forefront of New Adult, and because of that, people are starting to think of N.A. as fundamentally characterized by cover-to-cover graphic sex.

In Y.A., however, sex is an incredibly touchy subject. If you don’t believe me, read this wonderful blog post by Beth Revis on a librarian’s response to learning one of her books contained sex, or take a look at the ALA’s yearly list of banned books. "Sexually explicit material" is the number one reason why books are banned or libraries are challenged for stocking them.

Source: American Library Association

On one hand, I get it. Adults want to protect children from situations and ideas they’re not ready to handle. I struggled with how to portray sex in Salvage, which deals in part with sexual relationships and pregnancy. As a librarian, would I feel comfortable recommending my own book to teen readers and their parents? Would I be okay with my fifteen year-old sister reading this? On the other hand, teenagers are surrounded by sexual content in daily life. It’s on TV and in movies. It’s in advertisements. It’s in music. It’s a topic of discussion on the school bus. It’s everywhere.

Sometimes we adults also forget that our teenage years were the time when we first fell in love, started dating, and became curious about sex and sexuality. Some of us even began having sex when we were in high school. If we’re writing honestly about teenage life and the process of becoming an adult, sex is a legitimate subject. For those teens who are sexually active, portraying sex in Y.A. accurately reflects their experience and gives adults a way to talk with teens about how to protect their hearts and their bodies. For those who aren’t, books are a safe place where teens can explore the idea of sex without becoming sexually active. It’s an opportunity to start a conversation about what is and what isn’t healthy in a relationship.

My personal philosophy about writing sex in Y.A. is that above all, it should be realistic. By that, I don’t mean I think everyone should be writing really extensive, detailed sex scenes. I mean that when it comes to talking about sex for a teenage audience, I don’t want to write the kind of unrealistic fantasy sex I’ve seen in Fifty Shades and other New Adult erotica. If I’m going to write about sex, I want to convey the combination of love, lust, confusion, anxiety, pleasure, and discomfort that go along with a real person’s first sexual experiences. I want to look at the dangers and the joys. I want to give teens the information they need to take care of themselves.

I think we owe teens honesty about this experience that’s looming large in their futures and imaginations. We owe it to them not to add to the misinformation they’re likely getting from locker room gossip and rumors on the bus. (Just to refute a few things I heard when I was fifteen - Yes, you can get pregnant the first time! No, taking monthly oral contraceptives is not the same as getting an abortion. Yes, sex can be great, but it doesn’t guarantee true love.) Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying every Y.A. book should deal with sex. Sometimes I just want to read about slaying dragons and things blowing up without the complication of a romantic relationship. But when we Y.A. writers do tackle this difficult subject, we need to do it with maturity, care, and awareness of our audience.

*One word: tampons

Alexandra Duncan is a writer and librarian (plus amateur photographer, crochet enthusiast, cinemaphile, and, or course, book fiend). She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and has been a frequent contributor to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She loves anything that gets her hands dirty – pie-baking, leatherworking, gardening, drawing, and rolling sushi, to name a few.Her first novel, Salvage, is due to be released by Greenwillow Books/Harper Collins April 1, 2014. You can find her online at Twitter, Goodreads, and her web site.


  1. Weeeeelllllllllll, now I know what to expect when I read Salvage in a few days! ;)

    In all seriousness though, for the most part, I agree with your stance, Alexandra. As a teen, I think that in this day, sex is definitely seen as something glamorous or normal or even habitual, for youth and anyone older.

    BUT, that doesn't mean that every single type of medium of entertainment needs to have sex (stated implicitly or explicitly). If it fits in the story, then it fits. But I feel like many many many MANY YA novels these days include sex or the allusion of sex. I'm not a huge fan of this - meaning, I'm not a fan of the fact that most YA books being published have sex. Why do they *have* to? Not every story needs to have sexual acts to be authentic. Sex doesn't fit into every teen's life.

    But unfortunately, that's the norm these days - that the majority of teenagers and young adults are having sex.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading this post, Alexandra! :)

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!

  2. Brilliant, Alexa!

    Now be honest. Did you have to read Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Darkerer for your "library" too?

    1. HA! No, I started reading the Fifty Shades of Suck tumblr. I never would have noticed E.L. James's preoccupation with orange juice or the fact that there is HONEYMOON SHOPPING ON A JET SKI in one of the later books if it weren't for that blog. For the record, shopping on a jet ski is the kind of literary madness I can get behind.