Thanks to the lovely Christa Desir, who gave me a nudge to work on this project today.
Here are some things I've noticed about sex* in YA fiction.**
If the author BOTHERS to put sex in the book, there are three ways of handling it.
APPROACH 1: The main character has sex.
APPROACH #2: The main character's friend or other adjacent character has sex (Two Way Street, 10 Things We Did (And Probably Shouldn't Have)). The adjacent character's experience often becomes a kind of warning model about What Not To Do, whether it's sex for sport but no significant feelings or the cliched Showcase of Dire Consequences (STI, pregnancy, sad feelings about being used, being labeled promiscuous, etc.)
(In addition to these two approaches, there is APPROACH 1a: having the sex take place in a dream realm. This involves the sex happening IN the character's head, and on the page, but not really happening. This is mostly used in fantasy/paranormal, e.g. The Sweet, Far Thing, Radiant Shadows. But mostly I won't deal with this, because it's a kind of cop-out, I feel. A way to have your cake and eat it, too, and not get pregnant or criticized for endorsing teen sex or handling uncomfortable logistical details (how one takes off their clothing or shoes prior to sex doesn't matter, because it's dream-seamless).
This analysis will deal with APPROACH 1 solely. Why? Because my MFA thesis only has to be 20-30 pages and I'm not swinging for the fences on this bitch. I just want to clear the bar. Or get on base. Or some other sports metaphor that indicates a fair-to-middling outcome.
AHEM. When the author deigns to allow the main character to Do It, it usually happens in one of four ways: Fade To Black, Feelings Focused, Physicalities Focused, and Feelings + Physicalities Mixed.
Fade To Black is just as it sounds. The main character comes to Do It, and then we get kissing or something innocuous, and then it happens off-page.
See: Breaking Dawn, The Fault in Our Stars, Geography Club, Where Things Come Back
Feelings Focused involves the character (usually a girl, usually a virgin) just talking about what's going on in her head as she steps across this pivotal threshold of growing up. We're in the character's head, not her body, and often what's going on in her head is related to her emotional response to the person she's doing the act with, realizing that she's in love, how important this person is to her, etc.
See: The Book of Luke, How I Live Now, Underworld
Physicalities Focused relies mainly on details of the actual act, whatever it may be. Focus is often placed on the setting where the act takes place, or how the clothes come off, or the condom is put on, etc. It can be very journalistic, and often detached. A lot of times this sexual activity is taking place with someone the main character doesn't like or love. This doesn't happen all that often in YA fiction, but it often happens as a way of establishing that a character is broken or making bad choices and must atone for it or seek redemption.
Interestingly, often sex that's between characters who don't have fond feelings for each other can sometimes occur as a Fade To Black. Perhaps this is the author's way of insisting that you're not supposed to root for the eventual coupling of these characters, and so don't deserve the particulars of the event.
See: The DUFF, This Lullaby, Stay With Me
(To be fair, not always do we need to see a real-time sex scene. I mean, other shit can happen in a book. It has to. But people who haven't had sex before, or people who haven't had sex with someone they have big feelings for generally have something interesting to share. Bypassing this opportunity is sort of a waste, regardless of the age of the participants or readers. For more on this, go here.)
(^This is why I hate writing analytical stuff. You can always argue against your strident points or whatever the fuck.)
My argument is that the most socially responsible way of handling sex is one that is a Feelings + Physicalities Mix. Yes, I feel all soap-boxy about this. Even if the reader of the YA book isn't a young adult, it's a powerful mixture, and a reminder of what it meant to enter into something unfamiliar and high-stakes.
(Unless they're Republicans, in which case they wear coldpacks in their undies.)
This doesn't mean that there should be graphic description. Although, I usually feel that the word 'graphic' is just another way of saying 'most informative' for most people. It's my personal belief that when it comes to high-stakes or risk-laden behavior, going graphic is the best thing for all involved. And if you want to show the purportedly small selection of young people who regularly read how sex might work in real life (as opposed to television and porn), including details of how things work in real time is really a worthwhile endeavor.
What do I mean by this?
Um, um, um...just a second, lemme check my bookshelves...
Like, how condoms can smell like bandaids or how a girl's long hair keeps getting in your mouth? A seat belt mashing into your knee or the sounds the television in another room. There are many examples (NOTE TO SELF: make a list!) in YA fiction of the moment of penile penetration being completely anticlimactic for the female character. The urge of the protagonist, in Adam Rapp's Under The Wolf, Under The Dog and Rob Thomas' Rats Saw God, to cover up his nakedness after he's undressed.
There's a great detail in Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer that beautifully mixes emotions with details:
"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."
HERE ENDETH THE DRAFT. GOTTA GO PICK MY KID FROM SCHOOL. MORE LATER.
*'Sex' here being: activity that involves a degree of nudity, vulnerability, potential or realized physical pleasure, negotiation, and engagement of genitalia or erogenous zones. Sorry, that was kinda clinical and gross. There are many examples of YA fiction that deal technically with sex, but in an abusive and non-consensual context but none of the books I deal with in this paper are of that variety.
**I was gonna refer to this as "sexual aesthetics in YA fiction" but then I got a little concerned that I wasn't dealing with aesthetics. Then I looked up 'aesthetics.' Then I was even more confused. This here is why I avoided graduate school for the last fourteen years.