Celebrating Young Adult fiction by UK authors

GUEST POST: Writing sex without sex by CJ Daugherty


C.J. DaughertySex in YA is controversial. Because many YA readers are young, as a writer, you have to be incredibly careful in how you handle it.

There’s so much to consider: How old should characters be when they do it? Should they do it at all? If you write sex into your novel are you endorsing teen sexuality? Creating peer pressure that could encourage teens to have sex before they’re ready? Ruining their lives?

Frankly, it’s a quagmire many of us are eager to avoid.

Besides, even if you do decide to take the plunge, let’s admit it – there’s something inherently hilarious about writing sex. It’s all ‘he touched this’ and ‘she stroked that’ then ‘the lights darkened and she forgot everything…’

I’m sorry but… eeuw. And also, ha ha ha ha…

Personally, I just can’t face it.

Luckily, you don’t have to write sex to write something sexy. Romance is very sexy. A meeting of eyes across a crowded room. A sudden sense of connection that makes goosebumps form a pattern on your arms… That kind electricity is much more compelling in written form then you might think.

Maybe that’s because we all know what it’s like to meet someone and feel a surge of electricity. To have someone touch your hand and that simple contact make you catch your breath.

night_school_UK_500In Night School, this happens most between my main character, Allie, and Sylvain, a handsome French student to whom she feels drawn, even as her head tells her he’s wrong for her. Because she resists him, most of what happens between them is the exchange of longing glances, or short, breathless conversations in which she tries to keep her distance because if he touches her… well, she might not be able to resist him anymore.

In that way, not having contact – much less sex – becomes very sexy. Their mutual longing adds weight to every word, every touch.

One writer who does this very well is Cassandra Clare. There’s a scene in The Clockwork Angel where Will unbuttons Tessa’s glove and pulls it off just so he can touch the skin of her hand. That moment is so powerful – so filled with unspoken attraction – it fairly rips your heart out.

I admire it not just because it’s a great scene, but also because I know how difficult it is to write that sort of thing well. It’s very easy to lapse into awkwardness or to simply fail to convey the emotion that gives sexuality its power. Many writers brush over these scenes too quickly. Their lips touch, her heart pounds and… we move on.

You need to linger there. Lavish it with attention and time. We need to know how Tessa feels at that moment. How Will’s breathing changes. The things she notices about him. The unspoken signals he sends.

Done right, a simple scene in which a boy finds an excuse to tuck a strand of hair behind a girl’s ear, or a moment where a girl’s hand inadvertently brushes that of the boy she fancies, or when two characters hold each other’s gaze for a moment too long or, best of all, when they finally kiss after chapters and chapters of wanting to – can be more potent than any sex scene. And tell you more about the characters than a sex scene ever could.

Who needs actual sex when you can have that?

Visit CJ’s website or follow her on Twitter @CJ_Daugherty


Author: K

YA writer. Voracious reader. Feminist. Home educator. Addicted to tea and Twitter.

6 thoughts on “GUEST POST: Writing sex without sex by CJ Daugherty

  1. Well said, CJ! This is such a touchy topic in YA lit. You have shed some much needed light and made some excellent points. I’m off to figure out how to reblog this. Thanks! 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on Suddenly Lost In Words and commented:
    Last week, we had our first birthday. It marked our first year of publishing anthologies of short stories for young adults. That first year was full of firsts, and it’s no surprise that the firsts are about to continue. So, here’s another one. Our first reblog. This is a great little blog post by author CJ Daugherty who is over at UKYA today as a guest. Her post gives food for thought for readers and writers of young adult literature who wonder how sex should be handled in YA literature. Over to you CJ . . .

  3. Oh yes, yes, YES!
    THIS, this is exactly why I love YA romance!
    The Cassandra Clare scene you mentioned is one of the sexiest scenes i’ve have EVER read, just you describing it had my heart racing and my breath hitching in memory ( who knew wrists were such an erogenous zone) . It also happens to be one of my favourite scenes from the whole trilogy.
    Fantastic post C J

  4. Wow CJ, you said so beautifully what I am grappling with right now, and not because I write YA, although I am toying with it. I just agree with you about romance in general and all the powerful emotions that can be conveyed without ‘doing it.’ I’d really like to go down this road, but shy away from the ‘sweet’ label which so often has readers unconsciously inserting the word ‘sickening’ in front of it. We need a new term. Thanks so much! You are an author after my own heart.

  5. Pingback: Night School Legacy (Night School #2) by C J Daugherty | UKYA

  6. CJ, that is really good. Although SLIW is currently considering a submission of mine, I don’t usually write for YA because I was never a YA myself. I went straight from adolescence to dirty old man. But your blog sort of challenges me to come up with a story that has that kind of “distant intimacy” in it just to see if I can pull it off. Thank you.