Thursday, December 17, 2015

Is There *gasp* Sex In This Book?

By Natasha Sinel

Like many of us, I don’t feel like I have enough time to do all the things I need/want to do. Sometimes I have to make tough choices about whether something is “worth” the time.

Last Saturday, I had my first signing at Barnes & Noble. When I arrived, the lovely B&N manager set me up at a table with a stack of my books and a very official-looking table sign. I felt pretty damn special. But after an hour, my spirits had sunk. Not because shoppers seemed more interested in the “What Your Poop Says About You” daily calendar and the Star Wars toy table than in my book. Not because I get suddenly very shy when I have to promote my own work.

It was this:

I was ashamed. 

Here’s the common scenario: a mom approaches to buy a book for her daughter. I know with near certainty that she will not end up buying my book. Because she will inevitably ask me this, and only this, question:

“Is there sex?”

The answer to the question is so much more complicated than yes or no, isn’t it? I want to sit her down and tell her the answer. The real answer. “Yes, the teenagers in the book are sexually active, as many are in real life. The sex is not very explicit in the book, no. At least by my standards, it’s not. And the sex that’s written about is necessary to the main character’s realistic growth.”

But that just sounds so defensive, doesn’t it? And I know that the only answer she wants is, “Nope, no sex.”


I understand the instinct to want to protect a child’s innocence for as long possible. But I start to wonder, at what point are we doing a disservice to our kids—our daughters in particular—by censoring out the sex?

One mom approaches my table holding a book by one of my fellow-2015 debut authors.

“Oh, that’s a great book!” I say. “I know the author.”

She tells me she’s getting Christmas presents for her twelve-year-old daughter. She picks up my book, turns it over. I wait eagerly, hoping the question won’t come, but then…

“Is there sex in your book?”

“Some, but it’s not really explicit,” I say.  (See how defensive?)

She puts my book down, shakes her head. I’m disappointed, but I also understand. Twelve is on the cusp. I get it. My book covers some pretty tough, mature topics, so I understand that discomfort. I have a friend who's read my book and decided to wait another year before giving it to her daughter. I totally respect her informed decision. But, the thing is, this woman at B&N didn’t ask what the book was about or whether it was appropriate for a twelve year old. She only asked if there was sex.

“What about this one?” she asks, holding up the other book.

I think through the scenes I remember of my colleague’s book.

“No, I don’t remember any sex,” I say. “There’s pot smoking, though.” 

“That’s fine,” she says, and walks away.

This is what I’ve found since my book has been out. Moms don’t want sex in their daughters’ books. Drugs are negotiable. Violence is fine. But I’m so curious—do moms care about sex in their sons’ books? What about drugs? Violence? By ruling out books that have sex in them, are we teaching our daughters to be afraid of sex? That it’s shameful? If knowledge is power, then by limiting their knowledge, are we fostering powerlessness? This isn’t the point of my post today—but I’m genuinely interested—I don’t know the answer.

Anyway, after that mom leaves, the manager sends over a mom who’s been browsing the teen section, looking for a gift for her tenth-grade daughter. Perfect. She picks up a copy of my book.

“Hi, what does your daughter like to read?” I ask, trying to fill that awkward moment when someone is making a buying decision about my book right in front of me.

Instead of answering, she asks a question:

“Is there sex in your book?” 

Deflated, I answer as I always do, “some, but it’s not explicit, blah blah blah.”

I swear she sneers at me as she says, “Well, the first word I saw when I opened the book was ‘sex,’ so…” She puts the book down.

Here’s what I want to say:

Bella and Edward do it
“You’re joking, right? It’s very possible that your tenth grade daughter has actually had sex. And if not, then at least one of her friends has. And if not, then I can guarantee that your daughter a) has heard about sex and knows how the whole thing works, b) has read books with graphic sex, c) has seen movies and TV shows and heard songs with actual explicit sex that you can see with your eyes and hear with your ears instead of just your imagination. And you don’t even know what my book is about. You saw the word sex and you FREAKED THE EFF OUT.”

I don’t say any of that, obviously. I straighten my stack of books and try to shrug it off. But I can’t. I feel like I’ve been shamed. By a complete stranger. As if she’s just called me a slut.

I start making resolutions in my head: From now on, I’m writing squeaky clean, no sex, nothing. No one can question it. I won’t feel this horrible shameful feeling. And: This was a waste of my time. I’m never doing this again.

But then a woman comes over to my table. I put on my game face.

“My niece would think it’s so cool to have a book signed by the actual author,” she says.

I smile and wait for the question.

“What’s your book about?” she asks. Oh, okay, a warm-up.

“A seventeen-year-old girl who seems to have it all falls for a troubled boy, and she has to face her own difficult past.” (Or some version of this.) The one sentence description of your own book is so hard to say.

She takes a few moments to read the flap copy.

“Well,” the woman says, and I brace myself again for the question. “I’d say my niece is a bit troubled herself. I think she’d like to read this. She may even see herself in here.”

She hands me the book to sign.

“It’s perfect,” she says when I return it to her. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” I say. “I hope it is perfect for her.” (Yay for cool aunts.)

My signing table at Barnes & Noble

So, because of this woman (and a few others, like the boy who asks me to sign a copy for his girlfriend because she’s too embarrassed to ask me—nice boyfriend, right?), I know that I haven’t wasted my time. There are girls and boys out there who will read this book, and maybe it’s exactly the right book at the right time. All of my time spent writing, thinking, revising, and doing book signings like these is worth it. And no more shame—if the characters in my books are supposed to have, or think about, or talk about sex, then that’s going to happen in my books. 

* Post retitled thanks to the brilliant Ami Allen-Vath


Natasha Sinel writes YA fiction from her home on a dirt road in Northern Westchester, NY. She drives her kids around all afternoon, but in her head, she's still in high school, and hopes that no one near her can read minds. Her first novel THE FIX, released from Sky Pony Press in September 2015.


16 comments:

  1. I share your perplexion. I review a ton of YA books for our Central Maine Librarian blog and have found that some school library media people are anal about the review noting whether there's sex, strong language, or violence in it. Heck, all they need to do to get over this is walk past ANY TV between 8-11 at night (or watch a daytime talk show) to see tons more of these three hot buttons almost constantly, but you can bet they're not taking the time to censor that part of their daughter's lives.

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  2. I just want to hug you and this whole post.

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  3. Love this. "By ruling out books that have sex in them, are we teaching our daughters to be afraid of sex? That it’s shameful?" -- I say, Yes! That's exactly what we teach by censoring. Your last paragraph gave me chill bumps. Keep being real. :) Thanks for such a great post!

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  4. Good on you, Natasha. Write the story your characters require.

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  5. This is why I want to scream when people say things about making YA books edgy "just to sell books." The truth is, YA authors usually have to fight the opposite battle--the one you've described here. We are more likely to have books be unrealistically sanitized or censored.

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  6. Huh. And here I've been getting rejections from agents because (at least in part, obviously not always) there isn't ENOUGH sex or sexual tension in my book! I've since gotten a contract with a publisher who specializes in 'clean' books. Which is great, because that book just *was* clean. Most of my others, are not. I never set out to write one or the other, the story and characters decide what it needs to be.

    I don't understand why parents don't understand that. Some books have sex (to varying degrees) and some don't. Just like some PEOPLE have sex at certain ages, and some don't. I'm not a mother, but I've got a five year old niece, and if anything, I want her to read a wide breadth of books, and understand that just like books and their characters are all different, so are people.

    Now, I'm off to read more about The Fix!!! :)

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  7. I remember being the same age and reading books by authors like Judy Blume, who definitely included "sexy" scenes in some of her books. At that age, a lot of young people are curious about sex; it's better if their parents are honest with them about it, rather than try to shield them from all discussions of it. On the other hand, one too many episodes of Teen Mom may have made some moms a little over-protective.

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  8. I just tried to leave you a long post about my personal experiences and it somehow deleted.
    So, instead of retyping it here's the sum up:
    Everything you said: RIGHT ON!
    The Fix was awesome and there will always be ridiculous moms (and dads). And all I can say to them is this: I probably read Judy Blume's Forever (omg the word "penis" is in that book!) a thousand times when I was 12. I did not go out and have sex because of it. Sometimes grown ups need to grow up.

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  9. Natasha, this post is wonderful and very true. Also high fives to that cool aunt. I think about this a lot. I'm requerying a book that opens with a sex scene (and it's been on sub) and lots and lots of sex in it ;)...no agents or editors have had issue with it. But I think A LOT about the daydream-y part of this business: the launch party. I can't read my book aloud because there is so much sex or cursing or drinking or partying blah blah and my cousins have 5 year olds I KNOW they will bring to my launch party. (Like yay support but uh...) I guess my question is how did you know what to read? What was appropriate? (This daydream-y. LOL. Very very daydream-y).

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    1. Yeah, you'll just have to pick an all-ages section to read!

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  10. I would have asked the sex question.

    So at the risk of being called a bad parent who is shielding her daughter from the real world, please allow me to tell you why I would have asked if there was sex in your book.

    I have a 12-year old daughter in 7th grade. She’s developing slower than some of her female classmates, and faster than others. Kids all develop differently, at different speeds and levels. As her parent it’s my job to see that. I know that my daughter would rather pin puppy pictures on Pinterest than get ratings on Instagram. I know that developmentally, she wouldn’t be ready to read a book that talks about sex. She has absolutely no interest in boys yet. When she does, then we’ll talk. You mention that age 12 is the cusp, but I have to argue. I don’t know what the future holds for my daughter. Maybe she’ll be ready for it at 13 or 14, but maybe she won’t. Like I said, it’s my job as her parent.

    I teach at a school. I see far too many children who have parents that don’t want to be parents. They don’t put a coat on them when it’s snowing out, they don’t send lunches for them to eat, and they forget to pick them up when the school day has ended. My thought when reading your post was - “Thank god there are still parents out there who care enough to want to know what their children are reading.”

    Here’s the difference between me and the other parents that walked by your table. I wouldn’t have asked YOU that question, especially not at your table in the book store. I wouldn’t have shamed you for putting any particular content in your book. I would’ve bought your book and excitedly had you sign it. I would’ve taken it home and read it if I was concerned that there may be sex in it. Then I would’ve made my own judgement on whether I think it’s something she’s ready for (and yes, I do the same for movies and television). Please don’t judge these parents for looking out for their children. Judge them for being callous and rude and next time they ask you, suggest they buy the book so they can read it and find out for themselves.

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    1. Yes, Holly! I absolutely agree that parents should monitor their kids' reading. Parents know their kids best. And you sound like an amazing mom. I just wish the questions weren't ONLY about sex for the girls.

      Especially thank you for your last paragraph. You nailed it.

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  11. My second YA, PLAYING HURT, was pretty steamy. What I found my readers (and their parents) were MORE interested in was how people treated each other. (The fact that Chelsea cheated on her boyfriend was more important than the actual sex.) It warmed my heart, actually...

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  12. I so feel you on this. I always felt shamed with POU and having to explain it to people. And, after I wrote it, I also decided that's it for sexy scenes because people were just awful. But, we have to keep it real too, right? And it's funny, even when people don't ask me if there's sex, I've felt it my duty to explain, explain, explain. And, I'm always thankful for the people who say, "It's fine. My kids don't live in a bubble" or a variation of this. And I try to hold back that part of me that wants to say "Are you sure? You did hear me say sex, right? And abuse?" Our world is crazy. I gotta admit, though, it's been a relief for me not to deal with this with the Chloes. I hate feeling like I have to apologize all the time, and it's been a less stressful experience.

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