WARNING: Before continuing, please be advised that this post shall contain certain terms that may not be appropriate for younger readers or might make some readers uncomfortable. These terms will be used for the purposes of properly defining terms such as erotica and will be centered on sexual euphemisms for genitalia. If you are uncomfortable with these terms, please read no further. If you would like to read the gist of this post, but are thoroughly offended by the terms, please leave a comment or contact me on another page/post/email and I will be happy to provide you with a summary minus the terms. Thank you.
As a ghostwriter, I’m usually hired to write fiction. (I’ve written non-fiction/self-help/advice once and pretty well hated it.) Specifically, I get hired to write the serial novella romances that are so prevalent these days on Amazon for $0.99 and spread out over a three or more “book” series. These are cheap, short, and somewhat addicting, which means that the client can—theoretically—make some money off of a bunch of different titles which they can purchase cheaply through ghostwriters and produce with little legwork—and even less time. It’s a sort of fly-by-night concept that churns out a lot of crap, and every once in a blue moon, a decent novel. (There are maybe two series that I’ve written that I’m actually proud of and the rest are so terrible, I’m sort of relieved that my name isn’t on them.)
Now, as I mentioned, I’m always hired to write romance. Which means… what, exactly? Well, it means a couple of different things to different people and I’ve found through personal experience that it’s really important to clear up exactly what a client means before continuing on with the project.
First, romance can mean a bunch of different things, but there are some things that it always means. Namely, there’s a love story. It doesn’t have to be a sweet one or a “one man, one woman” story—there can be multiple partners, partners of the same sex, or “different species” (which means paranormal, not bestiality… I think). It just means that there is a love interest and it is the focus of the story. Usually, there’s some basic plot going on, but it’s mostly just there as a vehicle for the romance. Also, there’s almost always a happily ever after (HEA for the uninitiated), though in the event of a series, this is usually saved for the final book, though the romantic interest does come together—explicitly, or non-explicitly—before their happy ending.
Moving on, there are three primary terms used to describe a romance: Clean, steamy, and erotica. A romance will fall into one of these categories at least and it won’t overlap. Period. After I’ve explained what they are, I’ll dive into the “are they appropriate for YA novels” part of the post, so hang in there with me!
This is also sometimes called “sweet” but I prefer clean just because I think that steamy and erotica can also be “sweet” even though they are more explicit. And that’s what “clean” means. Non-explicit. There might be sex involved (probably not, but it could be included in a very passing or low-key sort of way)—but you won’t hear about it. If there is a married couple, they will never be described as being in bed together, probably not even sleeping—as in catching some z’s, not dirtying the sheets—together.
The extent of physicality will be between hand-holding and kissing. Chaste kissing. I’m not kidding you. These might be religiously based—no sex before marriage type things—or they might be socially influenced—chaperones needed until the woman is married off. It might simply be a desire to explore a romantic relationship that does not revolve around physicality.
This one is where it starts to get a little… confusing. A “steamy” romance will include sex. The romantic story will be about someone having a romantic interest and coming together with them. They will at some point in the story have some type of sex. It is the explicitness of this sex that determines whether or not this is “steamy” or “erotica”. And it’s a fairly important distinction, but it’s also a pretty basic one.
The difference between erotica and steamy is the terms used. For a “steamy” romance you might use euphemisms for certain parts of the body. For example, a man’s penis would be a “member” or simply referred to as “stiffness”, “him”, or “hardness”. The words reference his genitals, but in a way that is usually considered classy or muted. A woman’s body would receive the same treatment. “Core”, “heat”, “wetness”, etc. would be used for her vagina. The same would go for other body parts. These are meant to still come off as romantic or even erotic—as penis and vagina are too clinical for such purposes—while still maintaining an air of propriety. Additionally, the act of sex itself might be described, but using these terms and in a way that doesn’t include a lot of swearing (usually) or a lot of crudeness.
Steamy means that the love interests might get hot and heavy, but they tend to err on the side of caution in the sense that the author doesn’t want to make the reader too uncomfortable.
Porn. Basically, erotica is porn in written form. (And let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a reason that erotica is always found in adult novels—they’re consenting adults. I’ll talk more on that later, but I wanted to mention that while I generally do not seek out such novels, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them. Unless they involve unconsenting or underaged—I’ll touch more on this, too—partners for the purposes of creating sexual arousal within the reader. That’s wrong, period.)
Moving on, erotica contains explicit sex and will use terminology that is going to be more crass and crude, but also more realistic, than steamy romances will. This is where you’ll find “cock” and “dick” and even “pussy” or “cunt” (which I personally hate, but to each their own). You’ll also find that the sex itself is more explicit than steamy romance will be. This means you might find kinkier sex (bondage or a dom/sub relationship, using toys or other orifices, etc.), but also it means that even if they’re only having regular sex it’s likely to be more descriptive. These means you might get more descriptions of taste, touch, sounds, etc. The senses will become more important to the writing.
Somewhere in between.
I’m going to mention one last sort of category that doesn’t really have a term, but expresses a sort of gray area between “clean” and “steamy”. The Sex Isn’t The Point Of This Story Even Though It’s Romance category. Things like the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs fall into this category. Is there romance? Yes, and it even plays a fairly big role. Is there sex? Yes, sometimes, but it’s not specifically described and it isn’t really the point of the story. This category means that though there might be a pretty good dose of romance, that doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a lot of sexy times going on—and if there is, it’s not super explicit (probably falls in the steamy category, but only barely).
These are the novels that are more Urban Fantasy or Contemporary Suspense or whatever than they are Romance. But they’ll probably still get listed under romance with other categories tacked on. I just wanted to mention that they’re out there, even if they’re not as prevalent as the others.
Is steamy or erotica appropriate for YA novels?
This is going to get a lot of different responses. A lot of people are just going to flat out say no. They’ll argue that “YA novels are geared towards teens and explicit sex is not appropriate for teens”. In some respects, that’s a valid argument. In a lot of respects, it’s not.
Teens have sex. Whether you like it or agree with it or whatever, they do. I hope that they’ve received enough sex ed that they know the safe ways to do it and I hope that they develop emotionally despite starting young, but whatever I feel about it, they will do it. And even if they don’t, they’re thinking about doing it.
And by that reasoning, they’ve already got sex in their heads, so why are we worrying whether or not they’re reading about it, too? Plus, are you going to keep them from getting their hands on adult books which inevitably have some sex in them (or are at least far more likely to)?
So I think it’s a little ridiculous to argue that teens aren’t ready to see characters their age having sex when it’s clearly already a part of their lives in some capacity (even if they aren’t having sex). Plus, I think shielding them too much from it puts them in a dangerously uninformed space. So maybe it’s just more important that the characters are having safe sex or sex with a long term, monogamous partner? Or that they feel as though there are people to speak to about having sex or the questions they might encounter?
That comes back to a different topic about whether or not an author has some moral responsibility when it comes to writing and I’m not going to touch on that right now. (But maybe in another, later post?)
Instead, I want to get back on topic. I want to give you my reasoning for why I think it is or is not appropriate for YA novels.
First, do I personally think it’s appropriate for YA novels to have sex in them?
Yes, and no.
I think YA novels are better when they’re a little sweeter. When the romances are about two characters struggling through hormones and drama to figure out what love really means before committing physically to one another.
That being said, I don’t think that’s an end all formula for YA. Instead, I think it depends on the story. Some stories lend themselves to darker tones and thus might be more able to deal with sexual themes. (And I don’t necessarily mean rape. Rape is rape is rape, so please stop confusing it with “sexual” things. It’s about control, not sex.) But these stories are also (hopefully) going to have older characters that are closer to adulthood and more apt to be encountering said darker things.
(I’m not really ready to talk about that weird line where there’s sexual abuse of a child, so let’s just assume that that’s a whole other animal and I’m not comfortable with it. So whenever that comes up, it needs to be non explicit. This is because, again, rape isn’t about sex, but control. Unless you’re making it utterly horrifying, then there’s no need to describe it in terms of “steamy” or “erotica”.)
I think erotica isn’t strictly speaking appropriate for a YA novel, even if you can get away with “steamy”. And here’s why:
An author writes erotica with a purpose in mind: to arouse the reader. If that is the ultimate goal of the author (and really, what other goal could the author have in mind? As I’ve mentioned, these sorts of sexual terms shouldn’t be used in conjunction with abuse, so what’s the point unless you’re trying to get some sort of reaction—in this case a physical reaction or arousal—from your reader?), then it shouldn’t be included in YA.
Because not all YA readers are young adults themselves.
Strangely enough, this changes the game for what is and is not appropriate for the genre (or age range, if you don’t like calling YA a genre). If the readers were all within the range of the characters themselves (under 18 and above about 13 or 14) then it wouldn’t really matter that the characters were having sex—because the arousal of the readers, although a little weird given the age of the author, wouldn’t be necessarily inappropriate. But if adults (18 and up) are reading about these characters having explicit sex and being sexually aroused by this sex, then isn’t it a little inappropriate? Because you’re being aroused by minors having sex.
And I’m just not comfortable with that.
Let me be clear, I don’t necessarily mean that this means all readers who read sex that shows up in YA novels and are aroused by it are pedophiles. The terminology—which I mentioned above—used in these types of novels is directly designed to arouse. And sometimes we forget the ages of the characters. But if this novel were to be made into a movie, following the storyline, and thus including explicit sex—wouldn’t it be child pornography? And wouldn’t that be inherently wrong to watch?
Honestly, this whole topic is getting a little helter-skelter and I’m making myself a little uncomfortable.
I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m not comfortable with YA novels that have explicit sex in them, because I am not a young adult myself. And I don’t want to see or imagine kids having sex. Because it, quite frankly, grosses me out. It’s okay if they have sex, because that’s a natural progression of the human body and most teens (though not all) will. I just don’t want to know explicitly about that sex—and I definitely don’t want to have a physical reaction to it.
So ultimately, it’s the fact that YA attracts many readers that makes me think it should be limited in its sexually explicit nature.
I don’t think everyone will agree with me—or even that everyone agrees with my reasoning, even if they agree with the end result. But I wanted to try and worm out why explicit sex in YA made me kind of uncomfortable and I think I’ve finally fettered it out.
I also wanted to say that I think this is where NA (New Adult) comes in. I’m not comfortable reading Sexy Times YA—but NA, which has the same vibe as YA, has adult characters—over 18. This means that these characters can have sex, no problem! It’s not inappropriate for the characters and it’s not inappropriate for the reader. It’s this nice middle ground between YA and Adult where someone like me can be comfortable reading about people getting jiggy with it, but still get that same emotional impact from the actual story that YA novels are so famous for.
But what do you think? What’s your opinion and reasoning? What’s your solution to this odd feeling I get from the concept of YA erotica (please let that never be a genre…)? Tell me in the comments below!
P.S. – There might be other reasons to have explicit sex, but not in the way that erotica, specifically, engages with it. From what I understand, and I have not read it, The Fault In Our Stars has some sexual stuff in it, but it’s meant to showcase awkwardness and how the two engaged in sexy times aren’t really focused on that at all. This, to me, is acceptable, because of the reasoning behind it.