Sex and Swearing!

Right … now that I’ve caught your eye ;)

No, I promise that actually is the topic of today’s post.  Recently I’ve read a lot of different blog posts about the portrayal of sex in teenage fiction.  Admittedly, most of these blog posts seem to have been written from a very religious standpoint.  From my experiences of searching WordPress for fellow author bloggers, there appear to be a LOT of very Christian writers who blog.  When I say very Christian, what I mean is that their religious beliefs colour almost everything that appears on their blog posts.  Now, there are lots of blogs that I read and subscribe to, of which I know nothing of the author’s religious persuasions, and from my opinion I prefer this, because in my opinion an author’s religious beliefs should be kept separate from their fiction.  Now, I realise I may well be opening up a large can of worms with that comment, but unless you are specifically writing a religious story, or the characters in that story clearly adhere to certain beliefs,  then in my opinion your own personal religious beliefs should not colour the fiction.  Because it is just that – fiction.

To better express myself, I’ll use Twilight as an example.  Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon.  And whilst none of the characters in the books are of that faith, the main criticism often hurled at the book is the unrealistic portrayal of teenage romance and sex, an aspect clearly affected by Meyer’s beliefs.  In the books this attitude is explained away as a result of Edward having grown up in a very different era, however, as the high levels of criticism indicate, that explanation didn’t necessarily sit too well with the majority of readers.

This brings me on to an interesting issue of writing teenage fiction.  And that issue is sex.  Now, no matter what religion you adhere to.  No matter what your personal views are on sex before marriage, the stark reality of today’s society is that the vast majority of teenagers ARE sexually active.  Just to clarify – I’m from Britain, where the legal age of consent is 16, and where to my knowledge there is far less support from teenagers for chastity movements as there is in the United States.  Now, that’s obviously not to say that everyone is doing it!  But, from my experiences as a teenager growing up in the United Kingdom (and just to clarify, I went to a selective all girls’ school and grew up in a nice area of affluent South East of England), probably 95% of the people I grew up with lost their virginity before the age of 20.  Those who didn’t, abstained mainly for religious reasons, or because they were extremely shy around the opposite sex.

In my opinion, teenagers have sex!  Something I’m sure teenage pregnancy figures the globe over will support!

Now, I realise that as an author, you have certain responsibilities to your readers, and that particularly as a children’s author, those responsibilities can be rather profound.  You and your characters can act as role models to the people reading your books, and obviously the teenage age bracket is a particularly impressionable.  However, I think as an author, you have to tread a fine line with issues like sex, and swearing.

I guess for a start you have to decide how you personally see your role as an author, and ask yourself what you are trying to achieve with your books.  Are you writing as a Christian for other Christians, are you trying to convert people to a religion, are you trying to be a teacher and teach moral values, or are you trying to be a realist?  Are you trying to be a fantasist?  And how far do you want to push the realism of your book?

They are all questions which you as a teenage bracket author need to decide where issues like sex and swearing are involved.  Because lets be frank now – MOST teenagers are to some degree sexually active (and if they’re not, a fair few want to be!) and MOST teenagers swear.

So where do you draw the line, if you do want to include these things in your books?

Personally, I try to write realistically.  And interestingly, when I first wrote ‘Flicker’, and a male friend of mine (who is 27, swears like a trooper and is not shy about sharing his sex life!) read it for the first time, one of his first comments was ‘do you think you should include a sex scene?’ and he also suggested I remove the swearing.

Now, just to clarify, when I admit to including sex and swearing in my books, I’m not writing porn, nor am I writing the script for Shameless!  When characters get angry I might use the S or the F word, and if the plot requires someone to sleep with someone else, I might mention it happened, or if, as in Flicker, the reader needs to know a little bit more about the situation, expand it to a paragraph or two.

But even this can be seen by some to be overstepping a rather big line!

Obviously it depends on your target audience.  Flicker and The Dream Navigator, are both written with 15+ year old readers in mind, and the central characters are 19 years old.  19 year olds have sex and swear, so these were things which I figure should feature in the plot just like all the other things 19 year old characters might do.  But only where necessary.  For this reason, Ellody, the main character in TDN doesn’t actually have sex, because, as anyone who has read the start of TDN will realise, she’s not a normal 19 year-old.  She’s lived a really socially-repressed life because of her abilities, and struggles with her relationships with other people.  The most the reader might see her do is kiss another character, because for her that’s a really big step.

What I’m trying to say, is that sex and swearing ARE everyday things.  Particularly for older teenagers.  And it seems a shame to censor them from an artform, if you are trying to be realistic.  But, like all other events, actions and devices, they should only be used when necessary. If the situation and the story don’t merit it, or if you are writing for a younger audience – say the 11-14 year-old bracket – then don’t introduce those two things.  Tailor your story to your audience and your purpose!   There’s no need to turn a book into a swearing dictionary or a porno mag just for the sake of it!  But equally, don’t patronise your audience!  Don’t have a nineteen year-old burst into a tirade of ‘Oh fudge!  Golly gosh I’m so angry!’ because you then you will lose your target audience!  Your readers aren’t looking to you to be their religious leader, or their teacher – they already have those things.  They are looking to you as a writer to entertain them, and to tell them about the real world …. or not, in a responsible but realistic manner.   Or at least that’s my opinion!

So I guess it’s down to you to decide exactly what role you want to play!

C-C xx

 

21 Comments

Filed under Blogging, C-C Lester, Unsigned Author Commentary, Writing

21 responses to “Sex and Swearing!

  1. I agree with you—many blogs I’ve also come across of are Christian theme. However, like myself, if our fiction has religion as one of the central themes, I think it’s appropriate that these authors update their blog with religious posts. I’ve also read that you shouldn’t always blog about your work—find other topics to blog about. So, we agree again: don’t write too much about your personal life, and don’t write too much about your novels (religious, or not).

    I did not enjoy the Twilight books for many unreligious moral reasons. I didn’t see these characters as role models whatsoever. Edward and Bella did not choose to wait until marriage to have sex—they had to. He’d kill her otherwise. There wasn’t a choice involved. In my personal opinion, when writing about sex in young adult, the decision to have sex is important. If we’re trying to convey a message to our readers, it should be that our characters are making these choices (or in the case of rape, are not making these choices). This way young readers see that people can and will make choices for or against premarital sex and for a plethora of different reasoning. Growing up, I was a bit clouded by what I personally wanted to do, and having books to read that would’ve shown me different trains of thought of the matter would have been very inspiring. Yet, from reading these novels, I would still know that I had a choice. I was in control, not my biological needs or that I have no choice but to wait or otherwise my boyfriend will kill me with his strong package.

    I want to play the role of a realist in my work, but also the role of a guide. My character faces struggles, but she always learns. Whether it’s the issue of sex, drugs, swearing, religion, or what have you—she learns. I think this is what’s most important in young adult work that has seemed to become unpopular. Entertainment has ruled out education, and by education I mean books that make you think, consider, and ponder morals.

    Sex, swearing, no sex, what have you: just make us learn something.

    • I do agree with you about the religious blogs – if that is a heavy aspect of the fiction itself then that’s fair enough, however I have to admit I’ve come across a lot less Christian fiction than I have Christian blogs, though perhaps I’m simply not overly exposed to religious fiction.

      I think you hit the nail on the head with reasoning and morals. It’s the same as any decision a character makes in a book – if you’re including it because it’s important, then you also need to include the reasoning behind it, and if that reasoning is faulty, or you consider it to be faulty, make that clear. As an adult writing for children, there is a large element of being a role model, and I guess in my opinion that means imparting a moral code rather than a religious decree. I think it’s important that teenage characters in books develop and can be seen to make their own choices, so that the reader can then follow the process of reasoning and begin to form his or her own opinions on those choices and the decision making process.

      Thanks for reading and commenting :)

      C-C xx

  2. 2blu2btru

    This is why I don’t write fiction for teenagers. I never was a “typical teenager” by your measure, and the books I read about teen relationships and what not never had sex scenes or “hard” swear words, as they tend to be called (S and F, as you call them). I don’t think it’s necessary that my characters have sex or are shown having sex in any context unless it plays a part in the story. I’m not sure what you mean by VERY religious, but most people who claim to adhere to a religion will tell you it influences every aspect of their lives in some way. As our writing is an extension of our experience (real, longed for, or imagined), it stands to reason it will end up in our works. If people criticize Twilight, it hasn’t stopped teens from devouring the books (I haven’t read them myself, as I haven’t read YA since I was a YA), so apparently she struck a cord with a large fan base.

    I would hope that the book blurb and marketing would tell the reader enough about the audience to know whether or not they would fit into it. I don’t have children myself, but one thing I did notice as a teacher was that most kids aren’t as advanced as we give them credit for in knowing how to feel about things. They go along with things because of peer pressure. They are confused and unsure to a large degree. So if I ever did write a book for them, I would have to be careful with introducing sex or any other hard subjects (drug abuse, domestic violence, etc). As I’ve learned in my own life, just because you do something doesn’t mean you understand it or the ramifications it can have in your life. But again, all these issues and considerations are the reasons I don’t write YA fiction.

    • “I did notice as a teacher was that most kids aren’t as advanced as we give them credit for in knowing how to feel about things. They go along with things because of peer pressure. They are confused and unsure to a large degree. So if I ever did write a book for them, I would have to be careful with introducing sex or any other hard subjects (drug abuse, domestic violence, etc).”

      This is the problem I see with the current trend of YA. YA right now (besides John Green and authors alike) don’t deal with issues; they sidetrack you from real life. Perhaps I’m wrong, but this is my understanding when all I see on the bookshelves for YA is paranormal and fantasy. It might be because I don’t read these genres, so I’m uneducated as to their content, but I’m assuming they’re not written to pin point “real life” situations and offer suggestions to finding answers. I think this is disappointing when young adults need some counsel, some kind of path in their adolescent lives. I believe that young people who choose to educate themselves still face obstacles in life, but they have a better understanding of what to do. If they’re not finding these answers in their parents because they watch too much TV that is also filled with non-educational entertainment, then what are they supposed to do?

      If you were to write a book for YA, I agree that you have to be careful when introducing things such as sex or other hard subjects. I also think that we as YA authors SHOULD BE introducing these things to young readers, but with a good moral attached. Be your own person, make the right choices, and if you don’t, try to learn from those bad choices. Help others find themselves, etc.

      • 2blu2btru

        I agree there is a big push towards fantasy, but I also see a lot of books that are focused on hooking up, underage drinking, and drug abuse as if this is the normal behavior that teens should persue. When I was a YA, long ago, it started with books like the Zoey books, which followed a bunch of friends who traded boyfriends/girlfriends, had sex, got drunk, and didn’t learn anything at all. I only read the one book I bought. I knew the girls who got pregnant in 6th grade, so I knew you couldn’t have sex and drink and do all of that without protection and still not suffer any consequences. Those are the books I saw students carrying around and reading in addition to Twilight and Harry Potter. I think teenagers should have books that deal with reality, but the Zoey books aren’t any more realistic to me than vampires & shape shifters. It goes back to entertainment without education or sharing some truth. I actually started writing a couple of YA books when I was a teenager. I don’t see a market for them. If it’s not fantasy, it’s “too real” for me. I dread the time when I have a child and have to start dealing with what information they are getting from what they are reading. Oy. I don’t envy any parents.

      • Hmm … I think there’s a huge difference between mentioning people having sex in books, and writing about drug abuse and partner swapping! I know that there has recently been this ‘Skins’ culture which makes those things seem a lot more everyday, but what I was talking about in my initial piece is more acknowledging the fact that people over the age of 16 in relationships do have sex, they don’t simply hold hands. I think there are two extremes – writing about a world where everyone believes in no sex before marriage – which clearly isn’t the case any more, and writing about a world where all teenagers do drugs and have orgies – which is equally invalid. In my opinion there are always extremes, but they are in the minority, and the midpoint – those teenagers who have maybe had one or two sexual partners, and who have perhaps smoked a spliff once or twice, or drunk alcohol before the age of 18, isn’t something that should be shied away from in fiction as if it doesn’t happen. It’s not necessarily glorifying it, it’s simply admitting that it does happen and that these might be events and activities which factor in a teenage character’s life.

        C-C xx

    • I think you’re right, if there is sex in a book, it needs to make sense in the context of the story, and if attention is drawn to it, there needs to be a reason for it. If it happens it should be linked to character development or the development of a relationship between two characters in the book, and like Jennifer said, be surrounded by some reasoning process, whether that reasoning be well-made, or clearly flawed.

      By suggesting that teenage novels include aspects of sex, I’m not trying to pinpoint people out as ‘typical’ or ‘a-typical’ teenagers, I’m just saying that sex is something which is prevalent in teenage life and shouldn’t be censored out as if it doesnt happen.

      I think you’re right about peer pressure and decision making, and I think it’s important that whatever major decisions a character is making are discussed, and like Jennifer’s mentioned, the decision making process is well discussed, and there’s some kind of moral guidance offered – but normally that should be encompassed generally in any character development – I think that all makes the character a realistic whole person

      Thanks for reading and commenting,
      C-C xx

  3. It really does seem hard to find a happy medium, doesn’t it. I hope more authors master this craft and produce more books that both entertain, but don’t hinder growth in a secure and healthy direction. I also hope that agencies and book publishers agree.

    • I agree – like I just said in my comment on 2blu2btru’s post, I think there’s a mid point between complete purity and total hedonism, and in my opinion most of the teenagers I know would fall somewhere around that midpoint, so that ought to be represented in teenage fiction – with the caveat that it’s fiction aimed at a certain age of teenager. ‘Tweens’ don’t need to be reading about that stuff – let them enjoy their childhood. It should only be directed at an age group who are actually experiencing those issues, rather than actively introducing them as fresh issues
      C-C xx

  4. Everyone is going to have their opinion on how far these stories should go, but from my own perspective I believe if you start a story, stay true to your characters whoever and whatever they may be. Don’t censor them, even if you don’t believe what they’re doing is right. Heck, there are characters in my book who do things I don’t condone, but at the same time the mistakes and choices they make are true to who they are.

    I truly believe that parents are responsible for instilling within their children morals, respect and a foundation for life. While sadly, this isn’t really the case as often as it should be, you can’t blame a book for a child’s decisions.

    A story is a story. Fiction is fiction. It doesn’t have to adhere to anything but its own boundaries. I loved Harry Potter in sixth grade, but I didn’t start running around with a wand screaming, “Lumos!” every time I needed a flashlight. Not every book is meant to teach you something. Some are simply written to entertain, and kids should know the difference.

    We choose whether the content is suitable for us or our own children, and again, when it comes to young kids its the parents who should pay attention to what their children are exposed to and whether they deem it appropriate. But the moment we start censoring literature because of its content is the moment we start assuming people can’t think for themselves.

    And that’s a dangerous assumption to make.

    • I think this is a really great point Liz. The thing I was always taught about literature, is that it means something to every person, and everyone interprets things differently, and garners different things from a text. I think one of the things about creating a character’s journey is remembering that life, like literature can be subjective. We don’t all go through life making the right decision every time, so why should characters, and part of the joy of being a reader is deciding what you make of a character’s actions. Like you said, even children don’t follow every action of a book as the letter of the law. Sometimes the best way of getting someone to decide their standpoint on a situation or an action, is to simply present it to them with no surrounding judgment, and that way he or she can make up his own mind.

      To be honest, in Flicker, the two times Flic, the main character has sex in the book differ greatly. I put them in initially as in reality, from my experiences as a backpacker, I knew that people hooking up with other people IS something that happens when people are on their gap-years. It’s not illegal for a 19 year old to have sex. It wasn’t a huge drug-fuelled orgy … The main reason for the scenes was actually based in the supernatural element of the story – she realises something about her powers, and in hindsight about the two men she sleeps with. I put the scenes in a) because seemed to fit with the nature of the trip and her gap year, and b) because they were a useful way of introducing an aspect of the story. However, beyond that, I actually discovered after writing both scenes, that they add greatly to the reader’s interpretation of the love triangle that runs through the book.

      The first time, Flic hooks up (I love that phrase – one we don’t really use in England!) it’s with a guy she’s known for a couple of months and it kind of comes as the climax of their flirtatious relationship. However she does it because she’s drunk and she’s rebelling against the others. It fitted with the plot, and whilst I wasn’t actively trying to make a statement about that kind of motive for sex, I think the story itself ends up providing the reader with some kind of moral answer as to whether that’s a good way to act or not!
      In contrast, the second time Flic has sex in the book, it’s with a boyfriend, it’s sober and far more caring etc etc. Nothing is too obviously spelled out, but I think most readers would come to the same conclusions about which scenario worked out better for Flic, and which of the two relationships and male characters they prefer.

      What I guess I’m trying to say, is that whilst I wrote those scenes in, with very much your attitude to characters, and the flow of the story, I actually ended up almost subconsciously tying in the things Jennifer talked about. There are clear moral questions being asked and answered by the scenes, I just genuinely wasn’t trying to tie them in.

      And actually, finally looking to 2blu2btru’s comments about how your religion affects everything you write – this actually applies here. I’m not religious at all, however I like to think I have a decent moral code. And I guess my moral code, when it comes to sex – teenage, or otherwise – is that I’d much rather have it in a relationship than in a one-night stand – something which is probably quite evident from the way I wrote Flic’s own encounters. Those aren’t situations from my own life that I wrote into the story – they were just how her relationships with the other characters organically played out – however I guess underneath, my own feelings and morals do come to the foreground anyway, even though I didn’t start out trying to make any major statements!

      C-C xx

  5. Agreed. As authors, we should write of what we enjoy or think is important. As parents, we have to help our children find literature that we think is suitable for their age, and also teach them the difference between reality and fiction. And as young people, we have to take the initiative to make the right decision. Hopefully we have good parents, or good teachers, or good family to help mold these decisions. For those who don’t, that’s where I would like other sources of good morals to come in. Some kids need an escape from their lives, but these kids may need guidance because they can’t find it anywhere else. Some books should be written to entertain, but others should also help.

  6. ticklingthemuse

    This is a very interesting post, and it’s a topic I’ve struggled with as I write my novels about a 17-year-old girl who’s completely in love with a guy. To me, the obvious next step in a relationship is sex, but I’m trying to decide if this girl would go that route or if it’s just the 40-year-old me who’s interested in it. Kind of the same problem, but backward. =)

    • I guess that’s all part of it isn’t it – deciding who your characters are, and what decisions they might make – be them right or wrong. Whilst, in my opinion, a lot of the seventeen year-olds I grew up with were sexually active, or at least beginning to explore that side of things by the time they turned 17, that doesn’t mean, as 2blu2btru commented, that everyone fits that mould, and so I guess it’s a matter of deciding who your character really is, and what her decision making process and influences might be?
      C-C xx

  7. archaism

    I don’t show my characters going to the toilet. It’s not important (and I’m not writing about Leopold Bloom). I do show them having sex, and I do show them swearing.

    Fiction is a lens that shows the important parts in/on/of a story. Especially the private parts.

  8. I’m a writer finishing the final re-write on my first YA novel about a high school kid with a hot rod and the incredible trouble he and his friends gets into with ti. It has sex scenes and uses profanity. That’s what teenagers do. I have no problem with portraying it. I agree with your article. If the scene requires it, write it. Let the proselytizers sell their books to the religious flock. I prefer to tell it like it is.

  9. Pingback: The Author, The Role Model | elementarycircle

  10. I’m a realist, and I agree with your approach. If it helps show the character’s emotions, make them swear, if sex is necessary to the plot, mention it, and if drug taking is part of the plot (John Ajvide Lindqvist’s “Let the right one in”) mention it as well. Obviously without overdoing it.

    I don’t see anything wrong with having a story with good morals, but goody two shoes heroes are unbelievable. When I was young I read the Narnia books, and when later on I found out they had a strong Christian message I was really surprised. They are books with a religious message done the right way.

    • It’s interesting you mention Narnia – as a child I loved the series, but a few years ago I revisited them and was actually really put off as an adult by the heavy religious undertone. For me, as an adult reading, this detracted from the adventure, which had been the only bit I understood as a child.
      Thanks again for commenting Nicholas
      C-C xxx

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