Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby: Part Deux
Hello Swoon Readers!
So you might not know this about me, but aside from working in publishing, I’m a big fan of science and human behavior. It’s sort of the foil to my teen romance binging, I love a good non-fiction book about why we are the way we are and the science behind it. And last week I came across a fascinating podcast by a sex educator from Smith College, Emily Nagoski and after discovering her podcast, I went out and read her book, Come as You Are. I’m telling literally everyone I know about this book, if you’ve never read a nonfiction book – don’t worry, you’ll like this one. She tackles human sexuality, the science behind why things work the way they do and the differences between men and women. It’s utterly fascinating, but also so funny and insightful, positive and accessible. So go out and get a copy, and while you’re at it buy a copy for your best friend.
Among so many things, one of the things Dr. Nagoski talks about is romance novels and what a fan she has been for years. You might recall, last summer I wrote a blog post talking about the basics of sex in teen romance (feel free to reread it here). So the lightning bolt hit me and I thought “Hey! Swoon Reads Blog Idea!” So I pulled together a few, very basic questions and Dr. Nagoski was kind enough to answer to help me out here. So here’s what she had to say:
CT: Sex in books can be a very polarizing topic and when we talk about sex in books for teenagers it becomes even more of an “issue” for a lot of people. How do you feel about sex scenes in books for teenagers (ages 13-18ish) and how do you feel about teenagers reading romance novels intended for adults?
EN: I think sex belongs in books for teenagers, because almost half of teenagers have had sex by the age of 18. It’s part of their lives, so it belongs in their literature, music, and every other art form by which they express and discover what it means to be human.
I think about it in terms of two different analogies: eating and “bad words.”
Eating: It’s a bodily function, it’s a social behavior, there’s a lot of cultural meaning attached to the ways people do it, and there can be very serious health consequences if you make some choices rather than others.
Is there a controversy over including scenes of young people eating together?
I think sex scenes are like that.
And bad words: When I was eleven, I brought The Chocolate War home from the school library. My grandmother read it after I went to bed, and made me take a note to the school librarian saying that she (my grandmother) felt it was totally inappropriate that a book with such language (I think it used the word “fuck”) was in a library for kids our age (4th-6th grades).
I loved my grandmother, of course, but I thought then and I think now that she was absolutely wrong. Words matter, they have power. The choice to use “bad” words is a choice writers make to communicate a particular kind of idea, or in a particular way, or to a particular audience.
Same goes for sex. Good books choose to include sex, to move the story forward. GREAT books integrate sex in a way that uniquely reveals something about the characters, about us, the readers, and about the world.
CT: If you could craft a sexual experience for a teen novel that was informative and helpful, what would that look like in general – or where would you start?
EN: So here’s the part where I confess that I have actually written a new adult romance (to be published next summer by Kensington). I absolutely wanted it to be informative and helpful for all readers, whatever their ages, and I wrote it aware that, even though teens weren’t my target audience, there probably would be young people who read it. Here are some of the things I did:
It’s the story of a college senior’s sexual awakening. My heroine, Annie, has almost no experience, so the protagonists go slowly and allow lots of time for her to learn the kinds of sensations she likes or doesn’t like. They also have an explicit conversation about STIs, contraception, boundaries, and communication.
CT: What are some of your favorite romance novels (for teens or adults)? Any you would specifically recommend to teens?
EN: My recommendation for teens: READ EVERYTHING. If it’s a book, read it. Maybe you’ll like it, maybe you won’t – if not, it wasn’t for you. That’s fine. But then you can think about what didn’t work for you. Life’s too short to follow other people’s opinions about books.
I read mostly historical romance, actually. My favorite authors are Laura Kinsale and Judith Ivory. Flowers from the Storm (Kinsale) and The Proposition (Ivory) are books I reread. I loved LaVyrle Spencer’s Morning Glory and Connie Brockway’s As You Desire – can you tell I love a beta hero? And I can always count on Sarah Maclean, Lisa Kleypas, Christina Dodd, Jennifer Crusie, and Meredith Duran.
CT: If you could include a message for teenagers in every romance novel (something like a surgeons general warning – but not ominous more helpful) what would you want that message to be?
EN: People vary. What’s true for one character (or person) has nothing to do with what’s true for another character (or person). The only rules for healthy, “normal” sex are: consent and pleasure. If everyone involved has both those things, you’re doing it right.
Also – for straight guys: girls don’t like douchebags in real life. What a girl likes is when she feels equally wanted and respected by a guy. She wants to feel that a guy understands her, appreciates her, and is almost unbearably turned on by her and only her. But if a guy felt that way and WEREN’T kind of a douche, there would be no conflict because they’d just fall in love and it would be amazing, and that’s why romance heroes are sometimes douchebags. It creates conflict. tl;dr: don’t be a douche, treat the girl you like as though she hangs the moon.
CT: Bonus questions: Did you read Forever by Judy Blume?
EN: I haven’t read it in about a million years!
So Swoon Readers, there you have it, just the very tip of the iceberg really. If you find any of this interesting or are curious about what else Emily has to say, I highly recommend (again) that you check out her book. I’d love to hear what you think – what was your experience with romance novels as a teenager? What did you learn (right or wrong) about reading about romance novels? What was your first romance novel? Are there any particular scenes that have really stayed with you? Sound off below!