Sexual Tension = Sex in YA

Venue: The Hairpin

A large squeal reverberates throughout my apartment, hurting my ears. “They just kissed!” gasps my roommate, staring intently into a paperback of The Hunger Games.  I gape at her, confused.  Hardly any sexual tension exists between Katniss and Peeta. Their first kiss was awkward and forced, as I recall. Well, there was another, more intimate scene: in the cave, Katniss acknowledges her feelings for Peeta (finally!) and they kiss. As a straightforward narrator, she doesn’t really make this kiss very sexy for readers. Surprise, surprise. And yet we still feel excited for her.  Sexual tension works in this intriguing and effective way, stimulating and forcing us to invest in the characters’ relationship. We cheer on Ron and Hermione or Elizabeth and Darcy because we want to see their relationships succeed and their sexual tension relieved. But it plays out distinctively in almost every book. Different characters in different situations resolve their sexual tension in very different ways. Truly a crafty plot device, YA sexual tension generates various literary sexual climaxes and thus redefines what sex constitutes and what it can mean.

Not only do we get caught up rooting for our favorite literary couples, but we also become an active player within the novel.  I know I’ve imagined myself living at Hogwarts, fighting alongside the trio, loads of times. Michael Schudson presents this idea of active literary engagement in “The New Validation of Popular Culture”: “the quality of reading… takes center stage and the critic is more producer than evaluator or consumer” (Schudson 559). Readers produce their own versions of the novel. Thus, Bella’s cipher character is easy to fill.  After all, who else do we know better than ourselves? As she appreciates Edward in all his gorgeousness and feels his trembling fingers and soft touches, so do we.  We YA readers really enjoy reading a good sexually climactic scene because we can vicariously imagine ourselves center stage.  No doubt we gain a sort of secondary fulfillment as our protagonist experiences that intense warmth of first love.

Sexual tension, mild or intense, immerses us deeply into YA novels. Not only does it generate great reader interest, but it also makes the novel more realistic as a whole. Could you imagine reading Harry Potter without a shred of romance? Considering that Harry is a teenage wizard with desires, an absence of love interests or sexual thoughts would seem unrealistic, not to mention boring.  A believable YA novel does not avoid sex; it addresses the feelings accompanying sex and its implications full on. In Shadow and Bone, Alina experiences the Darkling’s dangerous seduction: “I felt a little trill of panic as my skirt slid higher and his fingers closed on my bare thigh, but instead of pulling away, I pushed closer to him” (Bardugo 220).Her panic tells her that this experience is wrong and going way too fast. In contrast, Alina’s heightened moment with Mal is anything but dark: “The moment our lips met, I knew with pure and piercing certainty that I would have waited for him forever” (299).  The novel presents two opposing sexual climaxes. One is rushed and disrupted, while the other is pure and fulfilling. Through her experiences with both, Alina finds that she prefers the kind of sexual intimacy without dark undertones. Such literary sexual climaxes allow characters to achieve fulfillment on their own terms.

In all YA novels, the development of sexual tension follows a similar trajectory: it builds and builds until it’s ready to culminate and burst at any moment.  In most cases, no actual intercourse occurs on the pages; I think most of us can agree that full-blown, descriptive sex scenes don’t exactly belong in a young adult novel.  However, sex is still addressed and explored, just in a less direct way.  Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight presents sexual feelings and scenarios that are often equally arousing: in the meadow, Bella’s experience with Edward culminates in her physical and emotional fulfillment. She connects to him emotionally.  She reacts to him physically: her muscles in the pit of stomach tighten and her pulse hammers through her veins (Meyer 277).  Thrilled by her natural fear of Edward and their developing intimacy, Bella is unconditionally and irrevocably satisfied (for now): “I could hear his breath, and nothing else.  ‘This is enough,’ I sighed, closing my eyes” (278).  Even Edward gets his fulfillment by successfully overcoming his urge to kill Bella and drink her blood.  “Nothing else” occurs because Twilight makes abstinence sexy and Edward’s repressed blood lust erotic.  Can’t we also view these sexually charged experiences as forms of unconventional sex?

As Eve Sedgwick argues in “Axiomatic,” people view sex differently because “people are different from each other” (247).  Indeed, YA protagonists differ greatly. What’s sexy and arousing for Bella (such as Edward’s constant thirst for her blood) may not be sexy to Katniss. By exploring different sexual trajectories through sexual tension, YA literature offers forms of intimacy and fulfillment that are just as valid as intercourse. After all, emotional climaxes can be just as important as traditional sexual climaxes. Thus, sex and sexual tension can be one and the same.  Erotic non-sex allows authors to freely discuss teenage desires without sounding admonishing or condescending. It also involves readers in its vicarious thrill and keeps us emotionally invested.

No one seems to have a problem with depictions of kissing, close contact, or any sort of non-sex sexual tension. Why then do people still insist on censoring novels such as John Green’s Looking for Alaska?  Critics of the novel adopt a shameful outlook on teenage sexual exploration, which seems unwarranted. Every other novel addresses sex in one form or another. If sex is deemed taboo in YA literature, all scenes with sexual tension should be cut too (following that same logic).  Such a divide between sexual intimacy and actual intercourse should not exist when both are so similar, even interchangeable for some characters.  Besides, young adults reprimanded for reading about sex can’t be kept away for long… I know I shamelessly still combed through the most explicit of romance novels when I was 13.

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