Stop Treating YA Characters Like Love Interests (when you're a grown-ass adult)
Hey, serious topic time! cws for: discussion of disturbing behaviour towards children.
I’m not going to write specifically about the Hannah Witten saga, which is still ongoing; others have/are certainly going to articulate their feelings about her gross video far better than I could. But what I want to write about is something similar, a disturbing parallel that seems to rear its ugly head in the writing community with alarming regularity: it’s YA writers sexualising their teenage characters, people.
In all honesty, I have no one specific to call out for this. It’s not that I saw someone do this and ran to my blog to draft a quick post—this is a conversation that’s been stewing in my brain for literally years. It’s less a bold infraction and more a series of tweets that made my stomach turn churn but I didn’t know why; it’s not authors saying look how sexy my teen character is! and more a feeling of quiet discomfort generated by weird descriptions and a little too much detail and things that just feel wrong but it’s hard to understand the cause.
Maybe this is my instinct kicking in, as someone who’s got (and I’m bragging) a pretty killer gut. Not that I always listen to what my gut is telling me, because I don’t—but when I don’t, I always end up in trouble. I’ve had friendships that started with a weird gut instinct of uh-uh, no and ended in tears years later because I should’ve listened to myself in the first place. So yeah, my instincts are reliable most of the time.
And there are certain tweets, certain turns of phrase, that just make my instincts go NOOOOOOOOO.
Let me be clear: I have no issue with YA writers discussing sex. Teenagers have sex. Big fucking deal. It’s life. Where I draw the line is with the description: frankly, if I feel like the writer went way too deep with describing teens having sex—if I get even a whiff that they wrote it because they liked it???—haha bye. No thanks. I’m out, and my skin is probably gonna crawl for the rest of the week.
And it’s weird that I sometimes feel in the wrong for articulating that view, right? That I see people getting really into their discussions about teen characters having sex and part of me holds back because I’m like, shit, maybe I shouldn’t say anything? Maybe I’m just being a freak? But I really don’t think I am! I think it’s weird and it’s wrong and if you’re an adult getting off on writing about teens having sex, that’s fucked up!
It’s also pretty gross that I feel like maybe… I shouldn’t post this? Like it’s gonna be too much for me to call out actual grossness in the community—and you know what? I don’t want to have to write this. I’m a survivor and writing this makes me come out in a cold sweat, and it’s probably going to inhabit my mind for way longer than it should for a ranty opinion post that’s gonna get three reads. I don’t want to write this, and I shouldn’t have to, but there you are.
And look, for all my late teens/early 20s gang: sometimes it’s hard! To accept that the stuff you grew up with is no longer for you; to realise that hey, you’re more like these characters’ older sibling than a peer. It’s a weird realisation! But you have to—have to—address your funky feelings about those YA characters. Nostalgia isn’t a good enough reason to be a creep.
YA writers who want to avoid creating the aforementioned icky feeling: interrogate the way you write about sex. Interrogate the way you write about attraction and sexuality and relationships, and be really, really honest. Do you need that sex scene? Like, really? Why?
And how did you feel when you wrote it? Because if you got turned on: have I got some news for you, buddy.
You’ve got some fucking work to do, and you probably shouldn’t be writing for children.
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