Part of the character arc for my main character from Can I conceal an antihero's insanity - and should I? is that she is a sociopath, prepared to do things that normal people would not. Part of her story arc is that while under-age (she's between 14 and 15 years old at the time), she - on her own initiative - engages in prostitution, with a few boys who attend school with her, as well as with an older man, in order to get the funds to obtain a piece of equipment that will prove vital for the later parts of the story. When she has what she wants from these relationships, she ends them, but in the case of one school boy who does not accept that their relationship has ended, and to let the other school boys to whom she was prostituting herself know that the consequences of going against her will will be dire, she reports them to the authorities, accuses them of rape, and they are convicted. In the case of the older man, she reports him to the authorities in order to fend off an accusation that she is a prostitute.

In case it matters, this is occurring in a slightly post-modern-day USA, (in either New York state or New Jersey) less than 5 years in the future, which is recovering from a disastrous alien attack some years before that had significantly disrupted everyday life, though at the time this occurs, things are slowly returning to normal. Laws are pretty much unchanged, at least in this area - engaging in prostitution is still illegal, as is a person over 18 engaging in sexual relations with a person below the age of consent.

However the reality of the situation is that not only did she initiate these relationships, she was sufficiently mature, even though under-age, to enjoy herself.

How do I show the reader that this character not only initiated but enjoyed these relations, and that her accusations of rape were false, even if her relationship with the older man was legally paedophilia - while he should have known better, she initiated the inappropriate relationship.

Since these relationships involve an under-aged girl initiating, engaging in and enjoying sexual relations, in the first case with a boy who is also under-age, and in the second case with a man old enough that he ought to have known better than to have participated, I am somewhat at a loss as to how to portray this. I don't personally condone what any of the characters have done, but I also need to show that my main character deliberately sought out that which she later turned against her clients.

If all the characters were consenting and of legal age, I would just include a sex scene... and elsewhere in the story I have done just that with other adult characters, but how do I show what I need to show in this case?

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    You say "If all the characters were consenting and of legal age, I would just include a sex scene". Any reason why you can't include a sex scene? I remind you that Daenerys was 13 when she was married to Khal Drogo. Plenty of sex with varying measures of consent. Sep 12, 2019 at 13:39
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    Where will you publish? In Canada you can depict sex and illegal sex in literature, but in the latter case not in a pornographic manner. Most authors have no issues with that, yet last year a canadian author got accused of producing child porn because of an especially graphic rape scene which included a child. Be aware of the laws pertaining to the place where you think you will publish when you touch sensitive issues.
    – laancelot
    Sep 12, 2019 at 13:47
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    Neil Gaiman is quite good with letting the reader know that sex had been had without actually depicting it. If you have some of his works laying around it might be helpful to take a look into it. Resuming the situation and letting the reader know the protagonist's feelings on the matter would serve you well, while depicting the actions pertaining to the scene is more "risky". If you really want to skirt the legal frame of the thing, you should ask this question to people skilled in law. Unless they have been unlucky enough to be confronted to the same problem, writers won't be of legal help.
    – laancelot
    Sep 12, 2019 at 14:23
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    Think very very hard about what you'd like reader reaction to be, at every stage. At the beginning, during, after. You are going to need to both guide the reader towards the reactions you want, reflect the protagonist's point-of-view, and also "signal" the reader your own awareness of the situation. That's a difficult balance to strike; to accomplish it, it's best to know exactly what you're aiming for. (For example -- would you like the reader to be horrified by the intimacy scene, or tittilated by it? Or something else?)
    – Standback
    Sep 12, 2019 at 14:38
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    (To be honest, I suspect this is less an issue of "how do I write this," and more "I think a lot of readers are nnnnot going to be on board with what I'm showing." The trick is to figure out a reasonable mental, emotional "track" that the readers can glide along. That's what you need -- to figure out a sturdy "track.")
    – Standback
    Sep 12, 2019 at 14:41

4 Answers 4


Tell it in narration.

You have plenty of opportunity to show this character's social pathology in her adult life. And plenty of material to do it with. This establishes her personality and the lengths she's willing to go to get what she wants.

The purpose of including these events in her childhood are to show that her personality was well established before she reached adulthood (and perhaps to explain where she got the money to do what she needed to do then).

The length and level of detail of her teen life that you gave in your question is about right for the book. It's more than enough to squick out the reader (I'm gonna do my best to put that all out of my head after pouring my thoughts into an answer). And it serves its purpose.

Anything more than that would be overkill. You don't want to delve too deeply into this stuff. In the real world, 14 year old girls don't become prostitutes on their own initiative, for fun and funding, and false rape allegations are a lot rarer than people think. If you paint her past in broader strokes, you allow the reader to suspend disbelief, get the information they need to know, and move on to the current timeline of the book.

How do you include it in the narrative?

You have several tools available to you:

  • Flashback (which can be full-on with dialogue, as a story within a story, or just quick bits).
  • Her telling someone (with her own twisted understanding).
  • Someone else telling another character (or throwing it in your main character's face).
  • The narrator matter-of-fact informing the reader, just like a narrator informing a reader that she decided to wear blue that day.

My suggestion is to avoid a full-on flashback, but to choose a method that will be short and matter-of-fact. You want the reader to know "this is what she did" and not have to live it with her.

If you show other parts of her childhood in "real time" as part of the plot, you can still gloss over this important part so the reader doesn't dwell on it too much. If you want to delve into this chapter of her life, you can. But it isn't necessary and it would turn many readers off.

You can do this in 1-2 paragraphs then never mention it again. Or you can allude to it later (or earlier). Or throw in a line here and there to build a bigger picture. I assume there are other parts of her childhood where she did horrible things and you might want to toss in bits from those as well, peppered through the book (or done very sparsely).

The details of how you do this are up to you. My advice is to minimize the time you spend on these events. The tiny bits you've already told here are more than enough. If you show sex scenes (or scenes of her lying in court, etc), it will be too much and will make it more difficult for the reader to connect with the rest of the book.


Well, I think you need to start by reading Lolita -- not because it will give you a clear answer to your question, because Lolita is hugely controversial to this day -- but because it will give you an example of a great artist treading the same treacherous ground you are proposing to tread. And you will realize that you are never going to be able to tread this ground in a way that will satisfy everyone.

Then I think you will need to think about the distinction between drama and titillation. Sex, and particularly the initiation of a first sexual relationship is one of the most dramatic events in anyone's life. Thus it is an important dramatic element in many stories. But descriptions of sex and sex acts can also be merely titillating. They can be used to produce a sexual response in the reader without exploring any of the life drama involved in the initiation of a sexual relationship.

That which is done purely for titillation is pornography. But because titillation is part of the initiation of the sex act itself, the depiction of titillation may be an essential element of the drama in a non-pornographic description of sex. But how do you describe titillation as effectively as you need for dramatic purposes without actually titillating the audience? In practice, that is pretty difficult, which is why the definition of pornogrpahy is so difficult and you end up having to fall back on "I know it when I see it" judgements.

And, of course, in stories for adults about adults, writers often include a great deal of titillation -- a porn and drama two-for-one for the reader. Romance novels often advertise the amount of this they provide, rather akin to the 1-4 pepper rating system used on bottles of hot sauce.

But, of course, where a child is involved, these impossible to define limits become much more difficult to handle and the two-for-one effect becomes particularly problematic. Unless you take titillation off the table altogether, you are likely to be in very deep water. And I can't imagine how you can take titillation off the table altogether except by avoiding any description of the act. Maybe someone can figure out how to do that, but, like I say, it is very deep water. But avoiding the act alone will not ensure that you avoid titillation. The water here is very very deep.

Nothing you can do in the depiction of this is going to get you off the hook with some people though. The mere fact of telling this story at all, no matter how successful you are in avoiding anything titillating or pornographic, is still going to get you in trouble in some quarters. For many today, the world must be presented as comprised solely of clear villains and clear saints. For them, ambiguous victims cannot be admitted, for they spoil the simple political case they are trying to argue. (To be clear, there is more than one such group in the world today.)

So, the question of dealing with it "appropriately" has no solution outside each individual's view of what is "appropriate", and there will be people for whom, for perhaps quite diverse reasons, the story you want to tell will never be appropriate under any circumstances.

You can probably affect the amount of criticism you will receive by being less explicit and avoiding any form of titillation (perhaps at the expense of some element of the drama) but you are certainly going to be in the dog house with a lot of people if you tell this story at all.


So a couple things, but the big problem is in the United States, the age of consent is usually 16, not 18 (It's 18 in California, which where most of the world's porn is filmed. It's also the home of a lot of writers of Crime Dramas). The most common age of consent in the U.S. is actually 16, but each state sets their own age, so you'll need to check the laws in the state. Given that New York and New Jersey share commuters often, it might come down to where she did it with the older man (though if he crossed a state line to meet her, it will be 18... as it's a Federal Crime and the Feds do set it at 18, but rarely have jurisdiction as they rarely prosecute crimes committed in one state only and this wouldn't rise to that issue.

And before you start singing "She is 15 going on 16. He is 18, going on 19, therefor it is a crime" I'm gonna have to tell you to hold your singing Von Trap. In the United States, most states have a "Romeo and Juliette" law that doesn't hold someone over the age of consent to a statutory rape charge if they are relatively close in age. This is because, as you point out, teens have sex, and sometimes, they date upper classmen... and they have sex because yes, this happens. There could be a situation where he is born in January and she is born in October and start dating and have a summer fling in the year where they both turn 16 (age of consent). This means that he is technically committing statutory rape, on someone who is in his same academic class and most people will say "but they are the same age". The "Romeo and Juliette" rule will stop this and usually covers only couples of similar age that are above around 11-12.

And notice how I use statutory rape and not pedophilia? That's because the situation described is not pedophilia in a legal senses. Clinically, pedophilia is an attraction to pre-pubescent children while a different term is used for teenagers (I want to say Ebophilia but I can't spell it and really don't want to put it into google to spell check it.). The crime of committing either act is statutory rape (which is different for "rape" in that a defense to rape is showing the victim consented, while in statutory rape, the victim was legally never able to consent even if he or she initiated the encounter. Even if a 13 year old wants to get it on with a 45 year old, the 45 year old should know that the 13 year old can't give permission for that activity according to the law, thus this "defense" is basically tantamount to saying "I shot the sheriff but I did not shoot the deputy" in a murder case (basically an admission of guilt).

I would recommend that the best way to show this is to show her encounter with a boy or several boy(s) without getting into graphic descriptions (basically show that they are sharing beds, are naked, make pillow talk) but don't discuss with specificity what's happening. When it comes time to show the Old Man, hard fade-to-black the moment the pair closing the bed room door and open up after she is dressed and leaving the room... if you can, do a switch to another character, and then switch back to her exit after the incident is concluded.

I would say that you could certainly get away with discussing her thoughts on the sex with the old man after the fact and he can certainly say creepy inappropriate things to her after it.

Legally, if I recall, fictional depictions of statutory rape are not illegal in the United States, so long as the acts never happened, to actual people (i.e. you can have you Law and Order SVU about a teen rapist so long as the on screen attack is done as a simulation not an actual act of sex). In fact, for your limits, I would generally look at shows on TV where teens would have sex that portray it more or less accurately (crime drama "Law and Order: SVU" and Teen Soap Opera "Degrassi" (any of the various incarnations, as they tend to be written for the time period they aired in) both have multiple episodes that depict sex with teens with an informative angle to their depiction. The former to educate on sex crimes and the latter is more geared to teens and difficult issues they face growing up.) for dos and don'ts. If you are writing this for teen readers (Young Adult) then keep in mind that you can get away with a lot more in books than you can in TV and film because parents are just happy their kids are reading something and not playing violent video games (if mom only know just how much graphic violence I was exposed to in "The Animorphs" series (made for middle schoolers at best), she would have taken my books and given me my Gameboy and told me to catch all the Pokemon. I may have dated myself with my references.) and a book about a teenage girl who has sex during the course of the novel... I mean... I think I'd have an easier time listing YA books where that doesn't happen... even Harry Potter slipped in something that was vaguely sexual depending on how you interpret the phrasing.

Given the way your detecting the unhealthy personal relationships from this character's decision and the fact you describe her in terms that suggest she knows her responses are wrong, it seems like it'll get a pass, since your showing teen sex in a light that doesn't glorify it.


First, I'd check on the law where you live. Writing about a child engaging in sex might legally be considered child pornography.

I write non-fiction so I've never personally had to deal with this issue. I recall reading years ago that in the United States written words are never considered pornography for legal purposes, only pictures can be illegal. And I've heard of some cases where actresses who were over 18 played minors in porn movies, either because the actress looked young or was made up to look young, and that this is legal. So I would GUESS that just writing about a 15 year old engaging in sex, when no actual 15 year old is involved, would not be illegal in the US. But let me emphasize that I am not a lawyer and I have not investigated this. Before you tried to publish such a book I would definitely encourage you to investigate and make sure you're not going to get into legal trouble for selling child porn.

Note that in general, writing about illegal activities is not a crime. There are lots of books about a brilliant detective solving a murder. I've never heard of someone being arrested for writing a murder mystery. Talking about crime is not a crime.

Legal issues aside, just considering it from a literary point of view ...

If you write an explicit sex scene involving an underage girl, I am quite sure that some readers will find this horrifying and disgusting and throw your book away, others will find it fun and exciting, and yet others will see it as good drama. The question is: What audience are you trying to appeal to?

In general, sex scenes in fiction are problematic. For some readers, if you give an explicit, blow by blow description of a violent rape, they'll say it was boring because it doesn't include any torture. For others, if you say that two people kissed they'll be embarrassed and offended. There is no "right" level of sex that every reader will find unoffensive and at the same time find entertaining. If you're trying to maximize sales of your book, you want to search for a level that the most readers find entertaining. If your goal is to write a certain kind of story, then you have to accept that maybe you're too explicit for most readers or not explicit enough for most readers.

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