By Lisa Speidel
What is the right way to talk about human sexuality? This debate is as timely and fiercely contentious as ever. Whether sex education is coming from parents or schools, many disagree on what is appropriate content.
In the United States, each state mandates what is acceptable for sex education curricula, which means there is no consistency in the programming across the country. Federal funds mostly finance abstinence-only programs, truly comprehensive sex education is limited, and those who are teaching may not be qualified. This can often lead to fear-based approaches that are medically inaccurate, and the perpetuation of stereotypes based on gender, sexual, and racial identities.
As someone who teaches human sexualities, I see many students confused, ashamed, and lacking in general knowledge about practicing healthy sexuality. I didn’t realize the extent to which this was happening when I started teaching this course. In all honesty, I was terrified of the 60 20-somethings in front of me because I assumed they knew everything. After all, they had access to Google, an option I didn’t have while I was growing up; however, searching online did not mean they necessarily knew what to look up. Many students confess in their writing that they thought they knew everything, but in actuality, they know very little.
In my courses, I use multiple tools designed to involve students in the discussion, but one of my favorites is Sex is a Funny Word: A Book About Bodies, Feelings and You by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth.
You might wonder what a book created for parents to use with 7- to 12-year-old children is doing in a college course. I ask students to write a summary of the book, to analyze its main messages, and think about what their reactions are. What would they have thought if they had read it as a child? Would they use it with children they may know in the future?
Sex is A Funny Word is nothing short of revolutionary. It’s 165 pages of colorful, comic book images containing diverse characters introducing four main concepts around sexuality: respect, trust, joy, and justice. The book challenges us to destigmatize sex as taboo and uses gender-neutral language with such statements as “some bodies have a vulva, and some bodies don’t.” As Silverberg describes it to me, “It’s a queer book, which means that it’s about showing the beauty and complexity in all bodies and experiences, especially those which are denied and erased in mainstream sex education. …It throws out the idea that sex education is about getting answers from experts, and instead works to create a space where everyone’s experience and knowledge isn’t just valued but is prioritized.”
Originally, the goal of assigning the book was to inspire conversations about sex education, but to my surprise, many students also learned new information. “The book is full of information that both children and adults can learn from,” says a 22-year-old student. “I imagine that many adults would learn the difference between the vulva and vagina and more specifics about vulvar anatomy than they currently know.” Another student adds, “I figured with a book gauged for 7- to 12-year-olds, I would know pretty much everything in the book, but I was wrong. …I think them having access to this book is the perfect way to introduce the topic in a mild way.”
For the past three years, my (now) 9-year-old daughter and I have read this book together. Every few months she asks if we can read it again, which is often a catalyst for other conversations related to gender and sexuality. When I asked her why she liked the book, she answered, “It is such a great book in general, not just because it is fun, but because a lot of kids don’t have the proper education…a lot of people at my school and a lot of my friends are embarrassed or feel that it is weird to talk about the subject of sex. The book gives out the proper sex education for any kid that were to read it because it has good messages and is able to tell kids to be confident about that subject because it is a very important subject to learn.” Clearly, we all have a lot to learn.
Lisa Speidel is an assistant professor in the Women, Gender & Sexuality Department at the University of Virginia. She is an AASECT certified sexuality educator and co-author of the book The Edge of Sex: Navigating a Sexually Confusing Culture From the Margins.