Sexed: What Makes A Good Sex Ed Book?

(from The Horn Book Magazine, September-October 2007)

Growing up Catholic, I was always afraid of something: unconfessed sins; demonic possession; Sister Alice, my grade school principal, who once clamped her talons on my shoulder and marched me to her office for having a boy’s name magic-markered across my palm while receiving Holy Communion. But the one thing that gave me recurring nightmares was the idea that just praying to have a baby could get me knocked up.

One Sunday, maybe riffing on the Old Testament plight of Abraham and Sarah, our pastor’s sermon involved the story of two parishioners, a husband and wife, who had been trying for years to have a child. This was the 1970s, pre-Louise Brown, and apparently the only infertility treatment readily available to the couple was prayer. They prayed together; our pastor prayed with them; and, Io and behold, these prayers were answered. Our pastor had baptized the couple’s one-month-old daughter a week earlier.

The adults in the congregation applauded this happy ending, while my seven-year-old mind began spinning faster than Linda Blair’s head in The Exorcist. Of course I wasn’t planning on praying for a baby, but what if I did so accidentally? What if I asked God for a hamster or black Converse high-tops but somehow worded my request unclearly and wound up pregnant instead?

According to psychologist Anne Bernstein’s book Flight of the Stork, in which the author analyzes a series of interviews she conducted with children in the 1970s to see what they knew about human reproduction, there were lots of other confused kids out there besides me. There was the young boy Bernstein interviewed who, presumably having been told the sperm-and-egg story by his parents, figured that, since he came from an egg, he must be a chicken. There was the preschool-age girl who stopped eating because she believed she had “a baby in her tummy,” just like her pregnant mother did, and she feared that “were she to eat, all that yukky food would bury her wonderful baby.” Not every child with creative ideas about their origins develops such fears, but Bernstein’s research led her to the logical conclusion that providing children with straightforward, accurate information about sex and reproduction lessened their anxiety.

It’s a mission sex education books for children ideally should be able to help parents fulfill, because, let’s face it, parents need the help. I certainly don’t want my two daughters to be on constant red alert for virgin birth. Yet when my seven-year-old plunked down next to me while I was folding laundry and asked me how I knew I wasn’t ever going to have another baby, I started stammering, momentarily terrified by the realization that I couldn’t very well explain birth control without also explaining what needed to be controlled.

Even with the best of intentions, writes Bernstein (this was true when she wrote it, and, unfortunately, it seems equally if not more true today), “many parents still find it difficult to talk about reproduction with their children. Their own emotional discomfort in talking about sex is one stumbling block, and their lack of information about what the child is really asking and is likely to understand is another.” Reading a good sex education book with my daughter gives me a script to consult when I get flustered. It’s not as if I need someone to feed me all my lines, but I also don’t want to just stumble onto the stage to improvise and, in my stage fright, risk conveying a message I didn’t mean to convey.

It’s too bad Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley’s It’s NOT the Stork!: A Book about Boys, Girls, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends (Candlewick, 2006) wasn’t around for the parents of the little girl with the baby-in-the-tummy belief – a still-common description of pregnancy, one I’ve unthinkingly used myself. Bernstein’s interviewee would have been quickly set straight by their “Pregnant Woman at the Movies” page. Here Emberley’s friendly cartoon art depicts a mother-to-be in her theater seat, chomping on snacks, while an interior view of her torso clearly shows the distinction between “popcorn in the stomach” and “fetus in the uterus.”

Since the 1994 publication of It’s Perfectly Normal: A Book about Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health (Candlewick) for adolescents, Harris and Emberley have established themselves as the go-to duo for thorough, accessible books on human sexuality for children, and their audiences just keep getting younger. Next in the series after Perfectly Normal is It’s So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families (Candlewick, 1999), which speaks to readers ages seven and up, while Stork is designed for kids as young as age four. A 2005 New York Times article by Jodi Kantor titled “Sex Ed for the Stroller Set” says Harris plans to add a book for two-year-olds in 2008.

Kantor ‘s article also articulates the sensible rationale behind the growing trend toward early sex education: “According to this approach, toddlers should learn words like ‘vulva’ at the same time they learn ‘ears’ and ‘toes,’ benign-sounding myths about storks and seeds constitute harmful misinformation, and any child who can ask about how he or she was created is old enough for a truthful answer.” Thus, Harris and Emberley label the anus as well as the elbow on their side-by-side drawings of a boy and girl at bath time, and relate anatomical details that even adults might find enlightening, such as the distinction between the vagina (interior) and the opening to the vagina (exterior), and the illustration depicting a circumcised versus an uncircumcised penis.

But naming body parts is one thing, talking about what they can be used for is another. Even parents comfortable doing the former activity with their preschooler might still have to steady themselves when they reach chapter ten of It’s NOT the Stork! and see Emberley’s illustration of a blissful couple lying together in bed – woman on top – hearts floating in the air above them, a blanket covering their naked midsections. Although Harris includes a disclaimer for readers about how “children are much too young to do the special kind of loving – called ‘sex’ – that grownups do,” she does directly address the mechanics of baby-making, i.e., “this kind of loving happens when the woman and the man get so close to each other that the man’s penis goes inside the woman’s vagina.”

Her definition almost makes penetration sound accidental-“Whoops, got too close to each other again!” – but at least children aren’t left to concoct their own possibly unsettling renditions of exactly how the egg and the sperm meet. They’ll know sperm doesn’t travel via hand-to-hand contact, like cold germs, or squiggle across the swings at the park.

Harris’s emphasis on sex as an adult activity could also be construed as reassurance. Children tend to view sexual intercourse as “silly” or “gross,” so most will probably be relieved to hear they don’t have to engage in such shenanigans any time soon. When I was a teenager, I baby-sat for a ten-year-old girl who told me she planned to adopt babies instead of giving birth to them herself, not because she wanted to avoid the pain of labor but because she was never, ever going to do “that,” at which point she frowned and shuddered, as if she were talking about enduring multiple root canals.

Or is Harris’s adults-only directive really there to reassure parents, who might assume that the humorously entwined couple in Emberley’s cartoon will prompt five-year-olds to leap into bed together? Sex educator Deborah M. Roffman, in her book Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent’s Guide to Talking Sense about Sex, bemoans the “two uniquely American myths” that hamper our society’s ability to openly discuss sex with children. “The first is that although knowledge is a good thing, sexual knowledge might not be (the old ‘tell them about it and they’ll go right out and do it’ bugaboo). The second is that giving information … is the same thing as giving permission.” Having worked with children for many years and having observed the more forthright approach to sex education prevalent in most other developed countries, Roffman has concluded that “talking openly about sex tacitly gives a child permission, all right, but only to do just that: to talk and to think, to reason, to understand, to clarify, to ask questions, and to come back later and talk some more. And to see us as credible and trusted sources of information.”

And here’s my question: even if books like Stork do heighten children’s curiosity about their bodies, even if they do inspire a game of doctor or two, is this really such a bad thing?

Weighing the evidence, I suspect that Harris and Emberley would say no; but have their voices been tempered by today’s politically and socially conservative culture? In journalist Judith Levine’s book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, a sex educator is quoted as saying that twenty-first-century America has mainstream sex education and right-wing sex education but no left-wing sex education. Sure, sex education books no longer admonish children that they will develop epilepsy or start wetting the bed if they “self-abuse,” the way Victorian-era treatises did. Still, what’s published today, even Harris and Emberley’s body-positive, celebratory fare, stops short of letting kids in on the whole truth: one of the best things about human sexuality, in addition to generating the miracle of birth, is that it gives people pleasure.

Ironically, for a truly progressive approach to sex education for young children, I had to look to the past. I was combing through the juvenile birds-and-bees section at my local library one day when I happened upon several copies of a small, battered paperback called A Kid’s First Book about Sex. Written more than two decades ago by Joani Blank, founder of the revolutionary San Francisco female-friendly sex-toy store Good Vibrations, it made Stork seem almost puritanical in contrast.

A Kid’s First Book about Sex sounds like it belongs on the board book shelf – colors, shapes, numbers, and . . . sex! – and in fact it proclaims right off the bat that it is aimed at “girls and boys whose bodies haven’t started to change into grown-ups’ bodies.” Then it goes on to freely admit that, unlike most sex ed books for the younger set, it won’t “say much about how babies are made and born” because “making babies is an important part of sex, but there are lots of other things kids want to know about sex!”

Like what? How about how an orgasm feels? Blank, with accompanying black-and-white cartoons by Marcia Quackenbush, compares it to, among other satisfying sensations, “climbing up the ladder of a big slide and whooshing down” and “sneezing after your nose has been tickling.” While Harris and Emberley refer to masturbation only briefly as a means of distinguishing between “okay touches” and “not okay touches” – “If you touch or rub the private parts of your own body because it feels good, that’s an ‘okay touch'” – Blank goes into much more detail, describing how some people masturbate “with their hands or fingers,” while other people, as the illustrations show, ride a rocking horse or squeeze a stuffed animal between their legs. Throughout the text, she encourages dialogue, asking readers questions like “Isn’t that a big word for something that almost everyone does? Did you ever hear any other words for masturbation?” and humorously indicating the different reactions such questions might provoke in parents. (“If you ask your mom or dad a question about sex, how will they look? This one is pleased or happy. This one is scared. This one is embarrassed . . . This one is running away”)

As a parent of girls who have been known to dance around with their friends in Disney Princess gowns, lip-synching to Avril Lavigne, shaking their booties, and calling each other “sexy,” I particularly appreciate the section in Blank’s book where she tries to help kids come up with their own definition for that ubiquitous word. Instead of dismissing sexy as a grownup term not applicable to children, the way I clumsily did once with my oldest daughter, Blank names different feelings – giggly, excited, happy, weird, warm, and “just different” – and asks, “How does a sexy feeling feel to you?” She also lists different groups of people in order for kids to decide whether they think they are sexy or not, including on the list the stereotypical “movie stars” and “rock stars” with the more surprising “old people” and “babies” and “kids your own age.” Blank leads kids to the refreshing conclusion that “sexy” isn’t just about Christina Aguilera (I suppose back then it would have been Christie Brinkley) in hot pants. Ideally, it’s about exuding confidence and having a healthy body image. In Blank’s words, “A sexy person is someone who . . . really likes herself or himself, and shows it.”

Do young children really need the kind of explicit information Blank proffers? Well, as Harris points out in It’s NOT the Stork’s section on male anatomy, “baby boys even have erections before they are born, while they are growing inside their mothers’ bodies,” and, says Blank, “some kids start to have orgasms when they’re 2 or 3.” It’s hard to deny that we are all sexual beings from birth. Telling kids the nuts and bolts of where babies come from seems easy in comparison to helping them sort through the sexual feelings and moral and emotional issues that only grow more complex as they get older.

Blank and, to a lesser degree, Harris and Emberley don’t present sex as an isolated act but as an integral part of what it means to be a person. (An orgasm is a natural function, after all, just like a sneeze.) The more comfortable we make children early on with this mindset, the better equipped they will be to grapple with sexuality in all its glory.

(COPYRIGHT 2007 Horn Book Inc.)

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