It’s been ages since I talked books in this space, but since it’s banned books week – and I just got home from a writer’s conference where I spent most of the weekend talking books, I realized it was time. Past time, really.
I am a firm believer that teens need access to books with responsible, respectful and truthful information about sex. If you can weave that into a fictional novel without getting on your moral high horse or going preachy – you win!
Teens are struggling with these issues, of sex, sexuality, sexualization – and they don’t have the words and the language to talk about it, because the adults in their life, by and large, are not giving it to them. They find substitute sources of information. Some of them are wonderful and reliable like Scarleteen, Planned Parenthood, and local teen health clinics. Others, less so. They turn to older friends or cousins, they learn through online porn. Some of it hits the mark, and some of it is dangerously off base.
They have questions – and they need answers.
Books can be an amazing, wonderful source of information. Building great characters that teens can identify with can give them more than information – it can give them a role model, it can offer them real life examples of ways to handle tricky situations, it can remind them of the most important thing I think teens need to hear – That they are not alone. They are not the only ones struggling with these issues, grappling with these choices, trying to find a clear path through the mess of hormones, pressures and desires.
Most of the books I talk about in my Sex in YA workshop have been challenged or banned because they “promote teen sex.”
What I have learned in handing these books out to the teens in my life is that they do just the opposite. They have given these teens new ways to think and to talk about the choices before them. New language to deal with the pressures they feel all around them. New options when it comes to juggling their desires.
When I gave a close teenager a copy of Judy Blume’s Forever… I wasn’t sure what she would take from it. I took her out to dinner when she finished the book and asked her what she thought.
“I was really shocked!” She said.
My first thought was, “Oh, no. I messed up.” But I bit my tongue and asked what had shocked her.
“I was surprised by how many times the girl said no. And her boyfriend didn’t leave her. I thought if you wanted to keep your boyfriend, you had to say yes.”
And then I relaxed. This girl had just learned the lesson I think we want all teens to learn – that sex doesn’t equal love, and love doesn’t mean you have to have sex. That a person who won’t take no for an answer, doesn’t deserve your yes.
So, for those of you with teens in your life – or those of you struggling to find your own sexual voice and power – here are a few books to help light the way.
Sex positive books that emphasize respect, responsibility and consent.
Forever… by Judy Blume (Judy wrote this book for her daughter who asked for a book where two nice kids have sex without either of them having to die. No lives ruined, responsible sex.)
Another book along these lines is Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky. This one also explores the orgasm gap and the weird myths we have created about the female orgasm being difficult, messy, and not a requirement of sex.
Before I die by Jenny Downham is a sweet, touching, wonderful sex positive book about a girl who is dying, and her bucket list. It covers both sex and love – and the consequences of both! (But not in a shame and fear based way.)
Books that explore homosexuality –
Rainbow Boys – by Alex Sanchez This one book explores a jock boy with a girlfriend, who can’t stop thinking about guys when he’s having sex with her. A shy, quiet boy who is gay, but not out. And one boy who is out – and fabulous. It explores homophobia, fear of rejection, taking risks because of that fear, the need for support, responsible sex, fear of HIV/AIDS, etc. Very sweet book. There are more in the series, but I have not read them yet.
Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg – Only half way through this book, but I still can’t recommend it enough. I love the premise, and the delivery so far.
An out gay boy in Boulder gets tired of being the gay boy, he gets tired of that being the thing everyone knows about him first. So he sets off to a private school in another state to try to love label free. Not exactly back in the closet, more just standing in the doorway. Or so he thinks. This book explores the desire to live label free, to be more than the box the world puts you in. It feels like it is also about to explore what happens when you deny your label, and the piece of yourself that it reflects.
She Loves You, She Loves You Not – by Julie Anne Peters – A young lesbian is dumped by her girlfriend and then thrown out of the house by her homophobic father. She is forced to live with her stripper/prostitute mother. Explores sexuality, acceptance and other issues around female sexuality in general and lesbian sexuality in particular.
Books that opened new doors of understanding for me.
Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger – This book follows a person transitioning from girl to boy and explores the issues around being a transgendered youth.
(This book really helped me, as a ciwoman, understand and sympathize with trans* people. Prior to this, I didn’t care if someone transitioned, but I didn’t understand the desire or need to do so. I also didn’t really understand what a big deal it was and how much support people needed. I believe a lot of cispeople don’t get it – this book helped me, a lot. Perhaps it can help others too.)
Luna by Julie Anne Peters is another book about trans youth. In this book a person born male transitions to female. It delves into the differences between homosexuality and being transgender. It talks about transphobia, homophobia and the risks of being yourself, when you don’t fit neatly into a preformed box.
I cover lots of other books in my course, but many of the others go into the darker sides of sex – rape, slut shaming, consequences. For this post, I wanted to challenge everyone to look at teenagers having consensual sex and not freak out. Think about them being safe, responsible, communicative. Think of them exploring, learning, trusting and growing. Think about the pressure they feel – both internally and externally to walk these weird lines of being sexy and attractive but not sexually active. To be smart, get good grades, be active in extracurriculars, be popular. The media tells them being sexy, and sexual, will get them popularity, power, love. But we dangle that carrot and tell them it’s off-limits.
It’s confusing at best, tortuous at worst.
And why? Because WE, the adults, are afraid. Of what, I’m not sure – yes there can be negative consequences to sex – but if we talk about, if we teach them about it, if we give them safe spaces to explore and learn and guidance along the way to encourage healthy communication, boundaries, respect – we can mitigate most of those. We can help them build a safety net and make smarter choices.
And – we can give them access to books – books that let them know they’re not alone. Books that assure them, that it gets better. Books that gave them tools to start making it better, for themselves and their friends, one day at a time.