Tag Archives: sex in young adult books

Why are we so scared of vaginas?

This morning I’m checking out some books that I borrowed from the library – doing some research to see what’s already out there in the way of sexual health education for kiddos.

I picked up these two books designed for middle-schoolers. One for girls, one for boys. They’re from the same series and designed for the same audience, so I am comparing apples to apples here.

I started with the girl one, it’s about dating and dealing with boys. At least that’s what the cover claims. But the whole first half is about being a girl and stereotypes. And while it sort of calls them out, the way it was written mostly reinforces them.

Like the section on sex. It opens with, “Vagina. Okay? You can take a deep breath now or have a laugh. The word will NOT be used again in this book. Phew!”

vagina costume

Surprise, it’s a vagina!

Because, you know, in a book about girls and puberty and dating and sex… vagina is an irrelevant word? Or a bad word? Or a scary word?

Meanwhile, in the boy book the word penis is dropped into a regular sentence, no big deal. We haven’t even gotten to sex, we’re still in puberty and we find, “Your penis is getting larger and your testes are producing sperm, just in case you haven’t checked lately.”

male puberty

Natural growth

No warning, no giggles, no promises to never mention that body part again.

I’ve wondered about this for a long time – this weirdness around women’s vulvas and vaginas. Is it just because they’re less obvious that we don’t talk about them? They’re sort of secret and hidden away visually, so… we just decide to pull the curtain all the way down around them?

vulva curtain

Closing the curtains

I mean the girl book never once mentions that women’s vulvas and vaginas also change during puberty. There’s a whole page about breasts and bras (complete with the assumption that ALL girls will be wearing bras, because – nipples!) But no mention that the vulva tends to grow as well, that the labia change during puberty, becoming more full and larger. That they, in fact, change throughout the menstrual cycle.

vulva project

Vulvas come in many shapes and sizes

It talks about periods and menstruation, without ever mentioning that the blood comes out our vagina. Or that that’s where the tampon goes if you choose to use one.

Nothing – just one use of the word vagina that reinforces how awkward we should all feel about it. The word isn’t in any context, it’s just thrown in our face and then we are reassured that we won’t have to talk about that yucky thing again. Phew!

Back to the boy book, on the page following the first introduction of the word penis, which you’ll remember was used in a helpful and informational context, not for shock value – We find a section on size.

“Every guy who goes through puberty becomes self-conscious about his body, and probably the number one body part he worries about is his penis.”

We get a mini-discussion of erections, wet dreams, reassurance about size and shape.

“The truth is that just like the other parts of your body, your penis goes through changes during puberty.”

Next we come to myths about masturbation like, “If you masturbate your penis will fall off.” This myth is promptly debunked.

For girls masturbation only comes up once, in a quiz.

Masturbation is…
a. a natural way of exploring your own body
b. illegal in some states
c. something that girls do if they don’t have a boyfriend
d. none of the above

The answer the book gives is a. Exploration.
You’ll notice that arousal isn’t mentioned. Women just masturbate to, you know, explore their body. Not for arousal (EW!), not for pleasure, not because it feels good – but just to ya know, get an idea of what’s “down there.” (Which is NOT a vagina, because we don’t use THAT word.)

In fact in the entire book on girls, puberty, dating and sex – female arousal is mentioned exactly ZERO times! (Can you feel my rage!?!)

Then again, we’re not allowed to say that girls who masturbate often touch their vulva, clitoris and vagina, because we aren’t allowed to use those words.

So here we have a book, claiming that it is trying to get girls ready for the world – and specifically ready for the world of dating and sex and yet the word vagina is used exactly once – with no context, as a disembodied *EW!* body part. It’s thrown in our face purely for shock value.

gross vagina

This is NOT helpful.

Meanwhile in the boy book the word penis is used 4 times, in context, with useful information about the changes it is going through, the concerns many boys have about it, the questions they are asking and the myths that are being spread.

This is not a fluke.

Vagina is a hard word to say in our culture. Penis – well, I mean, that body part hangs out, guys have to touch it a few times a day just to urinate. Penises are normal, they aren’t scary or mysterious.

The book on girls had a section called, “Mirror Mirror” and I’ll give you one guess what it DIDN’T invite girls to look at.

vagina dress

Maybe if they were just more visible we wouldn’t be so squeamish?

If you snapped a crotch shot of every boy in a class and tacked them up to the wall, I’d put money on every boy being able to correctly identify his in a matter of seconds.

Girls and their vulvas… Not so much.

Actual vulvas were photographed in the making of this cover.

Actual vulvas were photographed in the making of this cover.

They’re “down there”, hidden between our legs. The only way to really get a look is to squat over a mirror, or hold a mirror between our legs. And outside of a few hippy circles, we’re not exactly encouraged to do that.

From tampon and maxi-pad ads that use blue liquid to simulate menstrual blood – we’re taught that what goes on “down there” is kinda gross and that we don’t really want to explore too deep. We’re sold scented douche products to get rid of our natural odor. Scented pads too.

flower merkin

It’s not supposed to smell like flowers. It’s supposed to smell like PUSSY!

We wipe with toilet paper, wash with a cloth, use tampons with applicators and often masturbate with vibrators or other toys that make it so we never actually have to touch ourselves.

Many women and girls I talk to have said they would never ask a man to give them oral sex, “Because, you know, it’s just so icky down there.” But they assume that it is their job to give their dude a blow job.

Can we talk about “fromunda cheese” for a minute? Or spunk? I mean seriously, any person who has ever given a coffee drinker who smokes a blow job can tell you about some serious funk! But, penises are normal. Male ejaculate is normal. We see it splattered across the chests and faces of porn stars all the time.

Female cum? Female orgasms for that matter… We hardly ever see those. What does an aroused vulva look like? How many of you know that the labia of an aroused woman become engorged similar to the way a penis becomes engorged? How many of you know what a vagina looks like in the throws of orgasm?

We have to start talking about vaginas. And vulvas. And clitorises. And female arousal. We have to start normalizing these body parts, the changes they experience, the fact that they feel pleasure too.

Half the world population has them.

Maybe if we talked about them a little more we wouldn’t be so scared of them. Maybe we wouldn’t think they were icky and gross. Maybe we’d have a little more respect for what they can do and the people who have them.

vulva love

There’s so much to love!

Hey, a woman can dream, right?

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Filed under Kids, Naive idealism, Of Course I'm a Feminist, Rant, Things that work

Your Banned Book Week Reading List

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 curious

Just a few books for the curious teen

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 Boysby 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.

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Filed under Books, Of Course I'm a Feminist