November 16, 2017

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Puberty, Consent, and Sexuality: A Few New Titles

A year ago, I read 75 books about puberty and sexuality for a “Focus On” article for School Library Journal. You’re welcome. I learned a lot. Or rather, I learned a lot about the state of sex education in the United States. It hasn’t improved much since the nurse shooed the boys out of our sixth grade classroom, dimmed the lights, and fired up a filmstrip on reproductive anatomy. In 1976.

As I walked home from school that day with my best friend Laura, she and I discussed what we’d learned. Too grossed-out to even speak the words, we called sanitary pads “daps” and tampons “nopmats.” You see what we did there? Oh, brother.

Laura and I could have used Clara Henry’s I’ve Got My Period, So What? (Sky Pony, Aug. 2017; Gr 7 Up). It’s not clear how the 23-year-old Henry became activated on the topic of menstruation, but this author and popular YouTuber is a fabulous voice.

Fierce and blisteringly funny, she alternates fact-packed text passages with fun listicles, life hacks, and anecdotes. “Period pain essentially turns me into a four-year-old who has dropped her ice cream,” she confesses, without a whisper of apology. Henry draws a very sensible, straight line between the lack of subsidies for period supplies and dolphins taking over the world. And her facts are on point, too. I’ve never seen endometriosis so well explained.

Very importantly, the book makes sparing use of the words “girl” and “female,” opting instead for terms like “uterus-carriers,” and, on the other side, “dick owners.” While this usage may come off as irreverent and faux-technical, it is actually a precise way to make the book inclusive of people who do not identify as female but must deal with the effects of having female organs.

“Through the ages, periods have been used to systematically oppress women, so it’s time to take back menstruation.” says the author, who offers positive, profane, forthright advice on learning to eliminate the “shame and disgust” that are too often associated with it.

Good explanations of consent are hard to come by. Books for older readers such as Bronwen Pardes’s Doing It Right: Making Smart, Safe, and Satisfying Choices About Sex (S & S, 2013; Gr 9 Up) and Heather Corinna’s S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties (Da Capo, 2016; Gr 9 Up) stress consent, boundaries, and mutual respect on every page; titles for middle school readers typically don’t touch on these issues.

New editions of one pair of middle grade titles, Kelli Dunham’s The Boy’s Body Book and The Girl’s Body Book (both Applesauce Press, Jul. 2017; Gr 4-6), were recently released. I was interested to see if they had been updated to include guidelines for consent. Alas, no. And while the material inside both volumes is fairly similar, readers may take issue with contrasting languages on the covers: the book for boys promises to teach readers about “reputation building,” while the one for girls offers “reputation protection.”

Contrast these titles with the down-to-earth What Does Consent Really Mean? (Singing Dragon, Nov. 2017; Gr 8 Up), a graphic novel by Pete Wallis, Thalia Wallis, and Joseph Wilkins. Eight kids (four girls, four boys, of various heritage, orientations, some sexually active, some virgins, at least one abstinent) find themselves talking about what’s OK and what’s not after hearing that a schoolmate was raped.

The kids draw upon their own knowledge and experiences as they discuss what respectful dating behavior looks and feels like. It’s especially meaningful that this conversation isn’t depicted as happening only between girls. Once the boys show up, they contribute insight into the pressures they feel. Is Consent a little talky for a graphic novel? Surely. But it covers an astonishing amount of ground for such a slender tome. Pornography, sexting, affection, communication, and trust are just some of the themes touched on. The characters here are in high school, but the drawing style is distinctly reminiscent of graphic novels aimed at middle schoolers. Research shows that the earlier kids learn about consent, the more likely the concept is to take hold, so making the book available to middle grade students is important.

Another take on this topic is offered in an Australian import, Love, Sex, and No Regrets (Finch,  May 2017; Gr 7 Up) by Elizabeth Clark. Written from the point of view of a fictitious 19-year-old named Hannah, it covers dating, sexual contact, masturbation, cyber-sex, and pornography. And although nominally a sex-positive book, with some good modeling of conversations (“Is this ok?” “What would you like me to try?”), the author comes down hard on online activity and porn. The author’s opinions about the negative effects of porn crop up in nearly every chapter, and distract from the overall message.

For those seeking a truly comprehensive resource on good dating and relationship behavior, gender, identity, attraction, anatomy, and the full spectrum of sexual behavior, Karen Rayne’s Girl: Love, Sex, Romance, and Being You (Magination, Jul. 2017; Gr 9 Up ) is heartily recommended. Sex-positive, body-positive, and inclusive, this author takes nothing for granted, even examining the language we use when we talk about sex in order to distinguish between opinion and fact. Language is power in this book–the power to think and act without self-deception or blind acceptance of bias, and the power to make readers’ needs and choices known.

Dr. Rayne’s tone is graceful and conversational, with a no-nonsense clinical authority that clearly does not tolerate judgement and censure. Like Clark, Rayne touches on pornography, outlining many of the objections people have to it, and, without dismissing those concerns, nevertheless points out that research on the subject has not been conclusive.

Young people learn new things every day. What if we expected them to learn all their subjects in the same way they learn about sexuality—from online videos and idle talk? Nobody would ever pass an exam! Absent a decent sex education curriculum, books such as these give teens a comforting base of facts to rely on when faced with decisions and statements about sex.

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