Tackling the important issues around sex

Sex Is a Funny Word’ by Silverberg and Smyth

5 minute read
Showing kids of all sizes and shapes — and colors.
Showing kids of all sizes and shapes — and colors.

Here are some topics not addressed in Sex Is a Funny Word: Menstruation. Oral sex. Intercourse. Ejaculation. In 159 pages, there’s not a whisper about birds, bees, or condoms.

But this jauntily illustrated book by Canadian sexuality educator Cory Silverberg and artist Fiona Smyth is noteworthy for what it embraces, not what it excludes. The first trans-inclusive sex ed book for kids has sections on “privacy and private parts,” “what we call ourselves,” “touching yourself,” “crushes” and “love.”

Yes, it’s written for 7-to-10-year-olds. But I’d like to see it on the required reading list for high school freshmen, college resident advisors, military personnel, early-childhood educators, coaches, clergy, police officers, pediatricians and parents.

Did I miss anyone?

Fascinated, curious, and weirded out

Silverberg and Smyth’s first book, What Makes a Baby, tells the story of reproduction in a toddler-friendly, open-ended way. With Keith Haring-esque illustrations and a cast of kid characters who are alternately fascinated, curious, disinterested, or weirded out by the facts of reproduction, that book makes clear that babies begin in various ways (egg and sperm required; turkey baster or surrogate optional), with or without help (fertility doctor; adoption agency), but always with people who are waiting eagerly for them.

Each section of What Makes a Baby ends with questions (“Who was happy that it was YOU who grew?”) It’s meant to stoke conversation, not to provide answers.

The same is true of this sequel; Silverberg notes in his introduction that the book is not meant to deliver the “so-called facts of life,” but instead to help younger and older readers explore the feelings and beliefs wrapped up in sexuality.

Where to start?

Which is why the story begins not with body parts but with values: Respect. Trust. Joy. Justice. “Justice is like fairness, only bigger,” Silverberg explains. “Justice means that every person and every body matters.”

Could we have that etched over every middle-school entry door, please? And while the chisel’s still warm, put it on the nation’s courtrooms, too.

Inclusivity is the foundation of this book; instead of consigning LGBT issues to a separate section, Silverberg presumes that all of us find ourselves somewhere on a spectrum of gender identity, an inner sense that may or may not match our biological parts and the gender assigned to us at birth.

That groundbreaking outlook is evident from the first pages, when Silverberg defines sex three different ways: “Sex is a word used to describe our bodies (like male, female and the rest of us). . . . Sex is something people can do to feel good in their bodies. . . . Sex is one way grown-ups make babies.”

His purposeful terminology (“grown-ups,” not “men and women”; “middle parts,” not “private parts . . . because any part of your body can be private”) just highlights the limiting language of most sex ed books (and most of what passes for sexuality education in this country).

Exuberantly non-binary

In Silverberg’s exuberantly non-binary world, most bodies have nipples, some bodies have breasts, every body has a bottom and some bodies have a penis. He goes on: “Having a penis isn’t what makes you a boy. Having a vulva isn’t what makes you a girl.”

In two simple sentences, he’s loosened the knot of biology and gender expression, opening the door to the next section, which invites readers to think about what they’re called (“girl” or “boy”), how they feel and how they want to be treated.

“The one who knows most about who you are is you. . . .Try to enjoy your body, no matter what it’s called,” his kid characters conclude. And like all the chapters, this one ends with questions: “What do you think about the words boy and girl? Do you know anyone for whom those words don’t fit?”

Equally powerful are the book’s discussions of touch, which cover “magic touch” (the kind that “can make a hard day a bit easier”), touching yourself (“masturbation is when we touch ourselves, usually our middle parts, to get that warm and tingly feeling”), and “secret touching” by people who “know what they are doing is wrong.”

While universities and even some high schools wrestle with how to convey that “yes means yes,” Silverberg once again distills a complicated idea — affirmative consent — into terms a grade-schooler can understand. “One way to show respect and build trust is to ask before you touch someone,” he writes. “Everyone has times when they want to be touched and other times when they do not want to be touched. And everyone has times when they change their mind.”

Something for everyone

Smyth’s color-rich drawings also drive home the all-inclusive message. The kids who populate Sex Is a Funny Word have blue skin and red hair, dreadlocks and buzz cuts. One is pudgy. One uses crutches. At least one, Zai, is gender-fluid.

One character has a Muslim mom who wears a headscarf; another has two dads. Other drawings show a range of kids — boys, girls, who knows? — baking cookies, cuddling a cat, catching a fly ball, playing with dolls, and gazing at stars.

A two-page spread on crushes depicts various gender permutations — a girl gaga over a girl, a boy mooning for a girl, a girl flirting with a skateboard-toting classmate who bears the ambiguous name of “Sam.”

My only quibble with the book is about the typography: the text is a small sans-serif font, white on bright-colored pages, a guaranteed eyestrain-inducer for middle-aged readers who peruse this book along with their kids. Future editions should enlarge the type and switch the text color to black.

A radical and urgent message

In the meantime, read the book anyway. No matter your age. Whether or not you have children. Because Silverberg’s radical and urgent message — sexuality with a side of social justice — is badly needed in a country where one in five college women will be the victim of sexual assault, where one in four transgender people has been physically assaulted on at least one occasion, and where more than 20,000 members of the military were sexually assaulted in 2014.

Those realities are hard to talk about, and harder to change. But Silverberg’s book gave me language . . . and hope.

What, When, Where

Sex Is a Funny Word: A Book about Bodies, Feelings, and YOU. Written by Cory Silverberg; illustrated by Fiona Smyth. Seven Stories Press, 2015. Available at Amazon.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation