Sex Is a Funny Word: A Book about Bodies, Feelings, and YOU ( Seven Stories Press ) continues a groundbreaking, LGBTQ-inclusive series for young people on human sexualityand should have many cheering at its thoughtful, empowering, and accurate approach. The book does not merely include all LGBTQ identities, but celebrates them as equal parts of the human spectrum.
The book is the second of a planned trilogy by sexuality educator Cory Silverberg and illustrator Fiona Smyth. Aimed at 8-to-10-year-olds, it follows their 2013 book for the very youngest children, What Makes a Baby, which tackles its topic in a way that works for all family structures, types of family creation, and parents' gender identities. The planned third volume will be aimed at children starting to hit puberty.
Sex Is a Funny Word picks up where its predecessor left off, covering bodies, gender, touch, and types of relationships, as well as an overall exploration of the many meanings of the word "sex." Throughout, it encourages children to be confident of their own bodies and feelings, and to respect those of others.
Silverberg, who self-identifies as queer and has worked as a certified sexuality educator for 20 years, explained in an e-mail interview that his motivation for making the books so inclusive starts close to home. "My commitment to diversity doesn't come only from a political ideal. My community includes an incredibly rich and diverse group of people, not only in terms of gender and sexual identity, but also in terms of race, ethnicity, family background, and to some extent class. I want to write books that fit for my family and my friends, which means books that fit for a very wide range of people and experiences."
He and Smyth have succeeded. In bold, colorful, comic-book style, they reassure readers that learning about sex can be "fun and strange and sometimes a little scary," and invite them to "go exploring." Accompanying them on the journey are four young characters of different attitudes, gender identities, races and physical abilities, who offer various responses to scenarios young readers may have encountered.
They begin with the many meanings of and ways of talking about "sex," although the only sexual behavior discussed is masturbation. They emphasize that the concepts of respect, trust, joy, and justice are useful to keep in mind while learning about the topic.
Notably, the book talks about bodies and their parts in a way inclusive of intersex and transgender people, saying, for example, that "having a penis isn't what makes you a boy." It handles gender similarly, noting that while words like "boy" and "girl" fit most people, "For some of us, they don't." The authors urge readers to "Trust yourself to know what words feel right and fit for you." While the main text avoids identity labels, a glossary at the end may help readers understand various terms they may have heard elsewhere.
A section on "Crushes, Love, and Relationships" is also broadly inclusive. At no point does it position different-sex relationships as the default. Silverberg said that he did not want the book to be "80 percent about straight people" while "20 percent of the text explains that there are also gay, lesbian, and bisexual people." He also wanted the book to reflect "what families and adult relationships actually look like," which includes families with same-sex parents as well as "blended families, single-parent families, and intergenerational families."
The book stands out for more than just its LGBTQ inclusion, however. Silverberg said he and Smyth made an effort "to undo the sexist science that underpins most mainstream sex-education material." He explained that the book offers "information about our bodies in a way that works for very young kids but that is also informed by a certain kind of feminist critique of the science of sexuality."
Regardless of body parts or identity, the book reminds readers that they are in control of their own bodies. This is most obvious in the section on touch, which encourages readers to think about when they do and don't like to be touched and when others do and don't. More somberly, it talks about unwanted "secret touching," or sexual abusean important message carefully conveyed.
More than just a book to be read, Sex Is a Funny Word should be a conversation starter. The authors suggest parents read it before giving it to or reading it with children, in order to be prepared to discuss it and answer questions. For parents and other adults who want a little more help on how to do so, there is a free reader's guide available at corysilverberg.com .
This is sex education as it should beaffirming and inclusive, engaging and interactive. All childrennot only those with LGBTQ parents or who are LGBTQ themselveswill benefit from having such a volume on the topic.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian ( mombian.com ), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.