I recently purchased the above book for Foundry United Methodist Church (UMC)’s children’s library. The book is called Sex is a Funny Word: A Book about Bodies, Feelings, and YOU.
The book is written for children (ages 7-10) to understand more about their bodies, sex, gender, and sexuality. The questions at the end of each section, are intended to create a discussion suggesting that the intention of this book may be for educators or parents to read the book to book to a child or a group of children. The book is written in an inclusive way that explains the many meanings of the word “sex,” and allows children to become comfortable with their bodies are and how they feel. The illustrations show a diverse group of children with many types of bodies and attitudes towards them. This book doesn’t shy away from discussing topics such as being transgender or masturbation.
Some people may think this book shouldn’t belong in a children’s library, let alone a church library. It’s understandable; talking about sex makes many people feel uncomfortable, and many parents and educators struggle with finding the “right time” to talk to their kids about sex and their bodies, and how much information they should tell them. Sex is viewed as a dangerous activity for children, and many people think that not sharing information about it until children are old enough to understand can prevent them from partaking in this activity and from being exposed to too much information when they’re not ready to process it yet.
I have a slightly different perspective. Sex encompasses a wide range of topics and ideas, from the meaning of the word to gender identity to sexual orientation. Talking about sex with children means talking to them about their bodies and understanding what all of their body parts are. It also means talking to them about body image, gender identity, and sexuality, and letting them explore what that means for themselves. It also means helping them learn how to protect themselves from sexual coercion. In an article Saskia De Melker wrote for PBS Newshour, she talked about the Netherlands approach to sexuality education, which starts at age four in an effort to have “open, honest conversations about love and relationships.”
One of the most important topics relating to sex is consent, and it is important to start addressing that early on too.
There were societal concerns that sexualization in the media [books, movies, television, etc.] could be having a negative impact on kids,” [Ineke] van der Vlugt [an expert on youth sexual development] said. “We wanted to show that sexuality also has to do with respect, intimacy, and safety…That means the kindergartners are also learning how to communicate when they don’t want to be touched. The goal is that by age 11, students are comfortable enough to navigate pointed discussions about reproduction, safe sex, and sexual abuse (De Melker).
This discussion of sex, along with a discussion of consent is incredibly important for children to learn. There are two related events that I participated in that shaped this belief: I was a volunteer for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) online hotline, and I attended a book event with the authors of We Believe You: Survivors of Campus Sexual Abuse Speak Out. One of my takeaways from both experiences is that many young men and women, of all ages, don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like, sexually, romantically or otherwise, especially in terms of consent.
When I went to the We Believe You discussion, which focused on campus sexual assault, one of the things the authors and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand mentioned was the idea that talking about consent when students get to college may already be too late. At that point students may have already experienced sexual assault earlier in their lives, and many have been influenced by books, television, movies and even pornographic portrayals of sex and intimacy, all of which have had troubling portrayals of “normal relationships.” Take the Twilight series for example, Bella and Edward are an idealized romantic couple. However, throughout the series, Edward stalks Bella, watches her sleep, forbids her from seeing Jacob (another love interest), and even sabotages her car so she can’t leave, all of which show troubling signs of an abusive relationship (Goodfriend).
The authors and the Senator discussed the idea of talking to kids earlier about healthy relationships and what consent is, and they talked about the possibility of getting it introduced as early as elementary school. The idea was that starting in kindergarten and moving forward, schools might discuss healthy relationships and consent in an age appropriate way. For instance, in kindergarten, children might learn that healthy relationships don’t involve hitting or saying mean things to each other. They might learn that consent means asking permission before doing something to or with the other person, like playing with their toys, or holding hands. They would also learn about their bodies, the feelings they may be experiencing, and how to handle these feelings. As time goes on, the school would add in more age appropriate examples in the hopes that these children would grow up to be respectful humans who understand what a healthy relationship should look like, as well as what they can expect from their bodies.
These topics, like healthy relationships, and sex, are hard and difficult conversations to have, especially with children. But I firmly believe that giving children (and their parents) access to the appropriate information earlier on can make a huge difference. If school systems aren’t providing this education for their children, I think it’s important that the community have access to the resources needed to have these conversations with their kids. I think one of the best ways to do that is to make sure the local library has these resources available. Kids are curious, and sometimes it makes sense to let them have the information they want and have them grow with it. This allows them to ask questions over the years, and let the ideas sink in, so that as they grow up they learn what is respectful behavior, but so that they also feel more comfortable with their bodies and feelings. And that is why I believe libraries, especially ones focused on the education of children need to have sex education books for children.
1. De Melker, Saskia. “The case for starting sex education in kindergarten.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 27 May 2015. Web. 25 July 2017. < http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/spring-fever/>
2. Goodfriend, Wind. “Relationship Violence in “Twilight”.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 09 Nov. 2011. Web. 25 July 2017. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/psychologist-the-movies/201111/relationship-violence-in-twilight>.