Sex is a Funny Word is nothing short of revolutionary. Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth’s newest book is brilliant in its approach to giving caregivers and educators the tools they need to talk to kids about their bodies. Not only is it “the first trans-inclusive book for kids,” but it also uses inclusionary language and diverse representation across race, ability, gender, and sexuality, to hone in on the most important aspects of discussing sex and bodies with kids aged 8-12. It is the second in a trilogy of books – the first, What Makes a Baby, is a beautiful, balanced, and many-gendered explanation of baby-making for kids aged 5-8.
(While Sex is a Funny Word discusses body parts, gender, touch, and other topics related to the word “sex,” it doesn’t delve into reproduction — intercourse is being reserved for the third book, planned for release in fall 2017, which will be geared toward older kids.)
Although I could have made this a list of the 7,000 things that Sex is a Funny Word does to revolutionize talking to kids about their bodies, out of respect for everyone’s time I’ve narrowed it down to ten. It was really hard to do.
1. Representation of all bodies should be the norm, rather than an exception.
Small bodies, large bodies, disabled bodies, many colored bodies, pointy bodies, curvy bodies, wrinkled bodies, all the bodies are illustrated and present throughout every page of Sex is a Funny Word… in the same way that all of these bodies exist among each other in actual, real life!
Though representation of many bodies shouldn’t be revolutionary, most of our media – children’s books included – showcases white, thin bodies in ways that are often ableist, sexist, homophobic, and trans-exclusive. In this way (and many others), Silverberg and Smyth’s contribution to the dialogue is revolutionary: finally young people have a way to see all bodies (including their own body) represented. Yes.
2. Honesty + information = kids’ confidence.
Kids pick up on the nuanced way that adults speak about sex, sexuality, bodies, and gender. Which means when those adults avoid talking about certain topics (or particular body parts), kids notice. When adults withhold information, kids wonder why. Often, they assume that these avoidances occur because something about those particular body parts or feelings or questions are wrong or bad.
Sex is a Funny Word talks to kids about their parts, their feelings, and their questions in an honest and matter-of-fact manner. What’s more, the authors also address the fact that grown-ups sometimes avoid these topics, but assure kids that this isn’t because there is something wrong with any part of them.
3. Gender is complicated… and kids know it!
Silverberg and Smyth are committed to showcasing gender as much more than a binary system from the very first page of the book – the table of contents points to the chapter on gender under the heading “Boys, Girls, All of Us.”
Silverberg told BuzzFeed News, “Most of the progressive sex education books that are available actively exclude gender nonconformity and trans kids. They do that simply by saying that there’s only two things: there’s boys and girls, and boys have penises and girls have vulvas, and that’s the story. So they don’t say that it’s bad to be trans, but it just doesn’t exist anywhere.”
4. Conversation > silence.
While Sex is a Funny Word is certainly a book that kids can devour on their own, adults are highly encouraged to participate in the conversation. There is a message in the introduction specifically for caregivers and educators that encourages them to read the book before giving it to the child – better preparing them for the conversations and questions that will certainly follow. It goes on to explain, “We’ve provided the framework and basic information about bodies, gender, and touch, and we’ve left blanks that only you and the kids in your life can fill in.”
While this book is an important tool in helping kids better understand themselves, talking with family members and loved ones about that understanding is necessary — not to mention powerful. Kids listen and learn from the people they care about more than anyone (or anything) else in their lives!
5. “Justice” is an essential word when speaking about bodies.
Bodies exist in the world in many ways, and not all bodies are afforded the same rights and the same protections as others. Silverberg and Smyth understand and contend with that reality, because – aha! – kids have bodies, and rights, too.
What happens when young people are able to talk about their bodies and understand them in a social justice context from a young age? My theory: Incredibly important awareness, and a foundation for speaking up for equality far into the future.
6. Privacy isn’t just for grown-ups.
Kids, just like anyone else, deserve privacy — but oftentimes, they are made to feel that nothing, not even a quiet space, is theirs for the taking. What’s more (and this goes back to the “private parts” vs “middle parts” illustration above), requests for privacy are sometimes met with suspicion, especially where kids are concerned. The truth is that even young kids may want to keep certain spaces or feelings to themselves. When conversations happen around privacy, it can lift a lot of the shame that young people feel when they do want their own space, and allow them to better explore and understand themselves, their bodies, and their feelings.
7. Consent matters at every age.
Each and every person (children included) has different ways that they like, and don’t like, to be touched. Silverberg and Smyth tackle consent in age-appropriate ways, explaining that sometimes we may want to be touched, and other times we may not want to be touched. Using a hug as an example, they also explain that while sometimes we may want a hug at first, we may feel like we don’t want one later… and it is always okay to say so.
This conversation around consent happens in the chapter on “touch,” which then goes on to talk about “secret touching,” or sexual abuse. Silverberg told BuzzFeed News, “I knew we needed to deal with sexual abuse in the book because often sexual education books don’t do that. That makes no sense to me, because it’s part of people’s reality. One of the really painful and complicated realizations I came to early on when I was writing this was that a lot of kids who read this book will have already experienced sexual abuse. We never write books for those kids. The only books that are written for those kids are dark, scary books about sexual abuse… I want those kids to pick up this book and find themselves in it.”
8. Families come in many varieties (and so do crushes)!
As you might imagine in a book that has already included many genders, many body types, and all-around inclusion of multiple identities, Sex is a Funny Word also showcases several renderings of what a family might look like, and also leaves room for many sexualities in its “crushes” section.
Again and again, on literally every page, Silverberg and Smyth reinforce that all sexualities are valid, all bodies are beautiful, and all identities deserve a space (within this book, and within the world at large!).
9. Kids understand their own feelings.
More often than not, we tell kids that they don’t understand their feelings – or, even worse, that we as adults understand their feelings more than they do. Validating a child’s experience of their own body and their own identity allows them to explore those feelings, and establish a healthy relationship with themselves and those around them. Beyond this, the authors also touch on how the perceptions (and assumptions) of others are not always in line with the way we experience ourselves.
There may be no more powerful message than allowing kids to trust their feelings, and giving them the confidence to share those feelings with those close to them.
10. At its heart, this book is truly for kids.
Above and beyond anything else, this book – every last page of it – is made for kids. While it exists as an incredible tool for caregivers and educators, it puts the experience of young people at its core and validates their feelings, ever-shifting and growing as they are, at every turn. It encourages questions, it gives a voice to those whose voices are often silenced or hidden, it acknowledges experiences that can be confusing or scary, and it tells the truth, 100% of the time.
“I’m moved by it all the time,” Silverberg says. “I still sometimes cry when I read these books – in nice ways, and sometimes in not nice ways. Sometimes I cry because I wish that I had these books when I was growing up.”
Kristin is the CEO & Co-Founder of both Everyone Is Gay & My Kid Is Gay. She also hosted & produced the first season of First Person, a video series on gender and sexuality from PBS Digital. She co-authored the book This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids (Chronicle, 2014), is the co-director of A-Camp, and holds a Master’s in Gender Studies from the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan.