“The teaching is fulfilled, not when it’s aped or mimicked, but when it becomes somebody’s own.”
“The truth needs to be reformatted for every generation.”
–Henry Shukman and Rupert Spira
Rupert Spira Jun 26, 2022 Each one of us goes through a unique journey in the revelation of the truth or search for lasting happiness. In this wonderful conversation, Rupert Spira and acclaimed English poet and writer Henry Shukman discuss the process of surrender, or giving yourself to something utterly impersonal, that is experienced through spiritual and other traditions. “The forms that we inherit in the different traditions, such as koans and mantras are the repositories of generations of understanding, and if you subject yourself to that form you are opening yourself to receiving the generations of understanding that have impregnated that form. That’s why practices and trainings are so powerful and why they last generation after generation.” This conversation is moderated by Guru Viking.
Toward the end of Walt Whitman’s life, the writer Horace Traubel visited him often at his home in Camden, New Jersey, and recorded their conversations on friendship, family, the Civil War, literature, and other topics, producing thousands of pages of transcripts in total. In Walt Whitman Speaks, editor Brenda Wineapple offers selections from their conversations, including these on sex.
Damn the expurgated books! I say damn ’em! The dirtiest book in all the world is the expurgated book!
Sex is a red rag to most people. It takes some time to get accustomed to me, but if the folks will only persevere they will finally feel right comfortable in my presence. “Children of Adam”—the poems—are very innocent: they will not shake down a house. A man was here the other day who asked me: “Don’t you feel rather sorry on the whole that you wrote the sex poems?” I answered him by asking another question: “Don’t you feel rather sorry on the whole that I am Walt Whitman?”
Authors in the Tent: David L. Ulin on How Walking Is an Act of Recreation
All this fear of indecency, all this noise about purity and sex and the social order and the Comstockism particular and general is nasty—too nasty to make any compromise with. I never come up against it but I think of what [Heinrich] Heine said to a woman who had expressed to him some suspicion about the body. “Madame,” said Heine, “are we not all naked under our clothes?”
We have got so in our civilization, so-called (which is no civilization at all) that we are afraid to face the body and its issues—when we shrink from the realities of our bodily life: when we refer the functions of the man and the woman, their sex, their passion, their normal necessary desires, to something which is to be kept in the dark and lied about instead of being avowed and gloried in.
The body is stubborn: it craves bodily presences: it has its own peculiar tenacities—we might say aspirations as well as desires.
Obscenity? Obscene? Oh! Is the surgeon’s knife obscene? It might just as well be said of the one as the other. This is a picture to the life, a cut to the bone. It is not a pleasant book: it is horrible, horrible, in its truth, its graphic power.
There was one of the department heads at Washington who conceived a great dislike for the word virile—gave out orders that it should not be used in any of the documents issuing from that department. I was very curious about it, and asked him once how his antipathy (and it was a virile antipathy!) arose. He said that he hated the word—that it called up in him images of everything filthy, nasty, vile. It was very amusing. I remarked to him: “Did it never occur to you that the fault is in you and not in the word? I use the word—like it—and am never once brought by it into touch with the images you speak of.” But he was obdurate—remarking only: “Well—whatever: I won’t have it! I hate the word!” And yet he was a man of force, filled his place well, in all the usual ways was sound and sensible.
I often say to myself about Calamus—perhaps it means more or less than what I thought myself—means different: perhaps I don’t know what it all means—perhaps never did know.
Any demonstration between men—any: it is always misjudged: people come to conclusions about it: they know nothing, there is nothing to be known; nothing except what might just as well be known: yet they shake their wise heads—they meet, gossip, generate slander: they know what is not to be known—they see what is not to be seen: so they confide in each other, tell the awful truth: the old women men, the old men women, the guessers, the false-witnesses—the whole caboodle of liars and fools.
“Calamus” is a Latin word—much used in Old English writing, however. I like it much—it is to me, for my intentions, indispensible—the sun revolves about it, it is a timber of the ship—not there alone in that one series of poems, but in all, belonging to all. It is one of the United States—it is the quality which makes the states whole—it is the thin thread—but, oh! the significant thread!—by which the nation is held together, a chain of comrades; it could no more be dispensed with than the ship entire.
I have heard nothing but expurgate, expurgate, expurgate, from the day I started. Everybody wants to expurgate something—this, that, the other thing. If I accepted all the suggestions there wouldn’t be one leaf of the Leaves left—and if I accepted one why shouldn’t I accept all? Expurgate, expurgate, expurgate! I’ve heard that till I’m deaf with it. Who didn’t say expurgate? Rossetti said expurgate and I yielded. Rossetti was honest, I was honest—we both made a mistake. It is damnable and vulgar—the mere suggestion is an outrage. Expurgation is apology—yes, surrender—yes, an admission that something or other was wrong. Emerson said expurgate—I said no, no. I have lived to regret my Rossetti yes—I have not lived to regret my Emerson no. Expurgate, expurgate, expurgate—apologize, apologize: get down on your knees.
Emerson was quite vigorous in talking about the critics—talking with me: he said: “I seem to mystify them—rather mystify than antagonize them”: which I guess was true. I seem to make them mad—rile them: I mystify them, too, but they don’t know it: they only know I am vile, indecent, perverted, adulterous.
The world now can have no idea of the bitterness of the feeling against me in those early days. I was a tough—obscene: indeed, it was my obscenity, libidinousness, all that, upon which they made up their charges.
It has always been a puzzle to me why people think that because I wrote “Children of Adam,” Leaves of Grass, I must perforce be interested in all the literature of rape, all the pornography of vile minds. I have not only been made a target by those who despised me but a victim of violent interpretation by those who condoned me.
What do you call free love? There’s no other kind of love, is there? As to the next step—who knows what it means? I only feel sure of one thing: that we won’t go back: that the women will take care of sex things—make them what they choose: man has very little to do with it except to conform.
I think Swedenborg was right when he said there was a close connection—a very close connection—between the state we call religious ecstasy and the desire to copulate. I find Swedenborg confirmed in all my experience. It is a peculiar discovery. It was Burns—Whittier’s friend Burns—who said in a couple of lines of one of his poems, I’d rather cause the birth of one than the death of 20! And that would be my doctrine, too!
We have gone on for so long hurting the body that the job of rehabilitating it seems prodigious if not impossible. The time will come when the whole affair of sex—copulation, reproduction—will be treated with the respect to which it is entitled. Instead of meaning shame and being apologized for, it will mean purity and will be glorified.
The woman who has denied the best of herself—the woman who has discredited the animal want, the eager physical hunger, the wish of that which though we will not allow it to be freely spoken of is still the basis of all that makes life worth while and advances the horizon of discovery. Sex: sex: sex: whether you sing or make a machine, or go to the North Pole, or love your mother, or build a house, or black shoes, or anything—anything at all—it’s sex, sex, sex: sex is the root of it all: sex—the coming together of men and women: sex: sex.
Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America as told to Horace Traubel, edited by Brenda Wineapple (Library of America).
Brenda Wineapple was born in Boston, raised in northern Massachusetts (on the New Hampshire border), and now lives in New York. She has received such numerous honors as a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, two National Endowment Fellowships in the Humanities, and most recently an NEH Public Scholars Award for The Impeachers. She is also an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Society of American Historians and regularly contributes to major publications such as the New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, and The Nation.
Life Process Program Jan 30, 2022 NYT Best-Selling Author Johann Hari, In his new book, “Stolen Focus”, explains why and how our ability to pay attention is diminishing; he explains why that matters; and he offers potential solutions to those of us who wish to improve our focus and live better lives. Johann Hari is a British journalist who has written for The Guardian, New York Times, The Independent, Le Monde, and many others. His Ted Talks have been viewed by tens of millions. He has written two international best-selling books (one of which has been adapted into a Hollywood film), and he has spoken to audiences around the globe. Today, Hari joins Sundays With Stories to discuss the themes from his most recent book, “Stolen Focus” and discuss the solutions to one of our most daunting cultural issues to date. TIME STAMPS 0:00 Dumb Banter 2:30 Who (or what) is stealing focus from whom? 5:07 Taking on the forces that have stolen our attention 6:33 Precommitment 9:00 Multi-tasking is harming creativity 15:52: How do we prioritize our attention? 20:03 Individual solutions and cultural solutions 22:20 Mind wandering and flow states 27:40 Reinforcement on social media 33:25 Humans are not one-dimensional 35:29 Tristan Harris / Reasons for optimism? 46:00 Can we persuade Facebook and Instagram to be ethical? 48:30 Why do we hyper-focus on doom and gloom? 54:50 Overprotecting our children 1:03:11 Anxiety versus mastery and motivation 1:06:10 ADHD OVER-diagnosis in kids 1:07:21 Schools ask kids to focus on meaningless work 1:09:31 Zone of proximal development 1:11:08 How can we get out attention back? 1:15:30 We have to understand the problem before we can solve it
Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention- and How to Think Deeply Again
Our ability to pay attention is collapsing. From the New York Times bestselling author of Chasing the Scream and Lost Connections comes a groundbreaking examination of why this is happening–and how to get our attention back.
In the United States, teenagers can focus on one task for only sixty-five seconds at a time, and office workers average only three minutes. Like so many of us, Johann Hari was finding that constantly switching from device to device and tab to tab was a diminishing and depressing way to live. He tried all sorts of self-help solutions–even abandoning his phone for three months–but nothing seemed to work. So Hari went on an epic journey across the world to interview the leading experts on human attention–and he discovered that everything we think we know about this crisis is wrong.
We think our inability to focus is a personal failure to exert enough willpower over our devices. The truth is even more disturbing: our focus has been stolen by powerful external forces that have left us uniquely vulnerable to corporations determined to raid our attention for profit. Hari found that there are twelve deep causes of this crisis, from the decline of mind-wandering to rising pollution, all of which have robbed some of our attention. In Stolen Focus, he introduces readers to Silicon Valley dissidents who learned to hack human attention, and veterinarians who diagnose dogs with ADHD. He explores a favela in Rio de Janeiro where everyone lost their attention in a particularly surreal way, and an office in New Zealand that discovered a remarkable technique to restore workers’ productivity.
Crucially, Hari learned how we can reclaim our focus–as individuals, and as a society–if we are determined to fight for it. Stolen Focus will transform the debate about attention and finally show us how to get it back.
The third and final volume of All Over Coffee presents some of the most beloved and never before collected pieces from the weekly series. Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, this timeless work, which includes collaborations with many prize-winning authors, is now collected for the first time into a new gorgeous hardcover edition.
You Know Exactly enigmatically melds art, story, and travel to capture the profundity reflected outside and resting deep within the soul. With original writings plus collaborations with award-winning writers including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Cheryl Strayed, Andrew Sean Greer, Robert Olen Butler, Kristen Tracy, Daniel Handler (otherwise known as Lemony Snicket), and more, artist and writer Paul Madonna pairs words with exquisitely rendered cityscapes to create a poignant, thought-provoking showpiece. Each page offers something unique: short stories, poems, fleeting thoughts, and one-liners displayed alongside pen and ink drawings that travel from San Francisco to New York, from Paris to Tokyo. The effect coalesces into a mesmerizing work that you’ll want to return to again and again.
NEW YORK—In an effort to raise awareness of the medical procedure after the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, Sesame Workshop released a public service announcement Thursday on preventing unwanted pregnancies that featured Elmo receiving a vasectomy. “There was a little pinch, but that was okay,” said Elmo, who explained to viewers that the elective surgical procedure for male sterilization was safe and over 99% effective in preventing pregnancy, making it a great option for people who don’t currently want to have children. “Elmo was real scared at first, but the nice nurse told Elmo that the doctor can reverse the vasectomy when I’m ready to be a daddy. It only took 15 minutes to make the two incisions on my scrotum, and then snip! Elmo’s infertile now!” Elmo then asked some local children to help him count up to seven to show viewers how many days of recovery he would need before being able to have sex again.
A century after him, Hermann Hesse leaned on his reverence for nature as he considered the value of hardship, urging the dispirited to listen to our inner voice: “If you are now wondering where to look for consolation, where to seek a new and better God… he does not come to us from books, he lives within us… This God is in you too. He is most particularly in you, the dejected and despairing.”
Octavia Butler by Katy Horan from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of women writers who have enchanted and transformed our world.
In the opening pages of her 1993 masterwork Parable of the Sower (public library) — the first part of her oracular Earthseed allegory — Octavia Butler (June 22, 1947–February 24, 2006) writes:
All that you touch You Change.
All that you Change Changes you.
The only lasting truth Is Change.
God Is Change.
This, of course, is the only appropriate conception of “God” — which is also another word for “nature” — if we are lucid about what actually happens when we die: that is, when we return our borrowed stardust to nature. Butler intimates as much, insisting again and again that “God” is the vessel we create to hold the blooming buzzing chaos of the ever-changing self. “To shape God, shape Self,” she would write five years later, in the sequel to Parable of the Sower.
Defining intelligence as “ongoing, individual adaptability” and reminding us that “civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals,” she considers our orientation to “God” — to change — as a vital adaptation that shapes the outcome of any individual human life. In a mighty antidote to our present culture of abdicating personal responsibility for our own lives (which, as Joan Didion knew, is another term for character) in favor of competitive victimhood, Butler writes:
A victim of God may, Through learning adaption, Become a partner of God, A victim of God may, Through forethought and planning, Become a shaper of God. Or a victim of God may, Through shortsightedness and fear, Remain God’s victim, God’s plaything, God’s prey.
Great Art Explained Jul 23, 2021 Please consider supporting this channel on Patreon, thanks! https://www.patreon.com/user?u=53686503 “What a brilliant series this is” – Stephen Fry on Twitter 12 December 2020 “Thoroughly researched and cleverly presented, with stunning visuals, Great Art Explained makes you realise that familiarity with a work of art sometimes makes us indifferent to its power” – Forbes Magazine, 9 July 2020 If you are affected by any of the issues in this video please go to www.samaritans.org I started “Great Art Explained” during lockdown. My aim is to make videos which focus on one great artwork. I want to present art in a jargon free, entertaining, clear and concise way with no gimmicks. Subscribe and click the bell icon to get more arts content. Each video takes me about three weeks to a month, so I download at least once a month: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCePD... Edward Hopper’s world was New York, and he understood that city more than most people. He understood that, even though you may live in one of the most crowded and busy cities on earth, it is still possible to feel entirely alone. This painting, was completed on January 21st, 1942, just weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbour and America’s entry into World War two. That’s not to say the war was a direct influence, but the feeling of dread many Americans had, surely infused the painting. Afraid of air raid attacks, New York had blackout drills, and lights were dimmed in public spaces. Streets emptied out and Hopper’s city was effectively dark, and silent.
The author Cory Silverberg bucks decades of conventional wisdom on how to teach kids about intimacy.
Credit…Illustration by Sophi Miyoko Gullbrants
By Elaine Blair
June 28, 2022 (NYTimes.com)
About eight years ago, when my daughter was in preschool, I went to the children’s alcove of ourlocal library and found the book that I’d heard was the standard-bearer of liberal sex education for younger school-age children: “It’s So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families,” by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley. My daughter had so far only thrown me some softballs about pregnancy and babies, but it probably wouldn’t be long — billboards in Los Angeles being what they were — before I was fielding questions about sexuality.
“It’s So Amazing!” covered many subjects: anatomy, gender, fertilization, gestation, birth, love, heterosexual intercourse, sexual orientation, child sex abuse and H.I.V. Light on gender difference, open to gender fluidity and self-determination, it looked like a reasonably sound compendium of current thought. A graphic of a boy and girl had arrows pointing to most parts of their bodies reading “same” and only one set of arrows pointing at their reproductive organs reading “different.” Our reproductive systems may divide us, the book suggested, but let’s not lose sight of all that we have in common — such as our circulatory, digestive and lymphatic systems. In a chapter called “What’s Sex?” an unclothed man and woman, partly covered by a blue blanket, kissed in missionary position. “When two people care for each other, sexual intercourse is very loving,” I read in the accompanying text. Fair enough, I thought. As a realist, I appreciated the use of the conditional construction.
But then came the next chapter, “What’s Love?” with pictures of smiling families and couples, in many different configurations, watching TV, eating meals, cuddling and walking dogs, all with little red hearts around them, with nearby text explaining the meaning of words like straight, gay and lesbian. Now something nagged at me. All the different kinds of couples did fun things together with their clothes on, but only the man and woman in the previous chapter got to take their clothes off. Other sex-ed books I’d seen for this age group were about making babies and didn’t even mention same-sex couples. But this book’s well-meaning attempt at inclusivity practically spelled out a hierarchy of value: Hetero sex is sex; the other stuff, though very loving, is off-brand. This was rather too much like my own liberal-ish childhood sex education, a scene of maddening adult evasions and inconsistencies, the unspoken drift of which was that some desires and practices were less good than others.
I closed the book. But still, it troubled me. What should the illustrators have done — drawn more pictures of more naked couples in a wider variety of common sexual scenarios? That hardly seemed right.
Not long after, a friend recommended “Sex Is a Funny Word,” by the sex educator Cory Silverberg and the artist Fiona Smyth. The book defines sex as “something people can do to feel good in their bodies, and also feel close to another person.” Sex is also “one way grown-ups make babies.” Apart from these statements, which are accompanied by drawings of a fully clothed smiling couple and, separately, a baby, the book doesn’t try to explain or illustrate sex acts. It’s focused on children’s experience of bodies, gender and the strange things that can happen socially when the topic of sex comes up. Illustrated with comics panels, it follows four elementary-school-age children. One page shows the children encountering pop-cultural depictions of sexuality: Mimi is in a movie theater watching a prince and princess kissing onscreen. Cooper walks by his brother’s room and finds him watching a music video with a close-up of a person’s breasts. Omar sees a roadside billboard featuring a woman in a tight dress. A question mark floats above each child’s head.
A panel like this may sound unremarkable, but it actually makes “Sex Is a Funny Word” one of very few children’s books to contend with the fact that children encounter representations of sexuality in the media. The book is also filled with all kinds of social scenes: kids telling jokes or teasing each other, chatting with neighbors, arguing with siblings, running errands, riding the bus. In one set of panels, Mimi bounds into the kitchen where her dads are making dinner. One of them asks her how her day at school went. “Great,” she tells him, “I heard some kids talking about *#!@. What does *#!@ mean anyway?” Her dad’s face is startled and then, in the next panel, angry: “Don’t ever say that word again! That’s a bad word.” Mimi is indignant: “That’s not fair! I don’t even know what it means! How am I supposed to know if a word is bad if I can’t say it?” Dad is at a loss. “Go do your homework.” And then, his face softening, he adds, “We’ll talk about it later.” Scenes like this also make “Sex Is a Funny Word” one of the few books to show children dealing with the subjects of sex and gender in their family lives.
“Sex Is a Funny Word” is part of a trilogy of books written by Silverberg — including “What Makes a Baby” and the recently published “You Know, Sex” — that have quietly upended the genre. Silverberg, who uses “they” pronouns, is skeptical of the term “sex positive” and would like to see a world with no normative pressures around sex, including the pressure to have sex or care much about sex at all. Rather than beginning with the premise that sex is great and everyone will eventually learn to enjoy it, they begin with the subtly different premise that sex is often difficult and they want to help make it less difficult. “For some people sex is great, for some people it’s terrible, for some people it means nothing,” I heard them tell a group of parents. “Our kids don’t know who they are yet. I want to phrase things in a way that leaves all those possibilities open.”
When Silverbergwas 17 and looking for a summer job in the mid-1980s, their father, like many well-connected fathers before and since, called around to people in his professional network in Toronto to see if anyone had work for a high schooler. Silverberg’s father was a sex therapist, and the job he found for his kid was working as a clerk at Lovecraft, the first sex-toy store in North America owned by women.
Silverberg was a young-looking 17 and had never so much as kissed anyone, yet they found themselves charged with helping customers pick out vibrators. “They were mostly women, and they would see me and keep looking around for another salesclerk. They were like, I don’t want that guy,” Silverberg laughed as they told me this story in a cafe noisy with a late-morning Sunday crowd near their home in Houston.
When Silverberg speaks to groups of parents or teachers, they talk about having grown up the child of a sex therapist with access to a wide selection of sex-education materials for both adults and children. They were a precocious reader and studied these carefully, but none of them offered any clue about something that was increasingly worrying them. “I was this femmy kid that everyone thought was gay,” Silverberg said, though they themselves were not at all sure that gay was the right concept for what they were experiencing. Silverberg was attracted to women but found going out with them uncomfortable in some way that they couldn’t understand. “I just felt bad — lonely and bad. I thought that there was actually something structurally wrong with me.”
Silverberg eventually realized, when they were in their early 30s, that they felt more like a woman than like the man the world had presumed them to be. It was gender, not sexuality per se, that was at the heart of their struggle with their body and romantic life. But for years of Silverberg’s adolescence and young adulthood, there seemed no good way to even begin to explain how they felt. “I would say I’m weird. I would say I’m not straight, or that I’m straight-ish. People would say that I’m a man, and I would say, ‘Well.…’”
Silverberg went on to work at Lovecraft for nine years while finishing high school and attending university. Though they were “very confused” about sex in their own life, they were pleased to find that they had the ability to talk about sexuality without feeling or seeming awkward — or as they put it, “Other people’s sex stuff didn’t freak me out, and I knew how to show that it didn’t freak me out.” They became particularly interested in working with the store’s disabled clientele. “With the nondisabled customers, most of the work was just helping them to say what they wanted. But the disabled customers would be very specific: Do you have a penis pump that doesn’t have latex, because I’m allergic to latex? Or I want to try to have an orgasm, but I can’t hold anything with my hand — what can I do? They’d come in able to talk about every aspect of their bodies (what moves, and how, where there’s feeling and isn’t), but then their question would be: How can I have sex? It seems to me the reason those people asked ‘How can I have sex?’ is because the world had already told them exactly how they were supposed to have it — by having penile-vaginal intercourse — and they can’t do that, so they were stumped.”
After graduating with a master’s in education from the University of Toronto, Silverberg developed a specialty in training professional groups — midwives, teachers, home health care workers, occupational therapists — on issues of sex and disability. Then some friends came to them with a proposition: Could Silverberg write a book for their young son about how babies are made? The friends were the parents of a 4-year-old and had another baby on the way. The father was a trans man. The children’s books on store shelves featuring Mom and Dad conceiving baby in a four-poster bed, or adopting a child, did not account for their family.
Silverberg was immediately intrigued. They knew right away that they didn’t want to write just for the children of trans parents — they wanted to tell a story of how babies are made that would apply to all kinds of kids, whether they were conceived the traditional way or through reproductive technologies, whether they lived with adoptive or biological parents, and no matter their family configuration. But what is it that all babies, and all expectant parents, have in common? Silverberg came up with a simple, pared down story of a sperm, an egg, a uterus, and people waiting expectantly for the arrival of a baby. On the last page, Silverberg asks readers, “Who was waiting for you to be born?”
Silverberg asked Smyth to illustrate the book and made a Kickstarter page, expecting to bring out “What Makes a Baby” themselves after a few publishers rejected the idea as “too niche.” “Our goal was to raise $9,500, and I was sure that I would hustle, hustle, hustle and then get members of my family to give me most of it,” Silverberg told me. Instead, they met that goal the first day the project went live. By the end of the month, they had raised nearly $65,000. Although a lot of the early supporters were L.G.B.T.Q. families, “that’s not how we got to $65,000,” Silverberg says. “It was straight families. There was a critical mass of conventional families who wanted a different story and were open to revising their whole way of thinking about how sexuality and reproduction can be discussed with kids.”
When I met Silverberg in their home office, a book-lined converted garage behind the gray-blue Houston bungalow where they lived at the time (they’ve since relocated to Toronto), they pulled a stack of vintage sex-ed books from the shelves, picking out some of the most visually striking. Silverberg dresses in the collared shirts and professorial sweaters they’ve favored for years, and when people see them with their longtime partner, a woman, and their 7-year-old, they seem to assume they’re looking at a straight family. Silverberg does not usually correct that impression in brief social encounters, because they don’t feel that there’s a quick way to sum up their experience of gender.
Speaking before groups of parents, Silverberg has the mild, encouraging manner of a professional facilitator, but one on one, they’re an animated fast-talker, eager to discuss the history and the pitfalls of a genre that draws so much ire from the political right but not much serious engagement from anyone else outside the field. One volume they draw from the stack is “How Babies Are Made,” a popular Time-Life picture book from 1968 illustrated with paper sculptures of animals mounting each other to mate. Another is a trippy little Danish volume from 1973 called “How a Baby Is Made” that shows a full-body illustration of a grinning, wild-eyed cartoon Scandinavian couple in flagrante. Peter Mayle’s “Where Did I Come From,” a blockbuster hit in the ’70s and still surely the most exuberant book of its kind, features a doughy, pink middle-aged couple and a groundbreaking mention of orgasm (“All the rubbing up and down that’s been going on ends in a tremendous big lovely shiver for both of them”).
The wide variety of tones and visual styles among these books makes it all the more notable how consistently they’re locked into the same basic framework. More recent popular books like Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown’s “What’s the Big Secret?” and Robie H. Harris’s sex-education series for different ages give more space to anatomy (including children’s bodies), discuss masturbation (reassuringly) and mention different kinds of relationships. But the more room such books make for the precepts of sexual liberalism — gender and sexual inclusivity, frank discussion of anatomy and pleasure — the stranger seems their insistence on yoking discussions of sexuality to even longer discussions of conception, gestation and birth. Sex in these books is a small part of the larger story of human reproduction. This happens to be the opposite of what nearly every song, video, television plotline, overheard wisp of schoolyard gossip or adult innuendo suggests to children, which is that sex is incredibly interesting in itself, deeply tied to social status and has little or nothing to do with babies and parenthood.
“There’s certainly nothing wrong with teaching the science,” Silverberg says, but a biology lesson doesn’t open out into the conversations that many parents hope to have with their children: about attraction and intimacy, about communication and consent, about the online pornography that kids may already have seen.
The Push to Restrict Rights for Young Transgender People
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A growing trend. Measures that could tranform the lives of young transgender people are at the center of heated political debate across America. Here is how some states are approaching the subject:
Utah. A day after the decision in Indiana, Gov. Spencer Cox, also a Republican, vetoed a similar bill that would have barred young transgender athletes from participating in girls’ sports. Republican legislators subsequently voted to override the veto and enacted the legislation.
Other states. Since 2019, lawmakers have introduced bills seeking to bar transgender youths from joining school sports teams consistent with their gender identities. They have become law in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.
Compared with the other books in the sex-ed library, “Sex Is a Funny Word” is among the least explicit when it comes to the mechanics of sex. There are no descriptions of penises inside vaginas or any other acts, partly because Silverberg would never reduce “sex” to heterosexual intercourse but also because they’re not convinced that children of this age need to be told exactly what people do with their bodies during sex or to be shown pictures of couples in sexual embrace. “Seeing is not a small thing,” they told me. The chapter “Learning About Bodies” has pages about privacy, nudity and the special significance and silences around certain body parts in order to set up its pages on sexual anatomy. “I want kids to know that seeing a naked body is a big deal. It matters. When we see stuff, it stays with us.”
Silverberg is perfectly happy to be going against the liberal pedagogical tendency toward showing kids more. They don’t relish any of the political labels that inevitably get attached to their work. “Sex Is a Funny Word” was on the American Library Association’s Top 10 most challenged books list in 2017 and 2019 — meaning that it was a target of removal requests from schools and libraries — even before the recent surge of conservative censorship. Complaints ranged from “discussing gender identity” to, simply, “address[ing] sex education.”
“I bristle against the language of liberal and progressive because I am genuinely trying to write books for as many people as possible. Some people might think that the books are going to contradict their values, and what I can promise anyone is that in some places they will, and in some places they won’t. If your values are that homosexuality is wrong, the books will contradict that. But they also will never say that you should go and have more sex. They certainly will never say that being religious and having a healthy sexual and gender identity are incompatible. And never will they say, sex is great. I think that a life that doesn’t include sexual activity, whether that’s for religious reasons, moral reasons or reasons that have to do with your body, can be a completely full life.”
It took Silverberg and Smyth seven years to complete “You Know, Sex,” their book for kids entering puberty. The four main characters of “Sex Is a Funny Word” are now in middle school, and “Mr. C,” their sex-ed teacher, leads them in discussions about body changes, gender and sexual decision-making. Dozens of pages are devoted to boundaries and consent, illustrated with comics of variously gendered young people — at the movies, on picnic blankets, at parties — asking permission to do things like hold hands or kiss, talking to one another about what feels good or bad or meh. Examples of language for negotiating physical intimacy abound. “You wanna go check out upstairs?” “Can we just hang here for now?” “Let’s slow down.” “Is this still OK?” “Let’s take a break.”
Reading “You Know, Sex,” I remembered that when I first spoke to Silverberg, they mentioned some of the questions they were wrestling with as they incorporated much more factual information — about reproductive biology, anatomy, birth control, sexual assault — than they had in the earlier books. Questions like, How do you define a sexual feeling as opposed to other feelings? Should this new book have some kind of illustration of sex? I had thought of these as technical questions about which body parts and sexual activities to show, which definitions to use in the course of what I basically pictured as a big information drop. I hadn’t considered the possibility that mood and metaphor and surrealism could make a book about puberty feel like something other than a pedagogical text. I certainly hadn’t pictured a group of kids in bathing suits chatting about their menstruation experiences in a swimming pool filled with bright red blood. Nor had I imagined that a pair of anthropomorphic lemmings could demonstrate how social pressure leads us to initiate or agree to physical intimacy that we don’t really want.
As for the question of how to illustrate sex, Silverberg continued to opt for less graphic detail rather than more, settling on the idea of stick figures. The inspiration came from a groovy 1970s novelty item that Silverberg remembers seeing at souvenir shops as a kid: posters showing grids of silhouetted figures in different sex positions, each one corresponding to a zodiac sign. Based loosely on Silverberg’s recollections, Smyth has drawn a half-dozen cheerful, gender- and genital-free stick couples assuming some iconic poses. “Most people think having sex looks like this,” reads the accompanying text.
When I got to this panel I fell through one of those temporal trapdoors and, for a split second, was reading as my childhood self. I eagerly looked to the next panel for the myth-busting truth. Someone was finally, finally going to tell me what sex really looked like. But — of course — Silverberg is not one to stage a big reveal with claims to definitional authority. “Having sex can look like a lot of things,” reads the text in a second panel, where the same smiling stick people, solo or in pairs, do things like make eye contact, hold hands, give foot massages, sit in front of laptops and have fantasies involving the torso of a broad-shouldered, hairy-chested hunk.
This kind of open-ended phrasing, a signature of Silverberg’s, is something that they developed years ago through a conversation with an early reader of “Sex Is a Funny Word.” Silverberg always workshops books in progress with audiences of different ages and backgrounds to get their perspectives, and this reader — a transmasculine person who was raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family — said something that made a strong impression on Silverberg. “In the first draft of ‘Sex Is a Funny Word,’” Silverberg recalled, “I wrote in a lot of places that people either felt good or bad about things — a touch might make you feel good or make you feel bad, and so on. But this reader said, ‘Some things just make you feel nothing much at all, but that’s a feeling, too.’” Silverberg was electrified and seems electrified all over again remembering the moment. “It was this idea of neutrality! I had been doing the typical thing, which is laying out two options.” But even if there had been “15 options,” Silverberg says, the problem was “making a finite list of things that a reader might feel. Because if they don’t feel any of the things on the list, they think, well that’s not me, and I lose them.”
They grow subdued thinking about the challenges of reaching and holding a wised-up audience of young teenagers. “The way that sex ed often deals with confusion in puberty,” Silverberg says, “is with a wink-wink, like, you’re going to be confused about your body, but you’re not really going to be confused about your body because everyone knows what happens — and here’s what’s going to happen to you and how you’ll feel. But I don’t know how people are going to feel. I only know my experience and the experiences of people I’ve talked to, which is a lot of people, but still not everyone.”
Elaine Blair is a Los Angeles-based critic and an inaugural winner of the Robert B. Silvers Prize for Literary Criticism. Her writing on literature, film and feminist thought appears regularly in The New York Review of Books.