The Books About Sex That Every Family Should Read

Credit…Illustration by Sophi Miyoko Gullbrants

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 (

About eight years ago, when my daughter was in preschool, I went to the children’s alcove of our local 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.”

Cory Silverberg photographed at home in Toronto.
Cory Silverberg photographed at home in Toronto.Credit…Steph Martyniuk for The New York Times

When Silverberg was 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:

Texas. In October, Texas became the most populous state to bar transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports at public schools. Gov. Greg Abbott also issued an order to conduct child abuse investigations against those providing certain medical treatments to transgender children. Though a court ruling temporarily stopped the order from being applied, the Texas Supreme Court eventually ruled that inquiries could proceed.

Arkansas. Last April, Arkansas enacted a law, the first of its kind in the nation, barring physicians from administering hormones or puberty blockers to transgender people younger than 18. It is now on pause because of a legal challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Indiana. Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, vetoed a bill that would have banned transgender girls from competing in school-sanctioned girls’ sports,  saying that the bill would likely have been challenged in court. Republican lawmakers subsequently overrode the veto.

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.

Kentucky. Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that would prevent transgender female athletes from playing on girls’ sports teams in middle school and high school. The State Legislature, which is dominated by Republicans, is expected to override the veto.

Alabama. Gov. Kay Ivey signed a law banning medical care for transgender youth who are transitioning, though a federal judge later temporarily halted portions of it. The governor also approved legislation requiring students to use restrooms and locker rooms in line with the sex listed on their original birth certificates and restricting discussions on gender and sexuality in kindergarten through fifth grade.

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.

(Contributed by Michael Kelly, H.W.)

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