From euphemisms to scare tactics to a whole lot of gendered language, the United States has a sex and sexuality education problem. Today, only 27 states and the District of Columbia require sex-ed courses that also teach about HIV, and even then, only 17 states mandate that the teaching material is “medically accurate,” according to the Guttmacher Institute. Even worse, the majority of states require educators to stress the importance of abstinence; in some instances, abstinence-only is the only education school children receive. Additionally, only 10 states call for educators to be inclusive in discussions about sexual orientation.
The education kids receive at home may not be that much better, as so many parents simply don’t know where to start when it comes to talking about puberty and sex. That uncertainty can sometimes lead parents to oversimplify their lessons, sexuality educator Ellen Friedrichs tells SheKnows over email.
“I feel like we tend to withhold information from kids and then expect them to suddenly understand sexuality the second we decide they are old enough to explore it with a partner,” she says. “That approach has been a disaster. So many of the messages kids get about sex reinforce dangerous practices. A lot of them default to old gender tropes about girls having to play hard to get, and boys never taking no for an answer.”
Honesty, she says, is always best when talking to kids about sex. “If we can interrupt this narrative with accurate, positive information, then I think we will help grow a far healthier generation of young people,” she adds.
It isn’t enough to rely on some of the books our parents grew up reading, either, as many of these options lack material on consent, sexual orientation, internet usage, different body types, and gender identification. Friedrichs, who authored the book Good Sexual Citizenship: How to Create a (Sexually) Safer World, says that today’s parents should seek out more inclusive literature and start talking to kids about diversity at a young age.
“Obviously, one’s own identity will shape those conversations, but broadly, it is helpful to think about the stories you tell,” she says. “Are they always about people like you? If your own circles aren’t that broad, try to bring home books about experiences different than your own and ask yourself if you are defaulting to one script. And if your children repeat something problematic (even as benign as a comment about things ‘only girls’ or ‘only boys’ can do), don’t hesitate to jump in and add a different point of view.”
Ahead, we’ve rounded up some of the best books about puberty, bodies, and sex with recommendations from Friedrichs and Carol Queen, Ph.D., who’s a Good Vibrations staff sexologist and curator of the Antique Vibrator Museum, as well as the author of The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Good Sex for Everyone.
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