Sex IS A Funny Word!: An Interview With Sex Educator/Children’s Author Cory Silverberg

by Rachel Giese

Cory Silverberg writes books for kids about sex so lush, smart, and subversive that adults ought to read them. In his first, a picture book for four-to-six-year-olds called What Makes a Baby, he tackled conception in a radically inclusive way, delivering the biological facts minus the default penis-plus-vagina explanation. There are no genders identified in the text, and the eye-popping illustrations by Toronto artist Fiona Smyth feature androgynous figures that are a little bit Keith Haring and a little bit Marc Chagall. If this sounds overly earnest, fear not. In Silverberg’s approach, baby-making is a dreamy, trippy, happy party in which everyone is included.

Raised in Toronto, Silverberg grew up with a progressive view of sex: his dad was a sex therapist and his feminist mom was a children’s librarian. But despite all the manuals and advice books on his family’s shelves, he says, “I still didn’t get what I needed. Nothing fit me.” For a long time, he (and everyone else) thought he was gay, until he realized that he was actually “a queer person in a straight package.” His kids’ books were inspired by that childhood experience of feeling like an outsider, and the experiences of friends who also didn’t see themselves or their families in books about sex, relationships, and love.

His second book with Smyth, Sex is a Funny Word, is out this month from Seven Stories Press. This one is written like a graphic novel and is aimed at eight-to-10-year-olds, covering subjects like gender identity, body parts, crushes, masturbation, and “secret touching” — the term Silverberg uses to describe coercive and abusive sexual contact. In the story, four fourth-graders are sent on an adventure to learn about sex. Every chapter ends with a series of questions to help kids think about things like what gender means to them, or whether they like to be hugged or not, or what they think about the word “sexy.” A third book about puberty and sex is in the planning stages.

I spoke to Silverberg over the phone from his new home in Houston, where he’s just moved with his partner and their nine-month-old baby. We ended up talking for nearly two hours, mostly about kids and sex, but also why grown-ups are so messed up about it.

What’s unique about the book is its open-endedness. You offer a lot of information about gender, say, or the names of body parts, but you steer clear of offering advice, or telling kids what they might think or feel.

People expect sex educators to give them answers. It’s the model of Masters and Johnson, Alex Comfort (Joy of Sex), Sue Johanson (Talk Sex with Sue Johanson). People love educators like Sue because she gives them answers. But I don’t have those answers. It’s not the way I do it. My experience as a sex educator is that when you talk about something with a kid with a whole lot of certainty — like, this is how it should feel and this is what that body part looks like — and it’s actually untrue for that kid, you lose them. I don’t want kids to close the book.

Take the chapter on the idea of “sexy”: this is a modern dilemma for parents. Really young kids are using that word now without knowing what it means. Some parents shut it down by saying, “that’s a bad word.” But there are other parents who think, “Hmm, you know, I like sex and sexiness, so I don’t think it’s a bad word, but what do I tell my kid about it?”

I don’t think I can tell any parent or any kid about what they should do. I don’t have a definitive answer. In the book, I explain what different people take the word to mean and then I had the characters ask a bunch of questions: “Have you heard people use the word sexy? What do you think they meant?” and “Has anyone ever called you sexy? How did it make you feel?” and “Is it okay to call someone sexy?”

It seems like what you’re trying to do is give kids a different way of thinking and talking about sex right from the start.
Yes, I’m trying to get the kids young — which is exactly what people will say about it in a bad way, but it’s also true in a good way.

That reminds me of a segment on a recent episode of
This American Life. A sex educator is doing a workshop with a bunch of college guys about consent and assault. As you hear the guys talk, it becomes clear that they need a way bigger conversation. For all their bravado, they have no clue about sex, or how to talk to women. There’s one guy who is totally convinced that every woman likes her neck kissed because one of his buddies told him so, but he’s never actually asked any of the women he’s been with if they like that. These guys don’t even have the basics, so it’s a huge leap to start with consent and assault.
Yes, that’s exactly why things aren’t changing [when it comes to assault on campuses]. Here’s a similar example that comes up a lot when I talk to families. I know of parents who never talk about sex, but then the first question they get from their 10-year-old is, “What’s a blow job?” The parents freak out because they haven’t talked to the kid about love or kissing or having a crush or any of that. And now the kid wants to know about blow jobs. You can’t start at blow job. It’s way too far ahead in the sex talk. And you can’t start the conversation about negotiating relationships and sex with talking about consent laws and sexual assault.

You actually offer a way to start talking about consent and boundaries in Sex is a Funny Word in the chapter about touching. Each kid has a different degree of comfort for things like holding hands with a friend or getting a hug from an aunt or having someone touch them when they’re angry.

I don’t want to tell a kid that their body is their own because it isn’t true and it can’t be true. If your kid is about to run into traffic, you’re going to grab them and pull them out of the way without waiting for consent, or if your kid needs medical attention you’re not going to get their permission to have a doctor give them a needle. But I do think we need to be honest with kids about that, rather than pretending that they have full control over their bodies when they don’t, so they understand what that feels like and what it means. And you can also talk to them about why that’s the case and let them know when and where there are options, like giving someone a high five instead of a hug.

Right. And you can begin to build on that when you talk about sexual consent as they get older.

There’s this lovely, false idea that consent is simple and that it’s simple to teach. You know, the consent as tea video? It’s cute and well-intentioned and lots of people like it. But the problem is that it presents consent as something that’s always straightforward and it’s not. For instance, we all have experiences of sex where we think afterwards that it was a mistake. It wasn’t nonconsensual but it wasn’t something we wanted. Sex is not tea.

Right, because we aren’t naked and vulnerable and bringing a lot of weird emotional and social baggage to tea.

We’re all fucked up about sex — including me. I know a lot of adults who are sex educators, or who have sex for a living, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have some degree of shame about their sexuality, or some sense that they don’t know what they’re doing.

Anyone who has ever had sex with another person colludes with them. You both go into it thinking, “Okay, we know what to expect, what this is going to be like.” But, no, you never know what it’s going to be like. It’s different each time. Everyone has to figure out for themselves what they like and what feels good, and it might change over time and in different situations. You can’t just assume things about sex, you have to talk about it.

I actually think the best part about having a father who was a sex therapist was simply that sex got talked about. Given that I’m a sex educator, people assume I’m really good at having sex. That’s not true — I don’t think I’m any better at sex than anybody else. The only thing that’s different is that I talk about sex all the time for a living, which makes it much easier to talk about it in my personal life.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s a big part of why adults are so uncomfortable talking to kids about sex. I think most of us suspect that everybody else is having more and better sex than we are, so we have hang ups about it. Who are we to teach our kids about it?
Right, because parents are uncomfortable, or they think they are doing it wrong, or they think that sex is bad, then they either don’t talk about it with their kids, or they get a book or a sex educator to do it for them. That’s not wrong — kids need to learn about sex from a lot of places, like books, like schools. But we want sex education to take into account a child’s whole life — their values, their personality, their gender, race, and class, their family background — and parents should be involved in that.

You also write about not having sex and not wanting to be sexual. This book talks a lot about values, both religious and personal ones, that involve possibly abstaining from sex and relationships. Why was it important to you to include that?

It was actually informed by my response to sex positivity. I grew up in the 1970s in the post-sexual revolution, and then in my teens discovered people like Susie Bright and Betty Dodson. I was excited about starting from the place that sex can be a positive force in our lives. But over the years, that message became something else: you must have great sex, you must find your G-spot. The idea is no longer that sex can be a positive force, but that it is a positive force. I don’t like that because that leaves out a lot of people in my life for whom sex is not a positive thing, or else something they’re just not into. I’m not interested in telling people to have sex. I’m only interested in talking to people about what sex is.

And the other thing about a lot of mainstream sex education for children is that it talks to kids as if none of them have been victims of sexual abuse — which is ridiculous because so many of them have. There are all these books that say “sex is amazing” and “bodies feel great,” which isn’t true for everyone. That’s why our book presents sex as something that can be good, but it isn’t just rah-rah about it, because I know that a lot of the kids who will read it will have already experienced sex that was coercive. How do I write about sex in a way that speaks to them too?

I want to ask you about Fiona’s contribution to the book because obviously, for kids, how a book is illustrated will have a lot to do with their buy-in and trust. Fiona is a painter and illustrator with a background in zines and comics. Her work feels appropriate for kids, but it doesn’t read as childish or condescending.

I know! Sometimes I look at the images and cry because they are so beautiful. Fiona’s art has a lot to do with the body and with childhood — although it’s a lot darker — so she really gets kids and how they think. The other thing she does so well is that she draws the world she sees, which is the beautifully diverse world of Toronto. The push right now in children’s publishing is “diversity sells” which can feel cynical and tokenistic. But with Fiona it’s organic.

One of my favorite scenes is in the chapter about masturbation. We were really struggling with how to illustrate it. I didn’t want a hands-down-the-pants picture. For one thing, masturbation isn’t just about touching your genitals, but I also didn’t want anything explicitly sexual in a book for seven-to-10-year-olds. Fiona came up with the image of each kid having a biodome that represented their bodies and their sensations, with places like Tickle Country and Sore Valley, which brilliantly conveys the point that through exploring your own body you are going to learn all sorts of things about it and how it feels.

We tend to think of sex education as utilitarian: it must have a purpose and it must be good for you. And if you illustrate a book about sex, it has to have a purpose and it has to be anatomical, or really cute so it’s not threatening. I have the great honor and joy to have an artist as a collaborator, so there are a lot of drawings in the book that are there just because they’re beautiful. I think it makes the book more engaging, and it says to kids that talking about sex can be something fun and beautiful, too.

Rachel Giese is a journalist in Toronto. She’s writing a book about modern boyhood.