Let’s talk about anything but sex

” We tried for three days to sneak Ona’s [dead] baby out, but the guard stood near whenever the doors were open.  The smell of rotting flesh had become unbearable in the hot car.  It made me retch.

Ona finally agreed to drop the baby down the bathroom hole.  She knelt over the opening, sobbing, holding the bundle….

…’I can’t’, whimpered Ona.  ‘She’ll be crushed on the tracks.’

Mother moved toward Ona.  Before she reached her, Miss Grybas snapped the bundle from Ona and threw it down the hole.  I gasped.  Mrs. Rimas cried.”      – Sepetys; Between Shades of Gray, pp. 75-76


“Augustus sat in the driver’s seat, covered in his own vomit, his hands pressed to his belly where the G-Tube went in.  ‘Hi’, he mumbled.

‘Oh God, Augustus, we have to get you to a hospital.’

‘Please, just look at it.’  I gagged from the smell but bent forward to inspect the place just above his belly button where they’d inserted the tube.  The skin of his abdomen was warm and bright red.

‘Gus, I think something’s infected. I can’t fix this. Why are you here? Why aren’t you at home?’  He puked, without even the energy to turn his mouth away from his lap.  ‘Oh sweetie’, I said.”   – Green; The Fault in Our Stars p. 244


“Do you know what ‘masturbation’ is?  I think you probably do because you are older than me.  But just in case, I will tell you.  Masturbation is when you rub your genitals until you have an orgasm.  Wow!

I thought that in those movies and television shows when they talk about having a coffee break that they should have a masturbation break.  But then again, I think this would decrease productivity.

I’m only being cute here.  I don’t really mean it.  I just wanted to make you smile.  I meant the ‘wow’ though.”  – Chbosky; Perks of Being a Wallflower p.21


Which of those quotes leaps out at you or makes you uncomfortable when you imagine a 12-13 year old girl reading them?

If you are like every single person I’ve asked since starting this little experiment, the answer is a resounding “The 3rd one!”  i.e. the quote from The Perks of Being a Wallflower.   Initially that was my reaction as well, and then I was kind of shocked at myself.  (My daughter has read all three of the books quoted above.)   “So,”  I said to myself, “You have no problem with your daughter reading about the horrors of death en route to and in the Siberian work camps  during WWII, or the horrible reality of teens with terminal cancer, but a kid commenting on the pleasure of masturbation freaks you out?  The NATURAL thing that every single person on this planet, whether they admit to it or not, does?”

“No”, I argued, “It’s not just that; the kids in “Perks” experiment with drugs, they drink and there are themes of depression/suicide & abuse along with the sex.”

But let’s get real.  Remove the sex from that book and most of us wouldn’t blink an eye at it.  (There also wouldn’t be much of a story, but…)

Common Sense Media says the Siberian death camp book is appropriate for readers 12 and up.  The teen cancer book is ok for 15 and up and the sex, drugs & rock’n roll depression book?  16 and up.

I think there may be something seriously off about our priorities.

The other argument I’ve heard is that “Perks” is more realistic and that’s why it should be reserved for older kids.  (Although it is in no way more realistic than “The Fault in Our Stars”. That book was brutal in its’ realism.)   Which I guess means that if the same story was set in, say, the early 1800’s in Japan where suicide was an honored ritual, where the poppy plant was smoked to “enlighten” the mind and where women were taken as concubines at the whim of powerful men in order to produce heirs… well then it would be fine.

All the same themes, basically, but set in a different time and told without using the words “penis”, “vagina”, “masturbation” or “orgasm”.

If we are going to discuss books with our soon to be or young teens, what is wrong with discussing books that may have a place in their reality?  Not that they will personally deal with depression or do drugs or have sex – well, they will have sex, just hopefully not at the age of 12 or 13 – but they may encounter these issues through friends or acquaintances, and wouldn’t it be better for them to encounter them first with the distance & safety that a book provides?

Why do we have such issues with these themes and these words?  Why did we all think “The Hunger Games” was fantastic but that “Perks” is somehow inappropriate?   Don’t get me wrong, I loved “The Hunger Games” – both the book series and the movie – and so did my kids.   I am asking these questions not only of others but of myself as well.

I have a lot of theories about this.  Maybe it’s a religious thing.  Maybe we’re projecting our own insecurities onto our kids.  Maybe we remember a little too clearly the things we were interested in at the same age, or the things we did.  Maybe our culture is more heavily influenced by our Puritanical past than we’d like to admit.  Maybe we want our kids to never grow up.

Whatever the reason or reasons, we have become a society (or maybe we have always been a society) that accepts violence and violent death as natural but sex & discussions about sex as unnatural; at least when it comes to our kids.

And that can’t be a good thing.



4 comments on “Let’s talk about anything but sex

  1. Cindy says:

    Hhhmmm, you’re challenging me to put to words our experience again. Let’s see. Your point seems to be in here:

    “If we are going to discuss books with our soon to be or young teens, what is wrong with discussing books that may have a place in their reality?

    – but they may encounter these issues through friends or acquaintances, and wouldn’t it be better for them to encounter them first with the distance & safety that a book provides?”

    For the first question, the way these books are written is not part of my children’s reality.

    The second question, I would rather they discuss these things with me, not a book. And I created an open communication environment in which we did.

    If I were to say which of the three I was most uncomfortable with, it would be the first one. I have six boys. Masterbation tends to be pretty normal for teen boys to experience/experiment. And I was the one who took on those types of topics at the 11-13 year age for each of them. A book can’t answer questions, talk about perspective, and discuss various examples around them. A book can’t listen to what they think, what they’re experiencing, and how they want to handle things.

    Interestingly, along the line of picking good books to read, I remember when my daughter was at the 11-13 year range and trying to find books of interest to her. She lamented about books in a similar manner as she lamented about her schooled peers. She wanted to find books about strong young girls with fascinating interests. She would be excited about one or another, and then partway through, there might be a male interest and go into that aspect, and she would get mad. She also complained about her public school peers always being interested in boys, make-up, and clothes. She wondered if they had any actual interests that had depth. Haha!

    Anyway, like everything else, there was a natural progression with important life topics that centered around our trusting, respectful relationships that we had built around strong, open communication. We separated ourselves from the typical world view of all topics, from schooling to intimate relationships to book choices.

    • Amy says:

      Hi Cindy!

      Thanks as always for your great comments. I think perhaps I was unclear in a few of the things I said. I don’t expect my kids to learn about these things from books, but from me & my husband; we also have very open lines of communication. But my kids are also both big readers, and in my daughter’s case, these books are part of her book club, so a discussion will always be involved. (We tend to discuss the books we read in any case, whether they are from book club or not.)

      Drugs, alcohol and depression – as told in the book – are not part of my kids’ reality either, but we live in NYC and you cannot be out and about in the city and not come in contact with people of all different realities; some obvious and some not so obvious. We talk about it, and books like “Perks” give us more opportunity to do that – with a bit of distance, as I said. It’s funny that you mention your daughter and her frustration with finding good books; my daughter has the same issues. She will pick up books, read the cover and first two pages and then will give me a rundown of what will happen in the book. And she’s usually right! She hates predictability, and many books are predictable.

      My surprise has been the number of people who simply don’t want their kids to read the book because they either think it’s inappropriate (the sex) or they aren’t willing to have those conversations & answer the inevitable questions. I have a hard time putting my finger on it, but when I hear parents speak it sounds like they are in denial or are angry about these topics. Hey, nobody has to like every book or want to read it. Personally I had the toughest time with “The Fault in Our Stars”. But mention sex and teens and most people get nervous.

      I’m not sure if this has clarified anything. I really appreciate and enjoy your comments. They support me and make me ponder what I’ve written and my own positions; nothing is better than that.


    • Amy says:

      When it comes to the participants in our book club, I believe you are correct; it is more a matter of choice than control. And we do have discussions at our meetings about which book the group will be reading next, so it’s not an agenda handed down by one person..

      For the wider group I’ve been asking on an informal basis, it seems more like the kind of reaction Lenore Skenazy got when she allowed her 9 year old to ride the subway alone a few years back. A sort of “That’s awful! How inappropriate! I would never allow my child” etc. etc. It is this group that I am talking about most, because I think that type of thinking is more widespread than we might imagine.

  2. Cindy says:

    In one sense, I think I know what you’re trying to figure out, and you’ve prompted my own views on it, that seem equally hard to pinpoint with words. Let me go in this direction:

    I had this great evening job in my early marriage as a legal transcriptionist at a law firm as I put my hubby through college. When there wasn’t any work to do, I would sit and read until one of the late night staff brought me something. I was able to read quite a few books from my classics collection I had started right when I graduated high school. (I love books!)

    I remember reading Grapes of Wrath and absolutely hated it for its brutality depicting the times. I logically understood why it was considered a classic, as it represented the stark reality of a certain people of a certain time period, but I realized that *I* didn’t need to read that and couldn’t consider it classic material in my opinion. To me, it was a bit sensationalism of the times. Not that it didn’t happen, but I felt the purpose was shock.

    Subsequently, I found other “classics” distasteful and finally started to be able to convince myself not to finish a book. (It’s one of my things I don’t know where it comes from…conditioning?) I realized I didn’t want to be in the mind of a killer, for instance, in Crime and Punishment. Or in the long, drawn-out backward thinking mental health institution of The Magic Mountain.

    It was during this time that I started to formulate the question, “Who gets to decide what is a classic? What is worthy reading?” I did! (The start of my unschooling/deschooling? It would be another year or two before I started to unschool my children…my oldest being 3-4 years old at the time.)

    I apply this experience with my children, who never were raised to consider “should” or the world’s labels of “classics,” worthy reading, recommended book lists, etc. We simply sought out good books from our own perspective and standards.

    I rejected being part of book clubs often for myself or my children because I feel the choices often had an agenda. I refuse to be part of anyone’s agenda. My children wouldn’t be part of anyone’s agenda. It’s one of the reasons we rejected school. It’s why we’re not part of homeschooling co-ops of today. It’s why we weren’t part of exclusive groups.

    I’m sure what you may be experiencing with the reactions you’re seeing from parents may be remnants of controlling what children read. But on the flip side, for those readily accepting the book club picks, are those people too conforming to a group they’ve chosen to be involved in? Kind of an all or nothing proposition? “Well, we chose to be in the group, so we have to read the books chosen.” Or, should you discern what books chosen work for you and yours and not, whether in a book club or not? So, is the uncomfortableness you see in parents control…or choice? For where my family is on the journey, it would be choice. I always find it fascinating that two people making the same outward looking decision, could actually be quite different from each other when investigating the why behind the choice.

    Some more thoughts…

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