I’m not sure if I’d recommend reading a book about puberty with charmingly pornographic cartoons in a public park on a bustling New York afternoon. That’s not to say this setting didn’t enhance the experience. I picked up It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, & Sexual Health from The Strand with the intention of filing through it and discovering wild facts about biology and sexuality that I wasn’t privy to in Birds and The Bees Chat. While I did learn a few things I hadn’t known prior (Did you know that a singular egg is called an ovum?), what I retained was much more thematic. Reading this book made me think more generally about how sex education informs our cultural sex expectations. Most schools with sex education curricula teach the same set of facts. However, it’s the lens through which these facts are presented that changes how we interpret their meanings. Here is a list of takeaways from reading these facts from a new lens, the post-pubescent, sex positive one.
1. Men Are Hormonal Too
Robie Harris writes in the Puberty Chapter, “Some sex hormones cause changes to take place in and around boys’ and girls’ sex organs. Others cause changes to take place throughout their bodies. Sex hormones can also affect girls’ and boys’ feelings and moods.” I suppose that’s a given, right? Everyone is aware that everyone goes through hormonal changes because everyone has hormones. However, many people like to prophesy that those who menstruate are the only ones who are affected by them.
Well, no. Cis-gendered men are hormonal too. Not only are they hormonal in the sense that they too have hormones, but also in the sense that their hormones fluctuate as well. While menstruation does result in a change in hormonal levels, and PMS is very real, we pinpoint all hormonal reactions onto people who have periods, as if those who are without The Flow are free of any hormonal side effects. A number of studies have been conducted on Irritable Male Syndrome, a series of physiological symptoms that occur with hormonal changes, such as a decline in testosterone or an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone). Many professionals have noticed particularly prevalent behavioral changes when testosterone declines with old age and have coined the term andropause to describe it. So just because you do not get a period, you are not immune to haphazard, hormonal behavior.
2. Size Doesn’t Matter
We’ve always been told bigger is better. Perhaps this notion is a natural result of living in a capitalistic society, wherein we hold the steadfast belief that something that’s more– more expensive, more expansive, more engulfing– is inherently better. Yet, logistically speaking, the functionality of something isn’t dependent on its size. In most cases, and in our biological one, it’s actually entirely irrelevant.
The book incorporates this irrelevancy into her curriculum, which I feel is vital to soothe the anxieties of any growing adolescent, especially one who isn’t growing very much. While the anarchist ambition of abolishing the belief that “bigger is better” is highly aspirational, adjusting sex education curriculum to emphasize that size truly does not matter is possible. However, this effort is more than an educational one and requires older generations to reflect on their expectations of size and whether they’re truly preferential or culturally-imposed. We can, and should, absolutely engage with ourselves and with students on how to affirm our own beliefs, embrace our desires, and ensure that we do not perpetuate a societal insecurity of size. We can make it alliterative too, for the kids of course: the size of your tatas or testes is totally titular.
3. We are Scared of Vasectomies
In most male-female sexual relationships, women bear the brunt of contraceptive responsibilities. The book, in its extensive extrapolation of female contraceptive methods and collection of cartoonish diagrams of IUDs et al, reflects this expectation, particularly of married women. I’ve always accepted this notion, thinking that male contraception was limited to “the rubber,” as author Robie Harris eloquently puts it. However, there was a mini-paragraph on vasectomies that stood out to me. It was brought up almost off-handedly, as if it were a risqué or uncommon option. This tone is how it’s been brought up in other sex education resources I’ve read. The thought of sterilizing a man is almost inhumane, but altering the hormonal balances, inserting foreign objects, and sometimes removing the reproductive organs themselves to prevent pregnancy are entirely common for women.
A United Nations study conducted five years ago estimated that female sterilization is twice as prevalent as the vasectomy– even though vasectomies have a drastically lower surgical risk, are equally as effective, and can be reversed. Tube litigation is a common form of female sterilization, but it increases the risk for ectopic pregnancy, which not only means the procedure can fail to serve its intended purpose but can also be fatal. I once heard a metaphor that expands upon this almost counter-intuitive phenomenon well (I’m paraphrasing here): Would you rather take the bullets out of the gun, then shoot, or keep the bullets in, put a gun safety vest on your partner, and then shoot? Which option seems safer?
4. Intercourse Isn’t Everything
In most movies about love and romance, the desirable male bachelor isn’t good in bed because he reciprocates oral sex (which, let’s be honest, he probably doesn’t). In these movies, when there’s a male-female couple, which due to lacking representation it usually is, any time they “spend the night together” the unspoken implication is that they have had vaginal intercourse. The same expectation applies in our everyday conversation. While “sex” holds many different meanings, when someone says “I’ve had sex with someone,” or more commonly, “We totally boned” (perhaps that’s more common among a subset of fraternity brothers and their cohorts), the expectation is that that person has had penetrative sex. This expectation is not only exclusionary, implying that any sexual activity other than penetration isn’t really sex, but it is also not as well reflected in real sexual relationships than we think it is.
While I applaud It’s Perfectly Normal for acknowledging that it is indeed not the stork that brings children into the world, I’m dissatisfied with its detailing of sex as being mainly intercourse. For many couples and sexualities, penetration is not the main activity– not to mention, it’s not always the male doing the penetration. Sex education is highly heteronormative for cultural reasons, such as our prejudiced persistence to shield children from sexual habits of LGBTQ+, poly, and kink groups, but also for pedagogical ones. For most educators, the purpose of teaching sex is to explain reproduction rather than to discuss sexuality in holistic way. The pedagogy and purpose of sex education must change to become more inclusive in order for us to acknowledge that there is much, much more to sex than intercourse.
5. STDs Are Nobody’s Fault
When I was in the seventh grade, my Catholic Grammar School brought in a sex expert, who also happened to be the drug and alcohol expert. As one can imagine, she was just as terrifying about sex as she was about drugs and alcohol. She, like many sex educators from my adolescence, focused on the “scary” parts of sex: unplanned pregnancy, assault, and STDs. In one of her sessions, she put a piece of packing tape onto a student’s arms. She pressed it down, and then ripped it off. She did this about six times. While was waxing this poor 13-year-old’s forearm she explained, “Every time you have sex with someone, a part of them sticks with you, and you can never get it off, like the hair on the tape. When you have sex with someone, what they have becomes a part of you forever.” So naturally I, a 12-year-old, developed a fear that if I had premarital sex I would surely get syphilis.
Reading this book’s section on STDs reminded me that they are not quite as scary and uncommon as the clergy would like to believe. Additionally, contracting an STD is a happenstance rather than intentional pursuit. You can definitely increase your likelihood of contracting an STD by failing to wear protection or to get vaccinated, but not wearing protection doesn’t mean that contracting that STD means you’re to blame. Nobody can be an agent of a virus that’s often unknowingly shared. As Lao Tzu put it, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes.” I’m doubtful he was talking about STDs, but I think the sentiment still stands. While you can make efforts to evade STDs, contracting one is not only highly common but highly understandable.