“I oppose the language of liberal and progressive because I sincerely try to write books for as many people as possible. Some people may think that the books will contradict their values, and what I can promise everyone 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 will also never tell you to have more sex. They will certainly never say that being religious and having a healthy sexual and gender identity are incompatible. And they will never say that sex is great. I think a life without sexual activity, be it for religious reasons, moral reasons, or reasons related to your body, can be a very full life.”
It took Silverberg and Smyth seven years to complete “You Know, Sex,” their book for children entering puberty. The four main characters of “Sex Is a Funny Word” are now in high school and “Mr. C,” their sex 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 different genders young people – at the cinema, on picnic blankets, at parties – asking permission to do things like holding hands or kissing, talking to each other about what feels good or bad or meh.Examples of language for negotiating physical intimacy abounds.” “Would you like to go and look up?” “Can we linger here?” “Let’s slow down.” “Are you okay?” “Let’s take a break.”
When I read “You know, sex,” I remembered that when I first spoke to Silverberg, they mentioned some of the questions they struggled with because they contained a lot more factual information – about reproductive biology, anatomy, birth control, sexual assault. – than she had in the earlier books. Questions like: How do you define a sexual feeling as opposed to other feelings? Should this new book contain some sort of illustration of sex? I had seen this as technical questions about what body parts and sexual activities to show, what definitions to use in the course of what I was actually imagining as a big information drop. I hadn’t thought of the possibility that mood and metaphor and surrealism could make a puberty book feel like anything other than a pedagogical text. I certainly wouldn’t have imagined a group of kids in bathing suits chatting about their menstrual experiences in a pool filled with bright red blood. I also didn’t think a pair of anthropomorphic lemmings could demonstrate how social pressures cause us to initiate or agree to physical intimacy that we don’t really want.
As for how sex should be illustrated, Silverberg continued to opt for less graphic detail rather than more, opting for the stick figure idea. The inspiration came from a groovy 1970s novelty that Silverberg remembers in souvenir shops as a kid: posters with grids of silhouettes of figures in various sex positions, each corresponding to a zodiac sign. Loosely based on Silverberg’s memories, Smyth has drawn half a dozen happy, gender and genderless stick couples who take on a number of iconic poses. “Most people think this is what sex looks like,” reads the accompanying text.
When I got to this panel, I fell through one of those temporary trapdoors and read for a split second like my childhood. I eagerly looked to the next panel for the myth-busting truth. Finally, finally someone was going to tell me what gender For real looked like. But – of course – Silverberg is not one to organize a big reveal with claims to definition authority. “Having sex can be like a lot of things,” reads the text in a second panel, where the same smiling people, solo or in pairs, do things like make eye contact, hold hands, give foot massages, in front of laptops and have fantasies related to the torso of a broad-shouldered, hairy hunk.
This kind of open phrasing, a signature of Silverberg, is something they developed years ago through conversation with an early reader of “Sex Is a Funny Word.” Silverberg always conducts ongoing book workshops with audiences of different ages and backgrounds to get their perspectives, and this reader — a transmale who grew up 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,'” recalls Silverberg, “I wrote in many places that people felt good or bad about things — a touch can make you feel good or bad, and so on. But this reader said, ‘Some things make you not feel much at all, but that’s also a feeling.’” Silverberg was electrified and seems all electrified again when he remembers the moment. “It was this idea of neutrality! I did the typical thing, which is to map out two options.” But even if there had been “15 options,” Silverberg says, the problem was “making a finite list of things a reader might feel. Because if they don’t feel any of the things on the list, they think, well that’s me.” not, and I lose them.”