That sex-ed book It’s Perfectly Normal is in the news again. Some parents in St. Charles, Missouri are outraged by the book’s lifelike depictions of cartoon figures having sex, and they are seeking to have it removed from the middle-school library. District officials insist that the award-winning book is a good “resource” for middle-schoolers; and if you don’t want your child perusing cartoon images of nude, heterosexual and homosexual couples as they “experience sexy feelings” and have intercourse? Well, then—you are just a fuddy-duddy.
I’ve long had a problem with this book—I first critiqued it 15 years ago, in fact—but it’s not just the pictures that bother me (although some are truly quite weird). My fundamental problem with the book is simply that it’s not true. The narrator breezily mentions the morning-after pill, for instance, as if it were like eating toast—is it really as simple as all that? The overall casual, it’s-no-big-deal tone employed as smiling girls chat it up in locker rooms—despite their nudity—and cherubic boys blithely self-pleasure: Is this perfectly normal? Well, that is precisely the grounds in dispute. Leaving aside whether or not it’s wise to give middle-schoolers a book that is essentially The Joy of Sex dumbed down to their reading level, is it accurate in its normative messaging? Is sexuality without embarrassment truly the ideal? I don’t think it is, and I think it’s misleading to pretend that it is when we introduce sex to children.
We have now tested this idea for over a half-century, and I think it’s fair to say that it hasn’t worked out so well. For decades, we’ve told children that their private parts were “no different than an elbow” in sex-ed classes, and then we wonder: Why are the sexual-assault perpetrators getting younger and younger? But from a boy’s perspective, what’s wrong in playfully grabbing someone else’s “elbow”? Looking back, we see that the analogy was flawed from the start. Private parts are not the same as other body parts, and we discuss them as if they are the same at our peril.
Having indoctrinated girls not to be embarrassed in the locker room, we now face a new challenge: embarrassment-free young women roaming the changing room, competitively judging their peers’ underwear and sometimes even snapping pictures. These aggressive girls certainly get an A+ for not being embarrassed, but they also ruin each other’s lives by posting private pictures of one another on Twitter. It turns out that all the giggling and embarrassment surrounding discussions of sexuality may have had a positive side; it was a sign that these matters have great significance. When we seek to cure young people of their natural embarrassment, they may seem stronger and more brash on a superficial level, but in reality, I think we’ve left them weaker. A blush-free person is alienated both from her own emotions, and from others. It’s hard to have empathy without modesty.
I know that parents tend to delegate “The Talk” to the least embarrassed parent, but sometimes I wonder: Maybe it should be the other way around? A sensitive parent is ideally suited to acknowledge that humans (unlike animals) integrate their emotions into their sexuality, and yes, this can make these matters difficult to talk about sometimes. But isn’t this also what makes intimacy so beautiful when it’s reserved for marriage? I’m sure that Robie Harris’s intentions were good when she penned It’s Perfectly Normal, but to me, any portrayal of sexuality in which modesty is dispensed with from the start is not the truth about sexuality. It may be “perfectly normal” for golden retrievers, but not for human beings.
Wendy Shalit is a mother of three, and the author of A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, which has just been released in a new 15th-Anniversary Edition.