by Maggie Block
“Rad Books for Rad Kids” is the Emerald’s spin on a book review column featuring South End librarian Maggie Block’s analysis of youth literature through a radical lens.
I recently received a question from an adult who was worried about a teenage family member. The teenager had cheated on her boyfriend by engaging in a sex act with another boy. So… the adult family member wanted to know what they could do to help so the teenager wouldn’t feel hate or disgust for herself.
Whoa, was that a big ask.
First of all, I want to be clear that cheating is not okay. It is a breach of trust that really hurts, and I am in no way advocating an acceptance or blanket forgiveness of cheating. However, I feel like when women and girls make mistakes involving sex – or just make a choice (or perceived choice) that a community member disapproves of – they are made to feel shameful. They are made to feel gross. They are called sluts and whores. And it can make middle and high school a hellish experience for them.
And as a former teenager who made mistakes involving romance and sexuality, I think it’s important that we do as much as we can to normalize sex. Because, while we may not want to think about or talk about sex with the young people in our lives, our silence helps create the stigma around sexuality.
There are way too many adults giving young people lots of negative information about sex. So I would hope that conversations with someone like the young woman who inspired this list could talk about respecting partners, and honoring trust; I would also hope that we could talk to young women about how sex should be awesome. And wanting and desiring sex is not wrong, nor is the act of pursuing sex shameful or gross. It’s pretty normal. I think one of the ways we can do this is by making sex-positive resources available to teenagers.*
The Unslut Project: So a quick blurb from The Unslut Project’s website: “The Unslut Project is a collection of stories of women and girls who have experienced slut-shaming and sexual bullying.” Reading the collective stories the reader is struck by how often rumors and stories of girl’s sexual escapades come from nowhere, and her reputation as a “slut” can haunt her for years to come.
S.E.X. The All-you-need-to-know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College (KCLS) (SPL) This is the first book put together by Scarleteen the go-to online resource for teen sexuality (don’t worry I’m going to talk about Scarleteen in just a moment!). It’s incredibly comprehensive talks about everything from bodies, to sexual orientation, to sexual relationships, consent and assault, pregnancy, STIs and safer sex.
Sex: A Book for Teens: An Uncensored Guide to your Body, Sex, and Safety (KCLS)(SPL) This is a book made by the folks who made the pretty groundbreaking Midwest Teen Sex Show on YouTube – one of the funniest sex resources I’ve ever seen for teens. While Midwest Teen Sex Show was more interested in going for a laugh then focusing on all the facts, this book is more traditional educational resource, without losing its teen-friendly humor.
100 Questions You’d Never Ask Your Parents (KCLS) (SPL) I was blown away by the premise of this book. On one page it has a question, on the next page(s) there is an easy-to-understand, factually accurate answer. It’s brilliant, at my previous job I made an entire book display around my discovery of this book. All of the questions are answered by an OBGYN and a psychologist, you know, the people you would want teens getting their information from.
Scarleteen: As I mentioned before Scarleteen is the predominant online resource for teens on sex and sexuality. However, I HATE the format, take a look at it, you’ll see, it’s just not organized well. It has a search box in the upper righthand corner so you can find answers – and some of the best most comprehensive nonjudgmental answers at that – to your questions despite the weird design. Also, I think the coolest feature about Scarleteen is the “ask for help” options! Toward the upper right corner of the page, teens can talk to real live people who will give them good advice about sex and sexuality via message boards, live chat, and SMS/text!
Planned Parenthood for Teens: Planned Parenthood’s website for teens is another very comprehensive resource. It has 10 main topics it covers (such as LGBTQ, puberty, and relationships) and each subpage on those topics gives a lot of information and nuance to each subject. I particularly liked the “Ask the Experts” page – which is like an online forum with hundreds of questions answered by Planned Parenthood employees, and their “Find Birth Control” app, which helps you figure out a good birth control option for you based on preferences.
Sex, Etc: Another very comprehensive resource. They brag great stats, 5 million visits to their website each year, covering sex, relationships, pregnancy, STIs, birth control, sexual orientation, “and more!” What I find exceptional about Sex, Etc is that with the help of adult editors the website is written entirely by teenagers.
Oh Joy Sex Toy: Oh Joy Sex Toy is a really fun and playful resource, it’s a webcomic that expertly explores many topics around sexuality. It is a bit of a “deep dive” resource, meaning that is is so comprehensive that it has information that would be good for a young person just starting to think about sex and sexuality, and an adult who’s been engaging in sex for decades. Since it is a webcomic everything is graphically displayed for you. Using its search feature is a good way to know what the comic is about before seeing it. It’s a wonderful resource that presents really useful information in a fun, accessible, and funny way.
Sex Education YouTubers:
Sexplanations: I love Sexplanations! It’s made by Dr. Lindsay Doe who is a sexologist. She has a fun, un-creepy, very excited way of talking about sex, gender, bodies, sexuality, and almost anything else you can imagine that is inviting and addictive in a positive way. This is another “deep dive” resource, they have made over 200 videos covering a wide range of topics. There’s so much good information on a very surface level (just kinda curious about this “sex stuff”) and plenty of information I had never learned as a full grown adult. I would just recommend that folks read the titles of the videos before they watch so they’re getting information they’re ready for.
Hannah Witton: Hannah Witton is a YouTuber who makes videos on all kind of things including sex. She’s just a person giving anecdotal and DIY researched advice, and has lots of conversations with other folks. She young and British and fun to learn from.
Shan BOODY: Shan is a lot more pop culture-y then the previously listed YouTubers. She does more skits and jokes too. She’s a funny woman of color, who’s really trying to make relatable content for contemporary young people.
Of course, a Rad Books For Rad Kids list is going to have some fiction on it. But to be honest some great lists about sex-positive young-adult (YA) books have already been made, so why reinvent the wheel?
I would, however, like to tell you about one of my favorite new books that are not included on either list: The Nerdy and The Dirty (KCLS) (SPL). Pen Lupo knows she is the dirtiest girl in her high school, maybe even the world. She thinks about sex all the time, and has urges near constantly, and masturbates almost every day. She loves her boyfriend and doesn’t know who she would even be if she wasn’t one-half of the coolest couple in school. It’s just her urges are never satisfied by him, he’s never asked her want she wants to do in bed, and it’d be too dirty to tell him. All of this get blown wide open when the boy she for some reason cannot stop fantasizing about is also spending the first week of winter break at the lodge in the woods (TBH this book is just as much about the boy, but for the purposes of this list he’s really a secondary character). Sex is a huge theme in this book, and sex is described not alluded to (I felt very risqué listening to a sex scene via the audiobook as I was parking at the Washington State Homeschool Convention…).
Movies for Teens About Girl’s Sexuality:
The To Do List (KCLS) (SPL) “Watch a comedy about close friends and a special summer project. Valedictorian Brandy Clark, in 1993, wants to shed her uptight image before graduation, so she makes an ‘activities’ list of all the things she missed out on in high school. Well, the list turns out to be more than she bargained for.” Full transparency, I haven’t seen this movie. It looks like a boisterous and raunchy film, about a girl who to do a lot of unrepeatable things. Which really just sounds like flipping the gender script on movies like American Pie- but in terms of dismantling patriarchal views of girl’s sexuality, this movie seems to me to be pretty useful.
Pleasantville (KCLS)(SPL) “A brother and sister are magically transported through their television set and into the black-and-white world of a 1950s sitcom called Pleasantville. Soon they affect this environment with their worldly sensibilities, and people and things slowly begin to acquire color.” One of the only movies I know of where the teen girl lead is a most knowledgeable about sex, and not demonized for it! There’s also a fairly beautiful storyline with the mother character discovering and exploring her own sexuality, there’s a bathtub masturbation scene that’s genuinely beautiful.
Turn Me On, Dammit! (KCLS) (SPL) “15-year-old Alma is consumed by her hormones and fantasies that range from sweetly romantic images of Artur, the boyfriend she yearns for, to daydreams about practically everybody she lays eyes on.” And I also haven’t watched this movie… I know! I’m the worst! But it’s been on my list for a while now. This is the only movie that I know of centered around a teen girl and her sexual desires and urges. I think it’s so cool that this movie exists. I hope more media can be made like this, so more and more people can see that girls wanting to have sex is totally normal.
I really wanted to have some movies about people of color, I wonder if Love And Basketball (KCLS) (SPL) might fit the bill. I haven’t seen it in years (the worst!), and it’s about their relationship changing over the years, and pursuing basketball careers. But I remember their first time having sex as sweet and awkward and endearing. What are some other movies I should have listed?
I also wanted to include some queer movies. But I’m a Cheerleader (KCLS) (SPL) is a classic, and a funny campy argument against conversion therapy. The Way He Looks (KCLS) (SPL) is a Brazilian movie about two boys, one of whom is blind, who are put together for a class project and their feelings begin to blossom. I guess I could include Blue is the Warmest Color (KCLS) (SPL) (which is also a graphic novel (KCLS) (SPL), it’s an incredibly sexy movie (10-minute sex scene) but it has been argued that its sensational hyper sexual depiction of lesbian teens is problematic. I’ll let you make up your own mind.
Movies About How Slut-Shaming is BS:
Easy A (KCLS) (SPL): “After a little white lie about losing her virginity gets out, a clean cut high school girl sees her life paralleling Hester Prynne’s in ‘The Scarlet Letter, ‘ which she is currently studying in school. Hoping to become popular, she decides to use the rumor mill to advance her social and financial standing.” I don’t care what The Academy says, this is Emma Stone at her best! A funny and smart teen movie about how a teen girl’s reputation really has nothing to do with her own actions, but everything to do with what’s said about her.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (KCLS) (SPL) “A high school freshman, always watching from the sidelines, is taken under the wings of two seniors who welcome him to the real world.” This movie is predominantly about finding your tribe, and how one can survive some terrible things that happen to you. Also, the love interest is slut-shamed and it’s portrayed as BS.
Most of my music options are from the 90’s, besides Queen Bey, please please please give me more suggestions! These would all have “parental advisory” stickers on them. Be advised, these wouldn’t necessarily be fun family listening, unless your family can listen to sexy music together. In which case awesome more power to you!
Of course making these resources readily available to teens will not magically take shame and shaming out of teenage sexuality. But starting conversations and treating sex like a totally chill thing that we all just need to learn more information about, is a big step in the right direction.
*So, this list started as resources for a specific teenager who was already engaging in sex. This list isn’t really made with children or even tweens in mind. BUT conversations about sexuality and consent can start with kids. This is a subject that is really interesting to me, so please let me know if you’d like resources for a younger group of people. I’d be very interested in pursuing such a list.
Maggie Block is a South End-area Teen Services Librarian. While her expertise as a youth librarian in the community will help when writing these pieces, she writes these articles on her own time, and the opinions she expresses are purely hers and in no way reflect KCLS or anyone else they employ.