Sunday, July 3, 2011

Topic "The Relevance of Sex in Literature in 2011" join my guest Kira Morgana

The Relevance of Sex in Literature in 2011

A Parent / Teacher Perspective.

By Kira Morgana

Before I start into this article, I want you to think about a few questions.

· Do you remember the first book you read with sex in it?

· How old were you?

· How did it make you feel physically?

· What sorts of emotions did the sex scenes evoke?

Don’t answer them straight away, just mull them over, let them percolate in your mind and we’ll come back to them later.

As a Teacher, I have to shoulder the burden of teaching Sex Ed. In the UK, most schools amalgamate the subject into PSE (Personal and Social Education) and often it’s skipped over with only a couple of lessons wholly devoted to Sex Ed. In some schools, like many faith schools, sex is only taught as part of the reproductive cycle in Science.

Don’t get me wrong, there are schools that take it seriously and have a separate class for it. These good schools are often oversubscribed…

Therefore, when the teenage pregnancy rate grows, Teachers get a lot of the flack for not teaching the subject properly. Now, you can breathe easily, I’m not going to rant about how teachers are undervalued and underpaid, etc. etc. etc… I just wanted to give you a flavour of how Sex Ed is seen in schools.

Some kids learn about sex from magazines, others watch TV shows or movies that include it as part of the storyline and still others manage to get access to inappropriate sites on the internet. The information that they learn filters down through the grapevine of school and socialising, spawning the usual misinformation and rumours that fills many schoolteacher’s hearts with Lead when they start the Sex Ed lessons.

I’m not just a Teacher though. I am a parent with two young children. The oldest, my son, is ten (almost eleven) and he is obviously starting puberty. He is also trying very hard not to notice girls and is starting to become curious about Sex, which is one of the reason’s I decided to take this particular slant on the title subject.

I know that many parents are squeamish about talking about Sex with their children. I know it fills me with a certain sense of dread when I think about doing it. However, I am a firm believer in the theory that a lot of nonsense and misinformation can be averted through having a good “Birds & Bees” talk with my children when they get to that age. It also builds a good relationship with your children when you do this, so they won’t be worried about asking you questions on difficult subjects.

The problem about not taking this kind of view is that if you don’t talk to your children about Sex, they’ll get more of their information from unsuitable sources.

What am I going on about?


Now there is nothing wrong with Porn. It serves a purpose and a need. Nevertheless, it’s about titillation not education and can give the inquisitive teen a distorted view of what Sex is about. Porn says that Sex is about pleasure and that pleasure can be accomplished with a few minutes of licking, sucking, squirming, and penetration of various orifices in various positions.

Now you and I (as adults) know that Sex is more than that. However, remind yourself of your teenage years for a moment. Close your eyes and take yourself back to that point in time before you lost your virginity…

Stop sniggering at the back there and behave yourselves!

If you were anything like me, you didn’t know what Sex was about. In my school, we didn’t have Sex Ed. Classes and anything that was even rumoured to have sex in was a banned substance. So there was a lot of mystery surrounding the subject.

It also meant that when you managed to get your hands on something that did have sex in, you held on to it.

Just to clarify for those who are reading this and may be younger than I… We did not have the INTERNET. We only had VHS and CD’s had only just been invented when I hit Middle School.

For boys, Porn was the best route and I have it on best authority (i.e.: from several old boyfriends) that porn mags were handed from boy to boy until they started to fall apart. The older boys might even be able to buy Porn Videos. Boys were supposed to know about sex and while it might have been frowned upon to watch it or read it openly, they got the “boys will be boys” look and shrug.

Girls however, were supposed to be sweet and innocent. We were not supposed to be interested in Sex at all, until we met the right man and got married. Then it was up to our husbands to teach us…


Hah! In practise, that view meant we girls often had to look elsewhere for information. Girls magazines at the time were kept sweet and innocent. The raciest it got between the pages of Jackie was agony aunts answering questions about kissing and periods. If you were allowed to buy Just Seventeen, there may have been photo stories about heavy petting… I don’t know if there were, by the way, I was buying Top of the Pops at that point.

Many girls would borrow their mum’s Jilly Cooper, Catherine Cookson or Danielle Steel books and thumb through those, making sure they weren’t caught reading them.

Then came Judy Blume and the Children’s Book world was turned upside down. Finally, girls had somewhere to turn to, to find out about sex. Moreover, it was legal and you didn’t have to hide it from your mum. Well, until there was a mass up roar about it in Parentland and a lot of the County Libraries and School Libraries were forced to withdraw her books from their shelves.

Why? Well this excerpt from a Wikipedia Article on the book explains why -

The book is often cited as controversial because of Blume's use of suggestive language, the detailed depiction of sexual intercourse, and because her character Katherine goes on the pill. Criticism of the novel often comes from sexual abstinence groups, as well as religious groups who consider the use of 'the pill' unsuitable for Blume's teenage audience.

Katherine and Michael discuss their feelings carefully before deciding to have sex; when they finally have it, they talk about it thoroughly and obtain contraception from a family planning clinic.

"Judy Blume, an author of books for young readers, caused a scandal in 1975 with Forever... (1975), which is commonly considered the first YA book to deal with teen love and teen pregnancy. Although Bradbury Press infuriated Blume by advertising the book as Blume's first adult book, Forever... is a Young Adult novel; it soon made its way into the teen audience, and is now being read by some preteens.

Judy Blume considers this book to have had one "odd and lasting side-effect of its popularity"; the decline in the popularity of the name Ralph. Throughout the book, Michael consistently refers to his penis as "Ralph", and the subsequent generation who grew up reading Forever seemed unwilling to consider it as a suitable name for their children. Blume responded to several concerned Ralphs with "I apologize to all of them. It's nothing personal."

Taken from Wikipedia -

Ahem – you can stop imagining being a teenager now and think about the answers to those questions now…

My first exposure to sex in a book was a copy of Skinhead by Richard Allen. I borrowed it from my mum when I was thirteen. The MC was male and it was set in the late sixties / early seventies, so it wasn’t the best of introductions to sex for a girl.

AGGRO - That’s what Joe Hawkins and his mates were looking for, with their shaven heads, big boots and braces. Football matches, pub brawls, open-air pop concerts, hippies and Hell’s Angels all gave them chances to vent their sadistic violence. SKINHEAD is a story straight from today’s headlines - portraying with horrifying vividness all the terror and brutality that has become the trademark of these vicious teenage malcontents

Taken from Dangerous Minds.Net -

The scenes were crude and in some cases violent and for a while, it put me right off the idea of letting a man touch me like that. It made me feel sick, but strangely tingly in various places that I didn’t know could tingle.

It fascinated me and I took it into school to show my friends. I narrowly missed getting a detention, when a teacher came into the library and spotted us reading it.

Thankfully, it was one of my younger, more broadminded teachers and he told me to put it away. I was that embarrassed at being caught by my teacher that I never read it again.

A couple of years later, a friend gave my mum a large box of books. They were mostly Mills & Boon type romances and as I was fifteen, mum said I could read them. I’d been reading James Michener and Robert Heinlein at school, so I knew what a good book should read like, but the M&B ones made me laugh; the language was so over the top!

One of the books I picked up was Jilly Cooper’s Riders. I think I read that book three or four times. The sex in Riders was a lot more emotional in content and through reading that and various other of the racier romance novels in the box; I got the idea that sex was supposed to be fun. I also realised that the characters having the sex were emotionally involved in various ways. That it wasn’t to do with the wham, bam portrayal I’d seen in the porn my male friends collected.

Yes, I embarrassed my male friends by watching their porn. I think they thought they’d get something out of letting me watch it, but I wasn’t that stupid.

Shall I get to my point now? Why yes, I think I shall…

And this is where Sex in Literature can actually help our children.

Think about the sex scenes you’ve read in books. Think about the first sex scenes that you came across in books when you were a teenager. Think about the world we live in today, the prevalence of sex in TV Shows and movies, in the sexualisation of the magazines that are aimed at teenagers, the music videos put together for their favourite stars and the easy access to porn through the internet.

Think about all that.

Now think. Where would you rather our young people learned about one of the joys of being an adult?

There should be picture books about the differences between boys and girls for the younger children.

There need to be books that explain the emotions that come with puberty in a gentle, yet informative way.

Sensitively written YA books highlighting the joys and the dangers of sex should be on our School Library bookshelves. Not just books about the mechanics of reproduction.

All of these things need to be addressed in our literature.


Well, because our children and our grandchildren, and their children deserve to learn about growing up in a way that isn’t going to scar their emotional and mental development.

So that they grow up as well rounded adults that enjoy the pleasure that Sex can bring, without the hang ups and the fears caused by the mishandling of those delicate issues.

If children can turn to literature and parents can answer the questions raised by turning to a book, then it has to be better than the children misinforming themselves through other means.

It would also make the Teacher’s working life a lot easier – they can study the books in class, give them out as reading projects without being scared that they are going to be censured for it.

What do you think?

Please join in the discussion with my guest, ask questions and offer your thoughts in the comment section below.


  1. Thought provoking post, Kira. I'd never thought about the first time I read about sex. I remember the first time I looked at a men's magazine. And you are correct, kids get a twisted view of sex from porn. Especially boys.

    Boys grow up thinking the women portrayed in porn are real. Then they apply that misconception, unconsciously, to their relationships. They also think the men are real and try to be like them. Our sexual examples should not come from porn.

    But I'm not sure that what we need is more sex in YA literature. I think we need more emotion, more romance. Young men especially (and I'm a guy with two sons so my POV is decidedly masculine) need to see that the female body is not just a hole to put their wally in, but understand the depth of female emotion and desire.

    In my experience much of the erotica available is more porn than intimacy. Even what many female writers produce is more about the act than the emotion. But some of the most emotional, and to me erotic, scenes I've read didn't go beyond a kiss--except in the heroine's thoughts. Descriptions of how she felt when he touched her arm, what she wanted him to do, though he didn't...

    There is a place for sex, well portrayed, in YA lit. It is a part of life. But an author takes on a huge responsibility teaching sex ed in a novel. And we cannot overlook the complications that come from teen sex--which is why we don't want our teens having sex in the first place.

    I'll stick with writing for adults. But even in what I write I am very conscious of portraying women respectfully and sensitively. Our society, thanks to sexual repression and porn as our main source of learning about the opposite sex, has a sadly disfunctional hang-up about sex. Literature can change that.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Maxwell. I'm not suggesting that we need MORE sex in literature, just that it should be handled differently.

    Think about it.

    Teach young kids (primary age) about the emotional changes that come with the physical changes at puberty and you'll get kids that aren't scared of what is happening to them and they develop.

    Teach the older teenagers about the joy that sexual communion can bring into a relationship will help them become more understanding of each other.

    Teaching about the dangers (STD's, Rape, Paedophilia)of sex will make them think twice about unsafe sex, as well as making them think about their actions in clubs and so forth.

    I understand that people don't want to sexualise their children early - I'm a parent too, remember. That's why it needs to be handled sensitively. I'd rather have a book that I can refer my son / daughter to and discuss with them, than hide my head in the sand and let them just find their knowledge from the wrong places.

  3. Kira this is really informative. I understand pre-internet time. I came to read literature after thirty. I belong to a country side in India and belong to a conservative family. I've never heard my parents talking about Sex. They never read any literature hence my exposure to literature was a bit late.

    The knowledge was twisted and rubbish as we used to read some porn books wrapped in transparent and yellow polythene and kept half hidden.

    Now the situation is different thanks to penetration of television. An openness has come both in outlook and penetration of views.

    You've highlighted the time vividly. Now I also write and i treat the big S cautiously. It's a part and parcel of Young Adult/middle grade romance novel.

    I try to symbolize and don't open, may be due to my upbringing. I don't even buy books with titillating cover.

    Literature has a role to inform what sex means and to avoid depicting sex only fornication or penetrating orifices in various position.

    Informative article, quite useful.

  4. Thanks for the comment Sudam. I know what you mean about upbringing having an influence on the culture of our time.

    I had a nasty introduction to this subject, one that I avoided talking about in the article. Suffice it to say, I share an experience with Suze in one minor way.

    Anyway, that meant I was aware of Sex before a lot of my peers. It also kept me safe from experimentation with older men.

    Happily, my daughter is safe from that experience, but what I need to do is teach her the dangerous things when she needs to know them.

    My Son is slipping rapidly into the age where he needs to know what Sex is. This is where a book aimed squarely at his age group, with all the right information to tell him would be of most use!

  5. Fabulous post Kira! Loved it. The language of VHS, no Internet, and Judy Blume certainly brings me back to my childhood.

    Growing up in Canada, I didn’t have ANY sex education as part of my curriculum, certainly not when I was in elementary school.

    Just this year, the program for health and physical education in publicly funded schools was revamped, and "family values" groups were in a tizzy about how it exposed young children to inappropriate material.

    Under this new schedule, children in Grade 1 (age 6) would be taught to identify male and female genitalia, where the previous curriculum referred only generally to body parts.
    In Grade 3, students would learn about visible and invisible differences between people, such as gender identity and sexual orientation.
    This curriculum introduced suggestions for how instructors could address same-sex parents and masturbation, as well as normal things that happen with puberty like: erections; wet dreams; and vaginal lubrication.
    The religious right-wing groups were outraged and incited parents by suggesting “11-year-olds would now be corrupted by lessons of oral and anal sex.”
    Oh, I laughed so hard when this “hoopla” was going on. I don’t have children, but I was a child once, and I remember very well what it felt like to be a pre-pubescent girl thirsty for sexual knowledge. I had nowhere to turn, so I went looking for it in books.
    When Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret just didn’t quite do it for me, I searched further. Many books later à la Danielle Steele and other soft-core porn, I happened upon Story of O. Bingo. It was a whole new language that whipped my young mind into new heights, both mentally and physically. I was 11.
    I bet my eyeteeth there is nothing in today’s school curriculum that would even come close to what I learned from reading that erotic novel. I would never endorse it for a child today, but I didn’t have other avenues. Kids today do.
    I support sex education to children in school, rather than leaving them to rely on inaccurate information from other sources, such as the Internet or other kids. I’d rather youngsters learn about it from responsible adults who work with children. Other than the parents, who better to present the information in a balanced and responsible way?


  6. Kira, I love this post! Thank you for involving each and everyone of us. You are so right, of course, to state that how we as vulnerable, young adults enter our first sex relationships is almost completely based on what we've read about it (or seen in films) not on the oral tradition of mothers/fathers/educators passing down valuable information. Alas, I must add. But I'm not different. I tried to bring up the topic with my kids but was inwardly rather relieved when all three of them reacted with "come off it mum, we'll sort that out for ourselves, ok?"
    So thanks again, Kira, and thanks for being such a wise teacher!

  7. Eden, I am completely with you on this issue - the new curriculum in Canada sounds just the way it should be.

    Hannah - I'm bringing the topic up with my son at the moment. It's a tricky one, but we'll manage to do it somehow. He's asked about the biological mechanism of DNA and Babies, so we'll morph the two.

  8. A lot of the debate comes from people's ideas of what is appropriate. As Eden said, the moral right rises in arms against any discussion while others would argue for complete openness including allowing kids access to porn. There is of course some middle ground that is reasonable but even reasonable people disagree on the particulars.

    That is the danger facing sex in lit, especially YA and MG lit. An author must decide for themselves what is good and prudent, what "should" be told/taught. And there will always be those who do not agree. Parents should do a better job, but alas many do not. But I am still not convinced YA books are the place for it, and many parents don't feel the government is any better at sex ed.

    I am against censorship. But there is nothing to stop a parent, guardian, counselor, from suggesting literature of a more mature nature to an inquisitive teen to help answer their questions. But books written and targeted toward MG and teen readers cannot assume all readers of that age are of the same level of maturity. Some may be ready, even starving for information while others are not there yet.

    I allowed my sons to do some things above their age level growing up because I knew their maturity level. As Kira said her child was asking questions. Those close to a child know when they are ready, an author, publisher, or even teacher may not. Yet marketing a book as YA or MG says it is age appropriate and that it contains the level of sexuality the reader "should" be ready for.

    Growing up I never had "the talk" from my parents. But sexuality was not a hidden, dirty subject either. It was just part of life. If I had a question I asked, my mother or father answered without embarrassment. There was nothing "wrong" about sex. But it was considered "adult" like smoking or drinking alcohol.

    I have tried to be the same with my sons. I've tried to instill in them the love and respect of women my father instilled in me. Most of the questions I found myself answering involved bad information they got from school and peers. What we teach our young is always a contentious subject, but more so when it comes to something as intimate as sexuality.

  9. You make some excellent points Max, particularly about differing maturity levels for children even though they are the same age.

    I recall a friend asking me if I thought the Twilight series was appropriate for her teenage son. She said all her son’s female friends were devouring the books, and he was curious about it. I had never read the books but gave her a synopsis of what I knew. In the end, she felt he wasn’t quite ready for it, but it revealed something to me. Her son approached her because he was unsure about his own maturity level to read the books. It spoke volumes to me about the openness of their relationship, and a mutual respect for one another.

    As in your case, you knew the maturity level of your sons, and professionals who work with kids likely do not. Unlike subjects such as math or science, it’s not as if children are going to “fail” if they don’t learn about their genitalia before they learn about masturbation. Sex has been, and will always be, an organic and evolving topic of discussion. Regardless of how a book is marketed, the age appropriateness should be considered a guideline only.

    I suppose I lean far left because I feel passionately about having Sex ED in schools. But…just because there is sex education does not absolve the parent of their responsibility. As you said, sometimes there is misinformation and confusion from what is taught in schools. Despite this, I feel having a discussion to clear up any misunderstanding is better than being fearful of talking about sex.

    That was my experience growing up - sex was “forbidden,” and as a kid, I, of course loved to explore the forbidden. As a result, (and to quote a popular Waylon Jennings song), I went “Looking for love in all the wrong places…” ;)


  10. I think sex in literature is only pornographic if it is poorly written, otherwise it can be beautiful.


  11. Part 2:
    I taught for some years in secondary schools, while working in the music industry at the same time, and by then there was sex ed and there were great books by talented Aussie writers like Tim Winton. I set one of his books for year 9 English - Locky Leonard Human Torpedo. I chose it because it is hilarious and the story is from the POV of a boy during puberty. It deals with wet dreams ( that smell like bean sprouts ), masturbation, young love, etc There are some great books out there and clearly we need more that are supportive like this - the realisation of 'it's not just me', 'I am not weird after all'.. stories about the journey from child to young adult. Recent YA books like Gillian Philip's Firebrand deal with falling in love, magic, sexuality and sex in wonderful ways - allowing sex to be a mystery without being mysterious, and portraying sex in an open way without being graphic at all. Story telling is the greatest form of teaching anything and so much is understood from reading great stories. Some things shouldn't have to be explained in full - and stories take care of that - transmitting the information in ways that can be taken in naturally.
    Of course it is the teacher ( and writer ) who has the responsibility of bringing any subject to life and this is something that still needs to be addressed in most teacher training. I remember being handed a year 9 sex ed class to take over ( this was a long time ago & not an area I had 'trained' in ). The week before I had seen the old teacher with a model of a penis in the staffroom. She was laughing and demonstrating how you pressed a button and it went from being erect to being flaccid. It was vile. The first thing I did was to throw it in the bin. I had fantastic discussions with the kids and as they grew confident they asked the questions they had and we shared a lot, and grew a lot, together, through sharing stories. This group was multi cultural - with perhaps 10 or 12 cultures within the group of 24. The reality is that teens have sex - whether parents want them to or not, whether they read about it, learn about it in school, or experience it with little knowledge about what is happening to them. And they certainly are exposed to it through the electronic media. Young people need more care around the changes they go through - life changes that were once handled through ceremonies and celebrations. School education does not replace this and school is still such a dodgy thing. We place so much value on it in our society but generally, to me, school is too often a waste of time where we are conditioned and are taught things that have very little to do with life. Many things we have to unlearn in order to be creative. I learnt long ago that to teach what I believe to be the important things I had to run my own retreats. I am not condemning education but things really need to change. Still. I am a fan of Ken Robinson and his innovative approach to learning - focusing on our passions and what is relevant to us. I hear you Eden - we need great sex ed in schools - and a lot of other things that are about real life. These life subjects should be real, honest and also demonstrate 'correct behaviour' where we honour the sacred, we honour life. I think this comes down to what the Dalai Lama is talking about - the education of ethics. There are ways of doing things, ways of being in the world. We have to address sexuality & creativity on this level. My eldest grandchild started school this year and we are taking great care to ensure that her creativity isn't suffocated.
    Sexuality is part of magic and the creative force. Magic is the substance of life and creativity is the expression of the spiritual pathway.
    By the way, one of my granddaughter's favourite books is Sacred Mirrors, by Alex Grey the visionary artist. It is the journey through the physical and metaphysical anatomy of the self. It is worth checking out - it demonstrates life in an incredible way where no words are necessary.

  12. Kira, this is a great post! You really got me going - and so did all the discussion that you have provoked. This is such an important issue and I am sorry but I couldn't help myself with a long response. However, in my typical technical genius style, I only managed to post part 2 of my response. I will attempt the first part again later. Thank you for writing so clearly about the issue and challenging us to think deeply about it.

  13. Yes, Kira I agree with Michelle--a very good post that has stirred wonderful discussion. And, Michelle your response was spot on. I look forward to part one ;-)

  14. To say I am delighted with the active and interesting discussions these posts are promoting would me a massive understatement. Thank you all for your contributions.

  15. Ok, here goes for part 1, fingers crossed...

    This is a great discussion Soooz!
    I was born before my mother was married and I remember saying it at school one day when I was in about grade 5. One of the boys who was an awful bully told me that it was impossible - that I was making it up because you couldn't have babies if you weren't married! I was so furious with him that I punched him in the nose. I already knew more than him because of the school of life.
    This is a mild example of the ignorance surrounding this major part of life - sexuality. Such ignorance is not acceptable and leads to all kinds of issues. When I was at high school there was no such thing as sex ed - but we had just made it through our primary years during the flower power era of the '60s and so high school in the early 70s was a mixed bag of stiff old traditions and young radical teachers fresh out of Uni. It was a great time of rebellion and experimentation.
    During those years The Little Red School Book came out - we secured a copy and poured over it. It was banned soon after release. I can't recall anything much about it now - just that we were riveted by it and the fact that it had been banned. It had 20 pages about sex, and even more about drugs! Every kid I knew read it. Many governments banned it - the British government was afraid it would create anarchy in schools...


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