For Teen Health Week: What’s “Perfectly Normal”?

Editor’s note: Robie Harris’s sexual health book, It’s Perfectly Normal, is available in the U-32 library. The controversial images in question are included in this article. The Chronicle acknowledges that these images may be disturbing for some readers, but have included them for the sake of the article. 

 

In 2008 a woman refused to return a book to the public library of Lewiston, Maine. She exclaimed she was “sufficiently horrified by the illustrations and sexually graphic, amoral, abnormal contents.”

Last year a school in Oregon removed the same book because it “had been inappropriately passed out to fourth graders in the library….”  

The book is It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris, illustrated by Michael Emberley.

Before we look at the book behind this commotion, please take a moment to fill out this survey.

It’s Perfectly Normal tackles issues around “changing bodies, growing up, sex, and sexual health”.  It was first published in 1994 and has been revised every few years. The book’s introduction notes the authors’ hope “that our newest edition will help to keep you — our next generation of kids and teens — healthy and safe.”

The core debate over the book points to one question: At what age should sex ed be taught and how?

The cover suggests an audience that is “age 10 and up,” but many people might be uncomfortable with a 10 year old seeing and reading about some of the more sensitive topics in the book.  

Here are some examples of the more controversial topics in the book. How do you feel about a 10 year old reading this?

Intercourse: Harris begins with writing several definitions of the word “sex”. She explains how sex can be “sex organs” or “gender”, “reproduction” or “making a baby”, “sexual desire” or “the desire to be physically close to someone”, and lastly “sexual intercourse”, “having sex”, or “making love”.  Page 6 shows a drawing of two people in bed.

 

Illustration from It’s Perfectly Normal

 

Some of the book’s contents include descriptions and illustrations of intercourse (6, 7, 52). “Sexual intercourse happens when two people — a female and a male or two females or two males — feel very sexy and very attracted to each other,” Harris writes, “and want to be very close to each other in a sexual way” (6).  

Mastubration is described as “touching or rubbing any of your body’s sex organs for pleasure — because it feels good” (43). Page 43 shows illustrations of a boy and a girl masturbating.

Orgasms are explained as when, “feelings come to a climax — semen is ejaculated from the penis and spurts into the vagina, and the muscles in the vagina and uterus tighten and finally relax,” during vaginal intercourse (51).

Oral sex is said to occur, “when a person puts his mouth or her mouth on,” another person’s genitals (53).

Anal sex is explained as when a “male’s penis goes inside another person’s anus” (53). The authors chose to not have illustrations for the last three descriptions.

Should a 10-year-old be learning about all of this?

Nearly 70% of Amazon reviews give this book four or five stars. Nearly 25% give the book one or two stars. An overwhelming majority seems to feel positively about the book, nonetheless, the feelings of the reviewers in the minority remain important.

Critics use phrases like “cartoon porn”, “corrupted”, “traumatize”, “indecent”, and “filthy” to describe their disapproval of It’s Perfectly Normal. One woman says that the books seems, “suited more for my 16 and 20 year old sons,” and that, “there is a subtle, liberal tone to the book. That is fine for liberal families.” This woman thinks that sex education should happen at in a child’s late teens rather than 10. She also thinks that the book is bias toward liberal values, which, therefore, does not appeal to a large part of the population. Claims that the book is too mature, too inappropriate, and too favorable of a liberal agenda are main the culprits of this counterargument.

In rebuttal, one reviewer on ebay made the point that, when this generation of children is already seeing propaganda around sex, birth control, STIs, and more of the like displayed in the media, “ten might be a little late.”

In fact, It is very likely that kids are deciding for themselves when they learn about sex. A 2010 American Psychological Association (APA) report  approximates that “12% of all websites are pornography sites, and 25% of all search engine requests are for pornography.” The Huffpost says that a first exposure to pornography is likely to happen around 11 years old.

Exposure to porn can be harmful to a child.  A sex educator and therapist, Jo Langford, says that porn can be “pretty desensitizing and kind of scary.” Porn is not an accurate representation of how people act in the real world. Kids are not able to make any distinction between reality and the internet. Therefore, they are getting all the wrong messages about how a sexual encounter should happen.

Author Peggy Orenstein, in a recent editorial in the NYTimes wrote that pornography is mostly geared towards male viewers, which unfairly avoids “the biggest taboo of all: women’s capacity for and entitlement to sexual pleasure.” Introducing consent and equality to kids, starting at young age, through an educational book or in the classroom might be better than an inaccurate and premature introduction of sex through pornography.

It’s Perfectly Normal’s so-called liberal agenda could be found when the book mentions LGBTQ issues, birth control, and abortion. In our society, people who identify with conservative views tend to have values that are anti-LGBTQ rights, anti-birth control, and anti-abortion. By default the book aligns more with liberal values.

The books approach to discussing these topics seems more neutral that advocative. By describing terms like  “homosexual”, “contraception”, and “abortion”, the book is explaining that these things exist. People identify as homosexual, use contraception, and get abortions despite some people’s disapproval. LGBTQ identification and the use of anti-pregnancy medical procedures may align with liberal views, but the book manages to inform based on factual information, rather than appeal to a limited audience.

As one Amazon review said, ultimately, “parents can decide how to educate their kids.”

The book would be sure to only reach a limited audience if it was put in the restricted sections of libraries, as some parents have proposed. Harris suggests that a child would need to say something like, “‘You know, I’m going through puberty, I’m having these changes, I seem to have these pubic hairs, and could you recommend something to me?’” For Harris, this kind of interaction is simply not realistic because, “maybe the kids who need it the most are not going to get it.”

Our culture perpetuates that bodies, sex, and sexual health are explicit and inappropriate. However, this book reassures us that bodies, sex, and sexual health are essential and innate. Sex education can be uncomfortable, but it is necessary. Robie Harris says that It’s Perfectly Normal is, “what every child has a right to know.”