a chat with cory silverberg about sex education
Cory Silverberg is an author, educator and public speaker. He chats with Lunch Lady about what parents needs to know when chatting about sex education with their kids.
Cory I am so excited to have you on the podcast. I'm a huge fan of yours. I've got one of your books on our coffee table which my kids are constantly flicking through. I just think you're a genius in this space and I know that we're very lucky to have you ,so welcome to the Lunch Lady podcast.
Okay, so let's get started. Tell us a little bit about yourself – who you are and what you do.
Thanks for having me, I’m happy to be here.
I never ever know how to answer that question well…so, I'm a sex educator and an author. And that’s the way I usually order it.
The reason I write is because I have something to communicate–education to communicate. I never used to call myself an author–I just called myself a writer. But now I kind of accept that there's something personal in my writing.
But I’m trained in counselling–in psychology. And I've been a sex educator for more than 20 years. A lot of my work has been within the disability community, but for the past ten years or so, I've been working on this series of books.
I started with this book called, ‘What Makes a Baby,’ which was really addressing a need–we didn't have any books about where babies come from that works for the rest of us. They all told this one story which is: you have a dad, and that's where the sperm came from, and an egg which came from the mum. And they decided to have you and it was really easy and magical and it happened and everything was great. And that's actually not true for a lot of people, including those of us that are making babies using our own sperm and eggs. It doesn't always go so easily. And I just really felt that young people need and deserve information that's honest and direct and in a format that they can understand. In order to make decisions about their own lives, right?
So even with those young books, kids actually want to know the story about how they were made. And what's interesting generationally–I'm 52–I’m sort of writing for my generation and also the younger generation. More and more parents want to share some of that story with their kids.
It's not…we don't tell them everything, although as they get older, maybe we tell more. But the message used to be: don’t talk about all the things, right? Including if there was fertility treatment like a donation of sperm or egg, including adoption. It used to be: don't tell your kids. And now we know that that's not the best practice.
So my books are a way of sharing information in a way that kind of fits every family. So, to get back to this idea about me being an educator first: I'm less interested in people agreeing with me or talking to their kids the way I think they should talk to their kids. I'm much more interested in giving them the tools so that they can have those conversations in a way that fits for them. Because that's what's most important, right? There isn't one way to do it. We need to have these conversations in the context of our families and our homes and our communities.
So, when I first heard about you, our Creative Director, she rang me and said, “I’ve just heard this podcast with Cory, he’s amazing, you’ve got to get his book.” And I have it on my table. I love the way it’s presented, it’s so beautiful. But what I loved about it is…at first, I was quite confused. I was like: where’s the one story? I consider myself quite progressive, but I was humbled by the book. And then I saw my kids interact with it and some put it down, but my youngest son who's 7, he is the most enthralled in it, absolutely. And probably, I've got better at parenting, so as a third child he has less shame than the other two, probably. I'm a third child too, so I’m a bit the same.
(Laughing) I'm laughing because I was a third child. So I understand that process. Okay, yeah.
Before we dive into talking about the books and the process, let’s talk about your childhood and how sex and gender was talked about in your house.
So, my mom was a children's librarian and my dad had been a family doctor who became a sex therapist. So, I certainly grew up in a house where sex was something that was talked about. Gender less so, because I grew up in the 70s.
I should also take a minute to say that I grew up in the 70s, in a kind of, middle class jewish upbringing in Toronto. It was secular, not very religious, and gender was talked about but it was in this time of second-wave feminism, where the message was…I was growing up learning that it's okay for boys to cry and girls can do anything, right? So a girl can be president and a boy can cry and that was kind of it. That was the idea of blowing up gender.
Which of course, is not doing enough, right? It is true that boys can cry and girls can be anything. Though, this idea that girls can be anything…no one can be anything, but everyone should be able to aspire to the things they want to be. But of course, no one told me that there was an option other than boy and girl which happens to be the option that I tick when I check boxes.
So, in some ways I had access to sex education. I knew about how babies were made and I understood my body and I understood something about body autonomy. I understood it was ok for me to feel good in my body. It was ok for me to touch my body at appropriate times and places. And I also understood that sex was something that could happen separate from marriage and separate from reproduction. So, that was sort of progressive in the 70s. But I still didn't feel like the sex educationI was getting fitted me, because I didn't see me in that story. And that’s where the key is.
This is the hard thing for us as parents to remember. Even though I have a pretty normative looking body of a white person who people would call a man, I didn't see myself in those books. And this is the complicated thing, not just about identity–because even when we're younger, that's not the right word for it, but we need to honour the fact that our kids have their own experience of the world and it's kind of impossible for us to know that experience. Because they don't have the language to articulate it.
So, my approach is just about giving kids lots of options and information, lots of support. And obviously we want them to know they can always come and talk to us.
So, to just wrap this part up for me, the kind of tricky thing growing up was that I didn't really imagine a future for myself. I never…because I didn't see anyone who I thought looked like me, I was like: how is this going to turn out? And even as a kid who was not being told: get a job and have kids, and do this and that. It’s still…when I would see happy adults, they weren't me. And that's what's kind of dangerous, right? It sort of made my life precarious because I was not able to imagine a future. So, we really want to help kids see that there are all sorts of futures out there for them and for us.
So, you couldn't talk to your parents? Or you didn't have the language to say: I don't identify with any of these characters, because you didn't even think that was an option?
Yeah, that’s right.
So, what did you do? How did you learn more about yourself? Where did you get that information from?
I mean…not until I was in my late 20s, to be honest, and then I learnt from other people. I learnt from the Queer Community–from meeting people who were using different words for themselves.
Of course I knew people who were gay and and lesbian and probably had met some people who identified as bisexual, but less. But learning about Trans people was amazing for me to understand . And once I started to get to meet people who were Trans, and talked about it and learnt language for that, I then learnt about queer people.
So, for me, the word queer–I use the word queer because what it really describes is an orientation to normal, right? Which is: I can't fit into what is normal, and what is normal is different everywhere– normal is not just a thing or destination. It's kind of a pressure that is on us. But it just doesn't work for me. It makes me not want to be around. So, meeting people who are like that, who are really just being who they were…and I should add, that people assume that when I say queer people, they assume I’m talking about something to do with sexual orientation or gender. But it was actually becoming part of the disability community that changed things for me.
So, my first mentor was this woman named Linda Crabtree who is disabled and a disability activist–I don't know what the language is in Australia, but I'll just share. So, in my community, we often use the word disabled first. We say, being a disabled person is a point of pride. It's not a bad thing. In other places, they use person-first language. So they say, people with disabilities–but the language I'm using is the one that comes from my community. I also use the word disabled to describe myself now. But anyway, Linda was this person who I met in my 20s. And she was making a magazine about sex in the early 90s. And she was amazing and she was just herself. She was loud and she had been fighting for her rights for so many years, that she was just this amazing person. So, to meet people and to get to be in relationships with people who are being themselves, and who are fabulous, it makes you feel like–oh, maybe I could do that.
And, you know I think it's an interesting thing but even though Linda and I don't share a lot of other identities, she was so important to me. And a big part of that was because she just became my friend. She was like, you can work with me and we can have a relationship.
So, it was through that and–this is all Pre-internet–so by looking for magazines and books and stuff like documentaries, I slowly started putting together who I could be. Realising that you don't have to see yourself somewhere else. Who you are is unique, and that could be okay. Which is just not a thing…I mean, I think a lot of well-meaning parents tell our kids that all the time, but they don't see it anywhere in the world right? It’s like that message I said earlier about girls being able to be anything…well you actually can't be anything right? Very early on with my child, I was very clear about things. Like, you can't be an Olympic athlete because I'm never getting up at 5 in the morning. So like, that's the world for you and I'm sorry, but I'll support you in lots of other things including lots of sports, if you want.
We aren't told that enough. That we’re worthy. That we are whole and worthy as we are, and that's something that I learned in the disability community. It's a big part of this movement and practice called Disability Justice: that we are whole, right, and we are not broken.
Yeah, so I want to know what the conversations were like with your dad, because he was a sex educator in the 70 s and so much has changed. So is he open to your way of seeing things? Like how do those conversations go?
Yeah, no one has asked me that. I mean, his orientation is sort of quite open. He is very open and he's very clear about not understanding certain things.
I mean, the year when we had a conversation about gender and my gender, he was like, “Okay, that's great. Do I still…are you still my son?” And my personal answer was like–yes, I'm fine with you using that word for me. And he was really just talking about the word.
So because he's someone who is interested in people and relationships, it's sort of been fine. He’s not ideological, he’s not so much of a theory, he's about: what do people need? I mean the message always was like: what do you need to be yourself and be happy? So it's nice and it is certainly funny because there's some stuff that he isn't going to get and that's also fine.
You know, we had lots of years in a not great relationship. We have a very good relationship now and I enjoy it because it's like interacting with other elders. I don't know that he would like me using that word, but um it’s like–I don't need him to use my language–and this is for me, other people are different, right? Other people really feel like they need that. But I'm okay with him using the language that fits for him, as long as it feels respectful to me, which it does.
So, I think that the gift that I didn't get is, I didn't understand until I was an adult that I really can talk to them but anything, right? So when you're a kid, I think it’s quite natural to not understand the gift you get from your parents because it doesn't feel that way. It feels like mostly you're getting rules and requirements and boundaries. But that's just, I just love that, I just think that you should record some of those conversations because what a treat.
Yeah, so let's dive straight into the books and what your definition of sex is.
The first thing I always say to people is that sex is a word, right? In fact, the title of our second book is, ‘Sex is a Funny Word’ and I think it's important because we teach kids about sex is as if it's this objective thing that exists in the world in nature. Right? And it doesn't. That word doesn't mean reproduction. Sex is a word and it's a word with many meanings. So when I'm talking to younger kids, I start by checking in and seeing if that’s enough information. Is it more than enough? Do you have other questions?
So, my kind of basic definition of sex is that it's a word with many meanings. Most of the time when we're talking about sex, we're talking about 1 of 3 things.
We use that word to describe bodies, mostly as male and female–that's called your sex. And we use that same word to talk about something that grown ups do to feel good. They can either do that on their own to feel good, or with another person to share those feelings. And we call that having sex.
And then sex is also one way people can make babies. And I'm very particular about what I say to people. It's one way you can make babies, because that's true. Again, when you look at the books about where babies come from, there’s still this idea that the only way to have sex is intercourse. It's just not factually accurate and I don't see why we should be telling people that.
So, that’s my basic definition.
And so how do we…you know, a lot of us grew up…well, in my experience–born in 79–I don't think I ever really had a sex conversation.
I have a distinct memory of playing doctors as a kid and then feeling a lot of shame after that–I got in trouble,we all got in trouble–and I still have that distinct memory.
I know there's not one right thing to say, but if you are in that situation–just being practical for a second–how do you approach conversation when you do carry shame and awkwardness around this subject?
I think the first thing that we have to do is talk about it amongst ourselves–the adults. Because we all have shame, well, a lot of us have experience of shame. We hold it in our bodies and it comes out in all these different ways we don't want for our kids.
And the way to kind of, be more intentional about that, is to have talked about it and to have shared those stories. And the truth is, we don't get a lot of opportunities to do that, right? Like we're too busy trying to get through school or figuring what to eat or figuring out how to survive a pandemic. So I mean sex and bodies are often on the low end of what's important. So, I think the first thing to remember is that we can't do it without taking care of ourselves. There's that whole: put your oxygen mask on first before you put someone else's mask on. That's true when it comes to our feelings about sex and I think that one of my big tips is making sure our kids know that we absolutely have issues ourselves. So, in this case, if I was to discover my kid playing doctor, I would want to be careful about the words I use, the language, and the euphemisms.
So for me, part of my advice would be saying something like, “I have a lot of feelings about this and a lot of them have to do with the way that I grew up.” You’re not going to go into details, but it’s about planting the seed for our kids that we too are humans that are working through this stuff because that's modelling.
Because we want our kids to know that it's actually okay to be confused. It's okay to have lots of different feelings: excitement, fear, interest, curiosity. That is okay and you are okay, whether or not the behaviour is something we’re going to support. So in that, you know, be very clear and say something like, “I'm not an advocate of this.”
And, I think it’s normal to be concerned. I think we are all concerned. Our kids are out there in the world and none of them are getting enough education around consent or bodily autonomy. So, even a well-meaning child might absolutely cross my child’s boundary.
So, I would start with, “I'm having a lot of feelings…” and I guess the next thing is to start with curiosity, right? Which means to start by asking questions. Not to start with, “I'm really unhappy that you did that,” or “I'm really scared for you” or you know, not to start with our stuff. Instead say, ”I'm curious about…” “What was it like?” “Where were you doing?” “Was it fun?” Ask why as much as possible. You really want to be curious.
When we ask questions that are guided by curiosity, there’s a difference. And kids are very tuned in with that.
The best place to start is with honesty and curiosity, and that establishes that we’re on the same team, right? It's not us laying down the law and telling them why what they did was wrong.
I think that then, you can make some boundaries. And this is the parent’s role: to make up the rules about boundaries, right? And so, a parent might say, “In our family, touching bodies is actually just for us–inside the family. And of course if we have to go to the doctor. But, until you’re older, this is the rule.” Some families might like to say an age like 16–whatever. I also think that's totally appropriate to say it and we need to name it, right? So again, in this case, 'll just give you my example but I'm not suggesting someone else has to say this, but I might say, “Touching is actually lots of fun. At home we tickle all the time now. But if you start doing that with friends, it’s a different thing. And it can be really fun…” and add whatever the boundary or rule is in our house.
And again, this is a personal choice, but if you want to try and raise a child with the idea that one day they are possibly going to become a sexual adult, and you want them to enjoy that aspect of their life, then you can plant seeds by just pointing out that having a body is great and it can feel really good. And with an older child, if it's a house where masturbation is seen as an ok and healthy choice, then you can talk about that. You can say that actually, there's a time and a place where it's great for you to explore your body, right? And maybe that's the bathtub. Maybe that's your bedroom.
So giving them not just the other thing is always important. You don't want to just give a no, right? “Don't do this.” Because the other thing is, that shuts the conversation down. And because this is a safety piece too, you want to hear from your kid. Is this something they chose to do? Is it something they felt pressured to do?
And when we have that big reaction, which is totally natural and understandable, what it does is it tells them: I should not be talking to my parents about this. And we don't get those questions anymore. And those questions are so important.
Yeah, that's such a great answer. It's funny, I have an example from just yesterday where my youngest told me that um…He talks a lot more about sex or asks me more questions than the other two because yeah–as I said, I think I'm just getting it a little bit more–but he said, “Oh so-and-so and so-and-so jumped in the bush today and kissed.” And he's very young. So I have this inclination to try and act too cool because I'm trying to do the opposite of what happened to me. But then I get in this awkward kind of non-parent zone where I'm sort of…I actually tried to say, “Oh, how did that feel for you?” And I thought, I think that’s right? I think I’ve asked the right question? But then he went really shy and it ended.
I did think, oh well. But, is that appropriate? What do you do? They’re young, but I was kissing in primary school. I just get so confused.
Yes, and also we don't know what kind of reporting that was, right? So like, did two kids go into a bush and actually kiss? Was it a peck on the cheek or were some kids open mouth kissing? I mean there's so many other questions but with a young child, I would do exactly what you did. Which is: how did that feel for you?
Because what you've done….well, first of all, you didn't totally freak out. But also, you want to be yourself. We don't know each other well, but you seem like someone who might be quite cool. I'm not cool at all. So it's easier for me because I that is not that is not an identity I can even fake. So, with my kid I'm never the cool one, and of course they complain about that, right? They don't like that I ask so many questions and our kids will always push back.
However, I think that the other thing about how I think about sexuality that's different to a lot of educators, is that to me, it's always primarily relational. So it's about relationships. I'm not primarily interested in the biomechanics of intercourse or sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy.
I know about those things, butI actually think that our human experience of sex is primarily a relational one. So what you did is, you said to him, you pointed out that he actually has a relationship to what happened which is his feelings to it, right?
Um, yeah, yeah.
Which I think is also important because this is the other thing that starts to happen with kids of course, is that sex becomes this thing that makes you older. And my experience with young people is that they actually don't like that, right? My experience with ah, you know preteens is they're actually often very verbal about things like: I don't know why I'm supposed to grow up so quickly? And then they just get worked on and worked on and worked on by the media, and then by the time they're tweens, they're like okay, I want to be a teenager, right?
And so, part of the message for me is always: sex is not… I mean, the other thing that I do that I think sometimes people confuse because of ideas of sex positivities, I don't say “sex is great.” I never say sex is great. Sex is a part of life and also I'm always really clear because we should know that there are people for whom sex is not part of their lives. They're not interested in sex, right? And so they identify themselves as asexuals. And it's a perfectly fine and happy, healthy thing. And you can have a full life and not have sex be part of it.
But kids don't see that, right? All they see is the kissing and the Disney, and it just starts so early. It's so wild to watch it from a very early age. These movies where the goal is a kiss at the end. It's like, why are we doing this? Because kids aren't interested, right? So for me, I'm in rooms a lot, like classrooms with like elementary school kids–so 8 to 10 years old right now–and they are talking about crushes. It's so different from middle school. And then with high school and the language, you know, all this stuff is just filtering down in a way that, I mean…the truth is, I wish it wasn't. In the same way that I wish young people did not have access to pornography, but they do.
I Actually think it would be better if we didn't have the stuff but we do. It's in the world. So as parents we have to kind of address it.
I Think that's so interesting–what you said about relations and their feelings. Another thing my son said, just to use a real life example, was he feels weird when people are holding hands.
I just feel like a newborn in so many ways, because obviously I've never had these conversations with my parents, and then you're so trying to make things right. Like, “Oh no, it's not weird or it is weird, but it just is what it is.” It's like what you said–it's the feeling in the air and it's just kind of being curious about that. I really love that. It's such an interesting space when you say just be curious instead of trying to solve it.
Yeah, and thanks makes me think of something I’d like to share. So, I have a friend and colleague whose name is Bianca Lauriano and she is child-free by choice. But she’s someone who's a very important trusted adult in many kids' lives–including my own child's life.
And she's so amazing and because she's not a parent, so the way that she can have these conversations is so different and so powerful. She's so good at asking questions and she would start being curious with your son and say something like, “It's kind of funny people that like holding hands because sometimes your hands get clammy. And sometimes someone squeezes it too tight. But also, sometimes it can be nice.”
You can unpack it a little bit and make sure that he knows that his response is fine, and that there's this range. Because again, what do they see? We see the idea that holding hands would be good or kissing would be good. This is the way that adult relationships are supposed to progress. So yeah, she's great. And one of her favourite questions is: how did that feel? Because it's really very generative I would say.
Yet. It is and I think this sort of leads into f how you cover a lot about power and boundaries. And, would you say having this curiosity will then allow kids to question whether or not they like that kiss? Do you know what I mean? Do you think it sort of forms a kind of great foundation for understanding boundaries and power?
Yes, I think it's essential because you know it's complicated for kids. Because kids do have power but there's a very good reason for them to imagine they don't. Because their experience of this is this concept–you've probably seen this because you read things online–is adult supremacy.
Which is this ideology that we all sort of know the world. So it follows, which is that adults are the right way to be. That a child's job is to grow up to be an adult like us. And of course it's not true because, look what we've done right? So, the idea that we hold all the wisdom in all the smarts is obviously not accurate, but part of adult supremacy is that we make the rules, so kids don't have a lot of rights.
But they do still have power inside of them, and we don't do enough to identify that and help them identify that. We need to help them identify how it feels to have power, right? So, a perfect example of power is boundary setting. A boundary is saying no or yes because a boundary can also be yes. Yes I do want to hold your hand or no I don't. That is us using our power. We don't talk about that enough. But we can't use that unless we know how we feel, right? So, curiosity is essential. It's essential for body Autonomy. It's essential for consent, right?
The way consent is often taught is actually not helpful, because it's taught as this almost scientific thing, whereas human consent is consent between at least two people. So it's not science, because you have two moving people with histories and feelings. And if one of those people hasn't really thought about what they actually want with their body, or how they want to be touched–as many people of mine and your generation were raised. We were not raised to consider: how do I want to be touched? If you're raised in a permissive household, you're like, okay when you're an adult you get to have sex and that's what you do. So you know, we aren't… sorry sort of lost my train of thought, but anyway, to your point. Yes, curiosity I think is essential. Both for a person as an educator but also as a way of learning about yourself.
I Love that. I want to talk a little bit more about the new ways to identify gender and sex, and how a lot of us don't know, or probably are quite afraid of stuffing up. I heard before that your son identifies as they and it just rolls off your tongue. It's so beautiful because there's no slip-ups. You're using the language. Whereas when I've had friends who identify like that, there can be slips up. Or, I think we're so afraid to slip up, that we don't perhaps engage enough. It’s a bit like the Black lives matter and diversity issues, because there's so much to it. We're afraid that we're going to get in trouble or we're afraid that we're going to look ignorant. What could you say to that?
Um, God, the very giant question. Um, so what would I say to that? Well, ok. So, there are a lot of things to say I guess because you've also added race in there. I think that I'm going to start with the fact that like white supremacy means that white people don't usually experience the discomfort that people of colour–and particularly Black people– do. Or Black people do it and in a different way.
I also just want to also say…because I'm aware the way that race and indigeneity shows up in Canada versus Australia versus the US is so different. So, I just want to be mindful of how it is, and for the record as it were, that 'm not talking about my experience of this. It’s what I've learned both from friends of colour and Black friends and indigenous people in my life. And that is not going to be the same for everyone everywhere.
Um, so I think that first–yes, you're onto something. Because part of the way we are, the way we like to move through the world, is to not be uncomfortable, right? So if the idea of pronouns makes us uncomfortable then we might actually rail against it. Or at the very least, kind of be like: that’s something confusing, I can't or I don't know how to talk to my kid about it. Because I don't understand it. As opposed to again, starting with curiosity. Which is like: if you're someone who wants to know people and wants to be in relationships with lots of different kinds of people, or even just be in good relationships with any people in your community, you need to learn about them, right? And we can learn about them from them, and we can also learn about them by, you know, by reading. Like, in terms of gender you can read my book and then you learn some stuff. I think that you know, I'm just going to focus on the gender stuff because it’s such a big question, but it's a beautiful question.
So I really thank you for it. And if we had like three hours and more people then I would love to be part of that conversation. As for the gender stuff, I think what I've come to understand for me is that the only way I really make change in my life is actually by changing my life.
So having more queer people in my life, having people who are non-binary or trans, that is how things change for me, right? And it's easier for me because I am queer. So, of course if you identify as straight, I mean…I also want to say these things about these words: identity labels are useful when they're useful. And they're also not when they're not, right? So for me, when I talk about people who are straight, I don't mean a man who only is attracted to and has sex with a woman. There's lots of people in male female couples that I would identify as queer. Because they're not following the rules, they’re understanding relationships and people in different ways. So, It's not about who we have sex with, and not even necessarily about the words we use?
But to sort of get more practical. Yes, there's lots to learn, right? The thing is that what's happening in our world now is more people are saying: shouldn't we be able to be ourselves and use the words that we want to use? That's what's happening. And a lot of us are raising our kids that way and more kids are saying, “Yeah, I want to use this word or this word.” You know, there's this whole thing about like, why are there all these Trans kids all of a sudden? Well, because there's a lot of people that are saying: it's okay to be Trans. You're not going to get hit if you're Trans, you're not going to be sent to jail or sent to a hospital. And so more kids are telling us who they are, right? That's the difference. It's not some influence of Trans adults or other kinds of adults or psychologists. It's just that we are living in a world where there is more choice. And it doesn't mean, of course there's not lots of prejudice, but there are more people saying: you can be more things. And the internet is helping in that way.
So, my message to parents about this stuff is like whoever your kid is going to be. Your kid is going to be in the world with people who use different words for themselves, whether that's around gender or sexual orientation, or ethnicity or religion. Whatever it is. And so part of preparing our kids for the world is learning about this stuff and whenever you don't know about something, you tell them. I say to my kid that I don't know about that. And I ask, what do you know about that? Because this is the other thing around gender and stuff. Your kids, I mean you have older kids so once your kids get into middle school, they know way more than you do, and so they'll tell you.
Right? And also, you have to remember that's also a beautiful parenting move, right? Once you start getting to that place where you're really open to your kids teaching you something, they get to experience power and knowledge and you get to learn things.
And of course, there's always like–and I'm making it sound idealistic, because like, you do that and then all of a sudden they're like: well I know this, so why can't I have more allowance or eat whatever I want, right? So it's always a balance, because we are still parents and there's still a power imbalance that makes sense at this point.
But I do think that there's an opportunity to learn from our kids, and I guess the last thing I kind of want to end with on this, is just to say that there's way more language but humans have always been humans right? So there's always been…so first, when it comes to sex, we'll say this.
Many centuries ago–more than that, probably–humans figured out all the ways to have sex. There's no new ways to have sex. Young people, teenagers and people in their twenties always think they're coming up with new ways to have sex. They're coming up with new words to describe the way they have sex, but humans figured it out a long time ago. So it isn't new, right? And if you've survived to be an adult, then you know a lot right?
So, our third book is called: You Know, Sex. And part of that is about reminding all of us that we actually know a lot about sex. Maybe not the language. Maybe not the terminology, but the feelings. Why we make relationships, the things that we want, boundaries–this is the core of what sex is.
When it comes to gender, it's the same and different, I guess. But you know, again, there's always been trans people. There's always been queer people. There's always been nonbinary people. We just didn't have those words, right? And of course, in other cultures, they did have those words, right? So you know, when white people look outside of themselves, they learn that other places have been doing this in a different way. So, our way of doing gender is not the best. It's not the only way. It's not the worst. It's just the way we do it. And so I guess, the thing that I often tell parents is, I just encourage them not to be scared. Because I think that they actually already know a lot more than they think they do.
And let me just say one more quick thing, because I do hear a lot of parents who are gender normative, who now have kids that are saying: nope, I'm not I'm not this–you thought I was a boy but I'm going to use this word. And the parents are like: I don't know how I’m going to help them.
And it's like: you are absolutely the person to help and support them, because you're their parent.
The idea that gender…that there's some part of ourselves, that identifies one part of ourselves, is so all encompassing that it will alienate us from the people who have been raising us. It's not the way it works, right. We get alienated from our parents for other reasons–like, that does happen–but it's not because you're a lesbian couple and you have a boy child, right? So that's another classic thing like, two gay dads will ask me stuff about raising a girl. Or a lesbian couple about raising a boy. And I think that the goal is to help our kids become humans right? Not to help your son be the best man, because who knows what kind of…you know, maybe first of all, he doesn't want to be a man. Or if he wants to be a man. I mean. who even knows what it's going to mean to be a man 20 years from now.
So I appreciate the question. I know it's a lot of people's experience and I also keep saying…and this is the last thing I swear–I will say that the fear or the discomfort, it's also real because people can be rude to us, right? So the thing is, you know, I'm someone who uses ‘they’ pronouns, but I don't usually correct people that much.
Because for me, in most moments, it's not that important for other people. It is, but there's a way to do it with generosity, right? Not when you're interacting with someone who's actually trying to be rude and leave you out by intentionally using the wrong words for you. That's not okay and no one needs to be nice to that response. But there are a lot of us who are honestly, as you said, making mistakes. And it's true that sometimes people can be annoyed with us, and so then we can just sit with it. We can remind ourselves like: oh okay, I'm uncomfortable which is probably how they feel all the time. And I'm going to try and do better next time. And I think, yeah, be curious and not think that we've mortally wounded someone.
And just get curious. Yeah, I totally get that. What do you want kids to know about their bodies?
All kids or just an age range?
Well, I'm actually cheating because you said such a great quote in the interview in the magazine. Do you want me to read it? But you said something like: All bodies are good.
Okay, tell me, yeah, sure.
Basically it was the way it was distilled and I just thought it was so beautiful. I'll flick through and try to find it.
I actually remember it's a quote. It's a quote and it's not from me, it's a quote that opens the book, You Know Sex, and it's from Paddy Byrne who’s an artist and disability activist.
And I'm just gonna find it because it's such a beautiful quote and I'm going to write it down. And um, they say: there's no right or wrong way to have a body. And I think that's what we want kids to know. That there's no right or wrong way. But I think we all have a lot of work to get there.
Patty is a disability justice activist who's been working in these worlds and on their body and on relationships for so long. Um, we all have a lot of work to do, because if we don't really believe it, it's not as effective to say: there's no right or wrong way to have a body, and then turn around and say you don’t need to eat that other piece of cake. Or all the ways that we make ourselves and our kids feel that actually their body is not right. Or even if it's not saying something negative, but it's like, when we point out the bodies of athletes and say they are great, and for other people we say, it's sad if you spend your whole life in bed.
So, this is the thing we want kids to know. We want kids to know there's not a right or wrong way to have a body, and that doesn't say anything about what we do with our bodies or how we care for our bodies.
And one of the principles of disability justice is about wholeness, right? It’s that we are whole. We are born whole and we remain whole, and we may feel broken sometimes and that's real. And we may need to do things to make us feel whole again, but actually we have everything we need and there's no right or wrong way to have a body. Which means there's no wrong way, like, when our body or our mind–and we want to include our minds because people who live with a lot of depression might feel that their mind does not work well. That their mind is broken. They aren't able to experience joy–and of course they want to change that–and that's different than saying they're broken and there's something wrong with them. That is the way their body is and that is the way their mind is, and they can do things as we all do. We want to learn a skill and then we learn a skill or we want to have a different kind of relationship. So for me, I want kids to know that.
And then you work off that, right? then? And I think that for me, the next big thing is kind about boundaries. I want them to know that their body autonomy ends at the end of their skin. So, you know, there's no wrong way to have a body. But a young person might say: “Oh so it's ok for me to start poking you?” And the answer is no. It's great that you have a body that wants to poke things. You can go poke a pillow. But you can't poke me because that's my body, right? And I want you to understand that it’s my body and I also have body autonomy, and there's a boundary there.
So, there’s this thing that we don't do in school very much, or it depends on the school–but public schools, not so much–about prioritising body autonomy or consent or boundaries. Yet it's something all of our kids really need to learn to protect themselves and also to protect others.
Yeah, definitely. And we could talk for hours, but when we first started, you told me you were writing a new book. And I just thought we could talk a little bit about that and when that's gonna come out because I think that's gonna be super helpful as well.
Sure, but I have no idea when it's gonna come out because I just started, as you know. But I'm working on a book about drugs. And it's fascinating that it's so much like sex, because it's a book about drugs for young people. And the books that are out there right now, basically all they do is they tell you: drugs are awful and don't do them. And what we know from generations of people, well actually I'm just doing the research so I don't know the exact data, but maybe at least 100 years, that it doesn't work. Telling people drugs are bad and don't do them, doesn't work. In fact, everyone is doing more drugs than they ever have, right?
So all of the things that are in place in North America, the kind of war on drugs, that doesn't work. And so what kids need, in the same way that my feelings are about sex education, is that they need direct and honest information. They need to know about drugs. They need to know how they work. They need to know that they have choices.
So, I just started it, and it's funny cause I am, I'm really amazed and surprised at how much it's like the conversations about sex. Because we're not having, you know, we're having some conversations but not the ones we need to help our kids make good decisions for themselves. And it is also like sex, in that, of course many of us adults do not make good decisions for ourselves. And that can range from everything like people are having a few too many drinks during the week to get through the pandemic. To people who have bad relationships with drugs,meaning they are doing drugs and they can't stop themselves from doing them.
So, for me, I'm always focused on young people and it almost feels like a bigger challenge to figure out how to write a book that's useful for adults to read with kids, when so many of us have fine relationships to drugs, but then a lot of us don't. So that's what I'm working on, and it took us 7 years to do this last book. So I'm trying to figure out how to write books faster.
Wow. Well they're so good. That's why it takes so long.
So, out of your three books about ah the sex and gender and identity, what would you recommend as a starting point? Does it start with the first one that you made?
Well, they're written for different age groups. So, What Makes a Baby is written for, sort of, 4 to 6 year olds. Sex is a funny Word is for 7 to 9, and then, You Know Sex, is for puberty age.
And in general, it's good to get a book a little bit before you need it.
I’m going to share this one thing with you about parenting, because I know you think about parenting all the time. So, I’m going to forget their name, but this woman gave me this great piece of advice because I was feeling really down about being a parent. We were having a meeting and the check-in that I offered was, the prompt we were all checking in with, was to say one nice thing that happened to you this week. And I said, “Yesterday my kid did not say a shitty thing about me all day.”
And that was my good thing and it honestly did feel like a win. And she shared with me–she’s got kids in their twenties and she said: so here's the thing– you're all you know. You're gonna learn what you need to learn, to support your kid just as they don't need it anymore.
And it's so true, right? Because kids are always changing. You figure it out, you figure out how to be with this eight-year-old, but now they’re into something different. So, as a resource I recommend that you get the book that's a little bit, maybe advanced. Because parents should always look through my books first. And have them around. And not because the books would be harmful if you give a seven-year-old a book about puberty. It just doesn't connect with them.
You know, if they have a sibling who's going through puberty, maybe it will. But it seems like such a foreign idea–that you’re going to grow and your voice is going to change and your feelings will change when they're not even seeing that in their peers. It's just such an alien thing, that I think it doesn't harm them, but it just goes over their head. So it's not useful education.
Yeah, yeah. Ah, Cory, that was so wonderful. You are doing such exceptional work and I'm so appreciative of discovering you, and I'm so excited to share you with people that don't know you.
Thanks for having me in the magazine and on the podcast.