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The best books on Sex and Teenagers

recommended by Jennifer Hirsch

Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power and Assault on Campus by Jennifer Hirsch & Shamus Khan

Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power and Assault on Campus
by Jennifer Hirsch & Shamus Khan

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We have a responsibility to educate our teenagers about sex and intimacy, says Jennifer Hirsch—Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University and the co-author of a new book on campus sexual assault. Here she recommends five books that offer parents and teens guidance on how to approach an often fraught topic.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power and Assault on Campus by Jennifer Hirsch & Shamus Khan

Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power and Assault on Campus
by Jennifer Hirsch & Shamus Khan

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In Sexual Citizens, the brilliant book you wrote with Princeton sociologist Shamus Khan, you say we “have a collective responsibility to raise children who are comfortable in their bodies and with their sexuality.” This is why I asked you to recommend five books we ought to read about sex and teenagers. But first, please tell me about your own work.

We wrote Sexual Citizens to change the conversation about campus sexual assault. That conversation had been focused on improving adjudication, which is important, and on the idea that sexual assault is a product of bad people. Anything that is as common as sexual assault has to be built into the campus environment and the broader social environment. So, in Sexual Citizens we use an immersive look at daily life at Columbia University to show how sexual assault is engineered into the fabric of the campus experience. That sounds grim but it also opens an understanding of how we could engineer sexual assault out of the environment.

We examine not just experiences of sexual assault, but students’ everyday experiences of sex. For example, we write about a young woman who in the book we called Gwen, who told us how excited she was to get into New York nightlife. She told us about meeting B-list actors and athletes at clubs and going back with them to their hotel rooms. She didn’t want to have sex with them, but she described giving them a blow job, as she said, “just to get out of there.” That refrain from young women, giving someone a blow job just to extricate themselves, was so common. It led us realize what a bad job we are doing at teaching young people that they own their bodies and that they have a right to choose their sexual experiences. That is what we lay out in Sexual Citizens.

An anthropologist and a sociologist walk into a bar is a setup for a lot of academic jokes, but it’s also the basis for the book and the ethnographic research your team performed. How did you do it?

The work we share in Sexual Citizens is part of a broader project that was supported by Columbia University, work that I co-directed with a clinical psychologist. The Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation included three approaches to research. There was a random sample survey, a quantitative daily diary study, and then there was ethnography, which is a deep dive into students’ daily lives. In Sexual Citizens, we primarily draw on the ethnography work, which Shamus and I co-directed. We had an incredible team of researchers because we realized that students don’t want to run into their professor at a bar or a frat party. Five extraordinary masters- or doctoral-level trained younger people were immersed in students’ daily lives for 18 months. So, reading the book pulls back the curtain on what it’s like to be a student at an intense residential campus.

The status quo of sex education is the subject of your first recommendation. This book won an American Sociological Association award. Please tell me about Risky Lessons by Jessica Fields.

In Risky Lessons, Jessica Fields takes a deep dive into how students experience sex education in three different schools in North Carolina and into what the grownups around them think they’re promoting through that sex education. What’s so groundbreaking and important about this book is that she shows that even comprehensive sex education frequently contains an anti-sex message because it emphasizes the dangers of sex.

Risky Lessons disrupts the long running controversy around sex education in America. People were divided into two camps: the evidence-based camp that promotes comprehensive sex education and what I would describe as the homophobic misogynist camp that promotes what used to be called ‘abstinence only’ sex education and is now called ‘sexual risk avoidance.’

“Even comprehensive sex education frequently contains an anti-sex message because it emphasizes the dangers of sex”

Even comprehensive sexual education sometimes omits an important message—that sex is an important part of a full and satisfying life. Fields shows that only the students in a very progressive private school had sex education which was grounded in an acknowledgement of young people’s right to positive sexual self-determination. Well-meaning people in public health have ceded the moral high ground by taking a health-centric view of sex education. So, Fields opens your eyes not just to why comprehensive sex ed is important, but how it falls short. Insisting on every individual’s right to sexual self-determination is the moral value that we should be fighting for.

When we asked young people to tell us about their experiences with sex education they mostly laughed and said, ‘you mean my sexual diseases class?’ For those who had gotten the least-bad sex education, it was most memorable for figures of fallopian tubes.

We don’t teach young people to drive by teaching them about spark plugs. We teach them how to get where they want to go without hurting other people. That’s what is missing in sex ed.

Sexual Citizens opened my eyes to that point. How do the formal and informal lessons of status quo sex education reflect and reinforce gender race, and class inequalities?

When we spoke with LBGTQ+ students, none of them had ever had sex education that even acknowledged the kinds of sex that they desired. They didn’t just feel not helped by sex ed, they felt actively erased in a way that left them particularly underprepared.

Regarding race, we know that sexual violence happens as a result of many different forms of inequalities. If sex education only talks about inequalities between men and women, it leaves out the ways in which racial inequality creates the social context of sexual violence. Every single black woman with whom we spoke reported experiencing unwanted sexual touching during her time at Columbia and Barnard. You can’t interpret those experiences only as instances of sexual violence. If we’re going to really prepare students to think critically about how their own social position can make them either vulnerable to being assaulted or vulnerable to assaulting someone, we must provide sex education in a way that integrates attention to America’s history of racism and other forms of inequality.

Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex by Amy Schalet, another American Sociological Association award winner is your next choice.

I love this book. Amy Schalet compares how Dutch and American families manage their teenagers’ emergence into sexual adulthood. “Not under my roof” is the parental refrain we hear in America when people talk about teens having sex. “Not under my roof” is a denial of young people’s sexual citizenship. It means on a park bench or in a car instead.

In the same way that Risky Lessons points out the role of educational institutions in informing sexual citizens, Not Under My Roof Lifts up the crucial role that families have in acknowledging young people’s sexual citizenship. There’s no more powerful way that parents can convey their message that they want their child to have a relationship in which desire and emotional connection and respect and care are part of the same package than allowing them to have sex at home once they’re ready. That means when your kid has a partner in a caring relationship who they want to bring home for dinner, that partner can stay for breakfast. I can tell you from experience, that is the most awkward cup of coffee you’ll ever have but it’s walking the walk.

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Schalet’s message about how parents fail to provide a moral education around sex is important. In the United States, children become sexually active when they’re 17, on average, which means some have sex at 15 and others when they’re 19. If parents look away and refuse to acknowledge that fact, they’re allowing pornography to form their children’s sexual values. Children are going to get their sexual values somewhere. So, the question for parents is are you going to let pornography and popular media be the foundation of your child’s values around sexuality and intimacy or are you going to step up?

We’re a UK-based site with an international, Anglophone audience, so I wanted to ask if you could recommend books that make broader cross-cultural comparisons.

The limitation of Schalet’s analysis is that it’s comparing white middle class people in one country to white middle class people in another country. In Sexual Citizens, we tried to look at student experience from the full range of backgrounds that comprise the Columbia-Barnard undergraduate student body. We show how whiteness operates socially and sexually. I can’t think of other books to recommend.

Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between, by Shafia Zaloom, is the next book you recommend.

After the hundreds of presentations Shamus and I have done at campuses, the administrators, and professors with whom we interact frequently reach out to us, as parents, and say, I got the message from Sexual Citizens that I should be talking with my kid about this stuff, but I have no idea how to begin. Parents are understandably underprepared because it’s quite likely that they didn’t have these conversations with their own parents. I tell them to begin by reading Shafia Zaloom, an award waiting sex educator.

It’s a hands-on self-help book, a very good one. It does begin with the scary stuff, such as how not to assault someone. What we need to be doing in prevention work is not focusing so much on how to tell people not to be assaulted, but instead focus on teaching our kids not to be assaulters.

But what I like most about this book is that it has a chapter about good sex and good relationships. It tells you how to talk with your kid about what they should be striving for in a relationship. Zaloom provides a framework and case studies and specific questions that parents can use. She explains that it’s not ‘a talk,’ but rather an ongoing series of conversations.

Are there any television series or movies you’d recommend as tools to open the conversations parents should be having with their teenagers about sex?

I’m famously terrible at keeping up with popular culture. But figuring out sex is the central cinematic drama in high school films. So pretty much any movie you would watch with your kid has some sexual elements to them. We watched Animal House. It’s awful. Not just in terms of being a master class in white privilege and alcohol abuse, but there are also some very rapey scenes in that movie. But whether it’s dated movies like Animal House or something newer like Booksmart, they’re all a conversation starter.

I know that you’re an anthropologist and a public health researcher, not a psychologist, but I believe that many parents fear interfering with their children’s sexual ideation. Do you have any research or insight to dispel that concern and make parents feel freer to engage in their teenagers’ sexual education?

I’m not aware that that’s driving parents’ hesitation. What people have said to me leads me to believe the hesitation is rooted in a fear of doing it wrong.

I reassure parents by saying: It’s your job to teach your child to move their body through the world in a way that is safe for them and doesn’t hurt other people. Think about the amount of time you spend teaching them oral hygiene or how to carefully cross the street or the necessity of wearing a helmet when riding a bike. There is so much we teach children about how to manage their bodies already. Teaching them about sexual citizenship is just one step further. Like when you say to your child, don’t grab, use your words before you take a friend’s French fries. That’s a sexual assault prevention message. We just need to help children see how to apply the messages we give them all the time about how to be a good person to relationships. This is not about sexual positions and technique. It’s about not being a terrible person.

A board book based on research into early childhood is your next recommendations. Please tell me about Yes! No! A First Conversation about Consent, by early childhood educator Megan Madison and early literacy expert Jessica Ralli.

Yes! No! is part of a series that is intended to help parents begin discussing important issues with children when they are starting to talk and develop social awareness. It introduces basic concepts about bodily autonomy and reasons why grownups intervene in your body in ways that don’t feel good, but are reasonable, like insisting that you wear a bike helmet. It teaches young children that they have a right to physical self-determination in terms of things like hugging others. This book has beautiful illustrations and very inclusive illustrations.

“Think about the amount of time you spend teaching them oral hygiene. Teaching them about sexual citizenship is just one step further”

There’s a lot of evidence that this type of work can prevent child sexual abuse. When you teach young people from a young age that other people don’t have a right to touch them, they know to get a grown up if they are subject to assault. Yes! No! is both about setting kids on a path to have satisfying caring, intimate relationships, and keeping them safe from things that are far too common in childhood.

It’s a tool for parents. All of us have young people in our lives; providing a resource to begin conversations with them is important. You don’t have to be an expert to buy this book and to read it to your kid. You just need to pick it up and begin the conversation.

Finally, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. You think Speak should be part of every high school English curriculum. Why?

Speak is a popular novel written from the point-of-view of a young woman who is sexually assaulted in high school. Speak is a powerful prevention tool, which research shows can increase empathy and dispel rape myths among readers. Everything that teenagers consume, including books, shapes their ideas about sex. We know the preponderance of assaults are committed by heterosexual men. Reading Speak will help boys understand what they shouldn’t do. Speak is a book that should be read by every teenager to begin a conversation about how to approach sex without doing harm.

If you were asked to draft a Bill of Rights for ‘sexual citizens,’ what would it include?

Sexual citizenship has two important components. First, people have the right to choose their sexual experiences. And second, they need to understand that other people have that same right—that one person’s sexual autonomy cannot trump another person’s sexual citizenship. We are agnostic about what young people should be doing sexually. But we’re very moralistic about sexual citizenship.

Interview by Eve Gerber

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Jennifer Hirsch

Jennifer Hirsch

Jennifer Hirsch is a professor of socio-medical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Her research spans five intertwined domains: the anthropology of love; gender, sexuality, and migration; sexual, reproductive, and HIV risk practices; social scientific research on sexual assault and undergraduate well-being, and the intersections between anthropology and public health. She is one of New York City’s 16 ‘Heroes in the Fight Against Gender-Based Violence.’ In 2012 she was selected as a Guggenheim Fellow.

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Jennifer Hirsch

Jennifer Hirsch

Jennifer Hirsch is a professor of socio-medical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Her research spans five intertwined domains: the anthropology of love; gender, sexuality, and migration; sexual, reproductive, and HIV risk practices; social scientific research on sexual assault and undergraduate well-being, and the intersections between anthropology and public health. She is one of New York City’s 16 ‘Heroes in the Fight Against Gender-Based Violence.’ In 2012 she was selected as a Guggenheim Fellow.