Sex is a Funny Word book cover

Feministing Reads: “Sex Is A Funny Word” and the aesthetics of inclusivity

This article was originally published on the Community site. 

Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth’s new book, Sex Is A Funny Word (Seven Stories Press, 160pp, $17.96) is billed as a step forward in inclusivity in sex education for children. Sex is a Funny Word book coverThe book centers around four main characters, whom it follows as they explore sex, gender, sexuality and bodies. These kids have diverse (not to mention charming, complex and rounded) personalities. They also represent a wide variety of experiences, including experiences with disability, racialization, sexuality and non-traditional families. And one of them, Kai, also models the experience of a feminine, gender-non-conforming, male-assigned child.

And let’s be clear: this is wild. For me, as a (very) adult trans woman, to see this experience represented in a children’s book is extremely moving. Even more so when that representation is done with great sensitivity, precision and poise. Having grown up with access to approximately no models for the kind of experience I was having, particularly with my body and my sexuality, it seems clear to me that just having access to a book like this could change the life of a lot of kids.

Sex Is A Funny Word however, is worth paying attention to not just because of this new inclusion, but because it does far more than just represent a wider range of experiences than previous sex education books for children. Such widening of representation is important and powerful, but it also has its limitations- no matter who you depict, there will always still be a kid saying “but I can see myself nowhere,” maybe with all the more desolation when it is now a supposedly diverse and inclusive group that is leaving them out. Silverberg and Smyth are mindful of this problem, and the real strength and innovation of this book lies in their methods for overcoming it.

With the exception of one section (on “secret touch” and sexual abuse) the book takes great care to avoid telling children about things. Instead it offers them helpful structures within which they can think through what they already know, and explore what the adults and other children around them can tell them.

Sex Is A Funny Word succeeds in being a book which manages to include the experiences of a diversity of readers, not because the authors somehow put all this diversity in there in advance, but because they make room for it to be added later. It is less a book which attempts to give answers to children about sex, than one which facilitates conversations about sex for them.

One way it does this is by using words like “sometimes”, “usually”, “most”, “some” or “often”: “Most bodies have nipples”; “Most boys grow up to be men”; “not everyone has crushes”. The book is similarly careful in its use of conditional verbs- things often “can be”, they rarely “are”. It even says near the start “if you want to learn about sex”- which maybe tells you everything you need to know about its commitment to remaining positively in doubt about the reader. Maybe, it’s prepared to acknowledge, you’re not interested in this, and that’s fine.

As well as being all about conditional statements, the book is also all about questions. The four kids it follows are often either in states of confusion, or else clearly and defensively overstating their knowledge, and it makes room for the same responses in the kids who read it by asking them what they think and feel, in regular pages of open questions.

These questions combine simplicity and directness with the ability to open up wide areas of discussion: “compare how your body looks and how your body feels- what are some things that are the same? what are some things that are different?”; “is it okay to call someone sexy?”; “why do you think people want to know if a baby is a boy or a girl?” To refuse to lecture children, to acknowledge the limits of your knowledge, is praiseworthy; to think to ask them questions like these is better: it is smart.

Finally (and in the spirit of the book, I should acknowledge: this is not an exhaustive list!) Sex Is A Funny Word holds itself open to diversity by always being particular. The four characters aren’t blank every-kid stand-ins- they are distinct and weird people who do things like collect antique cell-phones or develop opinions about climate change. Their world, as it is so colorfully and vividly drawn by Fiona Smyth, is also full of detail. This detail is often significant – for instance, one character appears to have two dads, but the book doesn’t make a point of this.

This is important, not because gay dads, or gender non-conforming kids, or whoever, don’t deserve to be made a point of, but because, by depicting them in these ways- gently, particularly, as if in passing- the book avoids suggesting that what is depicted is the whole range of human diversity, or a way of being you ought to aspire to. Instead of depictions of diversity, it includes these characters as instances of it.

It’s great that “Sex Is A Funny Word” exists as a book about sex for 8-11 year olds that includes trans and gender-non-conforming experiences. That is totally cause for celebration, and yes, those bits absolutely made me tear up. But if we focus on that, we’re missing a bigger point. This is a book that offers a really powerful model for how to make books (whether for adults or children) which actually are inclusive, rather than just performing diversity.

Maybe we think we know these techniques already- be mindful of the partiality of your experience, and of the limits of what you can affirm, consider asking things as questions, not stating them as laws. All the same, it is rare to see this program of openness so thoughtfully and successfully carried out. And looking at the skill with which this success is achieved should remind us that inclusivity is not just something we can will into being, through our great intentions, but something we have to work hard to produce. Although if we do it right it may, as it does in Sex Is A Funny Word, look effortless.

Catherine Fitzpatrick teaches at Rutgers University- Newark, co-ordinates the Trans Poets Workshop ( and is an editor at Topside Press (, where her next project is editing the first ever anthology of speculative fiction by transgender writers. You can read her work in venues including Adrienne, Asylum and The Advocate, or on her website,

Cat is a poet, essayist and an editor at Topside Press (

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