Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Role of Fiction in Sexuality Education

By Melissa A. Fabello

Our Bodies, Ourselves.   It’s Perfectly Normal. What’s Happening to My Body?   These are all books that we, as sex educators or future sex educators, know and love.  We have them in our personal libraries; we recommend them to our friends; we buy them for people as birthday gifts.  We understand that they are pivotal, major works in regards to teenagers and sexuality, and beyond those basics, we know other works of non-fiction, too, that we can recommend to more advanced readers, to parents, to colleagues.  We have entire reference lists typed up in our minds (perhaps branded there from how often we have to cite them – APA-style, of course).  But there’s something missing here, something that could be, perhaps not more important, but at least complementary.  Fiction.

Books that have been written on the diverse topics of Human Sexuality are fantastic.  Some of them – like the ones above – are well-written as well as being informative, which is why they’ve earned a spot in our “literary cannon,” so to speak.  But the problem with non-fiction is that you can’t feel it.  You can understand it and identify with it.  You can use it as a basis of knowledge or to explain the world around you, but you can’t connect with it.  You can’t empathize or sympathize.  You can’t become best friends with it.  You can’t cry when something horrible happens or rejoice when the situation has finally been resolved.  You can’t have a relationship with it.  But with fiction, you can.

I read a lot of young adult novels.  I’m not sure if it’s because I work with adolescents or because I long for the forever-gone days of my youth, but I devour those books the same way that I do French fries.  I can’t stop.  And ever since I was in puberty and discovered Judy Blume – Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Melissa, And I Am So Glad That I Found This Fxxxing Book Because It’s Saving My Life – I have understood the innate power that literature has to help you understand yourself by understanding other people, even if they’re just characters in a novel.  And when I was in high school, I related so much to the characters in the books that I read, not just on a superficial level, but on a level that I thought was deep and enriching.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Chbosky, 1999) taught me that it was okay to be an outsider.  Annie On My Mind (Garden, 1982) helped me realize that my lesbian relationship was legitimate and beautiful and true.  I lost myself in books not because I wanted to escape, but because I wanted to understand.  And that relationship has yet to dissipate.  Because the special thing that fiction does is that it doesn’t just give a name to what you’re going through.  It connects you to it.  After reading Speak (Anderson, 1999), didn’t you, yourself, feel like a secondary survivor of sexual assault after watching what Melinda goes through?  Didn’t you feel like it happened to your friend?  And all of a sudden you can recognize the warning signs, and you’re suddenly better equipped to deal with it on an emotional level?  That’s what fiction does.

I could go down an entire list of books to recommend to people to read when it comes to issues in sexuality.  Teen dating violence?  Try Rage: A Love Story (Peters, 2009) or Dreamland (Dessen, 2000).  Eating disorder?  Wintergirls (Anderson, 2009) or Just Listen (Dessen, 2006) or Brave Girl Eating (Brown, 2010).  Sexual assault?  Twisted (Anderson, 2007).  Transgender? Luna (Peters, 2004).  Lesbian or questioning?  The Bermudez Triangle (Johnson, 2005) or Empress of the World (Ryan, 2003) or Love and Lies (Wittlinger, 2009) or Hello, Groin (Goobie, 2006) or Keeping You a Secret (Peters, 2005).  And on and on and on.  Because these books do more than entertain.  They normalize.  They validate.  They educate.

Fiction is powerful.  And I believe that that power can be extremely useful to us as educators, if only we learn to harness and wield it.  I think that it’s time for us to create another reference list in our heads, another shelf in our personal library.  One dedicated to fiction.  And I think that we can use these books, either in conjunction with non-fiction or on their own, to touch the hearts of our students and get them thinking about issues in sexuality in a more personal way.  I think that we can use that connection to our benefit.  In short, I think that fiction could change the world.

So what are some works of fiction that you’ve read that address issues in sexuality?  Which are ones that you would recommend?  How do you go about finding them?  And what are some ways that you think that you could incorporate fiction into the work that you do as educators?


  1. Awesome post, Melissa. Thank you! It's true that these lists are in short order--especially as grad students taught to rely on the academic, scientific method in justifying and presenting our work. But if learning gets done because students connect with the materials, we're not going to get very far leaning solely on the academic stuff. And if we want to appeal to multiple learning styles then we can't just present an emotion-inspiring movie every now and then and call it a day.

    I'm a huge fantasy geek, and I've recently been re-reading one of my favorites series, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson's *Wheel of Time* (WoT), in preparation for the release of the 14th and final book this January. (On a side note: January?! Not a good sales strategy, Tor Books.) Going through the series again, I've been absolutely amazed at the number of themes relevant to our field that are present in these novels. Not safer sex strategies, although that may have been of use to a few of the main characters, but prominent musings on gender-coded societal roles, problems with the lack of communication in relationships, polyamorous vs. monogamous relationships, transgender-ism, patriarchy vs. matriarchy, and sexual behavior as a politically-coercive tool. When my mom started reading the series, she told me how they reminded her of Frank Herbert's *Dune* with regard to the large presence of strong, independent, powerful female characters--something once unheard of in this LoTR-dominated genre.

    The books are definitely not without fault. Gender roles are often stereotyped--among both the male and female characters--with male characters too often needing to "save" their female counterparts from dangerous situations the females really could have avoided, and lesbian relationships are used in a little bit too much of a solicitous manner for my taste. (The authors are male, and let's face it: fantasy books are often geared toward an adolescent male audience.) But some of those faults are what set the WoT-dedicated message boards on fire. People form strong relationships with these characters, and the story, and so the audience really cares about the ways in which they're presented. And because of that, I can totally imagine curating a series of symposia aimed at helping WoT geeks dissect these constructs that are often very relevant to everyday life. Or editing a collection of essays much like others have done w/ Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

    Obviously, our target audiences are pretty different. But I think your post is spot-on, and the educational work we can do with fiction could be amazing.

  2. You have brought up a great topic that I have absolutely no knowledge of and I appreciate your resource list. It has been quite a while since I have read a book for fun, too much on the academic list. Yet, when you talked about all of the different ways a reader connects to a story, I realized how much I have missed those connections in my life! Then I started to reminisce about some of my favorite books in my late teens and early adulthood ~ romance novels!

    I would scour through the paperbacks at the thrift store and buy the ones with what I thought were the sexiest covers and solicitous in their one paragraph description. It is probably where I learned about the equation of sexuality = romance thrown in with the fantasy of Disney princesses waiting for prince charming... I thought that prince charming was suppose to sweep me off my feet and immediately have sex with me because he couldn't contain himself any longer!! Geez - those were the days. Yet, it did give me some knowledge...

    I think that 50 Shades has opened up a whole new world of sexuality and fiction. The conversations I hear about sexuality, kink, and relationships has been amazing. Now whether or not people agree with the book, I'm not here to debate. What I know is that it has started a conversation and it is our responsibility as educators to join in the conversation.

    As I look at your list, I want to pick up some of those books and begin to enjoy reading again. Thanks for the reminder of how wonderful it is to slip back into so many different worlds and connect with so many wonderful characters! Shanna

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  4. Wonderful point! I never thought about this! I read, "Are you there god..." too! It definitely became a big part of me! That and a few other books by Judy Blume. Although, I spent many years confused about why pads had belts...I figured it out eventually, once I got my hands on Google. I think a great way to use fiction would be to have the students come up with suggestions for the characters. For example, "In this chapter, so-and-so would have benefited from knowing that condoms can be attained for free here and here." I feel that this would be a great way for the students apply the knowledge they know have to a relatable situation and it could also be used for series at that are already mostly known--ahemtwilightahem--for things about gender roles and autonomy.
    As for finding the books, you've got me there! I guess it's time to read more teen fiction. ;)

  5. Nice Post Melissa. As I was reading it I was laughing to myself because I have a friend who often debate over wheather fiction or nonfiction is more enjoyable to read. I agree with much of what you said but disagree with the notion that "You can’t empathize or sympathize. You can’t become best friends with it. You can’t cry when something horrible happens or rejoice when the situation has finally been resolved. You can’t have a relationship with it. But with fiction, you can." I understand what you are saying but I feel that nonfiction is much easier to connect with than nonficiton. I find that the events from reality are more heartfelt than any literature could be because the experiences and descriptions are real. I did really like your point about using nonfiction as a tool to present options to students. Nonfiction also provides a resource for teachers who may not be able to present the hard science or facts in the classroom. For example if policy does not allow discussion of sexual orientation inth classroom refering a student to a book that deals with sexual orientation would be rather beneficial.

  6. Eloquent, as always.
    Like Josh, my first thought was about multiple intelligences. Clearly, as a learner you benefited from reading fiction and it would sloppy of us as educators not to appeal to the students in the room that share the same reaction to reading fiction. Given that I’m not a huge fiction reader, it will actually be a huge challenge for me to incorporate fiction. Your mention of a fiction novel related to trans issues is a completely new title for me, but I have at least half a dozen autobiographies written by trans authors on my shelf. Challenge Accepted, Luna Ordered.

  7. Great post Melissa! It made me think a lot about how helpful we can be to each other because with our different backgrounds and interests, we can have discussions about topics that we might never consider on our own. I have never been into fiction books, even though I truly want to be! I think it's because I've always been so engrossed with TV that picking up a book for pleasure was never something I thought to do. So the thought of suggesting using them in the classroom is even more foreign to me, which is why I love the idea so much! I agree with the connection that is created to characters because I have felt it in the few books I have read, but even more so through TV shows. If students could connect with these characters and then have discussions similar to Blanca's idea about safer sex, gender roles, or a whole list of sexuality related topics, then I agree that it would definitely enrich their learning, like many others have also said.

    I am definitely going to get some of the books from your list above and read them over winter break because 1) I want to just read more fiction books (especially YA ones), 2) I'd like to someday incorporate this idea into a class, so I'd need to know a few books to do that with, and 3) I want to be ready for when they make them into movies! :)

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  9. Melissa,

    This was awesome. And, you provided such a phenomenal list of resources.

    I just wanted to add that not only do I fully agree with you, but I think this is an EXTRA important idea, because young people will seek this out. Particularly teens. We can probably hem and haw about the role of teen fiction, and how the rise in popularity is likely due to things like the Twilight series, but because of this, dare I say, revamped perception of "coolness", youth find this avenue accessible. They will ask an associate in a bookstore, and unlike many of their adult counterparts, they seem less embarrassed to do so.

    So, not only is it important for us to keep up on YA fiction as a resource, I implore us to keep an extensive list available for youth we work with, and know enough about what we are recommending to be able to communicate with parents as well. Also, if this interests anyone creatively, I would like to encourage some of us to consider writing in this genre. Our expertise will only serve to widen and diversify the available options.

  10. Like Jessica, I don't read much fiction myself. I have always preferred non-fiction. But the fiction that I have read has made its mark on me. None however had much to do with sexuality, or they bled poor stereotypes. The only title I had heard of in your post was Speak. An old friend of mine teaches high school English and has tried to incorporate it into her curriculum. I'm happy that I have a few more titles from this post to recommend if I ever get the chance. Thanks!