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?