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  • Writer's pictureKerry Rach

Sex Ed Book Club: What's It's All About?

Why would anyone want to talk about blowjobs and butt plugs at a book club? And why would we want to discuss sex with strangers?

Both of these questions can be answered with one simple explanation: because we missed out at school. For so many of us (ahem) millennials, school sex education was woefully lacking or even non-existent. On top of that, a lot of the stuff we did learn was steeped in prejudice and reeked of misogyny, queerphobia and cisheteronormativity. If you’re feeling like those are some hefty words I’ve used, you’re not wrong. The problems with sex education are deep rooted, and what we’re taught about ourselves as adolescents can continue to affect us throughout our lives. Sex Ed Book Club began as a way to address this.

As a sex education researcher, I found that I kept having the same conversations with adults in their 20s and 30s: everyone had a million questions about sex and relationships but felt like they were too old to ask them. Is lube really that important? Is it normal to have painful periods? How do lesbians have sex? They felt like they should already know the answers (FYI: yes, no (don’t suffer in silence - you deserve support), and how does anyone have sex? What even is sex?). But how can we expect so much of ourselves when we never received an inclusive, accessible, accurate education? Not to mention growing up in a patriarchal society - hardly an environment conducive to sex positivity. I felt like we needed a community where it was okay to ask these questions, and to not be judged for our curiosity.

But why try to tackle this problem through a book club? Well, using a book gave us a starting point. For so many of us, it’s fundamentally strange to talk openly about sex, so books meant we could centre our discussions around authors and characters - it shifted the focus away from ourselves and allowed us to tackle these uncomfortable topics in an easier way. Whether we read fiction or nonfiction, the book choice also grounds our conversations in education; our reading equips us with knowledge we can put into practical use. But it’s not all dense research and sex theory - some of our favourite reads have been novels that offer us a way in to discussing that month’s topic.

In the spirit of being open and accessible, our book choices are guided by members’ interests, and sex education is a much broader category than it might initially appear - it’s not all condoms and cunnilingus. We’ve discussed body image, non-monogamy, sexual desire, queer family-making, masculinity and so much more. Coming up in the next few months we have books on contraception, beauty, trans rights, and even a sci-fi novel on pregnancy. There’s so much more to sex ed than shagging, and actual ‘sex’ is really just one small part of what we talk about. Educating ourselves about our bodies and our relationships is a powerful act, and it really shouldn’t be controversial. So, in the sanctuary of independent queer bookshop Juno Books, we started growing our sexy bookish community.

Addressing the issues with our own sex education has been a cathartic experience, but from the start, Sex Ed Book Club has also been about supporting the next generation to receive the accessible, inclusive, safe and reliable sex education we missed out on. Every book club ticket sold includes a small donation to the digital sex education charity Fumble. Last year we raised over £200 and we’re well on track to top that total this year.

So, where should I start?

Okay, we get it, sex education is important! But how do you get started? I could talk at length about the breadth of fantastic books we have read so far (and I could tell you about some of the ones we’ve hated too), but in the interest of you having other things to get on with in your life, I’ll pick just three. These are three of our picks from the past year and a bit that I deem essential reading if you’re beginning a journey of unlearning all the trash we’ve been told to believe about our bodies and relationships. I would also describe them as some of the more accessible texts we’ve discussed, so they should be easy to dip your toes into.

At our very first book club, in January 2023, we read Sex Ed: A Guide for Adults by Ruby Rare. If you’re not already familiar with Ruby’s work, stop what you’re doing and go follow them on Instagram. Ruby produces content around a whole host of sex education themes like body positivity, sexuality, sexual orientation, and non-monogamy, and is currently working on a hotly anticipated second book. Back to their first book for now, though. I picked Sex Ed: A Guide for Adults as our very first book club book because it really set out my stall for what I hoped Sex Ed Book Club would become. The book is full of wonderful illustrations by Sofie Birkin, and packed with all the sexy stuff our awkward PE teacher (why was it always the PE teacher?) didn’t tell us. But most of all: it’s fun. What I love most about this book is the way in which it treats serious topics with the respect they deserve, whilst also not being afraid to express sexuality as the joyful, silly, sometimes clunky thing it is, or can be. Ruby shows us it’s okay to have a laugh about it, and not take ourselves too seriously; we are all so unique when it comes to our sexualities. As eminent sex educator Emily Nagoski says in her own book on desire: ‘no two alike’. Isn’t that wonderful?

Let’s jump all the way forward now to January this year. Beginning our second year of Sex Ed Book Club, I wanted to start us off in a similar way to our first - get back to the bread and butter of what we’re all about. So, in January 2024 we read Losing It by Sophia Smith Galer. This book is a one stop shop for all the lies we’ve been taught about our bodies. Didn’t know virginity was a totally made up concept? You do now, you’re welcome. Equal parts fascinating and fundamentally enraging, Losing It takes us through a series of sex myths we’ve been taught and may have never thought to challenge. For example, how many of us have absorbed the idea that ‘sex’ is defined by a penis penetrating a vagina? Spoiler alert: there are so many wonderful ways to have sex, and they’re all valid. The importance of this book comes from the way it extends an invitation for us all to question our own internalised beliefs and biases about the world. Like it or not, we’ve all got them. This book encourages us to think about the information we’ve absorbed from popular culture, the media, our families and our education. It asks us to question the beliefs we take for granted, and consider how sex myths might be hurting us.

To finish on a lighter note, let’s turn to some fiction. In August 2023 we ran a month-long readalong, featuring the four Heartstopper graphic novels that had been released up to that point, in anticipation of the fifth being released later that year. A young adult graphic novel may seem an odd choice to include in my top three sex education starter books for adults, so let me explain. The non-fiction books I’ve described above will give you a lot of information about sex and relationships, but what Heartstopper will do is show you how healthy relationships work in practice. In the later editions we see protagonists Nick and Charlie navigate their sexual debut. Both characters have a lot of insecurities and anxieties about their first time (who doesn’t?) but the portrayal of their discussions about consent and pleasure is spot on. Alice Oseman’s writing is, in my opinion, a vital introduction to these topics, especially for young LGBTQ+ readers who may not have received queer-inclusive sex ed. As someone who works in sex education, these books give me a lot of hope for young people who may be feeling isolated. But that doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from them as adults too! Did I mention we missed out on inclusive sex education when we were at school? Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Heartstopper does not shy away from some difficult and upsetting themes (which are all handled with the care they deserve), but overall these graphic novels are the injection of queer joy so many of us might just need right now.

Want to join the club? We’ve announced our upcoming in-person book clubs all the way through to July, with more to come later in the year too. For more information and to buy your tickets, head to the Juno Books website. Don’t worry if you’re not Sheffield-based, you can follow along via our newsletter or follow us on Instagram @sex.ed.bookclub to be the first to hear about what we’ve got in the works. Let’s start unlearning together.

Sex Ed Book Club was founded by Kerry Rach, a freelance researcher and writer based in Sheffield.

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