TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Our guest, Cory Silverberg, is a sex educator who's the child of a children's librarian and a sex therapist and identifies as queer. Silverberg's books focus on sex education for kids. Their latest book is geared toward young people hitting puberty and their parents and caregivers. Silverberg spoke with our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley, host of the podcast Truth Be Told. Here's Tonya with more.
TONYA MOSLEY, BYLINE: How do you talk to kids about sex? Better yet, how do you talk to yourself about it? Cory Silverberg has spent much of their adult life exploring what they call the complexity and beauty of sex, bodies and gender. Silverberg's latest book, "You Know, Sex: Bodies, Gender, Puberty, And Other Things," is part of a trilogy, which includes "What Makes A Baby" and "Sex Is A Funny Word." These books are described as some of the first of their kind to not only teach children about the basics of sex, but also those stickier topics like how one's identity as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or gender-nonconforming factors into our sexuality.
Much of Silverberg's approach has come from their own experience as a queer, gender-nonconforming person. Silverberg's father was a sex therapist. But growing up, Silverberg struggled to find language to understand their feelings and emotions. In addition to being an author and educator, Cory Silverberg was a founding member of Come As You Are, a sex-positive sex shop located in Toronto, Canada, and co-author of "The Ultimate Guide To Sex And Disability."
OK, so before we get started, a note to everyone, especially those listening with children - in this conversation, we will not be describing anything explicit, but we will be talking about sex. And with that, Cory Silverberg, welcome to FRESH AIR.
CORY SILVERBERG: Thanks so much for having me.
MOSLEY: Yes, thank you for being here. One reviewer of your book says that your book is, quote, "bucking decades of conventional wisdom on how to teach kids about intimacy and sex." You're a sex educator, and you know a lot about the history of sex ed. What theories were there before?
SILVERBERG: (Laughter) I love that question because the answer is not very many. So actually, like, sex education is very undertheorized. So I'm sort of talking in a more kind of academic way or pedagogically. There is not a lot of theory about sex and sex education, period. There still isn't. You know, there's theories of development, but those theories were not written in the context of sexual development. So a lot of us have just been flying by the seat of our pants and doing our best. And, you know, and I'm lucky that there were these educators who would write these books. And, you know, the bucking the tradition or the trends, part of that is also who you center, right? So a lot of sex education centers either the adult expert and what they think young people as a population need to know, or it centers parents and their fears and concerns. Our books center young people.
MOSLEY: That's what makes your approach different.
SILVERBERG: Every chapter, every topic, we start - when I'm writing, it's about, like, how - what's the experience of this from a young person? So, you know, so the body autonomy section, we talk a lot about, like - you know, there's examples of, like, kids having to get, you know, shots. It's interesting 'cause I started writing this before COVID, but - so they were like the - you know, the tetanus shots and stuff like that. Now, it's a different thing - because that's a young person's experience of body autonomy.
Adults want to go right to kind of a sexual conversation 'cause they are concerned about sexual violence, which is fine. They should be. But I actually think that it's - that pedagogically, it's a better learning experience if you meet people where they're at. So I'm interested in - you know, in talking to young people and letting young people see their own lives on the page. And then we start with the information.
MOSLEY: This is really interesting. Near the beginning of the book, you define the word sex, and you do it in three different ways. Can you talk about those three different ways briefly?
SILVERBERG: Well, so, you know, the first thing I want kids to know is that sex is a word - right? - because we think of it as this objective thing that exists. And for young people, they often think about it as this thing that they don't know about, that they're not supposed to know about, and then therefore, they're usually a little bit curious about. And I really want to kind of undo that manufactured sort of titillation. And so we start by saying sex is a word. And we say it's a funny word 'cause it's short, but it means many things.
And the three things we start with are, first of all, that sex is a word we use to define bodies - right? - to describe bodies. So humans have come up with this idea of male and female as categories. And we just say very quickly, there's more than those two categories. So there's that. Sex is also something people do to feel good in their bodies. So for the younger children, that's all we say. Sex is something people do - well, I think I say, it's something people do to feel good in their bodies and to feel connected to other people. So that's sort of the second definition. And so for adults, of course, we would talk about that as having sex. And then the third definition that we talk about when we talk about sex is that it's one way we can make babies. So it's one way that humans reproduce.
MOSLEY: Why was it important for you to separate and define these different types of sex?
SILVERBERG: Well, because we don't, right? So - because so much sex education starts with reproduction. And the fact is that most of the sex that happens on the planet is not for reproduction. Sex is everywhere, right? It's in the media. It's in the books we read. It's in the news. And all of that stuff is not about reproduction. So for me, it was fundamental to start by separating these out because that's our experience. And, again, I would distinguish, you know, I'm not a scientist, and I'm not giving a science lesson. And a science lesson is important, and there's lots of books that do that. This is a different book. This is a book that's talking about - that really looks at sex and gender as a relational. So when we think about these things as a relationship, it's actually important to start with the relationship.
And so I really wanted to - you need to start by kind of breaking it down because it does feel - for a lot of us, and this is not just true for young people - it feels like a monolith, right? It feels like this terrifying thing that we don't know enough about, that we probably aren't doing right. And the first thing I wanted to do is - like, it's sort of just, like, asking everyone to take a deep breath - right? - just like, let's just relax and acknowledge that this is a thing in our world and that we can explore it in ways that feel safe and comfortable, you know, and respect each other's boundaries.
MOSLEY: As a parent, I can tell you, yes, we're holding our breaths...
MOSLEY: ...On this so much and so...
MOSLEY: ...Looking to materials to be able to put language to these things. But in addition to reproduction, most books on sex education also start out with the premise that sex is great and that eventually...
MOSLEY: ...You'll learn to enjoy it. But you actually assert that sometimes sex can be great or terrible or somewhere in between. Why was this framing important for you as well?
SILVERBERG: Because it's true, right? Like, this is this weird thing about - it's not just sex education, but the way that we talk about sex in our world is it doesn't actually reflect people's experience. So, you know, you mentioned that one of my older jobs was - I had actually worked in kind of a queer, feminist sex store. So for many years, I talked to people about their sex lives, adults, in these brief interactions. And so I've talked to thousands of people. And it was very clear to me that, like, everybody's experience of this is not what we ever see on TV and movies or in educational books.
So it's true that - I mean, it's not - all right, let me put it this way. It's not true that sex is always great. It's not true that everyone's going to learn to enjoy it because the other thing, of course, is that some of us - and thanks to the community themselves, we now know that there's an orientation called asexual - that there are some of us who actually aren't that interested in the sex part of this whole world, right? We might be interested in relationships and family and intimacy, but the idea of getting naked and doing things with someone else has no interest and never will. And that is perfectly fine, right? That's perfectly within the realm of predictable human experience.
So I don't want to set kids up for this idea that there's a future - I mean, let me also share this, that, like, part of my work as a queer person is to really be thinking about futures because when I was young, I didn't know that I had one. And that's actually what put me at the greatest risk. And part of the problem - I mean, I'm a parent, too, and it's very hard for us parents not to - of course, we want to imagine our kids' futures. That is fine and it makes sense and I do it. The problem is, is that we can't, right? We can never know what our kids' futures are going to be like. And when we tell them, this is your future, when we give them picture books and educational books and say, you're going to get married or you're going to get this kind of job or you're going to find happiness in this way, when they don't, it becomes a real problem.
MOSLEY: Well, let's talk a little bit about the parent and caregiver's role in being able to articulate and help children work through these books because these books are actually meant to be used along with guided conversations between a caregiver and a child. That is a tall ask. What are the biggest hang-ups you've encountered that you find might be a roadblock in parents being able to have these frank conversations with their children?
SILVERBERG: I mean, I would - I'm going to reframe it as not a hang-up but sort of barrier, which is to say trauma, right? So the reality is that many of us live with trauma around sex. So many of us, unfortunately, have experienced violence or harassment or bullying or some combination. And then we find our ways to kind of - we survive it. We don't necessarily get the opportunity to really unpack it. And then we have a kid, and then we realize we need to have these conversations. So for many of us, it's because we don't know how to have these - we don't know how to put up our own boundaries and feel safe in having these conversations. So honestly, that's not the thing that gets mentioned a lot, right? We do a lot of - as parents, we do a lot of giggling about like, oh, it's embarrassing. But our own experiences of violence and trauma are one of the biggest barriers. So then in addition to that, also the way we treat sex - right? - that we talk about it, we treat it like it's this titillating thing, that it's both this thing that's beautiful and amazing and also kind of evil and shouldn't be done. And so the outcome of that is, is that we don't - it's not a daily conversation.
One of the best gifts I got in my family growing up, it's not specifically, like, how good my father or my mother were talking about these subjects, but because of what they did for a living, they were daily topics, right? So sex was always on the table as something to talk about. And if your job is working in retail or in a bank, you may not have the - it may be a little bit strange to bring - it may feel strange to talk about sex with your kids. And then, of course, the fact that we now live with the internet and social media mean that our kids are exposed to so much more information earlier.
SILVERBERG: So a lot of us feel like we're playing catch up, right? It's not so much that we're the ones presenting this information is that we're reacting to our kid coming home and saying a word or overhearing something that they're listening to.
MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is Cory Silverberg, author of a trilogy of children's books about sex. The latest is titled "You Know, Sex." More after the break. This is FRESH AIR.
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MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and we're talking with author Cory Silverberg, author of a trilogy of children's books about sex. The latest is called "You Know, Sex." Cory, one question that parents have is when do you bring up sex? Who brings it up? And that comes from a place of parents asking, just tell me what's the right thing to do? Like, what do you tell parents when they ask you that question?
SILVERBERG: So, I mean, part of the goal is that really in a way that sex becomes a daily conversation, right? So for me, like, there's always opportunities. So whether that's the fleeting glimpse of a sexy music video or a news story about #MeToo or an interaction a kid noticed in the playground that may be gendered in a particular way, all of those are examples of an opportunity to talk about sex because I guess - I should have started by saying, to be very clear, when we say talk to kids about sex, we are not talking about activity. We're not talking about explaining how a baby is made, you know, with the activity. We're really talking about how we relate to each other, how we respect and treat each other's bodies.
And the other last thing I'll say is parents actually do this, and they just don't realize they're teaching about sex, right? Something I do say, a kind of more quippy thing that I should have started with, is, in fact, that, of course, we're teaching and talking to our kids about sex all the time. We just don't realize it, right? So, for example, if we are not watching a certain movie or there's a - you know, there's, like, you can watch this - you know, you can read this book series up to this point - if the reason is because it gets too sexually explicit and we don't tell our kids that that's why, we're teaching them something about sex.
And, of course, when we make those decisions, which I fully support, it's an opportunity to also say, like, because there's material in that book that I'm just not sure you're ready for yet. And being your parent, I'm still the one that's going to make those calls. And as you get older, you'll get to have more control over that. And, again, just doing that, part of what's important about that is it lets our kids know they can ask questions, right? So it's what's most important, I would say, is just - is to not shut it down, right? I think the one thing that's harmful is to say, like, we can never talk about this.
MOSLEY: This is a revelation for many parents who probably didn't grow up that way, where if your parents didn't want you to know about something, you just didn't talk about it.
SILVERBERG: (Laughter) Right. It really is. And it's not something we're told, right? I mean, this is - you know, of course, this is this other thing. Parents don't really get - you know, there are so many self-help books, but, you know, most of us don't read them. And so I really appreciate what you just said. We are not prepared because most of us were raised in a very different way. And we want to do it differently, but we're not quite sure how. And so, again, I think that the minimum, if we just don't shut it down, even if we don't have answers, we're doing a bit better, right? We're moving it a bit further along for the next generation.
MOSLEY: You know, another thing - there's a population of folks who don't agree with your approach. Your second book, "Sex Is A Funny Word," it's on many banned lists, too many to list off. You've responded that people maybe just don't want their kids learning the way the world is. And that statement stopped me in my tracks because as a parent, there is the feeling that you want to keep your child as, quote, "innocent" as possible for as long as you can. What I'm hearing you saying, though, is that that might be a flawed perception of sex and also unrealistic in this world.
SILVERBERG: Yeah. I think you're hearing me right. I mean, I would say - like, the thing I would say is - and, like, parents know this - is I think that the thing is that if you were to hold that feeling, Tonya, I would say that you're probably treating sex differently than other things because my guess is that you are telling, you know - in interactions with kids, you're being honest about, for example, the way the world really is around violence and police or the way the world really is around bullying or the way the world really is around climate chaos. I'm sorry. I'm actually making assumptions, so maybe you wouldn't, but a lot of parents would. A lot of parents are really clear for very clear safety reasons. There are some things in the world and you need to know about them. And then when it comes to sex, they're like, no. Let's keep that away.
So I guess the other thing I want to make really clear for parents who are listening is I think that the confusion sometimes is that parents think that what I might be talking about is explaining how intercourse works or how some other sexual activity works. And that's not what I'm talking about. In our books, like - "You Know, Sex" is a 432-page book. And there is one page that describes sexual activity because that's not actually what kids want or need to know about. And I'm not really sure that, like, how that learning happens is complicated.
So when I say I want - I think that parents are - don't want kids to know the way the world is sometimes, what I'm talking about is, some parents don't want their kids to know that there's more than two genders, right? And there are, right? And some people think it's wrong, but that doesn't change the fact that there are (laughter), right? And also, I think some people don't want their kids to know that there is - that sex can be a site of, for example, violence and bullying. But, of course, as soon as our kids get to middle school, they're going to experience that, right? And so it's much more important - and there are ways - again, I think this thing, this piece that you mentioned about innocence, you know, I'm not talking about harming our kids by giving them too much information. And I'm not talking about shocking them. This isn't like a tough love situation.
There are ways - and this is what our book does. There are ways of, essentially, gently introducing these issues and these topics in a way that, like, opens them up, allows kids to be curious and then leaves it there. And then it's really for the parent and the kid to decide, where are we going with this? What is our experience in our family, right? So maybe the family has fled violence or persecution. So for that family, my books make a lot of sense. And they see themselves in our books. And then for other families who've just been more fortunate and maybe haven't experienced a lot of violence and have a pretty stable life, some of this can be surprising. But the other thing I always say to parents is, like, they've survived, right? They are adults. And they've survived. So they actually already have most of what they need to have these conversations.
MOSLEY: One thing you mentioned earlier is bullying. And in the book, you have an entire section devoted to the definition of joy, respect and power. And we don't often discuss power as an element of the sexual experience. Can you talk a little bit more about why it was important to speak to young readers about power?
SILVERBERG: Sure. Well, I mean, and this is something that I learned more specifically from my friend and colleague, Bianca I. Laureano, and, really, from most of, like, the teachers I have who are Black and people of color and queer. We need to talk about power. I mean, power is at the core of all of this, right? So when - I mean, if you zoom ahead and you talk about, for example, bullying, to describe bullying in a very narrow way, it doesn't really help because what is it? It's a misuse of power. And so what does that mean? Well, when we're talking with young kids, but also with adults, we need to actually break down, well, what does that mean? Who has power? And how do we use it or misuse it?
And so, as you said, there's a chapter on power that starts very simply with, like, we all have power, right? And there's power in our voice. And there's power in our touch. And there's power in our ideas. But we don't all have access to the same kinds of power or the ability to do the same kinds of things because the other thing is that what we can say about, like - you know, part of what I'm always really interested in is, like, the things that we - that connect all of us humans and the things that make us different. And something that connects all children all around the world is their lack of power, right? So children do not have most basic rights. They don't really have access to their body autonomy, right? We send them to school. Early on, we buy the clothes for them. We pull them out of the street, right?
I'm not saying that's a bad thing, right? A lot of it is for their safety. We ensure that they survive. But that means that we make choices about their bodies without asking them. And that goes on, you know? So for my audience here, like, they've had that experience for 10 years. So I need to start by pointing it out to them because part of the problem is, is that because that happens - again, often out of necessity. So I'm not saying, like, you know, children run free, necessarily. But because that happens, they get used to it. And they stop realizing that they do have power, that there's power even when they don't get to make the choices. They don't - their choices aren't the ones they want. When they can make a choice, that is power. When they can assert their body autonomy, even in a small way, that is power. And that, to me, is so much more important when it comes to a lesson about sexuality than talking about, you know, anatomy and how a body works.
GROSS: We're listening to the conversation our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley recorded with Cory Silverberg. Silverberg's latest book is called "You Know, Sex." Coming up, they'll talk about how to address pornography with kids. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to the conversation our guest interviewer, Tonya Mosley, recorded with Cory Silverberg, a sex educator who's written a trilogy of books for young people about sex. Their first book, which was for young kids, is called "What Makes A Baby." Their latest, which is about puberty, is called "You Know, Sex." Silverberg is also the co-author of "The Ultimate Guide To Sex And Disability." When we left off, Tonya and Cory Silverberg were talking about the importance of kids understanding the use and abuse of power in sexual relationships.
MOSLEY: Another element of this subject of power as a way for young people to navigate, is it also important to help them navigate uncomfortable sexual situations or maybe difficult or violent sexual situations? Is it a way of addressing issues of consent?
SILVERBERG: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, we have - of course, there's a big section on consent, and there's a different chapter on power. But you can't talk about one without the other. And, you know, the traditional way consent was taught is not great 'cause it's sort of taught in this very black-and-white way, which is, like, person A says yes or no. Person B either agrees, like, goes along. They say, yes, OK, you get to do this thing. And if they say no, you stop. But what we're not talking about is, of course, person A - it's - you know, sometimes, it is a yes or no, but there's feelings, and there's thoughts behind those things. And that's tied to power.
So talking about power is essential both for talking about consent - we can't really dig into consent if we don't talk about power because, you know, to make it - to be more explicit, it's not just yes or no. It's not just that because there's a question of the power difference, right? So, for example, if someone who's very young says yes to something and the person who is asking is much older and, say, a teacher, even if that young person said, yes, we don't call that - we don't call that consensual. We call that an abuse of power, right? So we need to talk about power.
And then power is also - giving kids language to talk about power is important around reporting, right? So, of course, if children are experiencing bullying or violence, we want them to be able to talk about it. And honestly, some kids do not have the language because it's something that we don't talk about enough. So those are two - yeah, I mean, I appreciate you asking because, absolutely, talking about power is essential both for talking about consent and for kind of reducing violence.
MOSLEY: There is this quote that opens this latest book, "You Know, Sex." And it's a quote by Patricia Berne, who is a disability activist. And it reads - I want to read it. There is no right or wrong way to have a body. Was this an idea, something you understood as a kid as well?
SILVERBERG: No. Oh, God, no. Oh, God. You know what? You ask that question - asking that question is about to make me cry. But no, not at all. Sadly, no. I thought there absolutely was a right way to have a body and that I didn't have it, right? So even though I had these very loving parents who were very open to talking about stuff, I knew I was different, and I didn't quite know how. I think the expectation was a lot of - people are like, oh, they're probably gay. But I kind of knew that that wasn't it.
And as it turns out, it was more about my gender. That's what made me different. But I didn't see that. I had no access to, like, trans culture or trans art or really, like, nonnormative bodies, right? I didn't have access to disabled community at the time. And so I grew up thinking I had the wrong kind of body and that that meant what followed from that was that I wouldn't ever have the relationships I wanted, that I wouldn't ever be successful and also, to an extent, that I didn't really have a future because I never saw anyone. So unfortunately, I didn't. And also, unfortunately, it took me years to, you know, meet Patty Berne, Patricia Berne, and be really immersed and become part of disability community and disability justice, which was really founded, you know, on this idea that there is no right or wrong way to have a body. And...
MOSLEY: I really want to slow this part of it down...
MOSLEY: ...You coming to this understanding about your own gender and gender expression because when I take a look at your resume but then your life more broadly, it seems like there is this evolution or this journey into coming into this - your parents, your father as a sex educator, and you having the full breadth of education in front of you. One of your first jobs as well was at a sex shop. I mean, I'm thinking, what a first job especially during those teen years. You worked there for nine years.
SILVERBERG: Right. That's right, yeah.
MOSLEY: How did working in a sex shop and helping people - because you helped people of different body types and abilities. You helped them come into their own understanding. How did that help you come into your own understanding about your body?
SILVERBERG: I mean, the answer is kind of slowly. So part of being raised by a sex therapist and a librarian is that I was good at talking, right? So I could talk about sex and not flinch and not betray any discomfort. Inside, I was uncomfortable. Inside, I was full of questions. But I could look very calm. And the bar is quite low, you know, in terms of, like, getting help around our sexuality. We have so few opportunities to talk about these things in public that when someone would come into a store and they would be very embarrassed and shy and they would ask me a question and I wouldn't freak out - I would return them with a smile and be calm - that actually could be quite healing for them and kind of revolutionary.
It didn't actually - it didn't do that much for me in the moment. But I think that there was an effect, a cumulative effect, where - I mean, that was my unlearning, where I realized, like, oh, the messages I've been given about sex, which is that there's - you know, there's conservative people, and then there's liberal people, and this is how they work - that that's all wrong - right? - that we all have this very intimate, personal experience that both is connected to and is separate from our values and beliefs and other identities.
So getting to see, you know, just - I'll take an example 'cause I'm Jewish - getting to see someone who identifies themselves as a quite orthodox Jewish person and then talk about a struggle they're having that one would not usually associate with an orthodox religious experience, that I learned - that taught me something about - it kind of - I guess the other thing - a way to put it is it really gave me permission to start, like, looking inside - right? - and start saying, OK, so what are my questions, and where are my fears? - that I sort of felt like I couldn't talk about. And this is this flip side of being raised the way I was raised, was that I was kind of raised that I should be all together about sex - right? - that, like, because of who my parents were, I should have this all figured out. And so I kind of - that meant that I didn't really have the space to be confused and be messed up.
MOSLEY: Based on your background, it sounds like the work that you do, it was always destined to be. But I'm also wondering about some of the other motivations as we learn more about you and some of the challenges you had with understanding yourself. Did you talk to anyone growing up about how you didn't see yourself anywhere? And is that part of the reason that you write about these things in books and want to talk to people about it?
SILVERBERG: Yeah, it is the reason, and no, I didn't. I never talked to anyone about feeling wrong or feeling like I was - you know, like I didn't know who I was. I was kind of quiet about it, and it was what put me at risk, right? So yeah. So I definitely write books for the kids that might be in some way like me. Again, no kid is going to exactly like me because we're all different. But for the kids - I mean, I'm definitely writing for kids who don't have the language and don't know how to ask questions. And I put all sorts of, like, Easter egg-y (ph) type stuff in the books to - so kids see that they are being - they have this experience of being seen because I think that's what I didn't get a lot of. I mean, I really didn't - I never felt like I was being seen at all whether or not there were - you know, adults may have been seeing me, but I didn't feel it.
MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is Cory Silverberg, author of a trilogy of children's books about sex. The latest is titled "You Know, Sex" - more after the break. This is FRESH AIR.
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MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and we're talking with author Cory Silverberg, author of a trilogy of children's books about sex. The latest is called, "You Know, Sex." Cory, I have a very narrow understanding of a sex shop. Visually, I'm thinking of those 1970s-style places with VHS tapes everywhere, something like that, you know. But the sex shop you co-founded back in '97, Come As You Are, it's currently the only cooperatively owned sex shop in the world. It is hugely popular. Can you describe what it's like there?
SILVERBERG: Sure. I'm not there anymore, so - but I can still describe it. And it really is part of a evolution that started in - that started in the '70s. So it looks more like - it's so funny. Now I'm going to show my age because I'm going to say it looks like a Body Shop, which is not a good reference anymore, but it looks like a MAC store. I don't know. Maybe you can help me with the proper reference.
MOSLEY: Like a Mac computer store?
SILVERBERG: Like - well, I was thinking more like the makeup, but...
MOSLEY: Oh, MAC. Yes.
SILVERBERG: It's not - it's not quite as sleek as an Apple store. But that's a good - you know, actually - but that's a good analogy because it's brightly lit. The staff are super knowledgeable. You do not see pornography, right? So you're not - when you walk in, you don't see really anything sexually explicit because the stores - these stores - and there's many of them - but the stores are respectful that people should consent to see that kind of stuff. So anything that's going to be jarring is actually going to be somewhere else that you're going to have to kind of look or be guided by a staff member to. It look - you know, and then - and then there's these products on the shelves, and they're brightly colored. This is the other thing is in the old days - the ones you're remembering - everything looks like a body part, right? Everything looks anatomically correct. And now that is not the way it looks. There are - you know, because we already referenced Apple, the - this whole world has brought in designers, right? People are now - you know, when I started my job, nobody was thinking about the design of these objects and to make them look pleasurable. They're just meant to do a thing, right? And now, of course, just like our computers and our phones look sexy, these objects can look sexy.
So it's a very - the places that I've worked, I've just been very lucky. They weren't, like, those kinds of stores. And I guess as much as what the physical structure looks like, it's the politics of them, which is these are places that say that adults - and let's be very clear because this is very different than my books, which are for young people - that adults have the right to explore their bodies and sexuality, and that this is a place where they can go and get accurate answers to their questions in the same way that, like, you want to get the right hairbrush and you want to get the right foundation or the right gym equipment, you know. And so it's really about taking the shame away from that part of adult sexual activity.
MOSLEY: We are seeing in real time more children working through their gender identity earlier or maybe it's that they have the language for it earlier. Are you finding this to be true? And maybe what does it say to you about the current state of our culture?
SILVERBERG: I am finding it to be true, and I think it's about the options that have been put in front of them - right? - so - in part. So it is that - so young people are getting access to language earlier and more and more kids are being told that they have a choice. So this is - so let me be clear about this, right? Adults can't make kids into anything. We cannot make kids, you know, believe in God. We cannot make kids be trans or be heterosexual. It doesn't - that's not how humans work.
MOSLEY: This is a point - this point you're making, though, I want to slow this down because this is a major argument that some have, that the reason why they are banning your books and the reason why they're speaking out against sex education is that having these details in front of young children may influence them to be something that they're not.
SILVERBERG: Right. And so there's simply no evidence of that, right? There's just no evidence that when you expose a child to information, it's going to change; it's going to somehow influence them to be something they are not, which is what you said, right? It's very possible that when you expose a child to information, they'll bring it in. And it may help them put together who they are. But I'll give you actually a very hard, concrete example from sexuality. So we know from years of survey data, like peer-reviewed data, that when children get access to comprehensive sex education, they start having sex at a later age, right? So for example, the age - so the way this is often measured is age of intercourse, which of course is just one kind of sex. But by that measure, young people are having their what's called sexual initiation later, not earlier. So we know for that one example that when kids get that information, it absolutely does not make them want to have sex more or earlier.
So anyway - so - but I'll also say that this is an issue that - it's not really an issue that can be - you know, I'm not going to convince someone necessarily, but I do think it's important just to say it - right? - because there's a second part that I haven't - that I didn't get to say yet which is that while we cannot make kids into something they are not, we can bully children into pretending they're something they are not, right? And that is how I would describe most gender socialization, right? Most gender socialization when I grew up and when kids are growing up is that kids are subtly - through their peer groups, through the media, through their parents and teachers and communities - they're being told that they're - that they've got to be a boy or girl, that we'll tell them who they are and that there's a right way to be a boy or girl, you know?
And so these days, we have expanded it, right? So we bully kids. We harass kids. We pressure kids into pretending they're something they aren't. It doesn't change who they are, though. And for me, you know, the hope that I have in the face of all of this, you know, violence against trans people and against, you know, nonbinary people and genderqueer people - the hope that I have is, of course, that none of it is going to change who kids are and we also, at the same time, get to have conversations like the one you and I are having.
MOSLEY: I imagine, though, through all of this work, where you're teaching people, you're an educator, you get some pretty common questions. Can you think of one of them, maybe a common question or misconception that you're always encountering?
SILVERBERG: So the common questions that I get from young people are not for the radio. So I'm going to think about a common question I get from parents. A common question and concern from parents is the idea that - parents have a lot of concerns about how their kids are going to turn out and what - and the ways in which they can influence that. And, you know, my response to that is always like, you know, of course, we have a huge amount of influence on our kids, and then in many ways we don't. So - yeah, so I think a lot of the common concerns from parents are about, you know - I mean, I guess one of the things is about, like, you know, how do I deal with sexually - like, with pornography, with sexually explicit material? If my child has seen it, is it going to, you know - does it immediately harm them? And so that's another conversation.
MOSLEY: What is the answer?
SILVERBERG: The answer is that ideally, before a young person accidentally sees sexually explicit images on the internet, they know that such a thing exists. And they know a thing or two about them, right? So they know that they are manufactured. They're not real. They're made. They know that they're material for adults, and they're not made for kids. And there could be a few other things, like there's - you know, we have a chapter on that in the book. But the thing I'll say is, sometimes it is harmful because some of those images can be very jarring and scary. But it isn't always that way. And no matter what the young person's experience of seeing it is, they will be helped by having a space where they can talk about it, right? It will be made better.
What is actually more harmful is that most kids think they cannot ask questions about it - right? - because we don't talk about it. So they think they're going to be in trouble. And so therefore, they don't tell their parents about it. Or they don't tell their teacher if someone at the library was - you know, there could be an adult that's trying to get them to look at something. And they won't talk about it. And so, you know, of course, the message always is, what we really want is we want our kids to know they can ask us anything and that they're not going to get punished for it. So that's kind of my - you know, the lesson about that in a nutshell.
MOSLEY: Cory Silverberg, thank you so much for this conversation.
SILVERBERG: You're welcome. Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Cory Silverberg's latest book is called "You Know, Sex: Bodies, Gender, Puberty, And Other Things." Silverberg spoke with our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley, host of the podcast "Truth Be Told." Coming up, our TV critic, David Bianculli, looks at the televised January 6 committee hearings as if they were a drama series. This is FRESH AIR.
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