Socialist sex ed

Lux Interviews Ariella Thornhill About Teenage Riots and Unequal Pleasure

By Sarah Leonard

Art by Katie Shelly

Ariella Thornhill is a woman of many talents: an author, a contributing editor to Lux, and a host of The Jacobin Show. She’s now writing Socialist Sex Ed, a sex education book for teenagers, illustrated by Katie Shelly. She also has two kids, ages six and three. 

Thornhill has a radical vision for what sex education could be: not just a rejection of conservative abstinence-only sex ed, but something that goes several steps beyond liberal efforts to make kids feel good about their bodies. She’s interested in a radical approach to how we think about bodies and hormones, and wants to talk to kids about the structural barriers that shape their access to care and pleasure.

Sarah Leonard What made you want to do this book?

Ariella Thornhill I had my son, he was around two or three, and I’d already taught preschool so I knew this was a normal time in kids’ development for them to start exploring their own body. I was talking to some friends of mine about sex education and how open we were going to be with our kids about certain details.

We read a book that was a cross-cultural study of the Netherlands and America, and it drew the conclusion that the Netherlands’ sex education led to more gender equality. It had suggestions, some of which were really great, like using the real names for your kid’s body parts — use “penis” and “vagina,” not “peepee” or whatever. Be honest with them about the pleasure their body can feel, and don’t make them feel alienated or bad if they play doctor or experiment sexually.

But some of these tips were only accessible to particular kinds of parents. For example: Give your kids permission to play doctor with other kids and talk to other parents about how “my child would like to ask consent from you and from your child to play this game.” Which would be great if you were in a community of progressive parents who had read the same book and were on board.

I realized after reading a couple of other books that, like most things, we approach sex education and sexual health with a liberal ethos, focused on changing a person’s values and moods. So rather than teaching kids about sex in an open and honest way, and then being open and honest about how it’s very difficult to afford getting treated for an STD, or saying that we need to organize to make sure everybody has the right to do what they want to with their body, it’s about celebrating your shape and your size and being positive about your sexual identity.

“There’s a multiplicity of ways that pleasurable experiences can happen. And part of the foundation of pleasure is health.”

It’s interesting to me how conversations about race and gender have started to focus on the way that certain experiences and certain things are unavailable because of racial inequality or because of gender inequality. But when people think about sex, sexual health, sexual experience, pleasure, and fulfilling relationships, they don’t apply that same thing. 

SL What does inequality look like when it comes to pleasure? 

AT There’s a multiplicity of ways that pleasurable experiences can happen. And part of the foundation of pleasure is health. There are many studies that show that if a community is underinsured, then they have higher rates of sexually transmitted infections. That’s true with every illness, but when you look at illnesses that have specific implications for a person’s sex life, you can start to see ripple effects across the community. And when it’s a communicable disease that’s spreading and it’s an underinsured or uninsured community, it spreads much faster and it’s stopped way later than in another community. So that’s a really clear example of the ways that this can make sex inaccessible to certain people. 

It’s also true when you look at sexual identity: People often don’t have the means to express themselves in a way that feels true to their gender or sexual identity, or make the kinds of connections they’d want. A lot of these things are only communicated or accessed through things that cost money, so the amount of money you have changes your comfort level, your ability to feel safe and connected, and your ability to be true to who you are. Without money, it’s also hard to have a relationship that’s casual, in the sense of feeling like the stakes within a relationship are low. They’re worried about whether they might have a place to stay. And so they may have to lean on a person for certain resources or not see somebody because they’re worried about how they’ll come off, if they didn’t have access to a shower or a hot meal. 

In some cases, the relationship between pleasure and housing has been made very clear: During the welfare rights campaigns in the 1960s and 70s, women protested the fact that they were penalized for having men stay in their apartments or homes that were subsidized by Section 8 programs. 

Or if a person has a disability, assistive technology like a sex toy might be almost a necessity for them to have sexual pleasure in a way that they can control. And for those people, if they can’t afford that sex toy, that’s a big deal. So there’s all kinds of resources and situations that change people’s sex lives. 

SL One of the key experiences of being a kid is how powerless you are; it’s such a distressing part of being young. How do you deal with that in a book that wants to take on the structural barriers to pleasure?

AT I realized that part of what frustrated me about some of the books I was reading from a more liberal standpoint is that they often ignore that exact thing. So it’ll be like, “Shout your abortion and be proud. You’re taking birth control, be happy about your body. Don’t let an authority figure tell you otherwise!” But teenagers often don’t have control over those things. That’s a legal fact: They’re minors, and also many of them can’t drive. Sometimes they literally can’t do things that they want to do. 

“There is a kind of cultural production of teenagedom that is rooted in Hollywood in the 1960s.”

There is a kind of cultural production of teenagedom that is rooted in Hollywood in the 1960s, rooted in this idea of an upper-middle-class person with a certain degree of freedom from their parents and what seems like unlimited money. As a cinematic choice it makes sense because you have to flatten the world out so that the social drama is the only thing that matters. But it influences how people think about teenagers, and the more you dig into the real history of teenagers, the more you realize that they were the radicals at the front line of almost every movement for public space.

SL Give me some examples of teens at the front lines.

AT When you look at the protests in Chile or in Paris or the Arab Spring, a lot of people on the front lines are teenage girls or teenagers standing out there screaming at cops while holding the tops of trash cans. 

The girl who kind of started the protests against segregated busing was a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin, who was arrested before Rosa Parks. And civil rights organizers were like, “This is a great form of civil disobedience, but no one will be sympathetic to a teenager because they think teenagers don’t listen anyway. So we need an older woman.” 

Another example that I love is the Sunset Strip curfew riots in 1966. (Mike Davis writes about this in his new book with Jon Wiener, Set the Night on Fire.) Elites were trying to sweep the kids out of the Sunset Strip and close down the music venues, but it was one of the only places that kids had to just go and be together. There was a protest by teenagers, and then a huge sweep where the police cracked down and started beating these kids, arresting them en masse. And the kids just fought back. What’s incredible about that movement is that after the crackdown, they talked to some Black Panthers and the Panthers were like, “This is what always happens in our community. We’re not allowed to be anywhere on the street.” And they talked to people in the Latino community, and the same thing was true. These kids were mostly working-class kids who would come in from the suburbs and hang out there. And they created this cross-cultural coalition that ended up creating an association to fight back against the developers.

I think every teen culture has had a group of leaders who get on the wrong side of the law; really it’s just a social impulse where they want to be together and make out or whatever else. But that needs to be defended! We have no public space for that. We have private spaces you can buy into. Although we’ve even lost the mall now.

SL Teenagers should get their own history taught in school. I think I would’ve felt more powerful. The thing that saved me from hating 100 percent of my life as a teenager was music, which after all is mostly made by people who, if not teenagers, are very close. 

So tell me more about the specific things that you’re trying to do differently in this book.

AT Well, I have a lot of the traditional content — you know, “Your body is changing.” Part of the politics of the book is just in how I write it. I don’t write with gender pronouns. I try not to gender hormones, which is surprisingly common. And I try to show that most of these changes happen to every single person. And that includes ones that people think are sex-specific, like breast growth or a person’s voice changing or hair growth. A lot of people have that, regardless of their sex or gender, and knowing why is important to everyone. 

And then I go through chosen changes, because this is a time in everybody’s life where they choose how they want to look. If they want hair to be on a certain part of their body, if they want to smell different, if they want to wear different clothes, if they want to take hormones.

SL Some readers might think OK, this is well and good, but if you’re talking about hormones and body parts and so forth without gender attached, how is that going to make sense to kids who were raised on mainstream language of gender? 

AT That was difficult. But I am appealing to the natural and healthy narcissism of children, because they think everything’s about them. So what I do say in the book is: If you’re shaving, or if your breasts start to swell, you can do X, Y, and Z. I think it’s actually more confusing for kids to read books that neglect what people call gray areas but are in fact just commonalities. So if you are very proud of being a boy and you identify that way, and then you start to have breast swelling, which is really normal, you might feel unable to talk about or address or even think about it. And if you love your breasts and you identify as a girl, and then you start growing hair on your nipples and no one’s told you that can happen to you, you might feel really ashamed. And you may try to remove that hair in a way that’s really unhealthy. The point of the book is not to insist that everyone love everything that happens with their bodies, but rather to give them the tools to understand their bodies and make choices. 

“The point of the book is not to insist that everyone love everything that happens with their bodies, but rather to give them the tools to understand their bodies and make choices.”

One of the biggest failures of sex ed is that it isn’t actual education; it doesn’t provide real scientific information. And in fact, it’s not required to by law in a lot of states. And it doesn’t help kids realize that everybody is managing their body all the time — adults are doing that constantly. These things are normal. 

SL How do you connect these individual experiences with the big structural problems you were talking about?

AT Well, I talk about the structural barriers to managing those changes in the way you want. I have a whole section on acne, why it happens, and how you might treat it if you choose. I don’t want to alienate that kid who can’t afford those things. So the next section is like, let’s talk about why we have these standards of physical appearance. Let’s talk about how these things are exploited. And then let’s expand that and see how under capitalism, everybody is feeling this status anxiety. Everybody has a pervasive feeling of anxiety about their social value. And a lot of people don’t have any way to ameliorate it because we’re only offered consumptive choices. If you’re having self-esteem issues, it’s not just because there’s something going on in your head.

Also, the changes in your body are related to access to medical care. It’s about the rights that minors have in each state, the rights that they have in a medical setting, how they can learn to talk to doctors, their right to see their medical records, their right to request a different provider, their right to privacy, the right to seek care for sexually transmitted diseases without someone else’s consent. And then despite those rights, they should still be told that a lot of people don’t have access to these basic resources. 

And so as not to be a complete and total bummer, I end with an explanation of how we can get it. The details of the U.K. vs. French vs. Canadian system are a little wonky to explain to kids in detail, but the basic premise and the fact that people organized to get those rights is not.

SL How do you write about sex?

AT Well, the thing about teenagers is that they talk about having sex all the time anyway. And I think the most important thing about teaching what sex feels like and what it should feel like is that if you encourage a person to connect with their own body, they’ll have a better understanding of their own pleasure. Then when something happens that they don’t like, they can tell you what it is. They will know. 

I tried to describe some of that feeling, and I also tried not to center it in, “This is what your penis will feel like” or whatever. I tried to describe some of those feelings: Like, where can you feel this in your body? Can you feel this in your fingers? When you’re masturbating, think about where in your body feels good to you. It won’t just be one of the parts you’re touching. All your nerves are connected. 

“We teach so much about consent and you’re supposed to say, ‘Yes, I want this.’ ‘No, I don’t want this.’ How can you know that?”

So I try to say, let’s break out of this idea that people just are fully sexual beings and you should know everything and it’s never going to be weird or awkward or funny or embarrassing. 

We teach so much about consent and you’re supposed to say, “Yes, I want this.” “No, I don’t want this.” How can you know that? How is it possible to know that if you’re not encouraged to learn what you want and what you like, and how is it possible to know that if you can’t do that in a way where the stakes are low enough that you can try it out? 

I think there’s this idea that, like, people come to sex fully formed. Like Athena springing from the head of Zeus or something.

SL I think she’s an eternal virgin, actually.

AT Yeah, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You spring from your dad’s head, you’re going to have some stuff to work out, you know? 

SL One of the things you’ve said is that when you’re that age, you need situations where the stakes are low in order to figure your sexuality out. How would you describe a situation where the stakes are low? 

AT So if you look at the Netherlands, they have great sex ed, they have clinics, you can get an abortion without parental consent with a physician’s consent. Most of their services are free. They have therapy available with a person who can talk to you about erectile dysfunction or sexual fantasies or having a different libido than your partner or sex you regret, which I maintain should be part of every sex ed curriculum in the world. So in that case, like if you’re a kid and you have sex with somebody, and something happens — say you get some kind of sexually transmitted infection — you can go to a clinic right by your school, and you can get treated for it for free. Kids commonly take advantage of that. 

SL Say you have resources, like in the Netherlands. How do you also destigmatize getting care so that people use it?

AT I think that in the U.S. we have too much focus on destigmatizing things and not enough on giving you things. I don’t want to ignore stigma, especially in very conservative communities or religious communities that, for example, frown on vaccinations.

But it’s about access. It’s not like we have a huge abundance of abortion clinics and free clinics for treating sexual health issues and people just don’t go in them. 

“I think that in the U.S. we have too much focus on destigmatizing things and not enough on giving you things.”

SL Do you see anyone organizing on this front?

AT I think anyone organizing for universal programs is doing that. They just don’t necessarily relate it to pleasure. So in the California teachers’ strikes, they were organizing for more nurses in schools. That is wonderful. That’s exactly the place to start. That’s something teenagers can do too. And then we should go further and say, “We should have free period products in every single school in the country, and we should have free birth control and the nurses can give it out — they’re nurses.”

SL I was curious if you see your project as being in a kind of feminist tradition. I’m thinking of something like Our Bodies, Ourselves.

AT I do think that it’s in a feminist tradition, if only because feminists seem to be the ones talking about pleasure and your right to understand your own body. 

But I think a lot of these books in the past took for granted that institutions wouldn’t and couldn’t do what they needed and wanted. And I’ve seen this in a lot of other books, like, for instance, about midwifery and home birth. They’re responding to a horrible, horrible crisis in prenatal and postpartum care in America. I completely understand why an individual would find that comforting and helpful. With Our Bodies, Ourselves, you can take that information and you can say to your provider, actually I know about my body and this is what I need. This is a partnership, not a dictatorship. But in the end, it’s a DIY approach. 

Then there are great comprehensive analyses of every single thing I’m talking about from housing to health care. One feminist demand has long been the need for private space, a room of one’s own. I’ve seen a lot of books that talk about that. I’ve seen a lot of books that talk about housing justice. I’ve seen a lot of books about intimacy and desire and talk about reclaiming those things and a person’s right to those things.

But I haven’t yet seen something that puts them together. Where does intimacy happen? Where does one feel able to be intimate? Where does one feel able to have desire? What are the conditions for those feelings? So I’m just trying to connect these, the personal to the political. And I think feminism has been doing that for as long as it’s been around.

Sarah Leonard is publisher and an editor of Lux.