I grew up in California and attended maturation and sex education courses through my public schools. I understood the basic mechanics of my menstrual cycle and how I could become pregnant. But I don’t recall these courses discussing the “clitoris” or anything about its physiology or female pleasure.
Then at church, leaders talked a lot about sex—how sexual sin was next to murder, how having consensual premarital sex was like pointing a loaded gun to the head of your partner, how girls who have premarital sex are like chewed gum or licked cupcakes, forever undesirable. While some leaders would say “sex is good in the right context,” for all the sex talk, the lessons were baked in shame.
I didn’t have Google in the palm of my hand as a teen, so I reveled in long wait times at a hair or nail salon where I could read articles in Cosmo or Seventeen that addressed some of my questions about sex. However, those articles on “seven ways to blow his mind” did not teach me much about my own body, pleasure, or healthy sexual communication. I was also told by a youth leader that those articles are “pornography for women” and I should not read them. I still did read them, but with a higher dose of shame about natural, healthy, developmentally-appropriate curiosity.
I wish I had Bonnie Young’s book, Sex Educated: letters from a latter-day Saint therapist to her younger self, when I was a teen.
Through letters to her younger self from ages 10 to 28, Young takes a gentle approach to addressing the questions and concerns she had at those ages while educating her audience and combating some of the negative or harmful messages she (and likely many of her readers, including myself) received. She is now a licensed marriage and family therapist and is in the process of completing her doctorate at Utah State University; she takes her research, education, and experience and makes it accessible to a younger LDS audience.
Sex Educated is a quick read—I finished the book in one sitting in a little over an hour. I found Young’s writing engaging and relatable. I, too, attempted the exercises from Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret (“I must, I must, I must increase my bust.”). I, too, felt embarrassed at the thought that anyone at school might know I was on my period or hear me changing feminine hygiene products in the bathroom. As I no longer have monthly periods after my hysterectomy, the early chapters of this book were a good reminder of conversations I can start with my daughters and continue over time.
The ideal audience for this book is fairly narrow—LDS teen girls and young adult women. The editor of the book (Young’s husband, Sam Peterson) starts the book with a note about some of the book’s limitations (“it doesn’t address non-heterosexual themes, masturbation, toys, lubricants, lingerie, STIs, and many other sex-related topics”), while also laying out the book’s hope, to help educate Latter-day Saints (especially women) about sex with the hope of relieving some of the suffering that many LDS couples experience.
This approach is both the book’s strength and its weakness. As an older teen or when at age twenty I was preparing for my temple marriage, I would have really benefited from this book. I would have found it empowering to gain more language around consent, communication with my partner, and a better understanding of sexual desire and my own anatomy and physiology (the book includes a few pages with anatomical drawings of typical female and male genitalia). My main criticism, however, is that it assumes a definition of “God’s version of sex” that appears indistinguishable from current LDS teachings on chastity. I am uncomfortable with equating LDS teachings on sex as “God’s view,” especially since these teachings change over time.
No book can be all things to all people. While I think that teens and young adults should have access to education about topics this book does not address (including queer sex, masturbation, and STIs), this book goes far in addressing that need within the LDS framework. This is a book that LDS Young Women leaders could feel comfortable recommending that parents buy for their daughters. And it includes an excellent list at the end of the book for “Further Reading and Education” with resources that do discuss several of the topics excluded from this book (I think everyone should read Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski).
LDS girls and women often only receive inadequate, shame-based sex education. They deserve better. Sex Educated by Bonnie Young has the potential to empower LDS teens and women with language and knowledge about their own bodies and sexuality.