A new, LGBTQ-inclusive, sex-positive sex-ed book for teens encourages readers to develop critical thinking skills around some of the “big questions” about sex, consent, relationships, and themselves.

The Big Questions Book of Sex and Consent

The Big Questions Book of Sex and Consent, by Donna Freitas (Levine Querido), is not a “how-to” book about sex or a set of dire warnings about STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and the like. In contrast, it encourages young people of all genders and sexual orientations to think deeply about sex, relationships, and themselves so they can develop a “sexual ethic” in accord with their own values. Freitas first offers four “Big Questions” that inform the whole book:

  • What does it mean to be a sexual being?
  • What is the meaning and purpose of sex?
  • What is love?
  • What is consent?

She starts by asking readers to think about their “relational ethic” in terms of what it means to be and to have a good friend. This ethic, she says, is a key resource “to teach and remind yourself of who and how you want to be in the world.” With that in mind, she proceeds to chapters on sexual identity, gender identity, and the messages we receive about what it means to be a girl/woman and a boy/man. She acknowledges that the intersection of multiple marginalized identities can mean that some people face even more assumptions about the value (or lack thereof) of their bodies and selves.

Other chapters look more deeply at what sex is, what it means to be a sexual being, and why there is so much shame around sex. Freitas encourages readers to “do a lot of thinking and wondering” about sex before engaging in sexual intimacy. She avoids being prescriptive, assuring readers that it’s okay if they don’t know their gender or sexual identity yet, or if they remain variable forever. Additionally, she asserts, “There is no one-size-fits-all way to be a sexual person.”

Interestingly, she notes that among the thousands of college students she’s met during her research on sex and relationships, “the most sexually self-aware and empowered and practiced critical thinkers are those who identify as LGBTQ.” Because they fall outside of heterosexist norms, the world has forced them to think about these issues, she explains. “Most heterosexual people have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to understanding themselves as sexual beings,” she says. (The downside, of course, is that society often views us LGBTQ folks purely as sexual beings.) Luckily, she’s written a book that can help people of all identities, caught up or not, think even more fruitfully about these topics.

Sexual ethics, she explains, has often meant a set of imposed “don’ts” about sex. What we need instead, she says, is “an alternative sexual ethical framework that is sex-positive, that prioritizes consent, and that truly empowers you to become a liberated, confident, healthy sexual being.” She offers readers tools for thinking about how to develop this framework for themselves. She also explores how a person’s relational ethics may—or may not—be carried over into the virtual world of social media, and how hookup culture unfortunately perpetuates sex outside of relational and sexual ethics.

She then looks at how the #MeToo movement has shown the widespread sexual violence and harassment in our world, and proposes that building a “culture of consent” can help address this. Preventing sexual violence is everyone’s job, she says, and requires us all to think more critically about the messages and expectations we’ve learned about sex.

Prioritizing consent, valuing it, respecting its importance, is an expression of your humanity and the humanity of others.

Consent is about more than just saying yes or saying no, however—and her nuanced take here is what makes this book really shine. She explains, “Prioritizing consent, valuing it, respecting its importance, is an expression of your humanity and the humanity of others.” Consent requires us to listen to and learn about our partners as well as ourselves; it should ideally be “a celebration of many types of communication,” both verbal and nonverbal. “Sexual intimacy has its own language,” she adds. “It’s like speaking Italian or French—quite beautiful when you are fluent.”

The final chapters ask readers to reflect on what love and desire mean for them. In order to love others, however, we must also know our own selves and what is right for us, she says, and urges readers to take time to contemplate that.

Freitas never assumes that readers have a particular gender or sexual identity or come from a particular religious or political background. She’s looking at “big questions” that impact everyone. The book is informed by her research with college students about sex and relationships, but it’s intended as a book for high schoolers, motivated by what the college students wished they knew when they were younger. Despite her conversational and accessible language, the length of the text (300+ pages with back matter) and depth of the topics incline this towards older teens, but some younger ones may also find value in it—and I’d recommend it for all parents of tweens and teens so that we can better help our children (and maybe even ourselves) become thoughtful about the topics covered. (For relevant books aimed at other age groups, see my database under the tag “Gender/bodies/sex ed.”)

A Further Reading list at the end offers a selection of middle grade and young adult novels related to some of the big questions that she has raised. They include numerous LGBTQ characters and authors. Additionally, throughout the book, other writers she knows (queer and not) have offered “Advice to Our Younger Selves” on the various topics covered. A bibliography of nonfiction works, mostly intended for adults, may be of less interest to teen readers, but is there for “when you’re ready,” Freitas says.

Freitas writes that the task of figuring out sex and our sexualities is “an ongoing journey.” Luckily, she’s given young people a helpful travel guide.