As she was gathering first-person accounts for Laid: Young People’s Experiences with Sex in an Easy-Access Culture, a new sex-ed handbook, Shannon Boodram observed a trend: there was no shortage of dire, cautionary tales—regrettable hookups, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, abortion, rape. Yet she was scrambling to find positive stories for a chapter she wanted to devote to healthy, pleasurable sexual expression. “It was the hardest stuff to get,” the 24-year-old Toronto freelance journalist says.
Part of the problem, she knew, stemmed from ingrained perceptions about sex education among the 18- to 25-year-old contributors she had solicited online: “Sex ed is about warning people,” Boodram says. “It’s supposed to be scary.”
But she also knew the paucity of upbeat stories reflected a deeper, little-discussed truth: that pleasure isn’t even on the sexual radar for many teenage girls. Boodram’s own experience taught her a profound disconnect exists between the Girls Gone Wild and Gossip Girl hyper-sexualization of teenagers culturally and the off-screen reality. She writes that she felt pain and then “nothingness” when she first had intercourse at age 16. After, however, she boasted to girlfriends that it had been erotic and satisfying. By age 17, she fancied herself a “sexual vixen.” Yet she faked enjoyment, taking cues from the online porn she’d watched since age 13. Despite sex-ed class, she didn’t have a clue where her clitoris was located: based on female porn stars who combusted upon contact, she deduced it had to be inside her vagina.
Frustrated, Boodram decided to educate herself and figure out why she had settled for a series of unfulfilling hookups, what she now calls “the microwave burrito of sex.” Part of it was a lack of confidence: “by limiting myself to hookups, no one could break up with me because the guys never seemed to want to be my boyfriend anyway.” What was needed, she thought, were unvarnished stories from the horny, confusing, exciting, frightening and vulnerable landscape of teen sex. Boodram selected and honed 40 narratives that range in style from raw to poetic, then organized them into chapters capped with answers to questions many teens might not ask, for fear of seeming naive. (The lack of knowledge about sexual consequences in Laid is mind-boggling: one male writes of wilfully ignoring HPV warts.) Though some might quibble with the random approach, the diverse voices provide range and preclude knee-jerk generalizing: amid the many girls who appear to be living in a rap lyric, willing to accept sex as something done to them, not for them, there’s abstinent-by-choice Desiree Dorite, who writes: “It’s not my responsibility to make sure a guy’s penis has a great day.”
Boodram’s unpreachy message is simple: sexuality is not a one-size-fits-all mass-market commodity; it’s personal, unique, and to be valued. “When I’m asked ‘What do you want people to get out of the book?’ I always say, ‘Get yours,’ ” she says. “Yours can be a hug, yours can be a date, yours could be everything or it could be nothing.” Teenagers have to put themselves first, she says: “The more empowered you are, the more confident you are, the more people are going to like you. But girls are taught the more submissive you are, the more likeable you are.” She’s particularly concerned about porn’s pernicious effect: “Young adults need to be taught about pornographic content the same way they are warned about the WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment]: it’s not real,” she writes.
Boodram ignored the advice of an agent who told her to drop the chapter on rape, which includes a girl’s harrowing account of being violated by a lineup of boys at a party. “It’s the most important chapter,” she says.
“ ‘Date rape’ happens all the time without girls understanding it’s rape.” She also persevered when Canadian publishers rejected the manuscript (the standard refrain was that it would be difficult to market). Berkeley, Calif.-based Seal Press picked it up for North American distribution.
Now the energetic journalist who hosts the cable show High School Rush is marketing Laid by herself: recently, she set up a table at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital to sell the book; she’s also working to get it on high school curricula. Toronto sex columnist and educator Josey Vogels is a supporter: “As opposed to the often self-righteous and fear-based messages young people get from adults who seem to think all young women are handing out blow jobs like candy, Laid satisfies the curiosity young people have about what other kids are doing and offers a ‘Wow, maybe I’m not such a freak’ educational value,” she says.
Already, girls have told Boodram that they were inspired by the difficult-to-gather chapter about loving, gratifying sexual relationships: “They say, ‘I’ve never experienced something like that; it gave me hope that maybe I can.’ ” That may cause some parents to freak out. If so, they really need to read Laid; it will be an education.