September 13, 2018


Beyond Birds & Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids about Sex, Love, and Equality. By Bonnie J. Rough. Seal Press. $15.99.

     Seattle, one of the most liberal cities in the United States, is nowhere near progressive enough for one of its natives, Bonnie J. Rough, at least where matters of sexuality and gender equality are concerned. Rough, her husband and their daughters lived for a time in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Rough suggests in Beyond Birds & Bees that the best possible thing for American families and the nation as a whole would be to emulate the Dutch model in matters of sex and relationships.

     The Netherlands has a population of 17 million, the U.S. one of 330 million. And more than 77% of people in the Netherlands are Dutch – a level of homogeneity far exceeding that of the United States, although the blend of cultures and ethnicities is considerable in Amsterdam (the city of 800,000 – a little bigger than Seattle, a little smaller than Indianapolis – where Rough and her family temporarily lived). The notion of transplanting something so culturally determined as sex education and sexual attitudes between two nations that are so extremely different is at best naïve, to an extent that Rough never really investigates despite her promise to “explore social context wherever I can.” The method of that minimal exploration is instructive: even when Rough says something slightly negative about the Netherlands, she puts a positive spin on it. For example, “The Netherlands may have been the world’s first nation to legalize same-sex marriage, and the city of Amsterdam may be a top LGBTQ+ friendly place to live and have 180 nationalities, half of whom identify as ethnic minorities, residing more or less peacefully in one place, but like Americans, the Dutch still do – and will probably always – deal with instances of discrimination.” The tremendously minimized negative (“instances,” no less) is presented only after trotting out a much longer list of characteristics that are highly positive (by Rough’s Seattle standards). So much for putting things in context.

     It is important to understand the very considerable limitations of Rough’s worldview and her attitudes toward society and family life to be able to absorb what value is to be found in Beyond Birds & Bees – and there is, in fact, quite a bit of usefulness here on the individual-family level. Much of the book is built on the longstanding knowledge that the United States, with its strong Puritan history, remains unhealthily repressed on many sexual matters and uncertain of how to communicate the basics about bodies and reproduction to children. Rough’s solution is one that has been offered many times before, in various guises, and it remains a valid idea despite the difficulties inherent in implementing it in a large, diverse country in which so much of the population is religious in orientation, whether the religion be Catholicism, Protestantism or Islam (in the Netherlands, 50% of people specifically say they have no religion, compared with about 18% in the U.S.). Rough says parents should talk with children early and often about body parts, using correct terminology, and should answer any questions that children may ask, no matter what a child’s age may be. For example, she says that with her own daughters, after her Amsterdam epiphany, she “made the shift from ‘wipe your bottom’ to ‘wipe your vulva, from your clitoris to your anus.’” Rough also bore her second child at home and had her first daughter (who had been born in a hospital) cut the umbilical cord. This is, if nothing else, an admirable practice-what-you-preach example.

     Rough does not feel that changing individual families’ methods of handling sexual matters is nearly sufficient, however. She points out that only 13 U.S. states require teachers to use medically accurate information when discussing sex, that only eight “require sexuality instruction to be culturally sensitive,” and that three – Alabama, South Carolina and Texas – have laws that say if sex education is offered, “being gay must be discussed, but only in a negative light.” This diversity of viewpoints and forms of teaching is abhorrent to Rough, who is at least as concerned with societal alteration as with family-focused sex talks. She objects, for example, to “sexual risk avoidance” as a focus for education because of its “lessons condemning nonmarital sex and focusing on cisgender heterosexuality while excluding other identities and leaving out medically accurate information that can improve health outcomes and potentially save lives.” This blend of unassailably intelligent ideas (to present information that is medically accurate) with ones using politically correct words of the day in the furtherance of a particular societal cause (“cisgender” as an adjective rather than just “heterosexuality”) pervades Beyond Birds & Bees.

     “Living in the Netherlands,” Rough writes, “I saw and took for granted that boys and girls sat together at school, played together in the park, walked together in middle school, and held mixed-gender birthday parties at any age.” That is true gender equality, Rough asserts, saying that she then realized that if she did not encourage mixed-gender playdates for her daughter, she would be “depriving her – and her prospective playmate – of chances to form the kinds of friendships that really do foster equality.” It is the notion of fostering equality, rather than that of altering and improving sex education, that is the most important thing to Rough in Beyond Birds & Bees. Better treatment of sexual matters – throughout society, at every level, among people of all religions or none, of all ages and in all states and cities – can be the basis, Rough thinks, of vast overall improvement in society as a whole. Sex ed is more a means to an end than an end in itself.

     For those who share Rough’s beliefs and her desire to move U.S. society in a particular direction, her prescriptions will be welcome. But not everyone in a very diverse society will agree with her. And her viewpoint comes with blinders of its own. For example, she makes passing and highly positive reference to “the #MeToo movement…to call out harassment, assault, and sexual misconduct,” without wondering for even a moment whether perhaps some of the septuagenarians and octogenarians whose lifelong careers and reputations were destroyed by often-anonymous accusations dating back 40 to 50 years might possibly have deserved a fair hearing (in public, if not a courtroom) before being anathematized. Rough sees only one way, essentially a more-progressive version of the Seattle way, for society to go, and sees improved sex education as a way to go there. For her own family, and for like-minded ones, her approach is sensible, smart and certainly better than the piecemeal and often inaccurate sex education that American children tend to get in schools. But insisting that her way, her family’s way, is the only way to teach children about human sexuality, and that the teaching must be done in such a way as to further a specific societal agenda, means that Beyond Birds & Bees will never reach people who are not already in Rough’s sociopolitical camp. The book is just another example of preaching to the choir.

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