Review: What's Going on Down There? by Karen Gravelle


First, here’ s ten year old Max’s review: What’s going on down there ? That is the question. Two ways to answer that question: A) you could go order this book for $9.99 or, B) take a shower. A lot of the book is just reviewing, just to be safe that you don’t forget, what your penis looks like. I’m guessing that this may be interesting to people that have never changed their clothes, but most people have.

Now, Jessica’s review: I bought this 150 page paperback (1998, Walker Publishing Company) for Max to read because, unlike his older brother, he tends not to ask many questions about sexual health. Max’s older brother started going through puberty at eleven, and although every child is different, we wanted to make sure *some* sexual education was happening. Whenever I or my spouse saw an opportunity to do some educating around these issues, Max would shut the conversation down. I figured I’d get a book and see if maybe he felt more comfortable learning that way. It worked! Despite his protests, he read the whole ten chapters in about a week. For comparison’s sake, I never did get him to finish The Hunger Games.

Max again: First of all, The Hunger Games was just Katniss yelling about water even though there was a lake right next to her, and second there was was a slight bribe to read this, which I’m not sure was worth it. And it was just 150 pages of the world’s weirdest penises with terribly boring words around them.

Jessica: The book features illustrations by Robert Leighton, which are, in my opinion, quite good and not weird at all.  The font (typeface?) is also casual, without descending into comic sans. Here’s a typical informative yet humorous illustration:



The chapters include: Your Body (anatomy), Body Changes (puberty), What’s Going on Down There? (erections, orgasms, wet dreams, masturbation etc.), Girls are Changing, too, Having Sex, Making (and Not Making) a Baby, Staying Healthy (STIs including HIV/AIDS), “Is this normal?”, “What if…?” (random worries and concerns, like erections in class, meeting  someone on the internet, etc.) , “If I’d Known Then What I Know Now!” (reflections from older boys who have been through puberty). Although this is aimed at boys, there is a chapter on girls’ sexual development, and, throughout the book, attention is paid to female anatomy and sexuality.

The book tends be be fairly simple and matter of fact, and pitched at boys who are not yet fully experiencing most of the things the book addresses. Max was able to read and understand it all, but it definitely tackles difficult subjects, so talking through it with him was important. For example, there is a section on rape, and, as I mentioned, one on HIV/AIDS. For a nanosecond, I thought “I hate to introduce the subject of rape with this innocent kid”, and then I remembered how many movies he has watched where sexual violence is explicit or threatened, including the Star Wars movies. My own views about rape are more political than “it is wrong to have sex with someone without their consent”, and when he’s older, I may come back to this, asking him why the section is all about why the reader, a boy, should not commit rape, rather than about say, how the reader, a boy, can avoid being raped, but, with this particular child, at this particular juncture, I will wait a bit longer to tackle gender injustice.

The book promotes an egalitarian secular humanist approach to sex which we found mostly satisfactory. So many of the books I looked at had conservative approaches which did not mesh with our own teachings. For example, after discussing some of the pitfalls of sexual activity, the author writes:

About this time, you may be feeling that having sex is a very dangerous activity that should be avoided at all costs. Or at the very least, it may seem as if there is so much to worry about that it couldn’t be very enjoyable.

But that’s certainly not the case. Sex is a perfectly natural and wonderful part of life. And having to take care of yourself doesn’t spoil it. After all, you buckle your seat belt when getting in a car, wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle, and put on a life jacket when going out on a speedboat — and none of these things takes the fun out of the ride.

That said, the book does associate sex closely with affection, trust and love, something we liked, but other parents might feel is either too restrictive or not restrictive enough. Homosexuality is defined and discussed in a value neutral way (albeit focused strongly on sexuality to the exclusion of any other aspects of identity), but the default orientation is heterosexual, and there is no mention of bisexuality, transgender experience, or asexuality. So, it’s a good start but not exactly complete.

Overall, What’s Going on Down There? did exactly what I hoped: kept my son’s attention, covered the issues in a matter of fact and easy to understand way, and provided a good basis for our discussions. Although Gravelle explores feelings around puberty, it might have been nice if a bit more of the emotional and psychological aspects of puberty that are not directly related to sex were addressed.

Have you shared a book on puberty with your children? Any recs?


16 responses

  1. OMG, I love Max. Can I adopt him, please? My son really needs a cool brother.

    We’ve talked some about puberty and provided the age-appropriate versions of _It’s Perfectly Normal_ (can’t remember all the other titles at the moment.) He seems to have periods of interest and then forgets about it. I definitely recommend It’s Perfectly Normal and its related books.

    I remember at first my son had all three version of the book and I looked at IPN and thought it too mature for him and put it away, feeling a little embarrassed about my lack of openness. And then I came across it a few years later and realized, oh wow, it’s not too mature for him anymore. It was a weird feeling — but good, because I didn’t want to be a mom who would try to keep her children unnaturally innocent and I’m glad that I had been just being reasonable before.

    Not sure that story made any sense whatsoever, but I’ve typed it so it might as well stay. 🙂


  2. Not for Max now, but I love The Guide to Getting it On. I discovered it in College, but wish I had found it in HS.

    My sex education was rather interesting. School wasn’t very helpful, as I had lots of questions at a young age. (The fact I have 3 younger siblings might have something to do with it). I’ve also always been a rather sexual person. My mother, while wanting to be open, didn’t have enough knowledge or comfort to discuss some things with me. After we got to a certain point she said, “I don’t know, but I can give you the resources to find out for yourself.”

    (Around 8th/9th grade I had a lot of questions about female anatomy/pleasure and my mother was uncomfortable with that, I think.)

    So we went to the library and I got a lot of books out – like Our Bodies, Our Selves and old human anatomy textbooks (my mother is in the healthcare industry). Which was helpful, but perhaps in some ways more vague that I wished, and much more focused on the practicality and less on the enjoyment. The Guide to Getting it On is great on that level – a good balance of this is pleasurable but also has consequences.

    I also found romance novels to be instructive, especially when it comes to female pleasure, even if the hymen is located in the wrong place in a lot of novels.

    So, no. Not many books for Max’s age to suggest. Will keep my ears out though.


  3. Hmmm, my mum taught me and my sisters with WHAT’S HAPPENING TO ME: An Illustrated Guide to Puberty and WHERE DID I COME FROM, both by Peter Mayle (first published in – egads! 1981!), but they seem a little young oriented, a lot of “an orgasm feels a lot like a sneeze” and “when two people who love each other very much hug each other very close.” I loved the illustrations as a kid.

    I felt it got the job done, although my parents’ views on sex have always been pretty conservative. My mother took care to try and stagger the education and teach us one on one- she didn’t want me sharing what I’d learned with my younger sisters. Although this was probably due to an incident where I blabbed to my seven-year-old youngest sister and she promptly walked outside where our neighbour Jeff was watering the lawn and howled ‘MY SISTER SAYS YOU HAVE WET DREAMS!’ for the entire cul-de-sac to hear.


  4. Great review (by both of you)! I don’t remember ever reading any books on puberty, so I can’t give you any recs of my own, but I hope you won’t mind answering my question: do you think this book could be of any use to a female romance author who has had plenty of sex and encountered plenty of male parts but wants to learn more about male puberty and the male sexual POV? Thanks!


  5. Oh, god. I bought two copies of Usborne Facts of Life, Growing Up for my youngest brother (then 12) and youngest sister (then 13) as a basic introduction (I intended to buy them more detailed books when they were older).

    It’s the same book our late mother got me when I was at their age. Granted, their 2001(?) edition was different from mine (1988 edition), but only the cover packaging. Both contained same contents. Only fifty-odd pages. I also felt the author’s voice was neutral yet approachable. It served me well so I felt it’d serve them well, too.

    All that said, according to both siblings, they learnt more from random one-to-one conversations with a couple of (admittedly dodgy) film snippets as visual aids. Both kept laughing when I tried to explain seriously how, why and what to do while showing that foreskin-stuck-in-zip scene from There’s Something About Mary. In hindsight, I should have chosen a different snippet.

    The most difficult conversation I had was with my brother (then 14) about all forms of male/female sexual assault (physical, verbal and emotional). He truly didn’t believe anal rape was physically possible. He knew enough to know that a rectum can’t lubricate like a vagina can and that for one to enjoy anal intercourse, one has to use a lubricant. So he couldn’t see how anal rape could be possible. That was one aspect of this conversation I didn’t expect to deal with. How to explain without being that graphic?

    In the end, no thanks to his bloody “I’m a scientist and I need facts” mentality, I chose to be that graphic. We both were a bit traumatised, but happy that we made it through just fine. I wish there were a book about male/female forms of sexual assault including emotional impact and ways to deal with it. As far as I know, there still isn’t any. All I found were written specifically for survivors of heterosexual rape, child sexual abuse or date rape. If there were one, I’d add it to the library for my mites when they’re older. Because I don’t think I can bear another walk-on-a-very-thin-rope conversation like I had with my brother. Such a hairy ride. 😀


  6. Yes, the Usborne Understanding the Facts of Life isn’t a bad place to start, though quite a bit of it overlaps with their Where do Babies Come From? in their Usborne Starting Point Science series, which we also have.

    The Facts of Life covers the basics (puberty, sexual organs, periods, a bit about sex, contraception, smoking, food, exercise, feelings, HIV/AIDS) but I don’t recall anything in it about sexual assault. There is a little glossary which includes things like “Feminist: Someone who wants to improve the rights of women”, “Fetus: A developing baby between the 12th week and the end of pregnancy” and “Flasher: Someone who displays their genitals in public.” Rape is defined as “Forcing a woman to have sexual intercourse against her will.” Mind you, we’ve got the 1985 edition (but copyright 1987) so I suspect a more recent editions would be a bit different.

    Wikipedia’s pretty good, I think, if one has specific questions that need answered but it’s usually quite detailed which for some people could either be boring or over-explicit.


  7. Great post. My favorite part is Max’s take on The Hunger Games! I second (or third, or whatever it is by now) the endorsements of the It’s Perfectly Normal series. I also chose ‘The Boy’s Body Book’ for my son when he reached around Max’s age because it addresses not just sexual health issues but general stuff like hygiene, peer pressure, and study skills in a straightforward non-patronizing way.

    My mother gave me and my sister ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ back when we were at this age (that would be in the 1970s!) — I have been looking at the updated editions and thinking of getting it for my daughter. It seemed to me then, and still does, to be an empowering book. I never thought at the time about the kind of feminist political statement that choice of book was…go, mom!


  8. Since people are really looking for recs, I’m back to mention some of what I like about IPN:

    — inclusive, diverse pictures of people of different sizes, colors and sexual orientations

    — nonjudgmental tone

    — include discussion about not being an abuser as well as what to do if you’re abused

    I was really happy that the younger kids books included c-sections (which you don’t often see in these) and other less conventional aspects of my son’s childbirth/infancy.


  9. @willaful: Thanks for sharing that. It;s hard to know what to say when.

    @Jennifer Crowley: Thanks for that rec!

    @AnimeJune: Thanks for those. It will be interesting to see if our views come across as conservative with our boys.

    @heidenkind: 😉

    @Katheryn Wallis:

    do you think this book could be of any use to a female romance author who has had plenty of sex and encountered plenty of male parts but wants to learn more about male puberty and the male sexual POV?

    Er, no. Maybe a YA or MG author who wants to see things form a boy’s point of view… I forgot to mention that two other names on the cover are young brothers who offered their POV.

    @Kaetrin: Well, thanks for the inspiration!

    @Maili: Wow, I can’t imagine having to explain to a sibling (I’m youngest by far in my family). I did not know Usborne had anything… will check it out. And anal rape… I don;t think I’ve talked about that with either boy, now you mention it.

    @Laura Vivanco: Thanks for those recs, Laura.

    @Rohan: The Boy’s Body Book sounds more comprehensive. As I mention in the review, I was disappointed at the narrow focus of What’s Going on Down There. Will check it out.

    @willaful: Hmmm, the c-section point is interesting. There wasn’t much if anything abotu childbirth in WGODT. I suppose my sons might be interested to know about c-sections as that’s how they came into the world!

    @Howard Sherman: I hope it works for you. Mind, it’s geared to boys!


  10. I forgot to add one point I have been thinking about. Yesterday I watched the Cuarón film, Y Tu Mamá También . In that film, the two male teenage protagonists engage in simultaneous masturbation together, an act portrayed as perfectly appropriate (setting is Mexico, circa 2000).

    In WGODT, the authors state that “it is not unusual for a boy to watch another boy masturbate or to masturbate with a group of boys. Nor is it unusual for two boys to masturbate each other.” The authors wanted to make the point that doing this isn’t an indicator of homosexuality, which is a good point to make, but we did feel that we needed to talk through this section — in our view, once another person is added to the mix, even if there is no touching, the rules change.


  11. I’m commenting here with the permission of my son, Paul who is 11 like Max.

    Earlier this year, I signed permission notes for Paul to attend Interrelate classes at his primary school. He started the classes a week ago along with 130 other 6th graders. Their classes cover a range of topics from puberty, body changes, sexuality, pregnancy, masturbation, menstruation, wet dreams, relationships, emotions and the list goes on. The work he brings home shows broad ideas reflecting many beliefs. His reactions go from “ewwwww yuck” to “boobies!” to “can you have sex with your period”. These are conversations I never had with either of my parents. To their credit, my parents (mostly my dad who could speak English but he had my mum’s support) lobbied my school and were able to get sex education classes in place by the time I was in 4th grade. But these were “secret women’s/men’s business” classes that were segregated. I am so glad that this is no longer the case.

    But what it does mean is that I have been lax and at no stage searched for any books to help provide to my boys on this topic. Your post has made me aware of this and I’m considering searching out the recommended titles. I have always answered both my sons’ questions in relation to sex as candidly and honestly as I can. Neither of them have ever asked anything that I felt was out of my depth and they have asked some doozies over the years. And so far, I have been very happy with the balanced curriculum that is not only scientific in its approach but also looks at the social side of physical development.


  12. Thanks for the giggles this afternoon, Jessica. Max is so funny… and so smart, too!

    My daughters are now 17 and 13, so we have pretty much covered most of puberty and sexuality by now.. although it’s an ongoing education to this day, really. I started explaining the female reproductive system and “how babies are made” to them when they were very young.. before 5 years old even. They followed me everywhere–to the bathroom when I had my period and to my bedroom when I changed my clothes so we had a lot of opportunity for very simple but factual explanations of the female body and sexuality. Every now and then I’d expand the discussion a bit more and finally we discussed the more emotional aspects of sexuality and pleasure, etc.. by the time they were 10, 11, 12 or so. I still have some topics to cover with my 13 year old and my 17 year old still asks me things, which is SO wonderful. Part of that is her personality [my youngest is more private and embarrassed] but I’d like to think that part of that is because I have always been upfront, honest and very natural about male and female anatomy, reproductive health and human sexuality since she was very young.

    I also tell both my daughters that if they ever have a question to ask me or something important to tell me, but they feel embarrassed or nervous to talk to me face to face, they can always email me and I won’t bring it up face to face unless they say I can. I know it sounds silly.. but I wanted them to know they could come to me no matter what and to keep the communication going no matter what. It also gives me a few moments to prepare my response, if necessary. My eldest did email me a question one time and we exchanged one or two emails and that was that. Now she just asks me in person. She’s much less inhibited at 17. ha! My youngest texted me with something once and then gave me permission to come upstairs alone and don’t say anything to anyone.

    Good luck! I’m sure you’re doing a wonderful job raising your boys. It shows already.


  13. @Christine:

    I also tell both my daughters that if they ever have a question to ask me or something important to tell me, but they feel embarrassed or nervous to talk to me face to face, they can always email me and I won’t bring it up face to face unless they say I can.

    What an interesting idea! I will definitely try this.

    And, I’ve purchased two of the books folks mentioned upthread, and the boys are enjoying both:

    The Boy’s Body Book
    It’s Perfectly Normal

    @Vassiliki: You are very lucky to have good sex ed in the schools. We have it technically, but I have little faith it offers what I feel is appropriate.



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