Since 2008, Saiya Miller and Liza Bley have held an open call for young people to create comics that address a variety of issues involved with sex education. Their work attempts to challenge hetero and gender normative practices, and addresses topics like body image, safer sex, consent, and relationships from positions that have historically been left out of sex education.
Their new book, Not Your Mother's Meatloaf is a collection of illustrated personal narratives addressing themes like “Firsts,” “Bodies,” “Health,” “Age,” and “Endings.” Below, Miller and Bley discuss their work. You can learn more about the book here.
What are your thoughts on current sex education policies in this country? Are there places that are doing it right?
Liza: There is overwhelming support from families and communities for comprehensive sexual health education in schools. Whether or not schools are meeting that demand is another story. We all know that there is some very vocal and misguided opposition. However, even among supporters of comprehensive sex education, there is a lot of debate over what topics are appropriate. How much information is too much information for young people?
This is an absurd worry. Young people are flooded with dozens of contradictory messages about sex and sexuality everyday. They’re receiving information about sex from friends, romantic partners, families, the Internet, television, and pornography. Unfortunately, many of these messages include inaccurate information or are severely negative and harmful.
Teenagers are struggling with a wide range of sexual health issues beyond whether or not to engage in sexual intercourse. The stories in Not Your Mother’s Meatloaf help exemplify the diverse range of questions and problems that people face throughout their lifetimes. Young people need to have safe spaces to talk about topics like communication with romantic partners, manipulation and abuse, body image, sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual behaviors, and safe sex practices. If students are able to receive positive and supportive messages about sexuality it can help them become a healthy adults.
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Saiya: I think that the variety of sex education programs in this country runs the full spectrum. There are very few shared practices or tools, and this leads to a total lack of consistency when it comes to curriculum. I think that one enormous problem is the belief that simply not teaching about risks and prevention methods will stop sex from happening amongst teenagers. This takes away teenagers’ ability to make informed decisions for themselves. Youth deserve to have their own agency respected, and one way to show that respect is to be open and honest.
There are certain sex educators and organizations whose work I admire and who are attempting to suggest a new approach. Individuals like Al Vernaccio, and organizations such as Head and Hands in Montreal or The Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia, have demonstrated that it is possible to reinvent not only the actual information being taught, but also the language and the tone of how it is taught.
Both of you expose quite a bit of your own sexual experience. Why do you feel it’s important to share?
Liza: Writing and sharing my personal sexual experiences was extremely difficult. I am actually fine with readers learning about my most private sexual escapades. The hurtle I had to overcome was feeling confident that my experiences were worth sharing. This is a bit ironic, because since 2008 Not Your Mother’s Meatloaf has been about the importance of learning from each other’s experiences. It is important that Saiya and I write about our own experiences, because it may resonate with readers. This is the same reason why it is important to include comics from so many different authors. Young people are eager to hear stories about people grappling with issues that are similar to their own problems. Not everyone will relate to the stories in Not Your Mother’s Meatloaf. That is why it is vital to have as many positive messages available as possible; to provide young people the support they need to maintain sexual health and balance.
Saiya: When we were collecting comics in zine form, we sort of took ourselves out of the process. We would talk to people about what we envisioned for the project, but we would act behind the scenes. In the process of putting the book together, we felt it was appropriate to explain where we were coming from and how we related to the comics we chose to include in the book. Like Liza, I was challenged by this task. I felt pretty cagey about my personal life over the past ten years. However, I think that one of the main reasons I continued to work on this project is because it contains all the advice that I need, all the lessons that I need to remind myself of on a daily basis. I have had revelatory experiences and also ones that make my stomach turn to remember them. I am not some sort of perfect model of health and balance. I am working through these things and I am flawed, I make mistakes. I wanted to try to explain how I felt during some of them, and then to look around and see if that resonates with other people.
What do you hope teens will take away from reading this book?
Liza: More than anything, I hope young people reading Not Your Mother’s Meatloaf will understand that they’re not alone. The problems and questions they have now are problems and questions that many of us have faced. There is not a normal or right way to do things, especially when it comes to sex and sexuality. In that sense I want the book to be able to provide emotional support to readers.
In addition, I want young readers to know that we are all learning from each other’s experiences. Their story is just as important and valuable as any other story. I hope it encourages positive conversations that instill confidence and pride.
Finally, I hope Not Your Mother’s Meatloaf encourages all readers to be responsible and respectful in their relationships.
Saiya: For me, it is always amazing to see another person’s creative response to their personal life. It is one thing to tell a story, but making something requires a different kind of effort and care. I hope that the comics and the writing in the book will demonstrate to readers a method of processing experiences, and inspire people to create things based on their own.
I also hope that the book will demonstrate why different types of resources are important. The book is not a sex education textbook or manual, and we did not attempt to make it that way. We felt that there was a lack of humanized information. We also felt that we were personally craving some affirmation of our own confusions and questions. I hope that sharing that questioning, others will find comfort.
To learn more about Not Your Mother's Meatloaf, click here.