When you can’t count on the government, schools, or dubiously funded clinics for medically accurate and comprehensive sex education, you can still count on Judy Blume.
Known for arresting truthfulness in nineteen young adult novels, Blume’s characters wrestle not only with the usual friendship and family heartaches, but also with puberty, masturbation, sex, and developing bodies—all with an accuracy that’s made Blume, in her own words, “one of the most banned writers in the Americas” for nearly 40 years.
In a society dragged down by an avalanche of abstinence-only funding that strong-arms sex education into banishing the mention of, say, contraception or self-pleasure, Blume’s affirmation that sex changes are part of the lives of teenagers is, amazingly, a radical act.
That she’s one of the few prominent voices admitting such a thing is not a responsibility Blume takes lightly. Two of Blume’s most popular novels—her 1970 breakout book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and 1975’s Forever—are published today with textual updates, promising young readers modern health information.
Margaret is remembered—and heavily censored—because of the 12-year-old protagonist’s anxiety about when she’ll get her period. By the end of the book, when Margaret indeed menstruates, she has no trouble hooking her sanitary napkin to a belt underneath her clothes, because she’s practiced for months.
Ah yes, the belt. Dated hygiene technology baffled young readers since at least the early 1980s, but things have changed: since 1998, Margaret no longer uses a menstruation belt. She’s got herself some adhesive disposable pads.
While making the text accessible to adolescents, the update wasn’t without controversy; some ardent fans decried the changes as tampering with a classic. Blume justified the change as a minimal loss with great benefit of better communicating with today’s readers.
“No one uses belts any more,” Blume told The Providence Phoenix in 1998 “Half the mothers haven't used them. [Contemporary readers] have to go to their grandmothers.”
Forever is another Blume novel touched with up-to-date health information—and its stakes are higher than simple clarity.
Aimed for an older audience than Margaret, Forever was written as Blume’s response to her daughter’s simple request: she wanted to see a story about teenagers who had sex without being punished by grisly abortions, miscarriages, or deaths.
“I wanted to present another kind of story—one in which two seniors in high school fall in love, decide together to have sex, and act responsibly,” Blume writes on her website.
Forever’s Katherine and Michael seriously talk about their decision before they have sex, and after a visit to a health clinic, Katherine receives a birth control prescription.
It’s that scene that Blume refers to in a one-page preface added to recent editions of the book.
“The seventies were a time when sexual responsibility meant preventing unwanted pregnancy. Today, sexual responsibility also means preventing sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. In this book Katherine visits a clinic and is given a prescription for The Pill. Today, she would be told it is essential to use a condom along with any other method of birth control. If you’re going to become sexually active, then you have to take responsibility for your own actions. So get the facts first.”
The preface refers readers to the websites of Planned Parenthood and Sex, Etc., a by-teens-for-teens online magazine.
Thanks to the young couple that has loving sex with the responsible use of contraception, Forever was the eighth most banned book in the U.S. in the 1990s, according to the American Library Association.
Despite censorship since its publication, it still managed to sell 3.5 million copies worldwide in three decades, according to The Guardian.
In an interview with Teenwire, Blume reflects on what might be so alarming about the book.
“If there's anything groundbreaking about (Forever),” Blume said, “maybe it's that they're sexually responsible. Or maybe it's that Katherine enjoys her sexuality. There are still people who are bothered by that today.”
Efforts to silence Blume through censorship parallel the silencing of potentially life-saving information in abstinence-only sex education—and Blume’s readers are targeted by both, ostensibly for their own good. And the moment is being pushed to its crisis.
"The 70s was a much more open decade in America," Blume told The Guardian. "Forever was used in several school programs then, helping to spur discussions of sexual responsibility. This would never happen today. How are young people supposed to make thoughtful decisions if they don't have information and no one is willing to talk with them? Girls and boys have to learn to say 'no' or 'not without a condom' without fear.”