In college, I liked to share the story of how my mom introduced me to the idea of sex: by slipping me a copy of Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s “A Woman of Independent Means.”
It was, in some ways, the perfect approach. Hailey’s heroine, Bess, was self-assured and self-confident, and she happened to have sex, and it happened to sometimes be complicated.
I didn’t really know what was going on, but it didn’t make me feel anxious or threatened, which is more than I can say for most of my friends’ first experiences learning about sex. After I finished the novel, mom asked if I had questions about it. I said no, and that was that.
The book that changed that conversation was “Forever…” by Judy Blume, which has rested near the top of lists of commonly banned books since its publication in 1975.
It’s Banned Books Week, and this particular book, which has given thousands of girls a frank look at sex and female sexuality since a time when many conversations about the subject were taboo, is worth a real celebration.
Forever… was much more upfront about sex than A Woman of Independent Means. I read it when I was fifteen, having somehow managed to evade sex ed, so the things that made Forever… radical — conversations about birth control, sexually transmitted infections, and consent—were a revelation for me.
In one scene, Katherine, the novel’s protagonist, visits a Planned Parenthood clinic to discuss birth control. I remember furtively taking to my computer to look up “the pill,” having never heard of such a thing, and wondering how doctors know which one you want when you just call it “the pill.” (As a side note, knowing how controversial Planned Parenthood remains is enough to establish the continued relevance of stories like these.)
I also remember being stunned when — spoiler alert! — at the novel’s end, Katherine falls rather quickly out of love with her boyfriend, Michael, after we as readers have lived their love story with them. I’d never read a book in which someone experienced something they called love, and then decided, with no great drama, to move on from it.
Looking at the novel from an older, contemporary perspective, having been absorbed by recent conversations about the definition of consent, I’m also amazed by how well and simply Blume writes about the subject. At one point, Michael tries to push Katherine towards having sex, and she tells him she may be physically ready but she isn’t mentally. While he complains, he respects her choice. An idea like this is still radical, and still absolutely necessary for adolescents to be exposed to.
Forever… is a permanent resident on lists of banned books for exactly the same reasons I find it so valuable. It’s the kind of book its intended audience needs, whether they recognize that at the moment or not. Here’s to a great book, and the fearless novelist who gave it to us.
Talya Zax is the Forward’s culture intern.