I’m really glad that we were talking on the phone when my mom told me what she thought of my book, UPTOWN THIEF. She told me she loved it. She also said, “there’s a lot of sex.”
This is an understatement. It’s a book about sex workers, who run a sex work clinic. It depicts all different types of sex: straight sex, gay sex, romantic sex, paid-for sex, addictive sex, angry sex, make-up sex. In fact, one of the freelance editors that worked on it remarked on the number of condoms in the novel. And yes, that’s right, I let my mother read it.
Really, she was proofreading it. My mother is the type who will spot the typo in the New York Times. Of course I wanted her to use her superpower in service of my book. It was an awkward moment, but not a mortifying one. It probably wouldn’t have been mortifying even if we were in person. My mom has always been pretty laid back about many things connected to sex and the body.
This is not, however, to be confused with being sexually liberal as a parent. She was protective of me as a teen as far as significantly limiting any opportunities I would have had to begin having sex. She had many many rules about boys in the house (never when parents weren’t home) and my room (never with the door closed, even if he’s just “a friend, oh my god, mom!”) and really any enclosed space (like a car) and what time I had to be home (10PM, not negotiable). But as far as nudity, or periods, or supporting me having access to sexual information, she was very open and relaxed.
I went to Berkeley Public Schools and they had comprehensive sex education that included typical info about anatomy, pregnancy, birth control, and STD prevention. But they also included information about sexual orientation, sexual assault and female orgasm. We also learned critical thinking about images of women in advertising and media. Plus, we could ask questions about anything. The program was very cutting edge for that time and would still be cutting edge in many communities today. Getting so much information from school made me less curious than many about sex. Fear-based objections to sex ed suggest that teens will rush out and try to do what they’ve learned. On the contrary, I was a virgin throughout high school and my first year of college.
A couple years ago, I was asked to be one of the featured contributors to an online conversation about sex education in pop culture, and many of the women recalled turning to pop culture or even pornography for sexual information. But not me. In comparing my experience to other women, I realized what a gift it was to have options. Between having a mom who was open about her body and a school district that supported my sexual education, I could see that sexual depictions in movies and TV were not a reliable source of information about what to expect in reality. Not that I didn’t make plenty of mistakes early on in my sex life, but it wasn’t from lack of information.
My mom didn’t talk to me much about sex when I was a teen, but she had been on the board of education, and knew exactly what I was learning about in the curriculum. Maybe she just considered that task to have been delegated. But when I had an unplanned pregnancy in my 20s, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t tell my mom. I was living on the other side of the country from her, so we talked about it on the phone. She was calm and supported my decision to terminate the pregnancy. If she had been living nearby, I’m sure she would have come with me to Planned Parenthood for the procedure.
It’s not a mistake that the institution that my characters are protecting in UPTOWN THIEF is a women’s health clinic. For me, access to this type of information, resources and services has made a huge difference in my life. In some ways, I think of UPTOWN THIEF as an extension of the work I did as a sexual health educator in my late 20s and early 30s. We learned that the education has to be fun and sexy in and of itself. UPTOWN THIEF has more sex scenes per page-count than most of the books I read and certainly more than any novel I’ve worked on up until now. But young women lead lives that are mores sexualized now than ever. This book is poised to be part of the contemporary conversation among and about young women within pop culture. A very sex-soaked conversation. If you want to get peoples’ attention, you gotta bring the edgy conversation. Which is what I’m trying to do in UPTOWN THIEF. And that’s what I love about my mom. She gets it.
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