What's Going on Down There? A Boy's Guide to Growing Up

Book review by
Darienne Stewart, Common Sense Media
What's Going on Down There? A Boy's Guide to Growing Up Book Poster Image
Modern update improves empowering sex ed classic.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Very clear, detailed information on sexual development of both boys and girls. Explains basics of sexual intercourse, how to prevent pregnancy, and how to avoid sexually transmitted infections. Discusses sexual harassment, emotional changes, and issues to consider while making personal decisions about sexual behavior. Diagrams, illustrations, and a detailed index are helpful aids.

Positive Messages

Emphasis on being confident, thoughtful, and considerate of others, avoiding unnecessary comparisons to peers, and making deliberate, informed choices about behavior. Reassuring tone and strong body-positive language reinforce advice to bring questions to a doctor or another trusted adult.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Urges young readers to bring questions and concerns to trusted adults, including relatives, friends, and doctors. Emphasizes that both parties share responsibility when they engage in sexual behavior.

Violence
Sex

Explains sexual intercourse and discusses potential positives (physical pleasure, intimacy) and negatives (sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancy, emotional risk). Illustrates male and female anatomy. Also addresses homosexuality, being transgender, and masturbation, including masturbating with others.

Language

Some slang terms: "boobs, "t-ts," "d--ks," and "butt."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that What's Going on Down There? A Boy's Guide to Growing Up is a detailed, informative text on sexual development, from physical changes to choices about sexual behavior. Author Karen Gravelle's 2017 update of her book, first published in 1998, adds new sections on sexual harassment, body image, and staying safe using social media. The book has a nonjudgmental tone and includes diagrams of external and internal male and female anatomy, along with straightforward, factual information on sexual activity, sexually transmitted infections, birth control, and more. It describes sex as a pleasurable activity, including masturbation alone and with others, and is clear about potential dangers and emotional complications. The book presumes readers are attracted to the opposite sex; homosexuality and transgender issues are discussed briefly. Cartoonish illustrations include many depictions of penises. Age 9 may seem young for this, but some boys that age are entering puberty. Adults should read this before sharing it with young children, and be prepared for follow-up conversations.

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What's the story?

WHAT'S GOING ON DOWN THERE? A BOY'S GUIDE TO GROWING UP discusses the physiological and emotional changes boys -- and girls -- experience during puberty. It starts by discussing anatomy and physical changes with puberty. A chapter outlines how girls are changing too, explaining menstruation before discussing sexual intercourse, birth control, safe sex, and sexual exploration and mature relationships. An entire chapter is devoted to sexual harassment, explaining what it is, how to avoid doing it, and what to do if you're being harassed.

Is it any good?

The sexual landscape has shifted since Karen Gravelle first published this book for boys in 1998, and her welcome revision speaks to current concerns about social media, harassment, and body image. The frankness of What's Going on Down There? may prompt some blushing, but boys will be relieved to see so many of their common worries addressed. Gravelle goes beyond anatomical basics to explain why sexual harassment is a concern for everyone, to discuss the importance of the HPV vaccine, and to debunk myths about penis size and masturbation. 

Overall, the breadth and detail make this an excellent choice. But it makes a major misstep: A collection of men's thoughts on what they wished they knew as boys includes a quote about being "a lot more aggressive with girls," and another that says "what [girls] say isn't always what they mean." Coming at the end of the book, these comments undermine earlier messages about consent and respecting the wishes of others.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the explicit detail in What's Going on Down There? A Boy's Guide to Growing Up. Does reading this book make it easier to talk about puberty and sex?

  • Do you think this book is appropriate for kids your age? Do you think some adults might not like this book? Why?

  • Do you still have questions this book didn't answer? If so, bring your questions to a trusted adult.

Book details

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