Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan are married comic creators on a mission to demystify sex for adults with their works like Oh Joy Sex Toy and now teens with their recently released Let’s Talk About It. This nonfiction title explores concepts about gender, sexuality, and relationships to empower teens to explore their curiosities and have positive conversations with their peers. Moen and Nolan spoke with PW about the process of bringing this title to life, why it’s important for teens to have access to this information, and what they hope readers will take away.
As creators of sex-positive titles for adults like Oh Joy Sex Toy and Drawn to Sex, what prompted you to take on this topic for teens?
Matthew Nolan: Our sex education growing up was a bit rough and not incredibly inclusive. My British sex education was a bit lacking and very cold. The experience didn’t satisfy me, nor did it give me all the information I wanted to know. Even though we weren’t encouraged to talk to our parents, or teachers or friends, everyone was supposed to be an expert on sex. I wanted to make a book that could go back and tell little Matthew, “It’s okay, you’re alright! It’s okay to feel the things that you feel and be interested in the things you’re interested in.”
Erika Moen: My sex education was very fear-based, and mostly came from a family member. As a teenager, I had so many questions, “What is this? I don’t understand. I need someone to take my hand and explain things to me step-by-step.” That was the inspiration for starting Oh Joy Sex Toy eight years ago and putting hours and hours of research into it—primarily from Planned Parenthood’s website and Scarleteen.com—and it’s why we’ve gone on to make Let’s Talk About It to specifically communicate with teenagers. It all comes from a place of wanting to go back to our teenage selves and say, “Ask me anything. I’m going to give you the information you want to know, even if you don’t have the questions for them yet.”
Nolan: There’s a chapter on porn, kinks, and fantasies that was really important for me to include because, as a kid, I was interested in porn. I looked at all kinds of stuff, and while exploring, any time I found something titillating, I would say, “That’s it! I’m a pervert! Lost to the world!” So to be able to write this and say it’s okay to explore these things, they don’t necessarily mean anything—that it’s okay to see these things, to feel these things—was very important.
Going beyond just enthusiastic consent, Let's Talk About It also explores how to cope with rejection and respect other people’s boundaries. Those topics don’t seem to be covered in traditional sex education classes, so why were they important to highlight?
Nolan: So much of Let’s Talk About It is about communication. We felt covering topics like rejection and abuse was super important because you can’t communicate with people without messing up along the way. We wanted teens to feel like there were allowances for mistakes, that they be armed with [knowledge about] both the positive and negative aspects of relationships, and how to redeem themselves and manage conflict.
Moen: Interpersonal conflict is part of being human. We wanted to stress that having interpersonal conflict doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or that you’re necessarily in a bad relationship—it doesn’t seem like we give space to that in our public conversations about relationships. Being a human and interacting with other humans means you’ll inevitably hurt one another, so how do you come back from that? How do you make amends as best you’re capable of and, if not, how do you move on to respect and care for the other person?
Nolan: And sex has so much attached to it. It’s important not just to cover how sex happens, but also all the feelings that come with it and ways to communicate those with another person. That includes when sex doesn’t work right away or there’s conflict.
Moen: Awkwardness is a huge part of sex! So often film and television portray it as “This is awesome!,” but the reality is a lot of sex is awkward and you figure it out as you go along. We felt it important to highlight that.
Comics is one of the most collaborative mediums. Could you share your collaborative process in putting Let’s Talk About It together, especially as a couple?
Moen: When we started planning Let’s Talk About It, we knew basic subjects we wanted to cover: consent, what defines relationships, and more—but we really wanted to lead the reader into it and present teens with “realistic-ish” situations they may find themselves in.
Nolan: We started building out chapters based on questions posed directly by teens—we were invited to speak at Erika’s old high school and asked the teens in the class for their input. As we built out the chapters, we wanted to give readers the feeling they could open the text up and quickly find a question they relate to. Throughout the process, Gina Gagliano and Whitney Leopard [at Random House Graphic] came up with the subtitles and shuffled around the chapters to create the order we see published. Some chapters had to come before others because they had repeating characters, but then there are others that felt like great intros and outros.
Moen: We were very purposeful that every chapter starts with a fictional story about a teen who encounters a new situation they don’t know how to manage. As they turn to their peer group, we wanted to demonstrate the kinds of questions teens can ask each other, which led to more illustrated prose sections that talk about abstract concepts, not necessarily a dialogue-based story between people.
Nolan: There’s a fine line between having the kids talk to one another vs. the instances that serve to be educational. We didn’t want all the information to come from the kids, so we had more sequential storytelling at the beginning and end of each chapter to pad around difficult topics. We really wanted to make easily digestible chunks so that the reader, who’s hopefully a teen, had a protagonist to follow and could put themselves in their shoes.
Moen: We wanted to circle back on the teens at the start of each chapter coming to their own conclusions, as well.
Nolan: With Let’s Talk About It, it was important for us to have its production be very regimented so we could balance our other work on Oh Joy Sex Toy. I would do most of the scripting, then Erika would do a pass on it, then Maria Frantz would do the layouts. From there, Erika would ink, I would color, all going through the editorial process. It was very collaborative.
What would you say to any adult wary of teens exploring topics from gender and sexuality to kinks, fantasies, and porn?
Moen: Teens are on the internet and they’re coming into contact with all of this and way more. Our philosophy is you can either give them a book that’s been reviewed and approved by multiple professionals in the sex education and health fields, or you can give them a phone and let them figure it out for themselves on PornHub.
Nolan: Obviously, we want to stress that any caregiver to teens should do what they think is right! But we know kids are going to explore these topics whether you want them to or not, whether you’re pretending they are or not. An adult’s perception of what the right amount of education and conversation is might not be the right amount for kids. There are things being talked about today that are different from what we were talking about 30 years ago.
Moen: Let’s Talk About It always stresses in each chapter that readers should make the decisions that are right for them. This isn’t a book that says, “Go out, do sex! Look up the most perverted stuff or find the raunchiest porn!” It’s about asking readers if they’re interested in exploring these topics. If the answer’s no, that’s okay and healthy and normal—do what’s comfortable for you. But if you are interested in looking at porn, for example, let’s talk about it! We wanted to open teens up to ideas like the people in porn are actual human beings providing a performance for you that’s actually a great service, and you should be appreciative of that and respect their humanity.
Nolan: Other places that present this information are often clinical, so it was important for us to empower teens to have conversations and talk with each other, to make them feel like they have the power to help one another. Random House brought on sex education experts who reviewed the book—experts across varying identities, races, and sexualities, and we made changes according to their feedback to ensure Let’s Talk About It was as inclusive and accurate as possible.
Moen: Scarleteen’s book S.E.X. The All-You-Need-to-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties is comprehensive, as well, if teens are looking for more resources.
Let’s Talk About It by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan. Random House Graphic, $23.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-5931-2531-1