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Bathing Suit Areas and Sex-Positivity: A Post In Which I Talk To Your Children, Sort Of

*** WARNING: IF YOU KNOW ME IN REAL LIFE, YOU SHOULDN’T READ THIS POST ***

*** WARNING: I AM SERIOUS, IF YOU KNOW ME AND WE GO OUT TO DINNER AND YOU HAVE TO MAKE POLITE CONVERSATION DURING WHICH IT IS NECESSARY TO LOOK ME IN THE EYE, YOU MIGHT REGRET HAVING READ THIS POST ***

***WARNING: ACTUALLY, MOST OF THE POSTS I HAVE PLANNED FOR THIS WEEK ARE OFF-LIMITS ***

*** WARNING: THEY’RE ALL ABOUT GETTING IT ON ***

Why, hello there, strangers! It’s a pleasure to speak with you today! About the Human Sexual Urges!

I am, as you may know, a former educator about the Human Sexual Urges, and how best to gratify them. (MEANING: I sold sex toys, but I had to talk to people about what they wanted and how best to make that happen, for my shop was of the Sex-Positive and Educational variety!) I earned slightly more than minimum wage for my expertise, so you can imagine that I am quite the whiz.

Actually, the most important part of having educational conversations about the HSUs is realizing that no-one, ever, really, is comfortable having them; there is always a delicate balance, when talking about one’s sexual habits, between being overly graphic and coming across as a lascivious weirdo who is just having this conversation so that you can masturbate about it later, or being “polite” according to normal social conventions and basically not saying anything at all. My one great gift in this arena is that I find sex to be totally fascinating in an abstract way, and also was born with a defective Shame Gland, and so could have relatively specific and instructional two-way conversations on the topic of, say, how best to put things up your butt for sex reasons, in a chipper and detached manner, as if I were telling the customers which vacuum cleaner attachments were best for cleaning their upholstery. Once you can convince a middle-aged heterosexual man who is shopping with his wife that you really don’t CARE that he puts things up his butt for sex reasons, and that your chief concern is that he does so in a way that is both medically safe and personally fulfilling, the conversation gets a lot easier.

Do you know what I have never done, however? I have never taught a child about sex! Which is why this comment fascinated me so:

I hereby submit a request for a post about how to talk to our pre-pubescent daughters about this thing they hear about called “sex” (as in, where-do-babies-come-from kind of sex). When I tentatively told my almost-nine-year-old daughter about the sperm and the egg gettig together, I was vague about the mechanics because I refused to tell her “he sticks his penis in you”, like it’s something that happens to her, like her role is one of passivity. I didn’t want that to be the first thing she ever heard about the mechanics of the act. But, I didn’t want to say, “you put your vagina on him”…I mean, when she’s trying to grasp the basic facts of HOW this occurs…the question of agency, of who does what to whom and HOW, was so freaking tricky that I really didn’t tell her any details at all… as a feminist, and as her mother, I’d really like to give her the non-misogynist, non-passive view of her part in the act before she hears about it otherwise. You’re the first person I’ve run across on the web with a blog that might actually be open to hosting a discussion about the language involved in introducing, from a feminist perspective, the basics of how “traditional” conception is accomplished. You up for it?

I sure am! Because, also, there was this comment:

You know what? I think your comment has totally changed my approach to how to talk to my daughter about this. “”Sex” is an umbrella term which I’ve used to denote a wide variety of consensual activities intended to help the parties involved get off. Masturbation is sex; mutual masturbation or digital stimulation of one party by another is sex; oral sex is sex; anal sex is sex; pivving is sex.” I kinda want to explain “s-e-x” to her like this, even exactly in those words, but how do you define “get off” to a pre-adolesent?

It is a fascinating question! One which I have never before attempted to answer! However, here is why it is important to me: had we been having these conversations all along, there might be a significantly smaller part of the population stumbling into Educational Sex-Positive Spaces feeling deep embarrassment that they (gasp!) enjoy the sex that is not all about Making Babies, or staying away from those spaces and just sort of fumbling through unsafe or unsexy sex in which their instructions come from either equally clueless former partners or (at best) tremendously unrealistic porn. (Seriously, people: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: using mainstream porn to teach yourself how to have sex is like the government using Die Hard as an anti-terrorism manual.) Indeed, if we were raising all our kids with a comfortable, positive attitude towards the Sex, including the Sex that is not undertaken for purposes of Making Babies, we might have a far more progressive national conversation re: sex and people who aren’t necessarily setting out to Make Babies with it (GLBT folks, ladies on birth control, etc.) in general!

So, for the record, here is how I would set out to have this conversation with a child. I am going to say, a child of about five or six. Not being a parent myself, I am hoping that parents will chime in with corrections and additional thoughts!

“You know, [Timmy and/or Suzy], I think it is time for you to know some stuff about how our bodies work. This is stuff you will not need to know many details about until you are grown up, because it is a very grown-up topic, but I think you are probably old enough to know some basics about it right now.

“We’ve already talked about how your privates are private, right? They belong to you, and you should never feel like you have to let another person touch them or look at them, and you should never try to force another person to show you theirs or let you touch them. If someone tries to do this to you, you know that you need to come to me and tell me that, because that is a very serious, very bad thing to do to someone, and people who do it need to be punished.”

I like to start the conversation off by emphasizing that violating someone’s boundaries or doing anything non-consensual is a bad thing! I also think we need to teach the children that everyone else has boundaries, just like they do, and that they should respect the boundaries of others. I don’t assume that the children are out doing terrible things to each other, of course, but the fact is that we live in a culture that doesn’t stress full and informed consent as a prerequisite, so stressing that at home is a good solid idea.

“Now: when you grow up, your privates are going to change [I KNOW, THIS IS DORKY. ROLL WITH IT - Ed.] and touching them or having them touched will feel good. This isn’t going to happen to you for a long time. People need to be grown up before they touch each other in those ways. There are a lot of ways that grown-ups touch each other to make each other feel good, and as long as they both want to do this and they like each other, that’s a good thing. It can be a way for people who are in love to express that, for example. Sometimes girls do this with girls, sometimes boys do this with boys, and sometimes boys and girls do it with each other. Every grown-up has their own favorite ways to touch someone or to be touched, and, again: as long as the people who are involved are grown-ups, and they like each other, and they both want to do it, that’s a good thing.”

THIS IS TOTALLY VAGUE. I know! You can see why I want parents to actually weigh in on this business! But I think it is important to stress that this stuff is done for the purpose of feeling good, and that there are lots of ways that it happens other than the old Procreative Heterosexual Intercourse, and that all of those ways are cool and good and potentially loving but at the very least friendly. So, you know, we’re not doing that whole thing where everyone’s genitals are referred to as Baby-Making Devices and other ways of doing it are invisible or shameful and sexualities other than Cisgendered Heterosexual Missionary-Position Enthusiasm are erased.

“Now: one of the ways that grown-up people like to touch each other can lead to having a baby. Some people enjoy having their partner’s penis inside their vagina; some people enjoy having their penis inside their partner’s vagina.”

See? Let’s not talk about sticking-it-in versus enveloping-it. It’s a thing that people like! On both ends! So, you know. Let’s just talk about the fact that the thing has another thing in there. I really dislike terms that imply one person doing sex to another person, especially since the doer is typically a dude with a dick and the done-to is typically a lady with a vagina, which sort of erases the fact that ladies with vaginas are active participants in consensual sex, or should be, and ends up reinforcing both rape culture and the denial of women’s sexual agency.

“When this happens, cells called sperm can come from the penis through the vagina, into a space just behind the vagina, which is called the uterus. Those sperm cells combine with egg cells inside the uterus to make a fetus, which is the start of a baby. The fetus grows inside the uterus, and when it’s fully grown, it comes through the vagina and is a baby. Having a baby is a serious decision, and not all people who want to do this with each other want to have babies afterward, so they take certain medicines or use other ways to make sure this doesn’t happen. It’s very important to realize, also, that touching another person in that private way, or being touched by another person, can make you sick. If you touch a person who’s sick in that way, you can catch what they have. So when you’re grown up, and you start to do this, you will need to know all the ways to be safe. These, we will talk about when you are more grown up.”

BIRTH CONTROL! SAFE SEX! NOT REFERRING TO FETUSES AS “BABIES!” Man, I feel progressive right now. I also feel like there is possibly no way I could actually have this conversation without running from the room in a mad panic, and that I am missing a whole lot. So, again: do you have anything better for me, here?

“So, do you have any questions?”

AAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

34 Comments

  1. Katherine wrote:

    I was the Queen Mother of answering my son's questions… and sometimes giving him more information than he actually needed. He knew where babies came from by the time he was in kindergarten. And somewhere in second grade, he flipped someone off in his classroom, and got hauled into the principal's office, where he was lectured and placed into his mother's hands.

    And this mother then proceeded to give him the full lecture on what flipping someone off actually means, with a full discourse on consensual vs. non-consensual sex. The lecture continued up to the time when I took my car in for an oil change… and as we were walking through the door, greeted by the man behind the desk, my son turned to me and said, "Mama, when I get to be big, I'm not going to put my penis into anyone except the woman I love."

    I watched the nice greeting man literally slide under the desk. My son was seven.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  2. Kristina wrote:

    I'm not sure I would emphasize that sex is something only grown-ups should do. Kids love doing things that seem grown up, especially if it's something that feels good.

    Also, I'm not sure I think the idea of "a talk" is terribly effective. Does it really work that way now days? It seems like having a good relationship with your child and answering questions as they arise would work too. Believe me, questions will arise. There will be no shortage of questions.

    I thought your technical discussion part was quite good, though (even though I hate the word "fetus", like I hate the word "moist").

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  3. Kel D wrote:

    Interesting post… controversial though!

    I think that 6 year olds would be shocked and dismayed to have so much detail?

    I think the questions you are likely to get *are* going to be about 'what is with all these babies? where are they even coming from?' so you would not start talking about people touching each other to make each other feel good. That would be a later conversation, perhaps after viewing MTV?

    As for sperms and eggs in the uterus, no. Sperm meet ova in the fallopean tubes. If there is conception, the embryo travels down and implants. There are a lot of new words to teach in this area and for 6 year olds, it needs to be kept seriously simple and short. Oh, is that a fire truck? BYE!

    In response to the question "babies, what?" for a 6 year old, my answer would be very very biological but with words of one syllable. No mention of love or pleasure or cultural significance… Special seeds from men, special eggs from women, ask me later how they get there.

    The "your privates are yours" speech would have been given every time I changed my baby's nappy/bathtime (or you know, regularly)

    All the talk about sex (of any variety) being a fun thing grownups do, well I might leave off until much later for that. I have noticed that when 12 year old girls ask me what flavoured condoms are for and I give the answer "there are many types of sex, I have only taught you about the ones where babies can be made because I am a biology teacher" their faces crash in horror.

    The idea of penises in mouths being any less than horrific at even 12, I would assume it would scar a 6 year old for life.

    Sex positivity is one thing but pushing the angle to someone who does not have the hormones to have the slightest interest in it seems as bad as telling them sex is dirty and wrong? But that's just me.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  4. minniethemoocha wrote:

    I don't know about this feeling good thing being a function of grown-uppedness. A lot of kids have to be carefully taught not to go around casually masturbating all day.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 11:44 am | Permalink
  5. minniethemoocha wrote:

    I also agree with Kel D's perspective. There is such a thing as TMI, and telling a child all about the more complicated things off the bat would probably be pretty scary to him or her.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  6. Scott wrote:

    As for timing, I know I didn't get the talk until well after I started masturbating, which I believe was around 6 or 7, well before I was able to ejaculate, so I was kind of surprised the first time THAT happened.

    I certainly had no concept of the mechanics of the whole thing, but I learned early on that it felt good.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  7. smadin wrote:

    This seems like a great approach to me, Sady (though I am not a parent, and don't really expect to be one anytime soon, if ever). Because I'm a picky-ass pedant, however, I will quibble with your terminology! Terminology quibbles are always enlightening, of course, and never less than fascinating for all observers!

    The nature of my quibble is that for the first 9 weeks of development, what you've called a "fetus" is technically an embryo; the embryonic stage lasts from implanatation to the end of the eighth week, and the fetal stage runs from the 9th week to delivery (anti-choicers love to use "fetus" for the entire process, even immediately after the moment of conception, when it's not actually even an embryo yet, because it carries a misleading connotation of being nearly-a-baby).

    Terminology quibble over!

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  8. Spatula wrote:

    I think mothers will probably help to tweak the amount of information in the post for various age groups/occasions, but the core ideas are so fantastic! I really like making all the points about boundaries, how sex is an expression of positive feelings and is done for pleasure, and that it's not all boy+girl=happy babymaking, and stuff like that.

    I got my sex ed from classmates who were:
    A) Painfully mis- and under-informed.
    B) Resorted to means such as sneaking into their parents' carefully hidden porn stash to acquire information.

    I didn't know that sex was done for pleasure until I was about 13. Seriously. I knew it was done for babies, and I knew it was done because it was the done thing and something that boys and girls were required to be doing with each other once they reached a certain age. Discovering that something other than hydraulics was involved, like a complex set of emotional expressions and exchanges, was a memo I got last.

    If I am ever brave enough to become a parent, I'll definitely use some version of this post.

    Katherine, it sounds like you are doing a great job consciously bringing up a Male Who Treats Women Well And Will Be A Good Mate And Not An Asshole. :-D

    If I were that nice greeting man, I would have given a big thumbs-up to the both of you.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 12:25 pm | Permalink
  9. second_banana wrote:

    I think this is pretty great. I have had the chance to talk to kids about sex and I think most of this is pretty on topic. I would add a little bit of "it's peachy to touch yourself down there when you're alone, but it's a grown-up thing to have other people around."

    Love the bit about every grown-up having their favorite ways of being touched.

    I do think most of the technical where the hell is a uterus, where does sperm come from etc. stuff is best addressed with pictures. Same with the embryo/fetus/neonate thing.

    I also really really really wouldn't talk about "getting sick" with this young an age set. Getting sick means throwing up, having a fever, missing school, and, if they've seen it, going to the hospital/death to youngins. Most STD talk can wait until the kid is 10-11ish when they have some basic concept of different kinds of illnesses and their causes.

    Man, I have never been so glad of my embryonic development books (I'm a midwifery student) as when my nieces were asking about babies. Good times.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  10. Lauren wrote:

    I've been a lurker on this blog for a long time, and now I'm finally commenting!

    Thought this was a great post, but just want to point out that there is evidence that male fetuses experience erections in utero and that vaginas lubricate as early as 24 hours after birth. Though this does not mean that these fetuses and neonates are experiencing sexual arousal as adults experience it, I also want to point out that infants, if the diaper is off, they'll play with their genitals. Very young children also quickly figure out that touching your penis or vulva can feel good, but often, they are told by caretakers not to touch because its "dirty". A sex talk with a six year old should probably include masturbation, and that it's normal to do it privately, in your own bed or in the bathroom; this will help foster a positive attitude towards one's own body.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  11. snobographer wrote:

    I agree with Kel D as far as teaching how babies are made. If I had kids I'd keep an anatomy textbook around so when they ask bodily questions I could show them diagrams.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  12. Sniff wrote:

    Delurking to say I think this is a great, straightforward approach to the subject. I think everyone's child is different, and parents can certainly gauge what level of detail their child is interested in hearing when they talk to them, but I don't think it's ever to early to start injecting diversity of sexual experience/identity and mutual respect into sex talks.

    I would, however, avoid focusing too strongly on punishing the perpetrator when giving the Good Touch/Bad Touch talk as you may inadvertently discourage the child from coming forward. Many children in this situation know and like/love the abuser and don't necessarily want to see them punished. The abuser may also previously have played on the child's confusion and guilt by telling them that he/she (the abuser) will be punished in horrible ways if anyone finds out.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  13. disfordragon wrote:

    When I watched TV as a young child, it always amused me to see children ask their parents "Where to babies come from?" and the adults stutter in hilarious consternation. I could not wait to try the same thing on my own mother!
    Unlike the TV-moms and dads, she remained calm, and answered rather succinctly: Babies come from their mommies' bellies. She then talked a bit about how babies are nourished in the mother's uterus.
    I was completely satisfied w/ this answer. The mechanics of intercourse were actually explained to me by my babysitter, who thought I should be informed, after I defined sex as "When grown-ups get naked and roll over each other." I was 8 okay?
    Frankly, I'm not sure that one needs to explain the mechanics of sex to a 6-year-old. That said, I think you focus on a lot of other v. good and salient points, Sady, e.g. respect of boundaries and tolerance of sexuality. Then, when kids are a bit older, emphasize to them the importance of respectful and consensual sex. Talk about sex, ask them if they're active…but please, forego the blow-by-blow description. It may make you feel better, but it more likely will just be humiliating, and your child will either be too young to comprehend, or too embarassed to care.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  14. x. trapnel wrote:

    2nd what Lauren said – sexual activity is quite common among young children. (Your post made me curious, so I checked Google Scholar – "According to reports of parents, children's overt sexual activities are most frequent around the ages of 3 or 4 and decrease in frequency gradually until the age of 12 [42].")

    And while it's important to teach respect for boundaries and consideration of others, I'm not sure one should imply that sexual play with other kids is wrong, either – based on the quick google skim I was doing, it sounds like it's very common, and not typically seen as problematic retrospectively (though often seen as something that must be hidden, at the time).

    I dunno. Anyone a child development expert?

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  15. CaitieCat wrote:

    Great job, Sady – my only quibble has been raised, about five-to-six-year-olds not needing to be told it feels good to touch their private bits. My own kids…well, let's say this wasn't news. There were complaints, from various teachers and so on.

    (ahem)

    And no, my (now-adult) kids have no idea about this address, posting ID or anything. They have completely separate ways to contact and recognize me online. :)

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 6:14 pm | Permalink
  16. NomadiCat wrote:

    First off, I really appreciate that you're willing and open to discussing this. You're right, it needs to be discussed more frequently so when the time comes to have these conversations, we have some kind of an idea what to say. (Disclaimer: I'm not a parent, but I've worked with kids age 3-15 in different capacities for over a decade and… yeah. I've had these questions. Not fun when you're the parent, and *very* uncomfortable when they're not your kids.)

    A lot of what I have to say is basically "I agree with prior commentors and and the original post" though I would quibble about trying to pack all of this information into one talk. I agree that it should be an ongoing dialogue that changes depending on the kid's age rather than one long spiel pushing all of that stuff together.

    To that end, I figured I'd dust off something I've come across during my on again/ off again relationship with Unitarian Universalism and throw it out here. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has come up with a fabulous "lifespan" sex ed curriculum called Our Whole Lives (OWL) that really does cover just that. It starts off in Kindergarten and has different stuff that's applicable for people through adulthood.

    The stuff I've seen is fantastic: it doesn't treat heterosexuality as a standard and everything else as a "deviation"; it encompasses the emotional, spiritual, social, and other aspects of sex- not just the physical; and it even has stuff on forming healthy relationships and cultivating your own self-confidence in sexual matters.

    Is it the end all be all bestest best thing in the whole wide world? Of course not. But it is pretty damn fabulous and I wanted to throw it into this discussion.

    http://www.uua.org/religiouseducation/curricula/ourwhole/

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 7:23 pm | Permalink
  17. Tangoing with Evita wrote:

    @Lauren: Yeah, I remember when I was like 3, my mom said "don't put your hands in your pants" and I believe I was playing with myself. So I was being sexual except Lord knows I wasn't actually being sexual, if that makes sense. Also, female fetuses have been observed fingering their clitores. I bet if those fetuses had been male, this knowledge would be much more public, but passing over that…
    @Sady: FYI, when egg and sperm unite, it's actually a zygote. Zygote becomes embryo, and THEN embryo becomes fetus.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 7:32 pm | Permalink
  18. Tangoing with Evita wrote:

    Also, re: enveloping – when the sex is truly consensual, that's EXACTLY what it is though! A truly wanting vagina DOES actively, like, consume the penis. When the woman really truly is desiring the penis, I mean.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 7:34 pm | Permalink
  19. antiprincess wrote:

    a pal of mine who has three children under six tells them "nothing but your own clean hands touches your penis/yoni."

    and her children will tell you about this, about the time they put something different than their own clean hands on themselves…it's a riot.

    but the actual "what's up with babies and where they come from" questions haven't started yet.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 9:17 pm | Permalink
  20. Anonymous wrote:

    From the very beginning sex has been a topic of casual, open conversation for me and my kids. I started out teaching them about their body parts as babies: fingers, elbows, penis (or clitoris). And naturally you talk about what the body parts are for, and that almost everybody touches their genitals to feel good, and it's called masturbation and we do it in private.

    I always told them that people like things that make "good sexy feelings" but it's never OK for a grownup to do something with a kid that makes those sexy feelings. Doing sexy feeling things with other people is for grownups.

    My kids both grew up knowing that they grew in my uterus; when they asked how they got there (maybe 4 years old?) I said that my body made a teeny tiny ova and when that ova got together with a sperm, it started to grow and change into a fetus and the fetus grew and changed into a baby.

    Then, they asked where the sperm came from and I said Daddy made it. A while later they thought to ask how the sperm got from Daddy inside me and that was when I explained PIV.

    Now my son is 10 and when topics of sexuality come up I bring up points about STDs, what consent really is, condoms, and so on. Because my MIL is pro-choice I made sure to discuss with himm often, early and at an age appropriate level why women need to be able to choose abortion, so he's very up on that subject. We also talk about trans issues and sexual orientation when something comes up in the news or a blog post I read. He's not embarrassed by any of it, either.

    My daughter is 5 and she was comparing her vulva to mine last week as we lounged in bed early in the morning.

    If these topics come up early and naturally they kind of regulate themselves so you never have to have "the talk". My basic plan is always just to make sure they're equipped with information about their bodies, and that they shouldn't do anything they don't actively want to do (or make anyone else do anything either).

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 11:14 pm | Permalink
  21. Anonymous wrote:

    I forgot to say (as if I wasn't tl;dr enough already) that I made and make a point of teaching my kids that their genitals are theirs; when they were babies I would say "Now I'm going to wipe your scrotum/vulva" as I changed their diapers, because it seemed like the courteous thing to do. When they were a little bigger and it felt right I started actually asking permission (if there's sand in my daughter's vulva, I ask "Is it OK with you for me to wipe down here for a minute?").

    I always taught them that anyone else should *ask* before touching their genitals, too, and they can always say no, even if it's someone like a doctor, because their genitals belong to them.

    I reinforce this by treating the rest of their bodies the same way as much as I can: their hair is theirs and I don't cut it without their consent, and my daughter's earlobes are hers and when she asked to have them pierced for her 5th birthday, that process was totally up to her every step of the way.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 11:21 pm | Permalink
  22. susanreads wrote:

    When you get into the details with the technical terms, I reckon most kids would be lost, and also, TMI. The rest of this is great! (Disclaimer: I am not a parent, and never will be.)

    Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 1:49 am | Permalink
  23. Matilde wrote:

    Just delurking to say it might also be nice to somehow mention that some people don't like to touch others, neither men nor women, in any way, ever. Not even once they're fully grown-up and have all the functioning equipment for it. And that it's OKAY.

    If I'd been told about asexuality before the age of twenty, I would've spared myself a whole lot of highly traumatic experiences.

    Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 3:33 am | Permalink
  24. wildlyparenthetical wrote:

    I think it's important to acknowledge that pleasure from sex (understood in the broad sense you sketch above) is emphatically *not* a grown-up thing. I kinda think that if there is 'A Talk', then it needs to acknowledge that what kids already experience is connected to adult experiences. This can help in decentreing both heteronormativity (and seriously, I think the horror expressed by some kids at the very idea of oral sex is really just the result of assuming sex is PIV, just like our culture tells them), and not situating sex as something up there with owning a house – that is, completely disconnected from their own experience and thus incomprehensible. Many teens think of PIV sex, not pleasure, as a kind of 'finish line' for achieving Teh Sex, which I really think is a good thing to shift. (The Dutch introduced extremely explicit sex ed for their teenagers, and teen pregnancies halved. On account of PLEASURE, not PIV sex, becoming the finish line!)

    I didn't really get that people had sex for pleasure for quite a while. 'Where did I come from?'s version is 'when a man and a woman love each other very much', which, you know, if you absent the pleasure, it's a really weird thing to want to do to someone you love, so I recommend diluting the biology with acknowledging pleasure. And talk about masturbation with girls, especially in relation to sex, because we risk reinforcing the idea that sex is really PIV, and the vagina ought to be the only site of pleasure and if your pleasure lies elsewhere (ta Freud), it's not right or not real. I've had numerous non-orgasmic women come to me (yeah, I don't know why either) and ask what they ought to do, and when I ask if they've ever masturbated to orgasm, the answer, frighteningly frequently, is 'no'. We need to make girls feel entitled to their own pleasure. Normalise the self-love! (Oh, and talk to your boys, too: one of my students this semester admitted he had thought he was dying when he first ejaculated… avoidable!)

    I'm a little wary of the wording of the warning. There's a big focus, around consensuality, on negation: 'saying no', 'never feel' etc. That starts to imply that there's an inherent risk in touching or being touched, rather than rape being the result of someone else's bad behaviour. This reinforces a vulnerability that is often a *result* of feeling like consent is the default, only undone by 'saying no'. I'm committed to an imagining of consent as 'this is happening because I want it to, and in the ways I want it to, too!', rather than 'this is happening because I haven't said no'. Now, I'm not saying that the 'saying no' bit doesn't count, but that it should be *part* of a larger schematic, in which things only happen because people want them to. Coercion, I think, is effective because people feel like whether they want sex or not doesn't matter sufficiently (when weighed against their partner's desires). That is, I think an ethical sexual culture is one in which you feel like you are *entitled* to say 'Please do me right here right now and like this, please!,' and in which you know that if you *don’t* say it, no 'doing' of any kind is going to occur. I'm also conscious that kids (unless I was an overly perverted child!) often do touch each other, and that this is fertile ground for practising how they will negotiate sex later on, and might even create adults who are *articulate* about what they want instead of hoping that this particular partner is a mind reader (that is, this is part of my whole 'don't set sex aside into another world' thing). So, my suggestion:

    "They belong to you, and other people should only touch them or look at them if you want them to and they want to. And the same goes for you and others: you should always make sure that someone wants you to see their privates or touch them before you do, so make sure you ask them. If someone tries to see your privates or touch them when you don't want them to, you should come and tell me, because you get to make the rules about your own body, and other people have to follow them."

    Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 3:58 am | Permalink
  25. wildlyparenthetical wrote:

    Ahem. The above is a little terser than I'd aimed for. I was trying to edit it so it didn't span two comments again (Verbosity, I haz it. Also, shame about verbosity, I haz more of it). Apologies to all if it seems a little… imperative!

    Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 4:10 am | Permalink
  26. Jessica wrote:

    I've recently figured out that my own dear mother was way ahead of her time. When she was pregnant with my brother, I was 6 and my sister 4. She sat down and read us Peter Mayle's Where Did I come From? and Cole's How You Were Born.

    The first book explains ALL the biomechanics of sex (orgasm is like a really big sneeze, only better!) with pictures and a bit on how the fetus grows into a baby, the second explains nothing about sex, but is more detailed on how the fetus grows and how it gets OUT of mommy.

    The stuff that was too much for me, I just didn't absorb. The books were on my bookshelf anytime I wanted to go back and read them. I was absolutely not traumatized since my mother wasn't upset and embarassed. And thus began 'the talk' that has so far lasted 20 years in my family. I plan to do the same thing with my kids, since it meant that when I had questions, I always knew that Mom knew the answer and wouldn't be upset that I asked her.

    Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 7:57 am | Permalink
  27. berryblade wrote:

    You're a bloody genius – that's the only thing I can really think of that's really worth saying ;)

    Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 7:57 am | Permalink
  28. ChelseaWantsOut wrote:

    I want to chime in to agree with everyone who's saying that kids masturbate. The first time I ever felt sexually aroused was when I saw Dances with Wolves in the theater when I was six, but I was touching myself (or, more accurately, rubbing myself on things–couch cushions, my bed, etc.) before that. I masturbated frequently as a child, and my mom had a nice talk with me about how that was something I should do in my room with the door closed. As someone who's spent years working in day care, I can confidently say that my experience was common.

    I also don't think it's a problem for children to engage in consensual sex-play together. I think the problem comes when there's an age/power disparity or just coersion involved. For instance, "I won't give you a cookie/stop pinching you unless you kiss me/let me look up your skirt," not okay. "Do you want to take off our pants and look at each other's privates?" probably okay, if the other person says yes and they're roughly the same age.

    Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 11:54 am | Permalink
  29. Rachel B. wrote:

    Hi Sady!

    It's great you're broaching this — I too am pre-kids (way, way, pre-kids) and have wondered how one might have that discussion in a sex-positive, feminist way. Lord knows my parents stuck to the "pray they find out on their own" version of it.

    I'd like to comment on what Sniff said about downplaying the "and they will be punished" bit. A new friend of mine recently posted about her experience with sexual assault, and part of her story was that the first time she told her mom what her stepdad was doing, her mom said "be sure you're telling me the truth, because if this is the truth, he will go to jail," which meant that my friend recanted and the abuse went on for another decade.

    I also am a bit worried about discussing consent with wee ones — because don't abusing adults frequently tell the children they are abusing that the kid wants what is happening to them?

    I (not having kids and therefore not sure about this) think maybe that part of the convo should be simplified to "these parts of your body are private, other people shouldn't touch them until you are a grown-up and want other people to touch them, please come tell me if anyone ever touches you there".

    This is still not specific enough, of course, but five and six year olds might not be able to handle much more specificity.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts on this topic this week, and the comments that result!

    Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  30. Rachel B. wrote:

    PS: In the last paragraph of wildly parenthetical's first comment, it's said in the way I wish I'd said it.

    Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  31. ChelseaWantsOut wrote:

    @Rachel: I think the biggest reason kids are susceptible to being "convinced" that they want what's happening is because they aren't taught what consent is, compounded by the fact that they are told both explicitly and implicitly that people in positions of authority are to be trusted and obeyed. Even many parents who tell their children in words never to let someone touch their swimsuit areas also make their children obey many, often arbitrary, rules. How can we expect consent to mean anything to children when we routinely use force and coercion to make them do exactly what we want them to do exactly when we want them to do it?

    Here is a website about consensual living, which I think is awesome: http://www.consensual-living.com (warning, site has muzac that starts playing automatically)

    Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 3:33 pm | Permalink
  32. Anonymous wrote:

    I think my personal sex-ed growing up was almost matching my personal ideal of what it should be. I think proper terminology and the basics of "where do babies come from?" (inevitable question) are great things to learn at a young age, as well as not fostering a hostile-toward-masturbation environment. It's private, it's fine, nothing to be ashamed about, almost everybody does it to varying degrees, etc. I also agree that the dialogue should change as children and the questions become more mature/etc. I do wish I'd had a bit of talk on taking charge of my own sexual pleasure and whatnot, we learned what and where the clitoris is in my public school sex ed just like we learned what the glans of the penis is, but nobody ever really told me how girls masturbate. Don't know if I did it is a kid but when I discovered it around puberty I thought I was the weirdest, strangest kid ever. And I know my story is rather common. I have friends who were given vibrators by parents and discussions on your own pleasure, the safest way to have sex, etc. I think this is a great route to go, so that fewer people grow up thinking masturbation is dirty or wrong; so that fewer girls grow up like me in that they know that masturbation is a guy touching his penis until he orgasms and that a female is supposed to… what, buy a dildo?

    Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 8:03 am | Permalink
  33. whatsername wrote:

    I couldn't disagree more with Kel D on the pleasure aspect. I think that's a vital component to any discussion about sexuality. I think the horror that 12 year old girls feel about potentially putting a penis in their mouth revolves directly around the shame they already know is integral to sex. Hell, I understood that by 8 or 9. Addressing this early and teaching that sex is about pleasure and that certain kinds of sex are also sometimes about procreation is the only way I can think of to go about this healthily. In my view, centering pleasure will also teach them that if they're doing something that IS NOT PLEASURABLE that's not how it's supposed to be, leaving them less easily manipulated by assholes down the line.

    I do worry about talking about this as something that grown ups do, because I know kids will very un-self-consciously touch their genitals and realize it feels good and thus keep doing it. If they're told feeling pleasure by doing so is a "grown up" thing, I worry that they might feel guilt for doing it, or that because they do it (or have done it) that they should hide it or be ashamed of it.

    Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 6:16 pm | Permalink
  34. Farore wrote:

    I would just like to add to the discussion, not as a parent but as a child of parents who were progressive but very unsure as to how and when to approach this talk: be very careful to read/thoroughly check over any books or diagrams you give to or show your children before you do so. When I was six and my younger sister was born, my parents gave me a book called (I think) "So You Have A Baby Sister or Brother: Where Do Babies Come From?" The part that stands out most vividly in my memory is the page that said "When a man and a woman love each other very much, they lie down naked together, and then nine months later the woman has a baby" (or something to that effect) and had an illustration of a man and a woman lying down naked on a neatly-made bed about two feet away from each other, with the man resting his hand on the woman's hip.

    Not The Most Educational Thing I've Ever Seen, let me tell you what.

    Friday, July 31, 2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink

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