I’ll be doing a lecture on sex education today, so this seems especially well-timed and valuable.
It happened yet again. As I was sitting at the table for dinner with my children, I noticed my daughter’s hand fishing around under her skirt.
"We don’t play with our vulvas at the table. Go wash your hands and finish your food," I scolded. She nodded, ran off to wash her hands, and resumed picking at her dinner instead.
Small children, they touch themselves. A lot. It’s fascinating to them. And when you’re a small child, you have no sense of shame or disgust or fear of your body. Your body is what it is. It does what it does. And everything that it does is kind of amazing, because you’re not old enough for lower back pain. It’s not sexual, it’s just… fact.
The first time I caught one of my kids playing with their genitals, I said absolutely nothing. I was momentarily paralyzed with indecision. One thing I knew for a fact I did not want to do was to shout, “No!” or “Stop!” What good could that possibly do? Sure, I would be spared the awkwardness of catching my child playing with her genitals on the living room floor, but what kind of lesson is that? To fear or ignore your own vagina?
I thought about it almost constantly for two days, and of course she gave me a second chance to react.
"Sweetie, we don’t play with our vulvas in the living room," I said. Which sounded ridiculous and strange, but nonetheless true. Why is everything with little kids "we" statements? "It’s OK to touch your vulva, but people are private, and it’s a private thing. The only places where you should touch your vulva are in the bathroom or in your bedroom. If you want to play with your vulva, please go to the bedroom."
And she smiled and did, without question, because compartmentalizing where you do certain activities makes sense to little kids.
"We don’t eat in the bathroom, and we don’t touch our vulvas in the living room," became the new mantra. And yes, eventually it became, "We don’t touch our vulvas at the table."
I’m what some people call “sex-positive.” That doesn’t mean I talk with my 4-year-olds about how great sex is and how good it feels. It means I don’t pretend it’s something other than it is.
As parents, we lie all the time. About the Easter Bunny or Santa or the Tooth Fairy, about how long 10 minutes is, about whether or not we remembered they wanted to have grilled cheese for dinner again… We lie a lot. But one thing I never lie about is sex.
I don’t want them to grow up ashamed of their bodies or confused about what they do. I don’t tell them about cabbage patches or storks; I make an effort, always, to be honest about human reproduction. Every aspect of it.
I’ve had talks with lots of other moms about having “the talk.” I don’t think my kids and I will ever have that particular talk, because they already know. And we talk about it often — kids are obsessive creatures. We read Where Did I Come From? andWhat Makes A Baby, which together cover every aspect of the subject. We can talk about IVF and C-sections, because both of those are part of the story of their births, and we can talk about the fact that yes, mommy and daddy still have sex regardless. And when they’re older, we’ll start talking about contraception.
Because lying to your kids about sex helps nobody. Telling them that sex is “only between mommies and daddies” is a lie that leads to confused, hormone-charged teenagers. Telling them that sex is “only something that happens when two people love each other very much” is a lie that causes hormone-charged teenagers to confuse “love” with “lust,” or “obsession.” It leads to leaps of logic like, “If I have sex with this person, we must be in love.” Or worse: “If I love this person, I have to have sex with him or her.” And how many teenage tragedies are based on that misconception?
The truth is that human beings, almost universally, like sex. It feels good. And it’s supposed to feel good. If it didn’t, the human race would die out. The truth is that sex isn’t special and magical just because it’s sex. The truth is that you can have spectacular sex with strangers whose names you don’t even know. The truth is that just because you can, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
And that’s what sex-positive parenting really is. Not telling my kids lies about sex to keep them from behaviors I don’t think are healthy. It’s telling them the truth, the whole truth, and letting it sink in so they can make their own good choices.
It’s telling them that sex is good, but that it’s dangerous if you’re not careful. It’s teaching them to require their partners to use condoms, to buy their own condoms if they’re planning on having sex. It’s teaching them that while sex feels good, they can feel good on their own too. (Just not at the table.) That while sex combined with love is often the best sex — transcendent sex — that grows the bond of love and builds a closeness that is almost impossible to find otherwise, sex isn’t always like that, even with people you love. That sex can lead to pregnancy, even with protection, so engaging in it is a commitment to deal with any consequences.
It’s telling them they’re not wrong, or sinful, or bad, if they have sexual feelings. Or even if they have sex. It’s teaching them that sex happens, whether people always make good choices or not. And it’s giving them the tools to ensure that when they’re ready, they’re smart and cautious and conscientious.
There’s a lot of black-and-white comparisons when it comes to sex education. Some people think that once kids hit puberty, if they don’t have a strong fear of sex they’ll have as much as they can, as often as they can. There’s a lot of abstinence-only sex education, based on telling kids, “SEX IS SCARY! DON’T DO IT!” and it appears to be about the least successful program anyone has ever invented.
Telling children the truth about sex isn’t giving permission for them to have it — and this is the most important part — because when the right time comes, nobody has the right to deny them permission for sex but themselves.
And that’s the thing I try to keep in mind when I say things like, “We don’t touch our vulvas at the table.” Sex is something that ONLY happens when both people WANT it to happen. And that means that the only people in the entire world with any kind of say over whether or not my daughters have sex is them.
I don’t get to tell my daughters they have to have sex, but I also don’t get to tell them they can’t. They’re in charge. Your body, your decision.
I never want to be responsible for setting the precedent that another person gets to tell them what to do with their bodies, and especially with their sexuality. I don’t want to be the gateway for a manipulative, potentially abusive boyfriend.
So I teach boundaries. Appropriate places. Hygiene. I teach my children that nobody is allowed to touch their bodies without permission. When we get in tickle fights and they say, “Stop!” I stop.
And when we talk about pregnant friends, we talk about uteruses and sperm and eggs.
And most of the time, it’s not uncomfortable. Most of the time, I’m verifying information and the conversation lasts 15 seconds.
And someday the conversation is going to be a lot uglier. Someday, we’ll have to actually talk about rape, and explicit and enthusiastic consent, and contraception. Someday we’ll have to talk about healthy masturbation and pornography and realistic expectations of sex and sex partners and body image and a lack of shame for their bodies. And those conversations are not going to be as brief or straightforward.
But I’m ready. Whenever that day comes, I’m prepared. Because the groundwork is there.
"We don’t touch our vulvas at the table." It’s absurd, but it’s got all the important pieces. It’s a micro-lesson in safety and consent and social propriety. I don’t think I’ll be able to say "We don’t lose our virginity in the backseat of a car after a prom party" with a straight face, but I will be able to say, "We don’t have sex without thinking long and hard about it first, and we certainly don’t do it without being careful, and being safe, and being totally confident in the maturity of our partner and our ability to handle the repercussions if we get a disease or get pregnant."
Because it’s true. We don’t.
But I like that when that time comes, I’m part of the “we.” Because if I can tell my girls, “we” have to be careful, they’ll know that no matter what happens, I’m still in their corner. I’ve still got their backs. Even if “we” make bad choices, I’ll still be there to help make things right again.