“No,” I replied. “I study it and write about sex. But nobody knows everything about sex. Everyone has questions about it, and you can always ask me and I’ll do my best to answer any questions you have about sex.” I made sure to say ‘sex’ a few extra times, to take the taboo out of it.
“Mom,” he asked, “can you not use the word ‘sex’ so much? Let’s call it ‘mating.’”
Without fail, the most common questions posed to me by readers and friends are about alternative lifestyles such as polyamory, erotica and the naughtier pleasures between the sheets, or educating our children (primarily girls, a whole other issue to address) about sexuality. Natural curiosity about our secret sexual selves, which inspires the first, is balanced by the fear and worry that often reside below the subtext of that second inquiry. Since I’ve written aplenty about taboos, this musing goes to the heart of sex education.
We are a culture accustomed to allowing our children to view violence early on, but teaching them about the science of our bodies dampens our confidence quicker than a cold shower on a freezing day. We squirm, we deny, we laugh nervously and freak out frequently. I know, I’ve been there with my own discomfort and other’s, helping to calm or gently slap them upside the head when The Talk is on the agenda. As a storyteller maverick with an inner geek who loves researching all things sexual and a mother of two young children, it’s easy tap into the zeitgeist of parental concern.
Truth is, teaching children and young adults about the mechanics of procreation is the easy part. Parts A and B fit together like this, sperm and egg mix and mingle and presto, you make a baby. That’s not so scary (certainly nothing like Clown Sex, now, is it?
We all know the answer to that rhetorical query. The words sex + education + children have officially become a forbidden threesome within certain circles. The backlash against MariaTalks.com actually inspired me to stick my pen in the fray. When I read about the uproar over the website, I was quick to check it out, hoping to read all the teen ‘potty talk’ that has some crying foul. Words so shocking that some politicians couldn’t even mention them out loud?
What a disappointment for crude and lewd lingo-philes. Maria and her make-believe posse of friends offer up a lot towards educating young adults, but not much bad language unless words like ‘butt sex’ or ‘blow job’ shock you. I head worse in junior high; just about the time some nasty boy-brat with hormones raging first groped me. Knowing how babies were made didn’t prevent him from copping a feel as I walked by with my lunch tray, and holding back from having authentic timely discussions isn’t going to prevent teens from exploring their burgeoning sexuality either.
Sexual health and overall wellbeing depend on an informed citizenry, as our European and Asian counterparts keep demonstrating (well, maybe they aren’t trying to show us per se), with their lower rates of teen pregnancy and abortion, and later age of first-time sex encounters. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the teen-birth rate in the United States declined 8 percent between 2007 and 2009, which is an historic low of 39.1 births per 1,000 teens ages 15 to 19 (I was somewhat shocked to learn it peaked in the 1950s). Still, the United States has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and abortions among developed nations, realities that can’t be changed by education-avoidance and feigned or misplaced outrage over sites like MariaTalks.com.
Back when I was 13 and learning to avoid would-be breast bullies in junior high, my fury was real. No one told me that when my body started changing I would have to slap some boy’s paw off my butt. Apparently, no one taught some boys that their hands had no business snooping around uninvited on another person’s body. We sat in the same lectures about sex and walked out with a lot of unanswered questions about what to do with our adolescent urges.
That’s because absent in our national dialogues — which themselves are scantily had — about sexual education are the more esoteric bits and pieces. I do believe that if teenagers were better informed about the heart and heat of sexuality, and had more resources like MariaTalks.com (another good site is Scarleteen.com) to turn to, they’d avoid some of the unpleasant pitfalls in the sexual mine field. If your teenage son is watching porn and your pre-teen daughter is being pressured to give oral sex in the high school restroom, it just seems woefully inadequate to limit The Talk to knowledge of conception and the standard, ‘do it when you love and are loved.’
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away that may have worked for Mr. and Mrs. Prince Charming. Today’s children need more from today’s parents to grow into fully sentient sexual beings. With encouragement, more parents can and are taking the initiative to make sure Junior knows about birds, bees and people intercourse, the nerdy science stuff of sex. But we’ve got to be one step ahead of our uber-plugged in world if we hope to have any sway on how our children ultimately view their own and future partner’s sexuality.
That means dipping in unchartered waters. Take a deep breath and ask yourself: Am I willing to have ongoing discussions about intimacy, pleasure, fantasy or orgasm if my kid were to ask? What about issues of hair down there, fetish sex, oral and anal acts, or the rights and responsibilities of grown-up love? I’m not sure I have all the answers (gulp) and am truthfully uncomfortable (eek) about some topics myself, but none of us will ever know our capacity to guide our children unless we stretch ourselves first.
Sexual maturity comes in fits and starts, with mulligans, even regrets, littering our pasts. It’s natural to want to limit our children’s exposure to pain and risk, and we can best do that by first becoming clear with our own sexual values and attitudes, talking with our children early and often, and answering their questions clearly and in integrity.
Parents and adults can empower kids and help them decide when they are physically and emotionally ready to share their bodies (and abstain as well. It’s easier to Just Say No when you’ve got an arsenal of knowledge to support your choices). Children with clear understandings of boundaries, who see sexuality as a natural extension of their bodies, understand self- and other-respect, and learn that making love is rooted in sharing, not shaming, are ironically, less likely to do something they’ll regret later.
In my home, we’ve had half a dozen versions of The Talk, each more nuanced to meet the needs of my growing child, with an emphasis placed on love, trust and intimacy as well as the mechanics of ‘mating.’ Nothing is off limits, and we’ll plug in to the web when he’s old enough. Teenpregnancy.org offers tips on limit setting, dating and other ways to prevent pregnancy, while Scarleteen.com’s Sexual Readiness Inventory goes to the nitty, gritty of real-world adolescent angst and sex.
The good news is that despite the furor over sex education sites, they are locked, cocked and ready, with enough trashy teen talk to make prudish politicians squirm, and the next generation choose sex more wisely.