Moderatrix note: This is a piece I wrote two years ago which was previously posted at the Liquid Words blog, The Outlet, which is no longer online. I am re-posting it now, because I think it rocks, and because I want some meatier pieces back up here, even though I am still traveling. This was a baby project of mine for a while. Enjoy.
I was eleven years old and it was the summer before I began the sixth grade. I woke up alarmed. The bed was wet, and I was so embarrassed thinking that I had wet the bed. I got up out of bed and turned on the lamp to make my way to the bathroom connected to the bedroom. My younger brother and I were staying the summer with our dad, who was at work, so we were spending the night at our grandparent’s house. “Crap,” I thought, “Grandma is going to be so angry that someone my age wet the bed. It wasn’t uncommon, as I had grown up with a small bladder and many infections, I had wet the bed before. As I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror alarm turned to panic. In a very My Girl moment, I freaked out because there was blood everywhere. It couldn’t be good for that much blood to leave my body all at once. My bed looked like a murder scene. I was dying. There was no other option. I ran up to my grandparent’s bedroom, and hurriedly and woke my grandmother. I told her something was horribly wrong. She got up out of bed and followed me to the bathroom. I remember the look on her face, something mixed between amusement and annoyance at having been woken up. She handed me a towel, a clean night gown, and a thick white thing. She told me to shower up and change while she changed my sheets. When I finished, she showed me how to stick the thing in my underwear, and sent me back to bed, still bewildered and half crying. In the morning she told me I had just “become a woman”. She gave me some books, which I am certain were written circa 1965, and told me to read them, and that tampons were bad for my body (and it was years before I was convinced otherwise). She took care of explaining to my father when he arrived to pick us up after breakfast the events of the past night. I spent the next few nights holed up in my room reading about female and male anatomy, puberty, necking and petting, snickering to myself and re-reading the part about intercourse and ogling the scientific drawings of penises. The books were full of pictures of sanitary napkin belts and never even mentioned STIs or contraceptive. I am absolutely sure it taught that one should abstain from sex until marriage.
And that was that.
That was my big sex talk.
My big lesson on the “birds and the bees”.
I didn’t even know that periods didn’t last forever. Shit, until that moment I had never even heard of a period. I thought I was going to have to wear this miniature diaper every day for the rest of my existence. I spent the next several days lamenting the end of my swimming days and how I would never ever be able to speak to my guy friends again. I was mortified, and angry that no one had ever thought to warn me that this was coming.
And I so did not need this shit going into Junior High.
And I was bleeding. How gross was that? All that dirty blood gushing out of me. I felt like I was supposed to hide it and keep it a secret, even though it was no secret that it happened…well no secret to anyone but me, since I hadn’t seen it coming.
Sex Ed in High School for me meant dividing the girls and boys, and while the boys did whatever it was they did, we were told that our virginity was precious and that “blue balls” were some crazy story made up by guys to get us to “give it up”. There was one day where they passed around a condom and let the students touch spermicidal jelly, but I had a dentist appointment that day, so I never saw them. There was duct tape and something about not wanting to waste all the sticky before marriage. When my Senior Year boyfriend and I got all exploratory, we pulled back and cried from shame. The only thing that kept us from having sex was shame, and not really knowing where things went. Hell, I didn’t even know that girls had more than one hole until I was pregnant. I thought you peed on tampons and out the same hole where the clit lives. I knew what a penis looked like but had no idea what was going on between my own legs. I was curious, and maybe a little bored, but I was too embarrassed to ask anyone about sex. So, I didn’t have it. It was still a word we whispered and giggled about. I got insulted when people suggested I was actually participating in the dirty sex. Sex was only something that dirty girls did, apparently, and no one was to talk about it. I thought masturbation was something only perverts did.
I was nineteen by the time I actually got around to having sex. I was still going to church, and so that meant there was a ton of guilt. It was no big deal. The guy was incredibly kind and understanding that I had no idea what I was doing, and I think it went well. As well as it can go on the bottom bunk of a college dorm room but thank goodness he had experience, because I honestly had no clue what I was supposed to do. We never did it again. While I had enjoyed it, I still had all that guilt jumbled up inside, and decided I wasn’t ready after all. I honestly didn’t know what to think about sex. I didn’t want to ask my mom, because oh my gods was that going to be embarrassing, and then what if she was angry? It just seemed so overwhelmingly above my head…I just wanted someone to talk to about sex. Someone who wasn’t leering at or hitting on me. Someone who could tell me that it was OK to enjoy it, and help me to not feel guilty.
I am pretty sure that no one in my family talked to me about sex again until I had given birth to my daughter at 22. In fact I don’t think anyone talked about sex so much as I heard my grandmother make a joke about blow jobs. Yes, my grandmother said blow job. Somehow I moved on from that moment of surprise. I had stitches in parts of my body I didn’t know existed, gave birth never having had a proper orgasm, had a tiny mouth suckling on my boob, and now was listening to my Nana say blow job.
Someone should have told me. Someone should have said “Hey, Brandann, you are going to have all of these urges, and it’s perfectly normal”, but no one did. Someone should have told me that my body was going to change someday, that other than growing boobs and getting hair in places I didn’t think needed it things were going to happen to me. Someone could have taken the time to explain to me that all that blood wasn’t dirty, but a sign that I had grown into maturity, and what that meant, that I was able to get pregnant and would someday enjoy sex. Someone could have explained what my goddammed reproductive system was really supposed to do. But no body did. I had to figure it all out on my own.
And that put me at risk.
All the hush hushedness and stigma surrounding sex may have set me up to make bad choices. I was so sure that sex was dirty that I didn’t even tell my gynecologist I was having it. I was already taking the pill because of ovarian cysts discovered when I was 14 so I didn’t see the need. I knew about a few STIs, but nothing true about how you spread them. Someone actually once tried to tell me that chlamydia was just like a yeast infection, spread the same way, and I wasn’t corrected until I actually had it. I might have known about other methods of birth control, and when the ol’ “I’m allergic to condoms” line rolled around, I might not have wound up pregnant at 21. Someone should have cared enough to speak up and be honest with me about sex. Not that my family didn’t love me, they just didn’t think I would be ‘one of those girls’ I am sure and probably wanted to “protect me”. Maybe they figured I would learn it all in school. But by the time we are teenagers the silence we build between ourselves and our parents is deafening, so neither side feels comfortable bringing it up.
We need to end this family tradition of silence.
And parents need to grow up and stop feeling awkward about talking about sex with their kids.
If we start young, at a basic age, and begin with the basic differences between our bodies it makes a little path. It gives us a gateway to discussing what is a good touch and what is a bad touch. If instead of telling a three year old that they can’t play with their pee pee, we encourage them to do it in a bathtub or some other private, appropriate place, and at an appropriate time, we help them recognize that it is normal to want to feel those good tinglies, and give them the first lesson about safe sex. We erase the stigma that sex is dirty and that touching yourself is shameful.
Talking to younger children creates a framework for talking about bodily autonomy, and how no one should ever touch you in a sexual way when you are young, and when you are older against your will. It gives us a chance to teach little girls that it is just as acceptable to stick her hands in her underwear as it is for little boys to walk around yanking on themselves as if a penis is made of the same stuff as “Stretch Armstrong” and make them comfortable with their bodies, and with talking to parents about sex and feelings. It seems to me that more parents would prefer that their kids be home masturbating rather than out doing who knows what with who knows who while who knows where, so why don’t we let them know that self pleasure is perfectly normal? Even at older ages, treat masturbation in your child as another part of their development, and part of their privacy. Be nonchalant about it so they don’t get embarrassed talking about, and teach them to lock the door to avoid surprise laundry deliveries (and don’t freak out thinking your daughter is bulimic when she takes extra long showers).
Taking time to talk about sex with young children creates a time for learning the proper vocabulary of anatomy and allows for future talks about bodies. By starting young, with age appropriate material, we are able to create a comfort zone for sex talks about big issues. We give our children the opportunity to learn about sex from the proper channels, at home, in a loving and non judgmental environment, and can encourage them to ask questions. My five year old daughter is the newest resident expert on human reproductive anatomy, and I want her to be comfortable enough to ask me questions about her body. I think we need to teach boys about their penis and testes, and teach girls that you don’t pee from your clitoris; basic anatomy that a startling number of grown ups don’t know. If it becomes normal for parents and children to talk about easy topics, it takes away the thinking twice about asking a parent about the difficult ones, like sex.
But talking isn’t enough. Not nearly.
We, as parents, and by extension primary educators have a commitment to making sure those talks are full of accurate information. From teaching a five year old the difference between a vagina and a vulva to talking to a teenager about ways to protect yourself if choosing to have sex, we need to make sure that we are telling them the truth. Instill value systems, fine, and teach religious lessons, but don’t let them cloud the facts. It’s OK to tell your kids that your chosen god wants them to wait until marriage for sex, but it is also OK to tell them that if they choose to do it sooner it is important to protect themselves. If we teach the facts at home we are arming our kids with knowledge against an onslaught of misinformation that is available. Just as we would never send a soldier or sailor into combat without a proper weapon we should be equally vigilant about teaching children to protect their bodies once they are no longer under our constant care. Teach them that abstinence is the only 100% effective means of preventing the baby parasite and other STIs, but teach them how to properly take a pill, what the other options are, and where to find them as well. Take it one step further and take your teenager to a doctor or a Planned Parenthood for birth control and contraceptive education. The boys too. Show them where to buy condoms. Explain that if they are too ashamed to buy rubbers they are too ashamed to have sex. Teach them about enthusiastic consent, how to put the condom on. Teach the girls how to put condoms on. Teach them the consequences of not protecting themselves, and give them the truth about their options if they accidentally get sick or pregnant. Be their parent, teacher, and their best friend whom they desperately come to for advice.
And for the sake of all that is important about their lives, teach them free from judgment. They have the world and the media and the rest of their lives to be slut shamed and told that sex is bad and that their self worth is in between their legs or a silly piece of fragile tissue. Let them start out loving and accepting themselves, their bodies, and their feelings. Talk to them about how sex is awesome in the right context, because it pretty much rocks, and let them choose for themselves how to feel about it once they have all the important factual information.
Take the confusion out of the basics of sex and sexuality, so that when they leave the sanctuary of the home nest they have an idea about personal autonomy and what to allow on their bodies and when. Give them the tools to make informed decisions when parents are no longer around to talk to. Preventing confusion may not prevent rape, but it will give the next generation an upper hand at making sure they are safe in their world experiences, clear about what they want when it comes to things getting “hot and heavy”, comfortable to talk about it with someone they trust be it a parent or a partner, and strong enough to know that it’s their right to say “no” to any type of sexual contact, and perhaps more importantly, that it is their right to give an enthusiastic “yes”.