The most important woman in my life (rest in peace, mom) never talked to me – or my two sisters or my brother – about sex. Zilch about menstruation, pubic hair, hormones, intercourse or conception. We snuck our tampons, bras, and birth control into the house like Cold War spies. It was a surreal way to go through adolescence that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Everything I learned about my developing body and sex was from three sources: a grainy black and white educational film shown to the sixth grade girls, gossip from boys on the blacktop, and edification from my new best friend who moved to my block from New York City. She brought a true gutter mouth and the knowledge to back up her swear words. She instructed me how to look up sex definitions in the dictionary, and filled in a few missing links about what slang like “rubber,” “blow job,” and “f*cking” actually meant.
I was recently reminded of Mom’s weird no-sex-ed methodology. There’s a new anthology out called Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, that purports to lift the veil on what it’s really like to be a Muslim-American woman. An essay by Zahra Noorbakhsh, now a 31-year-old comedian, describes her mother’s explanation for why young Zahra was forbidden from venturing into a dark movie theater with the boys she grew up with in suburban California.
“You have a hole,” her mother told her in the parking lot of a local mall. “For the rest of your life, men will want to put their penis in your hole.”
This stark encapsulation of a woman’s sex life has scarred me and haunted my nights since reading it a few days ago. I’m 46, with three decades of enjoyable sex under my belt. I can only imagine what it was like getting the news at 14. Becoming a comedian was probably an essential survival skill for Ms. Noorbakhsh.
Her mom’s approach to sex ed made me really appreciate my mom’s silence on the subject, for the first time in my life.
I also am relieved that other cultures, outside my own WASP-came-over-from-England-on-the-Mayflower family, have similar mother-daughter communication issues.
All this brings me to one of my favorite parenting topics: Sex. More specifically, how easy and important it is to talk to kids about sex long before you (or they) are embarrassed by it. In my kids’ school, the subject is introduced in fourth grade, which is about eight years too late. However one of my friends was horrified – at age 10, her girls knew nothing about sex or their bodies. “They’re too young!” she practically shouted when she learned the school was readying the big talk.
My response: Many of the girls in fourth grade wear bras. A few have already gotten their first periods. I’m pretty sure they’ve looked south as they’ve used the toilet or taken showers over the past decade. Studies show that 750,000 American girls 15-19 become pregnant each year because only 71% use birth control Are you planning to wait until your daughter’s wedding night?
I survived my lack of sex ed. I had one priceless boyfriend along the way who enjoyed all things sexual with reckless abandon and he taught me to shed my shame and ignorance. Growing up as I did, one of my parenting vows was to be open about sex with my own kids from day one. Mostly it has worked. My three kids, ages 14, 13 and 9, could each responsibly and authoritatively teach a sex ed class. They beg me to STOP talking about sex, birth control, and political issues like the recent age restrictions on access to the morning after pill.
But I know they are better off for my consistent demystification of sex and their so-called private parts. Kids need the facts, sure. But they also need at least one knowledgeable, trustworthy adult in their lives who can pass along the news that sex under most circumstances is highly enjoyable, can actually be fun, and is one of life’s great gifts when appreciated responsibly.
The secret here is that talking to kids about sex is easy, as long as you start when they are babies and don’t stop until they head off to college. Instead of saying goo-goo gah-gah, try stuff like “Here’s your penis, boy are you going to like this thing one day,” or “Yeah, that does feel good down there,” instead of slapping her little hand away. You may turn bright red — recalling your own parents’ shame or awkward explanations — but babies and toddlers don’t pick up on embarrassment. By the time they are teenagers – when they actually want and need the information you’ve been plying for years — you and your kids will be sick of all subjects sexual.
Which is exactly what you want.