live in a progressive diverse neighborhood where pre-schools stock copies of
"Heather Has Two Mommies," but even where this love-makes-a-family
consciousness has a strong voice, it does not seem to translate into how we talk
to our kids about sexuality and reproduction.
my family and family of friends, there are mixed-race lesbian couples, mixed
race straight couples, single mothers with children – some adopted, some not.
There are lesbian biological Moms with offspring fathered by friends,
aquaintances, and sperm bank donors. And there are straight couples – some with
biological offspring, some with stepchildren, and some adopted.
was in this context that my then 6-year old ran up to me one day and said,
"Mom. Maddy and I are having a fight. She says you have to have a man and a
woman to have a baby, but I say you don’t. Who’s right?"
a tricky question. Barring developments in cloning, divine intervention, and
parthenogenesis, you do need a sperm and an egg to make a baby. But after that
it’s pretty much up for grabs. Just about anyone who wants to have a baby can
have one or get one in any number of ways.
leads to the question of how we talk to our children about reproduction. It
seems that when children start asking questions about sex, we reply with the ins
and outs (!!) of heterosexual copulation. Sex equals reproduction. Sex therefore
is intercourse between heterosexuals who want to make a baby. Or at least that
would be how it appears to most unsuspecting elementary school kids who start
asking questions about sex, where babies come from, and that sort of thing.
my daughter got the "straight" answer about reproductive sex, she
thought about it for a long time, and then said, "So, you mean you did that
with Dad to make me?" I nodded. "And you did it again to make Sila?"
I nodded again. Long pause. "Do you think you’ll ever do it again?"
she had absorbed something of the meaning of reproductive sex, but not much
about sexuality. Without overwhelming our children, we need to differentiate
between reproduction and sex. We need to reinforce the fact that families can be
chosen and created in all sorts of ways. And we need to introduce some language
for talking about our capacity for sexual pleasure and expression – bodily
experiences that are not related in the slightest to passing along our genes.
are some ways we could do this and why does it matter?
start with, let’s toss out the vagina/penis paradigm. In today’s liberated
language, we think we’re doing well when we explain the central gender
difference in the following way: boys have penises and girls have vaginas.
Indeed, it is a step in the right direction that we’ve moved beyond the
old-school language that gave boys an attribute, and girls the absence of one,
as in: Boys have a penis and girls don’t. But since when is the vagina the
defining feature of female genitalia? It certainly plays a key role in
reproductive sex, but the clitoris is of much more interest for other reasons.
Yet you don’t hear enlightened little children mention it too often. Any little
girl who’s out of diapers certainly knows about it, but she doesn’t have a name
for it, and the peculiar silence around it (we name all of our children’s other
body parts, after all) makes it seem verboten.
let’s think again about those stuffy old diagrams that our high school gym
teacher used to teach us "the facts of life." Were they really so bad
after all? Didn’t they accurately communicate what has to happen between a sperm
and an egg in order to set those cells multiplying? We laughed at those diagrams
because they revealed nothing about sexuality, and that was what we really cared
about. In some circles, liberals tried to bring pleasure into the equation.
Another positive step forward, I guess, sort of like "vagina" entering
the lexicon, but here’s the problem: if you marry the concepts of pleasure and
reproductive sex, then how do you explain the other 90 percent of sexual
kids and teens have experienced some version of their own sexuality – most of it
not related to procreation – yet we talk to them about sex only in procreative
terms. Confusing at best. At worst, sexual feelings are cloaked in secrecy and
we share no language with our children for talking about them. So bring back the
charts that explain the mechanics of where babies come from. Throw in explicit
information about birth control as appropriate. And then figure out
age-appropriate ways to talk frankly to kids (and listen openly to them) about
pleasure and sexual expression. Allow words and concepts like masturbation,
pleasure, sexuality, sensuality, gay, lesbian, and bisexual -all of which don’t
have much to do with reproduction – to be part of family and community dialogue.
If we don’t, we cede the discussion to marketers (mostly) who fill the airwaves
and our consciousnesses with images of straight male sexual aggressors and
passive female receivers of male attention.
last thought: Thanks to feminism, we have come a long way, baby. But patriarchy
and heterosexism live on in our language and our ways of conceptualizing
important human interactions like sex and sexuality. Take, for example, the
seemingly progressive, sex-positive kids’ book entitled, "Where Did I Come
From? The facts of life without any nonsense and with illustrations." The
following excerpt from the section called, "The beginning of a baby,"
gives all sexual agency to the man. The woman is a willing receptacle. "The
man loves the woman. So he gives her a kiss. And they hug each other very
tight." After some more details about the man developing an erection, we
hear that he now wants to get as close as possible to the woman so he decides to
put his penis in her vagina.
that’s just great. Read this book to a little girl and you’ve communicated to
her a very neat synopsis of a woman’s role in life and in sex: Men have really
powerful urges, which women must accommodate.
need to remember the power of language: if kids (especially girls) don’t have
words to describe the parts of their bodies that give them pleasure, then we are
robbing them of the tools they need to communicate about and be agents of their
sexuality. If we don’t distinguish between reproductive sex and sexual pleasure,
we are relegating all forms of sexual expression (besides heterosexual
intercourse), to the unknown and not-to-be-talked-about margins. If we don’t
explicitly find healthy ways to talk about sex and sexuality with kids, then we
leave it to Disney and beer commercials to define the parameters of sexual
expression. And if we try to bring a progressive, sex-positive feel to the
question of "Where babies come from," then we are associating sexual
pleasure uniquely with reproductive sex; we are not honoring the manifold ways
children and adults experience sexuality; and we are bypassing a more realistic
explanation of how families create themselves.