Dirty Lessons

I was recently having drinks with a friend who also has a teenage daughter, and at some point the conversation turned to their impending sexual activity. We are adult women, ostensibly able to explore and reflect on our own sexuality and we both got visibly nervous when talking about the lessons that have to be passed on to our children.

Now, like with most of my “dirty” writing there isn’t much that is actually “dirty” in this piece. I don’t think there is anything really dirty about sex or sexuality (or I just don’t know about it), and I also don’t have a problem talking about these issues with my kids – mostly. But it isn’t always an easy conversation, and it certainly isn’t always easy to impart the necessary information without feeling like we are talking about something that if not “dirty” is perhaps slightly soiled.

I’m not sure if this is the first hurdle in the conversation, or just one of many, but the fact is the vast majority of us had sex in order to have children to begin with, or at least attempted that as a method for reproducing, yet we have an enormously difficult time communicating about sex in a positive way. Is it that this is such a culturally ingrained taboo that no matter how positive we feel about our sexuality we still have to express shame when talking about it? Or do we feel some irrational puritanical historical sense of shame and are therefore embarrassed?

I’m not suggesting that we all start sky-writing our sexual experiences, but I am suggesting that we need to shake off the discomfort and treat it with less sensitivity – it is what it is and ultimately most people are going to do it – probably better to feel like that is a normal, natural thing than to perpetuate the sense of shame and guilt that continues to haunt this part of our lives.

This is of course all well and good to say, and then the kids are talking at dinner and repeat something they heard in a song and all of a sudden we have to say, “but do you actually know what a blow job is?” and that just doesn’t feel all that comfortable. I guess we could just let that pass, or we could ban certain kinds of music but that feels shame-making and the last thing I want is for my children to move off into their adult lives ashamed of being human.

The problem with sex is that it can create a whole mess of other challenges in your life if you’re not careful, not the least of which is unplanned pregnancy. So assuming the best intentions, we all want our children to have a healthy relationship with their sexuality, to enjoy it and consciously make positive decisions about it, BUT we don’t really want them to start doing any of that before they are cognitively, emotionally, or psychologically in a place to do so in an informed and intelligent manner. The latter two items not necessarily being what teenagers are best known for and yet that is when their bodies wake up and say, “hey, how about this sex thing!”

So what do we, as parents, do? We try to impart the dangers of STDs and pregnancy honestly, maybe we talk about the unfortunate but still real impact on reputation and then after we have scared our children we say, “so just be safe out there.” Which we follow up with, “and abstinence is the safest,” because even though we want them to have a healthy relationship with sex we also want to protect them, more than anything. And at whatever teen year they are at, they feel very grown-up and we can still vividly remember rocking them to sleep in the middle of the night.

One of the most interesting aspects of this topic, and again maybe this is just a cultural thing, is the fact that we can’t really provide anecdotes about our life without causing irreparable harm to the young psyche. We all theoretically know that our parents “do it,” but I don’t think any of us really want them to share the details. I can tell from experience what my mother thought was openness was actually TMI and should have been kept demurely to herself. If your child comes home fro school one day and is upset because someone called them a name, or they had a fight with their BFF who is now their Ex-BFF we can share wisdom from our youth. We can assure them with stories of our own teen angst that this too shall pass and make them laugh with our most embarrassing moment ever tale. But when your teen comes home hot and bothered there is no appropriate way to say, “don’t do it! Teen boys are not worth it, they don’t know what their doing! Wait for college and the grad students!” I’m pretty sure that would be the most embarrassing experience ever for my kids.

As long as you stick to the facts kids will always be okay with the information: this part goes here, that moves there, etc… But throw the emotional part in, the why you do it, the desire, the want, the passion and you can’t have a clinical conversation. Those are all the really important points, the elements that create your sexuality as a part of who you are and they come into direct conflict with the desire to keep your children safe. Try describing the passion of desire tempered with the reality of STDs – it is about as informative and exciting as the condom moment (how many times did you say, “oh forget it”). Kids don’t really want to know about the passionate side of their parents because it is ultimately in conflict with the self-centered nature of children, and when we can present only half the story we do a disservice to ourselves and fail to empower our children to take control of this aspect of their lives.

My children know that my husband and I lived together before we were married and there was a day when my daughter realized what this might mean. She came to me with real concern to clarify, “when you and daddy lived together in college you had separate rooms right?” “No, we shared a room.” “But you had your own bed right?” “No, we shared a bed.” “WHAT!” And here I just looked at her, “what is wrong with that?” To which she replied, “You shouldn’t do that kind of thing, it is wrong!” I guess I could have said a lot of different things. Frankly I was rather taken aback having never addressed this particular issue of morality with her. “It can be an important part of learning about someone and figuring out if they are right for you. I think it is important to live together before you get married.” “I think it’s wrong and I won’t do it,” she replied. And after chuckling to myself I said, “well I hope you change your mind, and I’ll bet you $1 you do.”

I want both my children to confidently own their sexuality as teens and young adults. Part of that is wanting them to love and respect their bodies so that they can ask for what they need physically and emotionally. I want them to make their choices as informed individuals and to feel good about the choices they make. This is what I tell them: sex is wonderful if you love yourself, if you care for yourself, and you know how to protect yourself.

We will see if I get my dollar – I really don’t care either way as long as she makes her decisions with knowledge and with respect for herself. And maybe this essay will look a lot different in a few years when it is my son who is on the cusp of sexuality because that is a conversation I really don’t know how to have!

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