Sex Education, One Awkward Conversation At A Time
So a few weeks ago, I made a terrible error. I was driving my girlfriend and her daughter home. I’d read something funny on the Internet earlier that day that I wanted to tell her about, so I did. Animatedly. Loudly.
It was this thing about how Moby wants to make porn about men with average-sized penises. “So then the article is like, “Moby is a man who doesn’t have hair. He doesn’t eat meat, he doesn’t care for furniture. But like all men, he wants to make porn.”
I told this story a little too animatedly, and into the silence that followed, the little girl in the back said, “What is porn?”
Now, clearly I should not have been talking about porn in front of someone else’s child. That was a major social faux pas. I am sorry I did it.
And the Universe has been making me pay for it ever since.
First, there was Grease. You know, that cute movie from the '70s, about teenagers in the '50s with a goofy penchant for singing and dancing? I remembered this flick as a lighthearted jaunt through high school romance. I’d forgotten the “teen pregnancy” subplot until I was watching it with the kids. This scene rolls around when two of the central characters roll into the backseat of a car in a secluded spot.
“I know what those people are doing!” Rio shouted. “They are going to have sex! In their car!”
“Yep,” I said, suddenly wishing we’d opted for another episode of "My Little Ponies."
A moment later, the boy on screen pulls out a condom.
“What’s that?” Rio asked, right on cue.
“It’s a condom.”
“What’s a condom?”
“It’s a kind of plastic wrapper you can put over a penis if you want to have sex and you don’t want to get pregnant. It stops you from getting pregnant.”
“And they don’t want to get pregnant, do they?”
“No, they don’t. They are in high school. They’re still teenagers. Having a baby when you’re a teenager is really hard. It’s a good idea to wait until you’re a grown-up, and that’s what they want to do. They want to have sex and not get pregnant.”
The characters, meanwhile, have now discovered that their condom is a crispy bit of dried out rubber, thrown it away, and decided to have sex anyway.
“Mommy! They’re having sex without a condom! That’s really stupid, isn’t it Mommy? What they’re doing is dumb! Are they going to get pregnant?”
“Yes, I think they are,” I say, vaguely remembering (wrongly, it turns out) how this plot thread goes. “And yes, it is really dumb. If you know you should be using a condom, having sex without one is stupid.”
“Daddy! Daddy! These people in the movie are really dumb! Daddy, they had sex without a condom and now they are going to be parents and they don’t even want to have a baby. Daddy, that’s dumb, right?”
So I guess that went Okay? I mean, I can’t say I enjoyed having an off-the-cuff conversation about contraception with my 7-year-old, but I’m glad she got to talk to me about the idea that sometimes people have sex for fun, not just to make babies. And that birth control exists and it’s smart to use it. I don’t think I handled that with grace or anything. I wish I’d been clearer that there are all kinds of sex you can have that don’t risk pregnancy at all, for one thing. I think my perspective came out a little heteronormative.
But whatever. We got through it, and I’m sure I didn’t do anything to discourage her from talking to me about sex again if she has more questions.
Really sure. How can I be so sure?
Because a couple of days later, we were sitting around the living room when she offered to read the newspaper to me. I’d just come in from a long, tiring outing with her little sister, and wanted a few minutes to sit in peace on the couch.
“Sure,” I mumbled without looking up. “You can read the newspaper to me.”
"This guy was in Fleetwood Mac!” she says. “Look at his picture, Mommy! And here’s an interesting bicycle. Do you want to eat this kind of food?”
I should probably have figured out that she was reading The Phoenix, but as I mentioned, I wasn’t really paying attention. Until she turned the page and said, “Oh, Mommy! Here is the girly page!”
That’s right. My 7-year-old had just discovered the adult personals. I handled this kind of the way I would handle an encounter with a poisonous snake. Don’t make any sudden moves. Hope it will go away.
“This is like Lady Gaga’s page. Do you think Lady Gaga would wear these little underwear, Mommy?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart.”
“Mommy, what does ‘bi-curious’ mean? There’s a joke here, I can tell, but I’m not getting it. Do they want you to ‘buy’ something ‘curious’? What is the joke? Mommy?”
Deep breath. She’s pointing at a photo of two women in lingerie holding each other by the hips under the heading “Are you (bi)curious?”. Of course I want to snatch the newspaper from her and burn it, but I also want to answer her questions in an honest, direct way. I’m like that.
“No, sweetie, ‘bi’ doesn’t mean to ‘buy’ something. When it’s spelled that way, it means a person who wants to have romantic love or sex with people of more than one gender. Like, with men and with women. This ad is telling you that if you are curious about people who have those feelings, or if you think you might feel that way yourself, you should visit their website.”
“Okay,” she says. “That’s not a very funny joke.”
I am afraid she will ask if we can visit the website, but instead she turns the page and starts trying to sell me a bicycle. Thank you, Universe, for the reprieve on that one.
A short-lived reprieve. The Universe isn’t done handing me opportunities for awkward sex ed conversations yet. Oh, no. On Saturday, we went to the kids' music class at Tufts.
There’s a Saturday morning community music program there, attached in some way to the university’s music department. It’s a very cool resource, with great teachers and excellent classes and wonderful resources. Can’t say enough good things about it.
After Rio’s class, I took her to the bathroom. I went into one stall and she went into another. Taped to the back of my stall door was a small sign that read:
Porn, do you watch it or not? Discuss.
That’s a funny sign, I thought, and whipped out my cell phone to take a picture of it. While I was snapping the shot, Rio pipes up from the next stall.
“Mama? Does your bathroom door have a sign on it that says…”
Oh no. of course she has this sign too, I think. I’m wrong. It’s much worse than that.
“…that says, ‘Many gay men do not have anal sex. Many straight men do have anal sex.’? “
“No, honey,” I said, trying to keep the horror out of my voice. “Mine says, “Porn. Do you watch it or not? Discuss.’”
“Oh. Do you also have a blue one that says, “You may have to flush more than once. The next person will thank you.”?”
“Nope. Don’t have that one either.”
For a moment I think maybe we have dodged the conversational bullet of her asking me to explain the first sign. No such luck. As soon as we come out and are washing our hands, she says, “Mommy, what does anal mean?”
I flinch. Finally I answer, “It means something that has to do with your butt.”
“That’s a funny word. It doesn’t sound like butt at all.”
“Well, that’s what it means.”
I do not have a good plan for what I am going to say if she asks what sex that has to do with your butt is, but happily she switches topics.
“And what does straight mean?”
“Well, it means not crooked or wavy,” I try. “Like this counter.”
“This counter is not a man!” she laughs. “What is a straight man?”
“In that usage it means a man who only wants to have sex or romantic love with women. It’s like the opposite of being gay, which means a man who only wants to have sex or romantic love with men.”
“Oh, Okay. I know what gay means. I learned that watching 'Glee.'”
So, to sum up: I am very sorry I accidentally told my girlfriend’s daughter about porn. I am very grateful for the opportunity to answer straightforward questions about sex for my own kids. I hope they keep asking throughout their whole lives whenever they need to, and that I am always able to overcome my own discomfort and give them clear, useful answers.
I also hope that one of the earnest young people from Tufts who put those signs in the music building bathrooms reads this and gets the memo: I love your sex-positive attitude and your fun, conversation-starting signs. But it turns out that building is used by kids on weekends. Some of whom can read. I bet my 7-year-old wasn’t your target audience.
And now I’m hoping the Universe will give this whole topic a rest for a little while, please?