My friends will tell you that I am an annoyingly honest person – my enemies would probably put it slightly differently. I have had to learn that when people talk to me about something, they are not always asking for my opinion. However, I still believe in communicating congruently and with integrity, even if you have to spend some time thinking about how you’re going to wrap it up. Becoming a parent has presented an interesting challenge to my enthusiasm for openness and transparency. My general belief has been that if my kids are old enough to ask the question, they’re old enough to hear the answer. For this reason, I have really struggled with the whole Father Christmas malarkey and tend to mutter things about the “important thing is that you believe in him” before swiftly shifting the subject matter onto something else. The only time I have really felt utterly wrongfooted however, is when my son asked me exactly how babies were made.
My son is a deep thinker and seems to have inherited my tendency to ponder the nature of the universe. He constantly questions what he sees around him and I like to think I have inculcated a healthy disrespect for authority which I am sure will backfire when he adolesces. When I was pregnant with his sister he was 2 years old and I had the normal questions to deal with: “Where is the baby Mummy?” “How did it get there?” and “How is it going to come out?”. I dealt with all of these in what I felt was an age appropriate way: “Well, the baby’s in my womb in my tummy, me and Daddy made it with an egg and some seed and it’s going to come out of the birth canal”. Phew, didn’t have to say penis or vagina once. Then one day when we were driving (it’s always when you’re driving) he asked me “But how exactly does the seed get into the lady Mummy?” and I nearly crashed the car.
The thing is, kids never ask you these questions at a time when you feel prepared. I really can’t remember what pre-empted this, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to have to come up with a quick response about the finer details of reproduction at that particular juncture. I expected this sort of thing to happen at bedtime or some other intimate moment when I could look him in the eye and come out with some brilliant pearl of wisdom that would introduce him to the wonderful world of sex, not think on my feet whilst simultaneously navigating a roundabout and trying to block out the sound of a crying baby. So, I giggled and said “Well a man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina and the seed comes out, he he he”. My son was stunned into silence and needless to say, didn’t ask me anything else.
I really didn’t want my first conversation with my son to involve me giggling like a teenager. The idea that sex is something funny or embarrassing is not an attitude I had hoped to pass on to my children. My own experience of being told about sex consisted of a particularly painful episode involving my Dad walking me round the ‘reproduction’ zone in the Natural History Museum whilst proclaiming how ‘wonderful’ it all was, whereas my Mum mumbled something along the lines of, “Well you know all about that don’t you?” and cut straight to contraception at the age of 15. My parents never mentioned sex at all in front of me apart from that, and the thought that it was something they did, let alone enjoyed, is completely alien. When I became a mother, I decided I didn’t want my children to feel the same embarrassment that I felt. I was going to be a groovy feminist Mum who has no secrets and teaches her children to be completely unashamed of their bodies and their sexuality.
We do not live in a vacuum however and I feel that I am constantly having to deal with the strange attitudes of those around us. My friend recently told me about an incident at her son’s school where a member of staff overheard her 8 year old son saying something about ‘sex’ to his best friend who happens to be a girl, and hauled him into her office. Before her son knew what was happening he had been told that it was not appropriate in any circumstance for him to be talking about sex and that she didn’t want to see him “end up in prison in 10 years time” because he had done something wrong. My friend’s son was utterly confused and upset, especially as he had actually asked his friend if she was “upset” and didn’t even know what “sex” meant. This casual positioning of this small boy as some kind of potential sex offender struck me as the worst possible introduction to this subject that he could have had, but the school failed to really see the problem. If we start by telling boys that they are rapists in waiting at the age of 8, what chance do they have in growing up to be sensitive and caring lovers?
Parenting boys and girls through such tricky terrain will be an ongoing challenge. Despite my attempts to be open and honest, I do worry about what my kids will tell their friends and whether I will end up with angry parents on my doorstep. I have already had to navigate an awkward episode at the childminders when my kids were enthusiastically playing “labour” and giving birth in dramatic and (I’m proud to say) accurate detail, whilst one of their less well informed peers looked on incredulously. I am often naked in front of my kids and as we still have a tendency to snuggle up in the same bed every morning, I sometimes worry that one day this will be misinterpreted. I understand that not everybody shares my beliefs in sexual freedom and openness and I can’t control the influence from the world around us. I have already had to skirt the issue of ‘porn’ when my son saw me typing it into google when I was testing our internet security system, but I know that it is just around the corner. We live in a world where women are still shamed for breastfeeding in public and yet we have a national newspaper that thinks it’s okay to print topless pictures of worryingly young women on page 3. A world where people use arguments for freedom of speech so that they can justify watching porn that shows women being abused, degraded and humiliated. A world where women are constantly judged on their appearance and sex appeal, yet dismissed as ‘sluts’ if they dare to exercise some sexual agency. I am aware that battling against fucked up societal attitudes around sex is not going to be easy.
As a feminist, I want to teach my son how to respect women and understand the importance of enthusiastic consent, not be worrying about whether his normal inquisitiveness about sex and his body will turn him into a criminal. I want my daughter to know that she has a clitoris and a vagina and what the word ‘labia’ means. I want her to realise that it’s okay to enjoy masturbation, fine to play the field and teach her that it’s okay to ask for someone to think about her needs. Most of all I want them both to realise that sex isn’t all about making babies, that they’re free to choose to do it with whoever they like (women or men!) and that it’s about the best kind of free fun you can have with another human being. Learning about sex is not a moment in time, a “talk” about the birds and the bees or an awkward walk around an exhibition, but a continual process, a conversation that starts from when they are old enough to ask the question and continues into adulthood. So, from now on, when my kids ask me a question about sex, I’m going to swallow my embarrassment and do my best to stifle the giggles.