Sex Education Isn’t Just ‘The Talk’
When I was 36 years old, my mum asked me what a blowjob was.
After I rearranged my face to be able to breathe and speak again, I asked her where she had heard the word. She mentioned M, a passing (and much younger) acquaintance. (M had told her husband she would give him “no more” until he agreed to buy her son a motorcycle.) Fortunately, my mother was just not hip to the slang; she knew the more formal term. Once enlightened, she was aghast at M’s sexual politics and horribly mortified that she had laughed without knowing exactly what M was referencing.
I told my mother I didn’t want her speaking with M again if this was the sort of rubbish she picked up. Then we both cracked up.
It’s a good reminder that sex education, like all education, probably doesn’t ever stop. I’m all for it: at school, at home, in the playground, talking to your 60-something mother. Whether presented in a scientific, clinical manner by your classmate’s Dr. Mum or the ominous, morally charged approach of a celibate Catholic nun, the point is to Start The Conversation. Take it home. Have your conservative grandmother feel a little queasy. Giggle with your friends about it. Spend a day being secretly, completely disgusted.
It is now generally agreed that sex education is not The Talk but rather a series of dialogues, comments, literature, films, incidents, and NatGeo clips. Sex education encompasses everything from knowing what genitalia looks like, to the technicalities of puberty, to how painful a pap smear or a mammogram can be. It is about science and sociology, fashion and physiology, politics and biology. So why draw these idiotic veils over it? Why speak of ‘protecting innocence’? Why use confusing metaphors?
Some answers to “Where do babies come from?” border on hallucination. The winner, by far, was a friend who decided to be a rebel and ask her dad instead of her mum. His explanation boiled down to: babies are born due to Extreme Thoughts of Love. If he was on one side of the Atlantic Ocean and her mother was on the other, their Extreme Love Thoughts would meet. And THAT was how she was conceived.
Thus enlightened, my friend spent the rest of the year sitting as far away as possible from her Hindi tuition teacher, worrying about her thoughts meeting his over a dining table considerably smaller than the Atlantic. A funny story, now, but much scarier than real biology, surely.
Bucking conventional beliefs about waiting till puberty to have The Talk, I’ve actually found it easier to answer some questions when the children were younger. The words are simpler. There is no awkwardness to navigate around, no half-truths to be investigated. Like my mum did for me, I drew pictures on the DoodlePro and explained eggs and sperm and zygotes.
Like my mum again, I lost my confidence as they got older and bought the eldest a book. It is a great book. a series, by Sarah Delmege, is accessible, comprehensive, deals with the emotions, vanity, acne, crushes! I highly recommend it. (There’s a Just for Boys, too.)
It couldn’t be further from the Catholic sex ed book my mum bought me, that suggested that since girls have two X chromosomes, they could technically impregnate themselves. Or the 80s’ one, which had two trains (one with a penis and the other with a vagina) making a little bogey. The trauma!
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Sex education at school is your ally. Don’t look at it as undermining your authority. Don’t worry that it will teach your children the mechanics of sexual activity. It will promote neither promiscuity nor abstinence if you are already ready to have these conversations at home.
Sex education should be imparted appropriate to kids’ developmental stage and age. No matter what your family’s beliefs are, you will find it provides an incomparable forum for discussing gender and human rights, cultural differences and individual values.
If your school doesn’t have sex ed, maybe you should be the one to suggest it begins. Perhaps your child can come to you with an embarrassing or tricky question. For many children though, when this natural, unavoidable physiological process kicks in, it is treated as taboo. Not only does that stifle them emotionally, the whispers on the bus, the giggles in the bathrooms, and the churn of hormones within can baffle them, make them feel guilty and ‘bad.’ Scarily, it makes them vulnerable to all sorts of misinformation or worse, abuse.
Like with all education or experience, the second (and third) siblings get a headstart on everything. My second daughter read Just For Girls four years earlier than her sister. She was none the worse for it. So I got her another book: Zitz, Glitz and Body Bits, a more glamourous guide to puberty. I admit I didn’t read it thoroughly; two days later, she handed it back to me. “Uhhh, I don’t think this is age appropriate,” she said. (It was, but it is also up to her to decide how much information she can deal with.) “Okay,” I said, “we’ll put it back in the shelf. Any questions?” She shook her head and ran off to play.
We do our best to protect our children from harm in the real world and online: chaperones, escorts, safesearch, filters. You can be sure it will never be enough. Last year, an older girl on the bus (clearly not being supervised as well as she should be) informed my elder daughter’s class about blowjobs. My daughter came home in a paroxysm of nausea and horror. It made me think of my late mother.
It was earlier than I’d have liked, but I told my daughter the story of her grandmother and how you cannot escape random people saying risqué things. But she needed to know she could always come to me. Then we both cracked up.