Published on January 4th, 2017 | by Kathleen Furin0
THE BIRDS AND THE BEANS: Kathleen Furin on Why it’s Still So Hard to Talk About Sex With Kids
My youngest daughter started sixth grade this year, with its dreaded sex ed unit. I want her to learn about sex. But the curriculum in our public school seems heteronormative, monogamy-biased, and still way too patriarchal. Her older sister’s descriptions of the class make it sound god-awful.
“You see this movie, with a man and a woman taking a bubble bath, right?” she said. “Then they both stand up and the bubbles drip off so you can see their parts.” Is that sex ed or cheesy ’ 70’s porn? I can’t imagine any teacher showing something so ridiculous. On the other hand, could my daughter really have made that up?
My own experiences working as a counselor motivated me to think about how we talk to kids about sex, and gave rise to the desire to try to do sex ed “right” with my own kids. In my early twenties I worked at an alternative high school in South Brooklyn. Many of the students there spoke Spanish, and since I did not, they went out of their way to teach me words and phrases. One day one of the students asked me what was being served for lunch. I meant to say “arroz con habichuelas” but what I said instead was “arroz con bichos.” The student started to laugh so hard she couldn’t speak. One of the other students told me to go ask my supervisor what I had just said; none of them would tell me.
“Kathy!” my supervisor said. “That’s Puerto Rican slang for the male organ. You just told the kids they were having rice and…you know…” she laughed.
For the duration of my tenure there that lunch (served every other Wednesday) was known as rice and dicks.
This ongoing humiliation should have made it easy for me to deal with subbing in for the science teacher when she was doing her human sexuality unit. She was using a progressive, body-positive book, and I was following her instructions, just having everyone go around the room and read a paragraph out loud.
This went well until we got to the paragraph about cunnilingus.
A boy literally jumped out of his seat. “Wait. What. No way,” he said. “No.”
I thought at first he was trolling me. But he was serious.
Some of the girls in the class laughed. (Some of the girls in the class had children, or were pregnant).
“He puts his tongue inside her?” He shuddered.
“You ain’t never did that?” one of the students asked.
“He never did nothing.”
“Not with a girl anyway.”
“Let’s focus in on what this says about communication,” I said. I was trying to be casual, but my cheeks felt warm. “That to be a good partner you need to communicate well, set boundaries, decide what to explore together.”
He was still standing there shaking his head. “I’m never exploring that.”
I tried to move on (where do you move on to, after cunnilingus? Well, actually, I have a few ideas but somehow this wasn’t the right moment.) And I decided right then that if I ever had kids, they would know everything there was to know about sex before they were subjected to learning about it in school.
From early on in my relationship I realized that I would be the one doing most of the sex ed in my house. My husband is a very respectful, very proper Old-World Latino who went to all-boys schools, both abroad and after he immigrated to the U.S. as a teen. The society that he grew up in was Catholic, conservative, patriarchal, homophobic. And while he’s shaken off that conditioning, becoming a vocal feminist and LGBTQ ally, vestiges of that upbringing remain. He and my teenage daughter used to argue about her clothing. He hates the short shorts the young women wear today, which has led to many discussions about body-shaming, slut-shaming, double standards, rape culture. “My friends think I’m Amish, Dad!” my daughter said once. As a result of our discussions he’s lightened up a lot. But several years ago we spent the summer with his people back home, and the girls attended school there. I had to buy them new clothes because anything that didn’t cover the knee was considered disrespectful. I was so mortified when the teacher informed me that their clothing was inappropriate, and it added another layer to my husband’s perspective. Because believe me, in the U.S. it was beyond respectful! My husband also hates high heels, but that’s because he’s practical. Women should be able to fight or flee if we need to, and he worries about our knee joints. (That’s a personal preference rather than a cultural one, though; I observed many women wearing high heels, even in places with unpaved roads).
Since my husband had evolved so much even before we met, I was surprised that he wasn’t as open about sex as I am. We were painting the walls in the baby’s room when I was pregnant, talking about what would be the hardest thing about being a parent. (We were so innocent. We had no idea). But the “sex talk” came up. “Daddy, what’s a blow job?” I asked him. He walked out of the room, clearly not amused or ready to talk sex with his yet-to-be-born daughter.
He might have been willing to answer that question, though, if he knew how long he would have to go before getting one after we had the baby. Because truly, while having sex is what gets you kids, having kids does not get you sex. It’s the exhaustion. It’s the breastfeeding, your body the all-night-all-you-can-eat truck stop. I nursed my daughter until she was two. When she was finally weaned she would slip her hand inside my bra sometimes, if she was sad or scared or needed comfort. Nobody had ever loved my boobs more. And she told me so.
“I just love your breasts, Mommy,” she said one day. “They’re so soft and floppy, like a dog’s ear.”
Breasts like a dog’s ear. What every woman aspires to.
Then she grew up. It happened so fast. In second grade she came home from school and announced, “Nila told me that to make a baby the boy pees in the girl. That’s disgusting.” Whoops. I’d forgotten to fulfill my commitment to talk about sex early, and here we were. Typical parenting, big ideals but time and reality intervening.
“Nila’s sort of right,” I said. “The boy does put his penis in the girl’s vagina. But what comes out isn’t pee. It’s a different substance, called semen.”
“Oh,” she said. “OK. That’s much better. If he peed in her it would be gross.”
I gave her a few more fun facts then let the conversation meander on. “But listen,” I said. “Maybe Nila is not the best person to answer your questions. If you want to know something about sex, just ask me.” I did not say ask your father. But she was 8. What did she know about who to ask?
Later than night my husband came in and went up to read her a story. I hadn’t had a chance to tell him about our conversation yet, so he was totally unprepared when she said, “Daddy, what color is semen?” Which is actually a really good question.
“Mom told me it’s not pee. But is it yellow?” He deftly turned back to the book they were reading—not a strategy I recommend, but caught off guard it was all he had.
A few years (and a few sex books) later and it was my turn to drive carpool, six kids ranging in age from 9-13, all girls but one.
“So,” this sole boy said to no one in particular, “I have a really important question.”
“OK. What’s up?” I said.
“So, like, I get how the penis gets hard and all. That makes sense. But what makes the stuff inside come out?”
The older girls started giggling. I sort of started to answer, then thought, wait, no, this is not my responsibility. I don’t want to give him info his parents should be giving him.
“Umm….” I said.
“Is it kind of like a gogurt tube?” he went on. “Like you squeeze from the bottom, and it splurts out the top?”
The back seat erupted (into giggles).
“Umm, honey, that’s a really good question. But don’t you think the best person to ask might be your mom?”
“That’s the problem,” he said. “I did ask her. She doesn’t know!”
I dropped him off and pulled my friend aside.
“You don’t know?” I said. “That’s the best you could come up with? At least give the poor kid a book. The ones I have – the damn American Girl ones, Our Bodies, Ourselves – aren’t gonna work for him. Although he might enjoy my old school A New View of A Woman’s Body.”
“I just don’t know how to talk about it.”
I get that. Many parents struggle to talk about sex with their kids. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it! I think my own struggles growing up happened, in some ways, because nobody in my life knew how to talk about sex, at least not in a way that was helpful. I also went to Catholic schools, even a Catholic college. I remember being told that anything more than a good night kiss was sinful. In college I remember my boyfriend telling me that he went to confession and told the priest we were having sex. He was forgiven, although he was also told to refrain from any future activity (that lasted about a week). But the priest told him that I urgently needed to come and confess too. Evidently, my sexual activity was more sinful than his. I was already troubled by the double standards and woman-shaming I had learned; this event probably began the rebellion that would drive me away from conventional religiosity.
And standing there with my friend who was struggling to talk about sex with her kids, it hit me. My desire to make sure my kids were informed was not so much about them being embarrassed. It was more about them being safe – physically, emotionally, psychologically. I don’t know if there are any good sex ed curriculums that address issues of power differences, heteronormativity, consent, assault. From what I’ve observed the sex ed my kids have gotten is geared towards straight men, not really focused on multiracial, bicultural young women. Sex itself, much like sex ed, is gross, hilarious, compelling, disgusting, fun, funny, beautiful, amazing and awful, sometimes all at once. I’ll give them books, answer their questions, try to support them in making the best decisions. One of the tasks of the adolescent is to explore who they are as sexual beings. And sometimes that gets messy, and we get embarrassed, or humiliated. Sometimes it gets ugly, and we get hurt. But all the information in the world can’t stand in for real life experiences and the ways those shape us. If we’re smart, we follow the advice of the high school science book I was using and find ways to communicate with our sexual partners about our desires, our boundaries, our hopes and fears. If we’re lucky we find partners who are loving and supportive and respect us regardless. And maybe at the end of the day the best partner is one who can laugh with us about all things sex, even (and especially) when things don’t go quite as planned, or when we don’t know quite what to say. But we live in a society that has some pretty fucked-up standards. What do we do about that?
I err on the side of overeducating, pushing resources and information, discussing assault and consent, critiquing destructive social norms. (Sadly, the current election has given us lots of material). I recommended the “Guys We F***ed” podcast to my fifteen-year old. I routinely leave condoms in her bedroom closet, just in case. And raising curious daughters has forced my husband to lighten up a little. I’m pretty sure if his grandkids ask him about his semen he’ll know exactly how to handle it.