Monday, February 10, 2014

Impure Thoughts: Taking Shame Out Of Sex

Last week my husband and I talked to our oldest kid about sex. We've had an open dialogue about anatomy and biology and the basic clinical facts of human sexuality for many years. My husband and I are affectionate. There is a nearly constant line of innuendo around here that no longer goes over the older kids' heads. They know that if they wake up in the middle of the night for a drink of water and hear grown ups on the pool deck, they shouldn't come out there. But the time has come to talk about sex as it applies to him, and the real issues that surround teenage sexuality in contemporary American society. He's started kissing his girlfriend regularly. I hope (and he assures me) that he's several years from even making the leap to heavy petting, but you know what they say about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of not-having-a-baby-when-you're-in-high-school... we need to talk about it. You know: It.

I suspect that most people, even those who grow up with very conservative parents, eventually find their way into their own sexual comfort zone. It's not supposed to happen when you're a teenager. Don't misunderstand and think that I'm trying to rush any of my kids into being sexually active. I'm not. 

But listen, when I look at the current legislative agenda in my home state, I see a whole lot of really uptight policy rooted in sexual shame. Some people might call it salvation, but I don't think that legislating discriminatory policy is saving anyone. Generating hate-filled laws centered around sexual identity, or stripping women's rights to make their own choices about birth control and health care is not going to save the environment nor the economy from destructive corporate practices. It's not going to make our kids smarter. All this sexual repression happening at the state level is distracting us from the real issues we need to be paying attention to. Maybe that's their agenda. Just smoke and mirrors to get us riled up so we won't pay attention to all the shady shit they're pulling with defunding education, degrading the environment, and shifting the tax burden onto the middle and lower classes. And we are like moths to the flame.

My job as a Kansas mama is to raise kids who aren't uptight about sex. Maybe they'll do a better job of staying focused than the current moral majority.

I don't ascribe to a set of religious principles to guide me through the discourse, but I have a code of morals, nonetheless, and I'm leaning heavily on them for inspiration on how to best guide them. My son listened while I lectured about condoms and watching for signs that the girl wants you to stop. He participated with mild embarrassment, but he seems pretty comfortable talking about sex with us. The fact that he could hold the conversation without once giggling or rolling his eyes means I was right. It was time.

How we address sex will ultimately help shape our kids' attitudes about it. It's like priming the canvas so the colors of their own growth and experience will be bold, bright and not flaky. I can't impose my morality on my kids, nor would I want to, but I can introduce them to my thoughts on the subject of sex. First, I had to define my objective. That part was easy for me, it's like everything else I want for him: to be happy and to be kind.

So here's the deal, kid:

As you know, sex is something all mammals do to propagate their respective species. Human mammals do it for lots of other reasons, too, some simple reasons and some not so. Sex between a male and female sometimes results in pregnancy. Pregnancy is miraculous. It's mysterious. And in my case, it's usually a bit of a fluke. Some couples try and try for many years. Others have two too many margaritas on the porch on a fine spring night, and miscalculate their ovulatory cycle in the heat of passion. That's how your baby sister got the nickname Tequila Bad Math.

Rules Number One, Two and Three: Don't Leave It Up To Your Partner To Be In Charge Of Birth Control. Until you are old enough and experienced enough to confidently rely on alternate birth control methods, you simply must use a condom and spermicide every time you have sex, no matter what, no matter what, no matter what... My husband will read this and nod gravely in agreement, silently mouthing the words every time.

I'm not giving my 13 year old son permission to have sex. On the contrary (and I know this would freak the knickers off of the Purity Movement folks), I'm telling him that he doesn't need my permission. He needs his own and his partner's. The same applies to my daughters. I don't want them to rush, but when the time comes I do want my kids to be prepared, unashamed, and supplied with what they need to be safe and responsible. The more comfortable and empowered they feel about sexuality (their own and others) the better. Rule Number Four: Get To Know Yourself. Good luck. It's a long and winding road, my friend.

I talked to my son about how to talk about sex with his partner. Before, during, after: Is this okay? Do you want me to do this? Sometimes body language will be all you need to communicate, but it's important to address any hesitation immediately. Rule Number Five: Talk About It. Your girlfriend needs to hear that you won't think she's stupid or immature if she's uncomfortable with something. She needs to know that you value her more than the sex. You deserve to know how she feels about you.

Sex is not vile. Sex is not filth. Sex does not demean educated, consenting participants. Sex does not defile them nor damage them. Rule Number Six: Treat The People You Sleep With As A National Park. Leave nothing but footprints - transmit no std's (in fact, last month my son voluntarily began the vaccination process for HPV, the little sweetheart!); kill nothing but time - be kind with your words and deeds; and protect the enjoyment of future generations - when you're old enough to vote, support legislation that promotes women's reproductive health and comprehensive sex education in public school.

However, your partner is not actually a National Park, so take no pictures. I repeat: take no pictures! And please gently discourage any teenage girl who wants to send you a racy picture. She's not ready for that, please just take my word for it. That's Rule Number Seven: Take NO Pictures. 

I understand the precept of the Purity Movement, of promoting virginity until marriage. I don't agree with it, but I understand it. To me, the emphasis on maintaining purity as a measure of the genuineness of one's faith seems misguided at best. At worst, it is a brand of slut shaming that can deeply scar a young woman if she strays from her promise. We have taken her sexuality out of her hands and placed it in the hands of men. If we say that a girl's virginity, her purity, belongs to Jesus (or in some extra creepy cases, her father!) until the Charming Prince comes along to claim it, we have effectively made the contents of her panties a dowry. Some of these girls make purity promises as young as age five. When I was five, I promised my friend I could climb to the top of the biggest building in town and fly back to our driveway.

What exactly is the point? Is the Purity Movement an effort to circumvent the overtly sexual onslaught American girls face in the everyday media and advertising? If so, I find it ironic that the method of combat is to further reduce them to their sexuality. Why can't a girl be sexual and smart? Why wouldn't I want my daughters to know that about themselves? That their worth has nothing to do with the state of their hymens. Just yesterday, my five year old daughter promised me that she will never grow up, that she'll stay little forever. She said it because she knows I want it to be true. I love her fivey-ness. She's so fivey!! But that is a promise she can't keep. And I told her that it's okay for her to grow up. I'm not going to ask her to promise me something today and hold to it until she's 25 years old! Rule Number Eight: You Do Not Belong To Me. You don't belong to me, and neither does your virginity. Those are yours. You don't owe me anything but honesty and respect, the same things you owe the rest of the world.

The leaders of the Purity Movement talk about sacrifice and morality as though they are a uniform circumstance. It’s very convenient to don a cloak of morality that fits you well, but it’s impossible for some of us to squeeze in there. I’ve tried to shimmy into those skin tight values. I couldn’t even get them over my hips. That one-size-fits-all code of morals? It doesn’t. The tag lied.

I don’t expect everyone to try on the suit I’m wearing. Actually, if I could call my morality any article of clothing, it’s more like a wrap-around dress. My experiences and observations have changed my shape over the years, and the ties allow for this. Also, there’s usually a lot of cleavage showing because I have a pretty nice rack. But I’m not saying to anyone: you have to wear my dress! Rule Number Nine: You Do Not Have To Wear My Dress. If you decide that a stricter code of morals than mine (or looser, if you can find one) is in order, you go for it. As long as you're following the rules above, you are entitled to decide for yourself what feels right to you. Experiment with different philosophies. Read spiritual texts. Talk to people. Meditate. Above all, take your time. There's no hurry. You'll be amazed how much there is to learn about yourself and life through sex. This works especially well if you don't start out with some pre-supposed notion that you already have all the answers about what is "right" and what is "wrong."

Which brings us full circle, back to the Kansas House of Reps... and to Rule Number Ten: Your Sexual Morality Is Yours To Explore, To Define, And To Redefine. For your whole life. Don't be ashamed of it. 


  1. you are so fucking rad. a goddamn marvel.

  2. Yes! This! Exactly! Great post. If more parents stepped up and engaged in the conversation like this, our young people would enter their sexual lives with a lot less baggage.

  3. Beautifully said. Tried to work through this with my daughter in her early teens. She is a momma now. After finishing high school, bachelors and masters degrees. I bought her the condoms. She did not take them until she decided it was time.

  4. 1972? My father gave me a thin paperback on sex, talked a little bit and left me to figure the rest out with my clueless peers.

    We need the good parent to speak up.