It’s far too late now, because they’re grown adults, but if there was one piece of advice I would give my daughters about love, it’s those four words:
Never lie about love. All love, actually, but in this kind I’m talking about the sticky kind of love: sex.
There’s actually a pretty simple reason for it, and it has to do with when my parents gave me “the talk”. You know what I mean, right, even without the knowing smirk and air quotes? The Talk is when parents explain the birds and the bees to their kids, and –
No. Wait. See what I did there? I lied about love.
It’s not just a talk. Most kids (until they reach their gothic teen years) talk to their parents every day. This is not a talk, it’s a talk about sex. It’s about how your body works, and it’s supposed to help them make sense of the changing and shifting desires that they have as their bodies change and mature into having hormones.
Yet we can’t seem to call it that in contemporary American culture. In fact, we do everything but talk about it. The talk, for example, has absolutely nothing to do with birds or bees. Unfortunately, in most cases, parents have been so conditioned to be uncomfortable about the subject that they can barely use the correct terms, much less the common vernacular. My father, for example, gave me a stammering question-and-answer when I was about 10, explaining that I had a penis there. Unfortunately, at the time “penis” wasn’t part of my vocabulary, so I spent the next couple of years thinking it was a “peanuts.” “Cock”, “dick” and other common words that my friends at school used were complete mysteries to me.
The school was no help either. They did the typical division of boys and girls, because we apparently weren’t allowed to know what was going on with the other half of our world. They went through a very clinical and abstracted explanation of puberty. They discussed the sperm, the fertilization of the egg, the way it forms a zygote and grows over nine months into a person. Abortion? Not mentioned. Nor was birth control. I don’t remember if sexually transmitted infections were covered, which probably means they certainly weren’t emphasized.
At the end of the lecture, with all the adults looking alternately smugly amused and awkwardly uncomfortable, the principal asked if there were any questions. My best friend, Hughie Flanagan, raised his hand. “I get the whole sperm and egg thing, but what I don’t get, is…how does the sperm actually GET to the egg?”
Think about that for a second. This was our big Sex Education Moment. This was where they were going to talk to us about the strange things that we’d heard about, explain the changes in our bodies, give us the tools to grow into sexual adults. And they didn’t bother to actually talk about SEXUAL INTERCOURSE. No mention of all of the simplest aspect of it, penis in vagina sex.
Of course, the principal immediately apologized for the oversight, and clearly and concisely explained exactly what was involved in the process of arousal and orgasm and – Ha! Gotcha. Of course he didn’t. Instead, the rest of the student body guffawed with laughter, joined by most of the staff in the room, and the Principal blushed and said, when the laughter died down, “Any. Way. It. Can.” The other staff laughed at this non-answer, and amidst jeers and shame Hughie didn’t ask for any other clarification.
That was too bad, because I really didn’t get it either. Neither did most of the people laughing at him, I suspect. A lie by omission or obfuscation is still a lie, and these authority figures in our pre-teen life were obviously hiding something from us. The message, though, was not to bother asking; that way lay ostracism and shame.
I finally figured out at least some of what sex was about from a great little book called “Love and Sex and Growing Up.” That amazing book not only clearly described the actions of sex but even mentioned the fact that it could involve pleasure. How about that? Actually mentioning the primary motivation for most human beings for sex: it feels good. What a concept!
A few months into my sixteenth year, my stepmother was giving me a ride home from school, and for some reason decided that this was the day for the Talk. She wanted to give me the truth about sex, because apparently she was disturbed by some of the messages that I might be getting from the media.
“It’s nothing like in the James Bond movies, you know,” she said as we pulled into the driveway. “The man can only have sex once a night, it only lasts about five minutes, and it’s no fun for the woman at all. That’s just the way it is.”
I solemnly nodded, said “Oh. Ok.” and got out of the car. I had just learned one of two things, and I was trying to work out which was correct. You see, I’d lost my virginity to my algebra study partner a few months before, and had been sexually active pretty much continuously since then.
And I knew that everything she had just told me was not true. So either she was lying to me, or she didn’t know any better. I still don’t know which it was, but it certainly made me question everything else she told me was true. It also made it entirely unlikely that I would ever go to her again for any advice, especially about sex.
I am proud of the fact that I never lied to my daughters about sex. I did my best to give them accurate information as they asked about it (I’m sure they would say that to some extent I was overly informative, but hey, that’s what you get when Dad’s an educator). I also was a single dad for quite a few years, so I read books on how to explain the menstrual cycle and female anatomy and how to balance the reality of pleasure and risk of disease and pregnancy. I wanted to make sure my children did not have the same disadvantage as I did.
I thought I was prepared for anything my daughters would ask me. One day, again in the car, my oldest daughter Ashlei – about 9 or 10 at the time – spoke up. “Dad, can I ask you a question about periods?”
She’s not talkin’ punctuation, bucko, I thought, and braced myself, reviewing mentally what I’d read about dysmenorhhea and cycles and cramps and bloating and toxic shock syndrome and wings. I felt ready. I felt educated. I was ready to share my knowledge with my daughter, no matter what she asked. “Go ahead, hon,” I said, smiling at her in the rear view mirror.
“How come men don’t have them?”
“Um…” Dammit. That was not covered in any of the books, tapes, workshops. So I caved. “You’ll have to ask your mother.” Yeah, not my proudest moment. But a good lesson: the question your kids will ask you about sex is the one you’re not expecting.
“The energy you spend denying your desires for fear of rejection is energy spent sabotaging the chance you’ll see those desires fulfilled.” – JaclynF, via Twitter
I’ve been talking a lot about parent-child sex conversations, but the reality of “Never lie about love” actually applies to everyone. With the kind of sexual education I was given, for example, how was I supposed to deal with my first crush? My first erection? How many of you reading this winced or grinned embarrasedly when I wrote those three words? Here’s a better question: why? It’s a common biological process to a little under half of the world’s population, like eating and sleeping and walking and peeing.
We are conditioned, though, to look outwards for acceptance, and that feeds our inner critic as well. We’re told there’s a certain amount of sex (though never quite told how much) that is appropriate, and so we feel guilty for wanting too much, or not enough. We feel guilty for wanting a certain kind of sexual activity, or guilty for not wanting it. We may feel like we shouldn’t be attracted to someone, or as if something’s wrong with us because we aren’t.
When are trying to convince ourselves that the feelings that we’re having aren’t right, it’s a hopeless and wasted task. The heart wants what it will, and much of the world’s literature and entertainment is entirely based around the futility of trying to change that. What if instead we took that energy and devoted it to understanding that? To nourishing our love in constructive ways? What could we do with all that energy, all those resources, if they weren’t spent trying to stop something that is integral and unstoppable?
I don’t know. But I suspect it would be incredible.