The “Sex Ed Fail” series Candid Uprising featured in December and January (a progression of posts about my experience of working at Planned Parenthood) were the most-read content on the site yet, peaking with “Sex Ed Fail: The Interview“. I found myself wanting to trace sexual attitudes through the generations, to talk to a parent about their perception of responsibility for educating their child about sex, and how that may have been shaped by their parent. Out of the woodwork came a woman in her mid-forties, a mother of two, open to filling in the picture for me.
As a kid she moved a lot, never settling in one place long enough to make a close group of girlfriends. Later, she would point out that a lack of girlfriends made her vulnerable, often times sexually. She grew up in a family that was comfortable with nudity around the house, parents who were honest and forthcoming with her about sex and sexuality. Her earliest memories of learning about sex involve a conversation between her and her mom when she was eight. “I asked my mom about kissing, and she told me it was something that people did with each other when they loved each other.” Any question she had, her mom answered with medically accurate information. What seems to have made the strongest impression was her mom’s ability to talk to her on her level, in a developmentally appropriate way. It increased her comfort level so that asking her mom questions about sex felt natural as she grew up. In lieu of girlfriends (or “the playground” where so many of us learn backwards mis-information, legends, really about sex), she had her welcoming mom.
Once the family landed in a place they decided to stay, she began to make friends with an older crowd, hanging out with seventeen and eighteen year-olds as a seventh grader. The group introduced her to alcohol, which made her feel so good, like a different person, someone popular and not shy (“I was always the girl under the tree, reading a book”). Her first sexual experience happened to her during a party with this older group, sex with an eighteen year-old guy while in a drunken brown-out. “Looking back on it, I realize it was rape,” she told me. “It wasn’t consensual. I had no idea what was going on.” She hadn’t been particularly interested in sex at thirteen, and had clearly been taken advantage by a man who plied her with alcohol. It got worse–“I was slut-shamed by a girl who liked him. I spent time doing image-rehab. It was scarring to go through that.” It was during this time she felt her lack of close girlfriends most keenly. She met the girls she sought a few years later. “We were sounding boards for each other. We all had different upbringings and ideas.” I mentioned how sad it is not to be able to find the right people during such difficult times. Going through a rape, being a rape victim ostracized by peers under the cruel and usual brand of “slut”, without friends:
“I was innocent before that. I thought drinks plus nice equals sex. Being raped made me wary. So did the slut-shaming. Junior high is such a lost time for girls.” she said wistfully. We shared a moment of silence, in remembrance, maybe. Solidarity, for sure.
Tenth grade brought about social stability–the desperately needed circle of girls, a stable boyfriend she dated for the next four years. Her mom seemed to sense it was time to talk about birth control. She had her daughter put on the pill, explaining the importance of birth control in a frank discussion. “My mom never knew about the rape, probably because I was too ashamed to say anything.” I wondered about the power of rape to silence victims, the cultural taboos so intense that a girl who enjoys an open closeness with her mom perceives she can’t say a word. May I ask for a moment of quiet contemplation of that fact from you?
She became pregnant at age twenty-six by a man with whom she had been in a relationship for four years. I wondered if the pregnancy had been planned (old P.P. habits die hard). No, it had been the result of pill failure due to lowered hormone absorption rates as a result of taking antibiotics. Please go check in with every young woman you know to be sure she knows about this (and you can say you’re part of the prevention movement). “I decided to have the child, though I knew I wouldn’t marry G.” Shortly after their son was born, G became very irresponsible. “He got into cocaine and was selling it out of my dad’s car. He was blowing off work and the new baby. It just wasn’t going to work for him to sell drugs out of a car that was registered to my dad. He would blow off picking up the baby from daycare.” She and their son moved in with her parents in a different city in Texas.
“Being a single mom was hard as shit. I was broke and exhausted but determined.” Eventually she fell head-over-heels for a man she followed back to Colorado. Then she gave up on love and got back together with G, for the sake of their son. “There was no love or attraction there. It was for the baby’s sake.” So, how long did that last, I asked. “Oh, about six months. G was in the process of becoming Mormon, and that ended things. I’m non-religious.” The age-old story of forcing yourself to be with someone to whom you’re not attracted…for the sake of someone else. Someone who is recording your every behavioral nuance and testing it out for her/himself. Modeling is a powerful form of learning, just saying. Yet we’ll all try some version of that, staying in a situation for a sake other than our own, sometime, and it rarely works.
Now she has been married for almost thirteen years to E, with whom she has an nine year-old daughter. Her son is months away from age eighteen. “I discovered by accident I was meant to be a mom. I never thought I would be. E, however is the baby-whisperer. He’s a natural dad.” I was curious as to what it was like to merge into a family with E, with her son. “The baby asked to call E dad months into our relationship. We were all living together, E had understood from the beginning that the baby and I were a package deal, all or nothing.” He is their son, and he has a relationship with G, his biological dad.
I wanted to know what messages about sex she’s shared with her son, what information she’s provided, especially now that he’s on the cusp of leaving home. “I’m following my mom’s example. Mom saved me from teen pregnancy and STIs. She gave me the manual.” She remembers an early experience of motherhood when her young son grabbed her breast and asked what it was. She answered him in medically accurate, clinical terms. She began creating the same sense of openness she shared with her mother with her son, starting by talking openly about their bodies and answering each of his questions. “I wanted him to understand his body belonged to him, and that it was his on which to set boundaries. I talked to him about his penis when he was little. I wanted him to feel comfortable in his body.” I believe this is the first first-person account I’ve heard about an opposite gendered parent having a dialogue about sex and sexuality with their child. I’ll admit to being thoroughly impressed with her matter-of-fact, affirming answers to her son’s questions. I thought about how her family culture had evolved from her grandmother’s belief that girls and women should find out about sex after marriage, who was angry at her daughter for being so open with her daughter. By the fourth generation we have a boy who’s learning about healthy body image from his mom’s straightforward information.
What’s the difference between how she talks to her nine year-old daughter and her teen son? Is there a difference? I keep hearing each kid is different, from a variety of sources. So do you talk to them about sex differently? Are some messages highlighted? Or are the messages disparate?
“My daughter asks questions and I answer them. I model affection and talk about the different types of love. She and I have talked about having babies and I’ve explained a little about the difference between being physically versus emotionally ready.” Some of the conversations have come about due to her daughter experiencing early onset of puberty and changing physically in ways her peers aren’t. “I try to explain what she’s going through in a body-positive way. I want to normalize it for her.”
While I didn’t ask, I wanted to understand if her experience of rape had influenced the way she talks to her kids about sex. She seemed to intuit this and described talking to both kids about the importance of setting physical boundaries for themselves, and the importance of communication. “No one should pressure kids to have sex. I talk explicitly with my son about consent, and I emphasize the importance of respecting women. I encourage my daughter to set physical boundaries and to trust herself.” Her hope is to instill in her daughter an ability to assess her own comfort level in future sexual situations and react from there. She hopes that by speaking frankly to her kids they will learn how to communicate openly about sex and use those critical skills with future partners. She wants to instill in her son the importance of treating himself and women with respect. She wants him to understand very clearly how important it is to only have sex with consensual partners, and what exactly that means. “I didn’t stand up enough for myself. I want my kids not to be pushovers like I was.”
Her story is an extraordinary juxtaposition to others I’ve told on Candid Uprising in the “Sex Ed Fail” series. Tracing the pattern between what we learn at home and how we teach the next generation was uncomplicated in her story. What left me curious is how her mom had broken the cycle of information-gathering-after-marriage. And of course, in twenty years I wonder if her kids have kids what messages they’ll be sending, and whether we will have become more comfortable, as a society, with medically-accurate, clinical information about sex. Or can I dream bigger, about a society where information is free as air, person-to-person, no shame, no fear, no judgment?
(Oh, and I’m not talking about the internet).
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