Molly: Dad, what’s that stuff boys have? Spurn?
Steve: Do you mean sperm?
Molly: Yes. How does it help make a baby?
(A short discussion about the biology of baby-making ensues.)
Molly: So how do single Moms get the sperm? Do they drink it?
Steve (snickering): No, honey.
(A short explanation of the basics of artificial insemination ensues.)
Molly rolls out questions like these when one of us is lying in bed with her winding down the day and she’s stalling going to sleep – it’s when she does some of her biggest thinking. We’ve covered topics like addiction, racism, gay marriage, and euthanasia (Molly wondered why we couldn’t just put Grandpa Charlie to sleep, like we had with the cats, when he was in a lot of pain toward the end of his cancer battle. She said it seemed dumb not to be able to since it would end his suffering.) Parenting is never dull, I tell you, and we always try to answer any question our kids ask with frank, age-appropriate, fact-based answers and open discussion.
Cue the comprehensive sex talk.
Our older, tween daughter has been attending church with our babysitter for the past few months. She sets her alarm, gets up, gets ready on her own, and walks out the door at 8:10 a.m. to get to Sunday school. She says she’s enjoying forging new friendships, and that eating doughnuts for breakfast rocks. Steve and I aren’t churchgoers, but when our kids express an interest, we are happy to let them explore organized religion with family and close friends. So far, they’ve tasted a few flavors of Christianity – Catholicism, Mormonism, the Presbyterian church, the Baptist church, and most recently, this church – a heavily attended, non-denominational Christian church where the sermon is beamed in from the gigantic, suburban mother-church onto screens in the huge sanctuary.
After spending many years of our early lives attending church, organized religion isn’t of interest to me or Steve anymore, but we both engage in a regular spiritual practice that keeps us feeling connected to something larger than we are. We’ve made a concerted effort since the girls were little to expose them to information about the major world religions. More importantly, we talk with them about the basic, core principles common to most religions, and encourage them to live by these principles – love, kindness, compassion, honesty, etc. So, when they go to church, we naturally expect that these principles are generally going to be the basis for discussion in Sunday school. That’s how it was when I went to church. It seems reasonable to assume that’s how it is now. So, imagine my surprise when…
Me: What did you talk about in church today?
Me: (silently, to myself) Crikey! Welcome to the South. I hope this isn’t going to be like the time I had to set Molly straight after a day at vacation Bible school: Molly: “Mom, do you know why the sky is blue? Me: Why? Molly: Because it was Jesus’ favorite color. Me: Um, not really, Mol.”– followed by a scientific discussion about why the sky is blue.
Essentially, the church’s message, delivered via a slickly-produced video followed by a small group, gender-segregated discussion, was this: that sex is beautiful because God created it, but can be dangerous when misused; and that sex outside of marriage is a sin – it is “dangerous if twisted outside of the context of marriage” and “sex is sinning against your own body”. Those are direct quotes from the video the middle-schoolers watched, which I viewed online. And that right there, my friends, is what got my hackles up the most about a church talking to my child about sex: the agenda behind the message. Plus, I knew I was going to have to offer some rational, science-based counter points when it laid out the Creation story as the genesis of human existence.
I agree wholeheartedly that there are potentially high-impact health risks associated with carelessly engaging in sex, but I found the language used to convey their message subtly shaming and a bit coercive. And the group discussion leader emphasized to the girls that you can get STDs or end up pregnant if you have unprotected sex, that of her four sisters, three had contracted STDs and one ended up pregnant, so she decided to wait until marriage to have sex. (Lisle said the leader was 29 when she got married.) I had to check my exasperation and explain to Lisle that abstinence is not the only way to thoughtfully protect one’s sexual and reproductive health.
Maybe some parents are relieved to have the church offer some form of sex ed to their kids because they are wigged out by this subject, but I’m not one of them. Steve and I are of the mindset that, not only are we fully capable of giving our daughters age-appropriate, fact-based, comprehensive information about sex and relationships, we are happy to do so. We believe sex is a very normal part of life and being human, and if we do our job well as parents, our daughters will become young women who embrace their sexuality without shame, and make responsible decisions that protect and prioritize their own health as well as their partners’. To us, this means giving them access to information they need to do so. It also means respecting them enough to talk about the realities of becoming sexually active – both the good parts and the bad.
I’m comfortable using this approach because I consider it rational, and because there’s compelling support for doing so as expressed, for example, in this documentary, Let’s Talk About Sex, which cites reassuring statistics on how responsibly teenagers behave when given access to the full breadth of information they should consider before engaging in sex. Just seeing the demonstrated difference in the low incidences of STDs and unplanned pregnancies amongst teens provided with comprehensive, fact-based sex ed versus abstinence-only sex ed is worth the time it takes to watch the documentary.
I had to settle myself a minute before I started talking with Lisle. So, I grabbed a cup of coffee and pulled up a chair, thinking: Belly up to the table, Lisle. We’re gonna be here awhile. First, I told her that neither her father nor I believe sex outside of marriage is a sin. That sex and the desire to have it is completely normal when you get into your late teenaged years (See what I did there? But it is truthful, the average age American teens engage in sex for the first time is 17.) I said that, because sex is a very important part of a long-term, committed relationship like marriage, her Dad and I believe it is best to know whether or not you are sexually compatible before marrying. I told her that her Dad and I had sex before we were married because we loved each other deeply and that was a part establishing our bond.
HOWEVER, I made it very clear that sex is a BIG DEAL, and should not be taken lightly or engaged in without thoughtful consideration because doing so can change the trajectory of your life in major ways with respect to health issues, pregnancy and emotional fallout. I said it is best when it happens within the context of a committed, loving relationship with someone who has demonstrated they have earned the right to experience that level of intimacy with her by showing her that they are respectful, honest, forthright, and have good judgement, all of which takes time.
From there, we proceeded into a discussion about mechanics, STDs, unwanted pregnancy and how to protect against them (I advocated for using two forms of birth control – condoms always, and a backup form of birth control as well), masturbation, and different types of sex. I also encouraged her to make protecting her own health priority one and not to cede that responsibility to her partner. My biggest message to her was that knowledge is power when it comes to making sound decisions about big things. I said that I wanted her to consider us her primary source of information on this topic, that I wanted her to know that she could always come to me and ask any question she wanted to without fear that it would spook me. I said that if I didn’t already know the answer, I would find it for her and get her to the resources she needs. Rarely has she been so totally engaged in a conversation with me before this one.
Even though I’ve had in-depth discussions with both of our daughters about a number of sex-related topics thanks to questions that arose because they wanted to know how that baby got out of their Aunt’s stomach, or why an 11-year-old would have a child and then need help learning how to be a parent (thank you, NPR / All Things Considered), this church presentation was the catalyst for a full-scale, comprehensive sex talk. Ultimately, that was a great thing.
I don’t think the sex talk needs to be dreaded. The subject has become so culturally loaded and contradictory in America – the land of the youth-obsessed where hyper-sexuality is promoted while victims of sexual assault are slut-shamed. It’s out of control, and I want to do my part to counter that nonsense. The more comprehensively my daughters understand sex and relationships (the physical and the emotional sides, the obvious aspects of it and the subtle nuances), the better the chance they will make decisions they don’t regret afterward.
But given all that sex-positivity and open-minded parenting, Steve and I still love to irritate the kids by pawing at each other and making exaggerated, slurpy, smacking kissing sounds in front of them. And I’m glad that our antics still regularly elicit loud groans of “Ewww!”, “Gross!”, and “I did NOT need to see that!” Because while I was content to have that conversation with her, plus as many more as either of my daughters need to feel educated and comfortable with their future exploration of sexuality, I do sincerely hope it will be a long while before they cross that Rubicon.