When They Start Asking Questions

How young is too young for sex ed?

“What’s that, Mommy?” asks my daughter, pointing to a long, clear plastic canister filled with individually wrapped condoms. The condoms are on my desk, next to my laptop, on which I’m typing an article on innovations in condom technology. “Open?”

“It’s a maraca, sweetheart. See?” I shake the canister so it makes a muffled schick-schick sound.

She doesn’t buy it.

“No! Open!” she wails, reaching for the canister, her fingers scrabbling to pop off the end piece. I roll my eyes because I can’t even, and then I pluck it from her hand. Place it out of reach.

I am all about educating my daughter, and I subscribe to the philosophy that sexuality education should begin at birth. At three, she already knows the proper names for all her body parts, and I gamely respond to questions about my nipples. But there are limits to what she’s developmentally ready for, and a discussion about condom use and other forms of contraception seems several bridges too far.

But when you write about sexuality for a living, questions that aren’t typically asked by most kids for at least several more years become inevitable. Atop my desk, alongside my condom collection and among the binders, book galleys, and empty coffee mugs that crowd my laptop, there’s a container from an at-home STI testing kit that allows users to swab themselves, pop their samples into the mail, and receive results on their smartphone. Next to that, there’s a sizable box from a high-end sex toy purveyor, a box that contains one of their new vibrators, a vibrator that will eventually join all of the others I’ve received for review purposes, each in its own satiny black drawstring pouch, shoved onto a high shelf in my bedroom closet. And then there’s the collection of personal lubricants gathered together under the sink in the upstairs bathroom. And the clitoris pin I picked up at Comic Con. And the two I ❤ Sex Ed magnets I brought home from the National Sex Ed Conference; she likes to stick them to various metal surfaces throughout the house, alongside her Music Together magnet.

When uterus plushies and Vulva is not a dirty word stickers are part of the scenery, it makes sense that I would field questions about condoms and pubic hair alongside questions about butterflies and birthmarks.

• • •

The first time I learned about the physical logistics of sexual intercourse, I was eleven, sprawled on the couch with my younger brother as my entire family watched a TV special about Magic Johnson and the AIDS epidemic. I jolted up to a seated position when someone onscreen explained the ways in which one could contract HIV. I realized they were talking about s-e-x. “Wait,” I said, a look of revulsion on my face. “The what goes where!?” My head swam with images of giant penises approaching tiny vaginas. It was the most horrifying thing I’d ever heard, and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to do it.

Three years later, in eighth grade, I had my mandatory semester of sex ed, taught by my gym teacher. I don’t remember much from the class; the curriculum was forgettable, and primarily fear-based—a blur of anatomy slides and lists of sexually transmitted diseases, which I copied into my spiral-bound notebook. I spent the majority of the time passing notes with my long-time crush, the gym teacher’s son. (Poor kid.) I do remember the way my skin flushed with heat when my crush leaned over to ask me something and his arm brushed mine.

For her part, my mom didn’t talk to me about sex, except to say I was to wait until marriage. That’s just how the sex talk was handled then, if it was touched upon at all. There was the unspoken agreement that kids were not ready to hear about sex, that speaking to them about it might be considered an endorsement. When I was nineteen, my mom finally talked to me about birth control. We sat down together in the living room, and she made me promise I would schedule an appointment with my gynecologist and get a prescription for the pill before having sex. By then, I was dating someone six years older than me, and I suppose she’d decided to let go of the illusion that I would save myself for some elusive, future husband. For my part, I had internalized the notion that I would hold onto my virginity until marriage. As my mother lectured me on the importance of safe sex, I nervously pulled at loose threads on the couch, wondering why she had so little faith in my powers of self-restraint.

It wasn’t until several months after I had already been coerced into sex by the older boyfriend, when I was twenty, that I masturbated for the first time. It had never occurred to me.

When I was twenty-one, I started writing about sex. I stumbled into an editorial internship for a media company that also happened to own an adult personals site. I embraced the opportunity to explore my sexuality. I used it to teach myself what it could be like to embrace sexuality as a healthy part of life, rather than as a relational obligation. I reviewed vibrators and erotic films. I took cardio striptease classes and attended play parties. I explored what was out there in order to learn more about what I liked.

• • •

Last year, the internet blew up over the news that Jessica Biel was teaching her two-year-old son about sex. That is to say, she said she was having conversations with her son about their different body parts, using—as she put it—“technical terms.” The internet did what it always does: a slew of sites regurgitated glowing accounts of Biel’s progressive parenting while another segment of the Internet called her behavior “disgusting.” People online commented that Biel and husband Justin Timberlake should not be parents. Others insisted she should not be “sexualizing” her child or teaching him about his “naughty parts” too soon. Some called it abuse. You know. As they do.

I wondered what the internet was saying about me. The mother who writes about her favorite vibrator for the internet. The mother whose bookcase is filled with titles like Come as You Are and Yes Means Yes and Vibrator Nation. The mother who has a riding crop in her office closet and a nude portrait waiting to be re-hung. I had long since stopped reading the comments on my published pieces, but when my reported memoir on female sexuality came out in October 2018, I fielded a number of interview questions about how my daughter might someday react to the things I’ve shared in print. I had heard the same question from my own mother. “Won’t she be embarrassed?” she asked me.

• • •

Just before I became pregnant, I was offered a job with a professional organization for sexuality educators, counselors, and therapists. By then, I had been steeped in sex content for a decade and was feeling burnt out on listicles about orgasm and libido. This new job revived my passion for the work and showed me how my writing could be used as a tool for advocacy. I started to write more about public health policy and sex ed. While I was pregnant, I interviewed dozens of educators for the organization’s monthly newsletter, and by the time I popped out my daughter, I had a much greater awareness of what schools in the United States were teaching their students, and I knew that in many cases it was wholly inadequate. The sex education I received when I was growing up—both from my school and from my parents—had left me ill-prepared for the sexual encounters I would eventually have as an adult. I did not want that for my daughter.

Still, being steeped in sex content did not mean I had the first clue about how to tackle sex ed myself. Among other things, sexuality had become so normalized for me that I could no longer discern what was and was not appropriate for polite conversation, let alone what was appropriate for a child.

So I dug in, reading several books on teaching your child about sex, including Debra Haffner’s From Diapers to Dating and Deborah Roffman’s Talk to Me First and Sex and Sensibility. I read the research, too, which shows how children benefit from learning about their bodies at a young age, and how learning about boundaries and privacy and body comfort can protect them and eventually lead to greater sexual—and overall—health. The research even shows which topics are developmentally appropriate for children at the various stages of their life. It shows how they shift from a very literal understanding of the world around them to one that allows for greater complexity.

Even so, I struggle with when to be open and when to hold back. I struggle with my desire to teach her everything, because I know that this desire—much like other parents’ desire to share less information—comes from a place of fear. The decisions people make around sexuality education tend to be about more than knowledge or health or even safety. When it comes to the lessons we impart around sex, we are also imparting the deep-down values we carry.

I am at pains to be honest with my daughter and to treat sexuality as just another normal part of life. But I also don’t want to burden her with information she’s not developmentally ready for. When I talk to her about body parts and privacy and red flag behaviors, which of my own fears am I passing along?

My life provides many opportunities for figuring out this balance.

“Mommy! Who is that?” my daughter will ask, having spotted a woman in nothing but her underwear in my Twitter feed.

“That’s a woman wearing undies and a bra,” I’ll say, choosing not to elaborate.

“But what’s her name?” she’ll ask insistently, because clearly that is the priority.

“I don’t know,” I’ll say honestly and leave it that.

“Oh. OK,” she’ll say.

Or: “Mommy? What is this?” I’ll sometimes hear moments before my daughter wanders into the bathroom holding a vibrator that has been charging in my bedroom.

“That’s Mommy’s special toy,” I’ll say. “Could you maybe not play with Mommy’s toys?”

At night, we sometimes read Robie Harris’s Who Has What? together, an acquisition that has since led to the most delightful conversation about penises, vulvas, and butts I’ve ever had. (P.S. The takeaway was that we all have butts.) But when she brings me her copy of My Body Belongs to Me or Tell Me About Sex, Grandma, I wonder if I brought them into her life too soon.

Last month, I had to bumble my way through a conversation about private parts after I noticed my daughter was touching her vulva. I thought maybe I had let her mosey around in a wet pull-up for too long, but she admitted to me that she was doing it because it felt good. The incident made me think of those internet commenters, the ones who would label her vulva her “naughty bits,” the ones who would prefer that I pretend her clitoris and labia do not exist although she can clearly see and feel that they are there. How would they respond in such a situation?

As for me, I did as well as any parent might in such a situation. I talked about getting to know your body. I talked about privacy. I even acknowledged the validity of the pleasure she was feeling. Did I do everything wrong? Maybe. But what can you do?

I suppose we’re both still learning.

About the Author

Steph Auteri

Steph Auteri has written about sexuality for The Atlantic, Vice, Pacific Standard, and other publications. She is the author of A Dirty Word.

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