In addition to being National Poetry Month, April was National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I didn’t write about it because I was all wrapped up in the poetry; but I was reminded this morning when I read something of a follow-up post on the American Association of University Women’s blog about how in order to encourage sexual equality, we need to talk not just about sexual abuse but also about what healthy sexuality should be like.
This definitely struck a chord with me. Promoting and defining healthy sexuality is the core to ending rape culture and misogyny, in my opinion. As Kathryn says in AAUW’s post, healthy sexuality is about equality. It’s also about respect. But what does a healthy sexuality actually entail? I consider myself a sexually healthy person, and to me that means: I believe that sex is about intimacy, whether the intimacy of love or passion or both, and comfort. I look for a certain level of trust and connection; and by “comfort” I don’t mean the kind you feel lounging about in sweatpants. I mean excitement versus anxiety. I look for situations absent of pressure or coercion, and I look after my safety from STDs and accidental pregnancy. If I don’t want to, or if I’m uncomfortable, or if he refuses to wear a condom, I do not have sex–and that’s okay. Perhaps most important is the idea that it is okay to say no. Guilt has no place in sexuality.
I credit most of those values to my mother, and that leads me to the topic of this post (although I promise that I will probably write soon about sexuality and rape culture): honesty and parenting.
I am not a parent, so all I can do is look back on my childhood to draw some conclusions. It seems to me that a lot of families don’t really talk about things like sex, drugs and alcohol, and when they do it’s often too late. Kids get exposed to these things a lot earlier than we’d like to believe. I remember being thirteen, in eighth grade, hearing rumors that one of my friends had sex with someone in our grade. My junior year of high school, I learned that the sophomores I did the musical with had parties with beer and drugs. And the funny thing was, I did not live in an urban area, where you typically think of these things happening. Our high school’s backyard, for example, was literally a cornfield.
These days, I imagine it’s even worse, especially because depictions of sex, drugs and alcohol (SDA from now on, because I’m lazy) are much more common. I personally don’t believe that the ubiquity of these topics is the problem; rather, the problem is that kids often don’t understand what they’re seeing when they see SDA in the media. That’s where the parents should come in to fill in the blanks, and reinforce the lessons they want their kids to take away in the subject of SDA.
Switching to the anecdotal, now: my father is a recovering alcoholic, but when I was a kid he was just a regular alcoholic and smoker. I have distinct memories of being a very young child and telling him that he should stop because it was bad for him. My mother is the one who told me from a very young age what the effects of smoking were, and years of that coupled with my dislike of the smell ingrained anti-smoking in me. It’s important to note here that my mother didn’t just say “smoking is bad.” She told me why. She told me about the negative health effects, and her words were reinforced in one of the first anti-drug campaigns they had for us at elementary school. Now, I’m sure some troll out there will argue “Indoctrination!” but you know what? Smoking does negatively affect your health. Sometimes smokers are okay with that. That’s not the point. The point is that I chose not to start smoking because my mother was honest with me about how it affects the body, and I decided that I didn’t want that, no matter how sexy Keira Knightley is when she chain-smokes in Domino.
The discussion about alcohol came a little bit later, when I was in middle school. My mom usually had a glass of wine one or two nights a week, and one night I asked to try it. She let me have a small sip, which I found to be completely disgusting. When I asked why grown-ups drank something so gross, she explained to me alcohol is something that adults drink in small doses when they’re having fun. She warned me that drinking too much could make me act like my dad, and by that time I was old enough to understand what that meant. She also told me that eventually I’d probably like the taste, which was another reason why adults drank wine with their meals or what have you. Basically, she stressed to me that alcohol is like a treat that should be indulged in sparingly; it wasn’t necessary to have a good time, or to be happy. I could see in my own life that the more my father drank, the more unhappy he became. I didn’t touch alcohol again until I was nineteen, and I didn’t start to drink regularly until after I turned twenty-one. Being in college only reinforced my belief in moderate alcohol consumption. Yes, I’ve gotten incredibly drunk on a couple of occasions–but again, thanks to my mother’s teachings, I’ve only done that when I’m safe at my house or the house of a person I trust, or when a person I trust is sober and driving me home.
When it came to sex, my mother didn’t shy away from me. Our first sex-ed unit was in fifth grade, and she answered all the questions I came home with as simply as she could. She explained the mechanics when I asked, and had a mantra for me from about the age of eleven: “condom, condom, condom.” She reinforced why I should require a condom, which was especially easy after I was in the birthing room when my little sister was born in 2000. On the so-called love side of things, she told me that I should never feel obligated, and that I should wait until I felt comfortable enough. She impressed upon me that no matter what anyone said, I shouldn’t have sex before I was ready. Whatever that point of readiness was, she left up to me, whether it was my eighteenth birthday or my graduation from college or marriage or no marker whatsoever beyond my own feeling. She told me that the first time was important, not because my virginity was precious, but because it was a once in a lifetime moment and I should be able to remember it fondly. I didn’t have sex for the first time until I was twenty-one. My partner and I were not in a relationship; he was (is) a good friend whom I trust and care for, and I regret nothing about that night.
It is my belief that my mother’s lessons worked so well because she tried to cover everything, answered my questions, and never expressly forbade anything. She cautioned me at length and justified those cautions. Everything she said made sense to me, so I had no reason to question her and I took everything she said to heart. My limited experience has shown me that she is unique among parents for those reasons. My father and step-mother, and some of my friends’ parents, have been more quick to simply say “no” and their justification is “because I said so.”
This is completely ineffective against the monstrous curiosity and impulsiveness of youth.
These parents either don’t think the children need to know, or they just don’t know what to say. I understand that it’s hard to come up with some poignant and compelling explanation on the spot, and that can often be the biggest impediment to honesty with one’s children. This is why we need to begin thinking early on about what SDA represents to us as adults, how we want our future children to perceive them, and how best to encourage those perceptions. Children are like sponges. They will absorb everything, and so when it comes to the subject of vices it’s better to give them as much information as possible. It’s also better to start younger than you think perhaps is necessary, because before too long they’ll get to an age where they no longer think of you as their best source of knowledge. If you establish early on that you have the answers and you are willing to give them, you’ll do better in the long run.
Check back in a few years to see how this goes in practice, haha.
Parents, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject! How did you approach talking to your kids about sex, drugs, alcohol, or other so-called vices?