Friday, May 31, 2013

Sex Education: Sing It For The Children

“When I was just seventeen
I ran away from home,
To be with all the pretty people,
 To be on my own...

… Have mercy.”
                                                - Annie Lennox

Exactly how many times do I need to stand in front of a room and have someone tell me that they’re waiting until the so-called right moment to talk to their daughters and sons about sex? Faced with statements like this, my question is always something like “Waiting… for what? The second coming? Proof of carbon-based life on a distant planet...?”

Let’s start with a basic Holy Grail kind of truth, shall we? There is an enormous and inescapable role that positive, healthy sexuality awareness plays in the development of children’s senses of self, self-worth, agency and identity. And the fact is, today in the US most kids don’t wait until they’re seventeen to explore their sexuality, the hauntingly prophetic lyrics of Annie Lennox notwithstanding.

Still, it seems to me that much of the Western world’s population continues its damaging history of negativity and denial when it comes to educating kids about sex - even to this day. Even when we know better. Even when we swear that we’d surrender a body part, if only our children would give in and learn to trust us, so often we betray them with falsehoods, lies of omission and a dimwitted silence about their own sexuality - and ours. And so often the obfuscations come to no good.

Not that we haven’t come a long way in moving towards some healthy perspectives on the issues that pertain to children and their understanding of their own sexuality. After all, we’re no longer doing things like devising instruments of torture to keep children from exploring their bodies through self-pleasuring – masturbation. At least I hope not.

But we certainly used to, and with a good deal of sanctimoniousness to boot. I’m thinking of Victorian Era efforts to discourage present and future sexual exploration in little boys by circumcising them without anesthetics. The operative notion here was the importance of little boys associating the penis with excruciating pain. Of course, not to be remiss in dealing with little girls, the prescribed course of action at the time was an application of pure carbolic acid directly onto the clitoris, the perpetrators being secure in the knowledge that burned human tissue does not respond well to erotic stimulation. Jeez!

Let me go further here, and mention the perniciously misguided work of one Sylvester Graham, who invented the beloved although notoriously bland tasting graham cracker – yes, Graham Crackers! Of course, he did so in the 1800s for no other reason than to “save” people from their sexual urges; since he strongly – emphatically - believed that a diet replete with bland and tasteless food would be effective in dashing cold water on the simmer of sexual desire. Ditto the lunacy of John Harvey Kellogg, MD, who advocated threading thin silver wire through the foreskins of little boys. The purpose was  to prevent their spontaneous erections and to induce enough pain and irritation to keep them from masturbating. He’s also the inventor of – wait for it… Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, which like good old Graham Crackers, were supposed to snuff the spark out of people’s sex drives.

In welcome contrast, there also have been substantial, laudable, shining beams of light, however. 

The 1920s work of noted anthropologist Margaret Mead comes to mind here and her famous study of residents on the island of Ta’u in Coming Age in Samoa. In it, she argues for an alternative to sexual silence and an end to the denial that kids need to learn about their bodies by noting that other cultures around the planet have way more enlightened and developmentally positive views. 

The Samoans in Mead's account allowed and encouraged masturbation in their children as a way to curtail penis-in-vagina sex at too early an age while simultaneously allowing boys and girls to learn valuable lessons about the pleasurable workings of their own bodies. Of course, we do well to remember that Dr. Jocelyn Elders, the first African-American US Surgeon General, was ousted from her post during the Clinton Administration for echoing and supporting the logic of this view.

I think also about the activist work of Margaret Sanger who, in 1914, began her life-long fight for access to birth control and sex education for everyone, especially women and girls.

Still, as much as it pains my heart to have to say it, the truth is, even in this day and age, every time I give a lecture on human sexuality at least several participants are brave enough to share that virtually no one in their families ever talked to them about sex. Their commentary adheres loosely to a well-worn pattern: Had to learn it on the street... Got herpes down my throat before I even knew what it was... Learned some of it from having my baby when I was fourteen. Thirteen… Twelve years old.

As an added complexification here, I’ve also heard women say that, as girls, they were given misinformation on purpose – a strategy some well-meaning parents apparently employed in the hopes of curtailing the natural sexual curiosity of their young daughters. It was my mother who told me that kissing would get me pregnant.


I’m quite sure the mother who taught this dearly loved her daughter. But, really? On the other hand, taking the long view anyway, the statement could be construed to be truthful in a way, I guess. After all, if one sees kissing as a “gateway activity,”  a necessary and ineluctable precursor to the main event, I suppose there’s some circuitous logic lurking here: keep a girl from kissing and you ultimately keep her from spreading her legs.

But wait… How about all the sex, rape and otherwise, that takes place without so much as a benign peck on the cheek? Hmmm….

Of course, there’s a galaxy of reasons - including parental fear, discomfort and yes, a sheer dearth of information - why some parents still don’t have substantive, truthful conversations about sex and sexuality with their children, and some of those reasons probably seem like good, rational explanations. Listen to a few of them though, and it becomes apparent that most are rooted in gender-biased societal norms and sex-phobic standards, in all their glaring bigotry and myopic imperfection.

Regardless of the reason, the deafening silence that many of us grew up with - and now feel justified in passing along - is wholly indefensible, given what’s at stake here. And even among those of us who’re inclined to be more proactive in our approach, there’s this: 

Sadly, there’s still way more reticence to give our girls the information they need to render themselves safer and in control of their own sexuality than there is when it comes to informing our sons. Do we really think that our awkward, ineffectual, mums-the-word silence is going to be helpful to our daughters in any way here?

And if totally abstaining from sex before marriage is the desired course of action for our kids, I’d seriously question the logic of that as well, since the old analogy about not buying shoes without trying them on first inevitably comes to mind. 

Consider the following: I had a dear friend once whose sister believed it was a sacred, religious obligation of hers to remain a virgin until her wedding night. And so she did, until the fateful hours after her wedding - when she was subsequently beaten within an inch of her precious life by her sexual-sadist groom who couldn’t even get an erection sans the sights, sounds and smells of her collateral pain and bloodshed.

I could be wrong, but something suggests that this is important information for a woman - or man - to have before the fact, don’t you think?

I can’t help wondering if it wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier for everyone concerned if we - you and I - made a mutually respectful agreement to subscribe to the notion that there’s way too much self-delusion and denial going on when it comes to our responsibility to educate our children about sexuality. 

It's luminously clear: We can’t afford not to tell them the truth about everything we know. We owe it to them, because their safety, autonomy and well-being depend upon it, as does their ability to enjoy their universe-driven sexuality. It’s their birthright, after all, whether we like it or not. Whether we’re comfortable with it or not. Whether we’re ready for it or not. And while none of us want kids to engage in sexual behaviors that they’re not mature enough for, the reality is that children are curious about their own anatomy - and are aware of their own sexuality  - long before they reach the age of consent.

After all… male fetuses have been observed to have erections in utero, before they’re born. And whether or not they’ll ultimately be mothers, infant girls are born in possession of all the eggs they’ll ever have, often secreting tiny amounts of blood from the vagina shortly after birth as their bodies get a brief, evanescent hormonal boost that says, Okay now, don’t forget… Here we go

Denials notwithstanding, teaching our children the truth about sex enables their empowerment and enhances self-protection. No small matter; since we are all of us, sexual beings from the beginning, whenever that is. Moreover, we remain so until the day we die – and perhaps beyond, but I suppose that’s a topic for another post entirely. Don’t you agree?

Prior to adulthood, from whom did you learn the most information about sex? As a parent or guardian, would you do things differently in regards to teaching the children in your care?

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  1. Dr. Sing, you were spot on! I too had know one to talk to me about sex when I was a teenager. I recently asked my mother why she never talk to me and my sister about sex and her reply was, she figured we would learn in school. Can you believe that. Incredible.

  2. I had a lot of people to talk growing up about sex. I would do everything the same way.

  3. Fortunately, for me I did have a mentor that educated me on more than sex but also about caring for myself. She demonstrated how to use a tampon properly so that in the summer time you will not have an order. I also had a sex education class in the sixth grade. The teacher was very detailed and did not withhold anything from us at all. I wish I would have taken it more serious then. My mom never talked to me about sex at all when I was growing up, and if I asked her now I wonder what her reply would be. My big sister has always been more open with me and a big influence in my life.

  4. I learned most of my sex education as a youth from my peers and my imagination. I never had a discussion about sex with a parent. I would definitely be open with my child about lessons in human sexuality.

  5. Prior to growing up, I actually didn't learn the SEX thing from my parents. That conversation never came up until I actually revealed that I was sexually active. But when I first started having sex, I actually was just trying it because of what my friends said. When ever I do become a parent I would definitely be open to my kids about sex. Not only sex, anything.

  6. I never had anyone to talk to about sex when I was growing up. So everything I learned I learned on my own with my husband. And boy have I learned exciting things. I became pregnant at the age of 15 because I knew nothing. I don't regret it though I have my son and continue to live with my husband. But to chandler that I promised myself that I would talk to my daughters and I do.

  7. I have learned a few things that I didn't know reading this. I remember only a little about sex education while I was growing up. My parents never told us anything about sex. I learned everything I know about sex from the streets.

  8. most of my life i heard alot of things about sex, always use to have thoughts on what or how does it work. until one day a family member would try to force they self on me and then i learned the hard way. fighting through life without teliing anyone or somebody sitting down with me to help me understand what sex was all about took a lot out of me as a child. if i ever have kids then yes i will teach them things i didnt know.

  9. My father raised us after my mother died when I was young. I thought I was dying when I had my period. Misinformed and a curious (rebel) I learned about sex on my own and from friends and cousins (which is a nightmare). Hearing things from kids my age with misinformation is a disaster. Leaving a young teenager left to there own devices to make mistakes. I will most definitely be open with my children. Information keeps us safe and keeps sex a positive thing rather then a perversion or something destructive.

  10. Geeze! Professor Singh, I wish we could turn back the hands of time for all women and girls. I was never spoken to about sex or sexuality, I learned at an early age that I liked and enjoyed learning about my own body, therefore, I found that I was a very sexual being. I never really spoke in details about sex or the birds and bees to my own children, but was smart enough to be open with them regarding sex and sexuality. The path I took was the path of questions and answers, meaning, I suspected, I asked and I got answers, I asked so many questions, that my children thought I was the craziest parent around. I also gave my children the freedom to ask any and all questions of me that they thought they needed answers to. Sometimes they very quickly realized that they really didn't want to know the answers to some of the questions they asked. If more parents would keep and opened mind and an open door policy with their children, the western culture would be a far better place to live, grow, and be sexual in.

  11. I learned mostly through trial and error. The friends of my youth probably envoked ideas and behaviors when I was young. I never had the conversation with an adult til I was one.

  12. My mother was really open and honest with us when it came to sex I felt like I could talk to her because she did not shut us out on that topic. When it came down to it I learned most of what I know from my previous partner because he was 10years older than me and much more expeienced. I now have 2 daughters and I cringe at the thought of them being involved with a man 10yrs older than them:( but I would like to be their mentor when it comes to "The Talk" I want them to feel like they can come to me with any quesion or concern. I do not want them running around picking up information from anywhere or anybody.

    1. My mom never literally came out in talked about sex to me. She sent me to planned parent hood twice a week for six months to a teen sex education group. I think that was her way of informing me about sex and she just did not know what to say to me. I thank her for finding someone that did know how to explain it to me. I was her only child and she might not want to accept the fact that it was time for that talk.