Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Let's Talk About Sex

No, seriously, we really need to.
In a great Alternet post last week, Joyce McFadden explored why American mothers refuse to have honest discussions about sex with their daughters and the consequences on their daughters’ lives and relationships.

“I think, as Americans, our fixation with the taboo of sexuality causes us to overlook its poetry and its greater meaning in our lives, and then we pass this limited view of sex onto our children.”

I am not a mother, so I can only speak from the daughter’s perspective, but I know my mother and I have never had a healthy discussion about sex. In fact, we’ve only had one. And I was nine. I grew up in a strictly Catholic household and went to 14 years of Catholic school (I’m eighteen), so, unsurprisingly, before college, I had never had an honest discussion about sex or sexuality (or even a sex ed class). In fourth grade, my mother told me the basics: sex was what made babies. No, it didn’t hurt. Yes, you were naked. And you never had sex until your married. And that’s all the information I ever got from her. The rest I learned from friends, eavesdropping, Cosmopolitan, and Judy Blume books.

There, I learned to focus on male pleasure, not my own. I learned that the purpose of sex was to have babies, not to create intimacy. I learned to hate abortion, but not how to put a condom on. I learned how to make my body look desirable, but not how to channel that desire.

And why not? Why couldn’t my mother have a healthy on-going discussion with me about sex? I don’t know, but like most women, it was probably a combination of embarrassment, lack of understanding about her own sexuality, and discomfort at viewing me as a sexual being.

But, this is wrong. With the lack of comprehensive sex ed in our schools, the media’s constant focus on a specific type of female sexuality, and the mess of messages from the religious right pervading both pulpits and political speeches, the mother-daughter or father-daughter discussion of sex needs to be honest and often. We need to set aside our embarrassment, as both parents and children, and learn to embrace discussion of sex and sexuality with each other. Talking about our embarrassments, misunderstandings, concerns, and confusion can only bring us closer.

Please let’s set aside the birds and the bees, let’s just talk about sex.

30 comments:

Amelia said...

It's funny. I have never had a sex talk with any of my parents. Ever. I learned everything from school, magazines, etc. Which is scary.

Luckily, I had enough common sense not to do anything I might regret. Luckily, I respected myself enough to know how to say "no."

Last year we had a foreign exchange student from Germany living with us, and due to some teenage pregnancies in our high school, she and I talked about how sex is handled differently in America vs. Germany. She said that she had hardly ever heard of a teenaged girl being pregnant "back home" and that she had had open discussions with her parents regarding sex and birth control. That was not the case for me.

I don't know much about German culture, or European culture for that matter, but I wonder what the difference is, that makes it easier to talk to your children in those places, and not in America? Especially since teenage pregnancy is not unheard of here. Wouldn't parents want to talk to their children about sex to help prevent unwanted consequences?

scarlett said...

I never had the sex talk with my mother. But what I learned about sex from friends and experience differs from what you learned.
Idk why you seemed to pick up on the spin that it's all about "male pleasure and making babies." The things I heard, conversations I've had, and experiences I have had prove to be quite the contrary.

Anonymous said...

Mybe its because your catHolic.

Ryan Capuano said...

I had the Catholic school thing, too. They tried to teach us sex ed, but they stopped when too many of the boys were making immature comments in class. So I never really even knew what sex was until I was twelve and that was because of the internet. My parents sure as hell never talked about it. My mom still gets embarrassed when we watch movies with sex scenes in them. There's some kind of embarrassment automatically instilled about sex and most of it has to do with our society and its treatment of sex as taboo. It carries on through schools and families, and because of that, there's a lack of information and a skyrocketed teen pregnancy rate.

Kate said...

Anon, I'm actually not Catholic, even though I do come from a Catholic background.

I'm glad your discussions about sex were healthier, or at least more open than mine, Scarlett, but I still felt like this was a relevant post because kids do have experiences similar to mine. Why else would some girls believe that diet coke works as EC? Or why would America's teen pregnancy rate be one of the highest in the developed world?

And, I agree that getting information from sex isn't a bad thing, but I do think having healthy conversations with parents or role models about sex and its place in relationships is important.

Kate said...

**I meant getting information ABOUT sex from friends, not getting information from sex.

Sorry.

Scarlett said...

Kate -

I guess i'm a little out of it when it comes to abbreviations - what do you mean by "EC"?

Kate said...

Oh, I'm sorry. Emergency Contraception.

Renee said...

When I started asking questions about sex my father told me he was ashamed of me. I have never forgotten his comment.
As a parent now my approach to sex education is very different. I answer all of my childs question about sex and when I don't know something I say so and we look it up. I find it interesting that every where we look we can see depictions of sex and yet so many people have difficulty talking about it openly and honestly. North Americans are not as liberated sexually as we claim to be.

Andrew said...

While I do think the trends Kate is pointing out are true to some extent, I'd also suggest familial/parent-child dynamics as a big part of this issue as well.

My mom is the one who gave me the "sex talk"; I can't recall ever having a true conversation about sex with my dad (although we have been able to talk about more and more sensitive issues as I've gotten older -- I'm going on 21 now).

My mom also grew up with fairly strong Catholic influences (which I don't think she ever really accepted, and she was unwilling to instill in her children). There are obviously other topics that particularly religious people are unwilling to discuss openly, but as far as this subject goes -- do you guys feel like a healthy attitude about sex is incompatible with devout religiosity? By "devout" I guess I mean an unwavering belief that the Bible is the final, literal, and only word on how human beings should live their lives.

I think I do, most of the time. At least, as long as we're talking about sexual relations that are equally, mutually positive and enriching for both people involved. For example, I don't really see how a woman who accepts the notion that she must "obey" and "serve" her husband can ever truly see her sexuality as equally important and valuable.

Sorry if you weren't looking for it to become that sort of discussion... Just thought it might be worth considering.

As an aside, can someone remind me when the Impersonator radio show airs? I wouldn't mind tuning in now and then. Thanks!

Amelia said...

Thursdays, 4-5pm, central time is when you can listen to the Female Impersonators Radio Hour.

You can tune in on the Knox College Radio link on the right hand side bar on the front page. Thanks, Andrew!

Renee makes an excellent point - sex is everywhere in American society. Why then can we not seem to discuss it openly and productively? That one really has me thinking.

And as for Andrew's question, I do not see how something with your definition of "devout" ("By "devout" I guess I mean an unwavering belief that the Bible is the final, literal, and only word on how human beings should live their lives") could have a healthy attitude about sex because of the reasons you offered. But I don't think that that is the problem for the majority of Americans.

I don't really have much to offer. I just wanted to make sure Andrew was able to listen to our radio show tomorrow. :)

La Pobre Habladora said...

My mom handled the sex talks pretty well - she told me that she'd like to see me wait, but that she didn't want me to feel the same sort of guilt that she had been made to feel about sex. She told me she'd like me to wait, but that it wasn't such a big deal as a lot of people made it out to be - that it didn't make you a different person or send you to hell. She told me that when I did become sexually active, that she wanted me to be responsible.

Then one day I found her crying over the birth control pills she'd discovered in my medicine cabinet. It sorta broke my heart. Not that I gave up sex, you understand - but we never talked about it again.

Andrew said...

You're right, that sort of rigidity in religion isn't especially common. Maybe I'd be better off rephrasing the question:

How does Christianity intersect with female sexuality? I'm not nearly well-read enough on the religion in general to comment on what the relevant scriptures say, but I think even the casual or occasional female believer in Christianity might still feel subordinated by various religious teachings from time to time. How does/might that manifest itself? If you girls have experienced it, how have you dealt with it/not dealt with it? And, trying to stay relevant to the post, how might it specifically affect the expression (or lack thereof) of female sexuality?

My experience with the religion extends pretty much only to wedding and funeral services, so I have very little knowledge on the subject. Guess that's why I'm asking :)

And thanks again for the info on the show, Amelia. I'm not quite sure what I'm up to tomorrow night (I'm in Ireland, so you'll be on the air between 10-11pm here), but I'll definitely try to tune in!

Amelia said...

That's really interesting, Pobre Habladora. Sounds as if your mother knew that she should try to sound supportive of whatever decision you might make, but her own ideas about sex, formulated in a different time, still affected her when she found your pills.

That must be hard for mothers. Knowing that their daughters are not them. That they are growing up in a different time.

Lindsay said...

do you guys feel like a healthy attitude about sex is incompatible with devout religiosity? By "devout" I guess I mean an unwavering belief that the Bible is the final, literal, and only word on how human beings should live their lives.

There are plenty of people who are devout who don't have such a stranglehold on their reading of the Bible.

In your language here you're collapsing religion and Christianity - Paul Tillich describes religion as a persons "ultimate concern," so if someone's ultimate concern is for aiding and relieving poverty, that can be a religion for them. So in the sense of religion as ultimate concern, I don't think sex and religiosity are incompatible.

To speak in an exclusively Christian context, there are organizations like the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing (www.religiousinstitute.org) that offer very positive views on religion and sexuality.

How does Christianity intersect with female sexuality? I'm not nearly well-read enough on the religion in general to comment on what the relevant scriptures say, but I think even the casual or occasional female believer in Christianity might still feel subordinated by various religious teachings from time to time.

The church, throughout history, has been filled with different sexist viewpoints - for example in certain denominations, women can't be ordained because to be a priest/pastor is to be an imitation of Christ, and since Jesus was a dude... no women allowed. Although, not all denominations share this view. I know Methodists have been ordaining women for over 40 years.

Also, there are biblical texts that aren't very pro-woman such as the one where Lot's daughters are given up to the local people in exchange for the angels Lot's hiding, or the story of Jacob's daughter Dinah who is raped and then marries her rapist (although there's some debate over she was actually raped or if it was socially-stigmatized consensual sex) and then her brothers slaughter all of the men in the town, saying "should our sister be treated like a whore?" or the verses in the NT where Paul basically says women shouldn't speak in church and that it's best to be celibate but if you must relieve your carnal urges, do so within the bounds of marriage.

The tension is putting these in conversation with the verses that encourage embracing the humanity in everyone, women included. Jesus, in my opinion, supported women and encouraged all to believe in him. The Bible says he had twelve male disciples, so some say, "well, he never had any female disciples" but then again, this is a culture where the feeding of the 5,000 is only 5,000 because it's just counting men and not the women and children present. I'm not sure how much of the story is portrayed through the lens of the time, one which doesn't value women very much. Paul writes that everyone is part of the body of Christ so everyone is included in this ecclesiastical view. So Paul's not a complete dick (I like Paul more than Peter, but I think that's the Protestant in me).

There's room in Christianity for positive views of female sexuality, and that's exactly what the Religious Institute is going for (they also work for marriage equality and same-sex rights too), however, there's also of plenty of stuff in the Bible that demeans and subordinates women. Although, in my opinion, that's as a result of the culture of the time - not that it should be ignored, but wrestled with in ways to allow for people to find redemption in them.

dirtyrottenfeminist said...

Actually, my mom was pretty open about sex and sexuality with me...and very non-judgmental, which was good because I felt comfortable coming to her with questions and such.

Of course, I realize I am the exception...and this is a real problem.

Lindsay said...

My mom had a policy with my younger sister that she can ask her any question and my mom will answer it for her... which of course led to my dad bringing up all sorts of weird stuff that my brother and I knew about and my sister didn't, and then she'd ask Mom about it. Needless to say, my family doesn't have the most conventional dinnertime discussions.

(The Korean) Andrew said...

"I wonder what the difference is, that makes it easier to talk to your children in those places, and not in America?"

My initial assumption would be Europe's more secular nature. government funded programs are not as hindered by the religious right as they are here.

I cannot believe how sheltered some people had been. And I mean that; I can't believe that parents would shelter their adolescent children from knowledge that could determine their success in building meaningful relationships.

I am not saying that engaging in intercourse will make a meaningful relationship, but screwing it up can certainly prevent one.

In those regards I can't be grateful enough to my own parents as well as my girlfriend's. My father taught me that while all the idiotic boys in school were shooting their mouths off about all their fake conquests, they were doing nothing more than degrading the women they so coveted. My mother taught me (with some discomfort on her part), that sex was one of the most intimate acts a person could engage in with a partner, and that until I was willing to expose myself (emotionally) in the manner necessary for healthy sex, I was not ready to participate in it. Did I listen? No. Fortunately our high school's sex ed class was adequate and my early partners and I were at least safe in our experimentations with each other. I don't regret these misadventures that I was ill prepared for; they gave me experience that has made intercourse for my current partner and I, mutually satisfying on a deeply emotional and psychological level.

I apologize if all that is TMI.

Oh, and for the record, I come from (was adopted into) a long line of devout Polish Catholics. As far as the tenuous grasp my religious upbringing has on me, I would like to state that all (3) of my sexual partners and I were pretty committed (as much as adolecents could fathom) at the times that we had sex. I feel very strongly about the importance of monogamy and commitment in sexual relationships, though I won't go so far as to require marriage (just at least, you know, an expectation that you'll remember each other's names in the morning).

Ennui said...

I am not saying that engaging in intercourse will make a meaningful relationship, but screwing it up can certainly prevent one.

All I really have to say about this is that, if bad sex can prevent a "meaningful relationship" (whatever that's supposed to mean), then the relationship wouldn't have been good in the first place.

(The Korean) Andrew said...

I didn't mean bad sex per se, but a poor outlook on its role in a relationship.

Anonymous said...

Sex is fun!

Ennui said...

I didn't mean bad sex per se, but a poor outlook on its role in a relationship.

It doesn't have an important role. If you rely on sex to glue a relationship together, it's going to fail eventually anyway.

I'm glad you refined it, though, I still stand by that if your girlfriend takes off because the sex is bad, then she, and the relationship, were never going anywhere but down anyway.

Amelia said...

I am not saying that engaging in intercourse will make a meaningful relationship, but screwing it up can certainly prevent one.

This sounds like Andrew was trying to clarify that sex does not automatically make a relationship meaningful, and that non-sexual relationships can be meaningful. Sounds to me like he was trying to say that if partners are in a relationship and they have sex before they are emotionally comfortable with the idea, it could make it hard to create a relationship that was fulfilling after that point.

That is my perception, anyway.

Ennui said...

Just sounded to me as though he was saying "screwing it (sex) up" would result in the prevention of meaningful relationships.

Which sounds like "bad sex = bad relationships".

And we all know who the responsibility for good or bad sex falls on, haha.

(The Korean) Andrew said...

Thank you Aimee you nailed it, and sorry Ennui for having not been clearer.

lyndorr said...

My parents were somewhat liberal. I remember a video meant for kids. I still didn't know much afterwards though, just what goes where to make a baby. I was so shocked though that I had no more questions.
It's strange. Now that I'm moved out I can talk with my parents about certain sex topics.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your post! Growing up, my parents didn't talk to me about sex, though I got the message that I shouldn't come home pregnant (never mind that I had no idea how one got that way). I learned about sex in health class at my public school, but even then the teachers sometimes didn't knnow what they were talking about (one of my high school health teachers told us the IUD worked by poking the penis so the man wouldn't want to put it in the vagina). I can understand why my mother didn't talk to me about sex; her mother never talked to her about it. But my mother was a nurse and worked for OB/GYNs; if anyone was equipped to talk to me about sex and my changing body, it would be her. I'm 31 now and very sex-positive and open about sex education, as well as very pro-active about my sexual health. But I'm still quite bitter about my lack of sex education or at least a person I could trust to talk about sex. I had a hard time being comfortable about going to the GYN (and indeed didn't go until I was 21 years old and had already become sexually active). I also had to deal with some reproductive health problems that I might have been more prepared for had my mother been more open with me (she had similar problems and I never had any idea she went through them). Parents, please get over whatever it is that is keepig you from talking to your kids. And kids, don't let your parents off the hook. Make them understand that your health, sexual, and emotional wellbeing can be termendously helped by your attitudes toward and knowledge of sex.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your post! Growing up, my parents didn't talk to me about sex, though I got the message that I shouldn't come home pregnant (never mind that I had no idea how one got that way). I learned about sex in health class at my public school, but even then the teachers sometimes didn't knnow what they were talking about (one of my high school health teachers told us the IUD worked by poking the penis so the man wouldn't want to put it in the vagina). I can understand why my mother didn't talk to me about sex; her mother never talked to her about it. But my mother was a nurse and worked for OB/GYNs; if anyone was equipped to talk to me about sex and my changing body, it would be her. I'm 31 now and very sex-positive and open about sex education, as well as very pro-active about my sexual health. But I'm still quite bitter about my lack of sex education or at least a person I could trust to talk about sex. I had a hard time being comfortable about going to the GYN (and indeed didn't go until I was 21 years old and had already become sexually active). I also had to deal with some reproductive health problems that I might have been more prepared for had my mother been more open with me (she had similar problems and I never had any idea she went through them). Parents, please get over whatever it is that is keepig you from talking to your kids. And kids, don't let your parents off the hook. Make them understand that your health, sexual, and emotional wellbeing can be termendously helped by your attitudes toward and knowledge of sex.

Sally said...

Coming to this discussion a little late, but I wanted to comment all the same. I just wanted to say that aside from the obvious impact on one's later sex life (as noted by those who posted before me), lack of sexual openness can cause serious problems for abuse victims. My parents never said a word to me about sex or my own anatomy when I was young, so when I was abused by a family acquaintance I had no way of coping with or talking about the event because that part of your body was just something you didn't talk about, think about, or deal with. I'm not one to blame all my problems on my upbringing, but I think if I'd felt more comfortable talking about sex (and the attached organs) in general, then I might've had an easier time with the whole situation. It could be that my parents just thought I was too young to know about those kinds of things...but they were wrong.

Sex is so prevalent in our society, and sexual abuse so common, that there's just no excuse for not providing young people with a safe place to talk about it and ask questions IMO. And don't wait until your daughter is 17 before having a sex talk with her either - I know by that age I almost wondered if I should ask my mother if she had any questions.

Anonymous said...

My mom had me when she was 18, and it was always her goal to make sure I didn't get stuck in a situation like that. There were never any stork stories. We talked about sex, protection, and rape from the time I was a little girl.

Her approach was always to tell me my body was mine. Not his, not my mother's or my pastor's, but MY body, to use how I wished.

Unlike most people would think, frank discussions about sex made me comfortable enough to not have sex until I was 20 years old. I don't regret waiting and I don't regret having it, either.