by Malachi Grennell and Robin Gorsline
This past week, I have had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time with two dear friends of mine and their one-year-old son. One evening, after the baby had gone down for the night, the three of us sat talking and the conversation turned to parenting- and sex.
We were sharing stories of some of our struggles as parents (a role that we have each come into this past year: the two of them with the birth of their son; me through developing a co-parenting relationship to our (Kase and I’s) goddaughter). Our goddaughter (who we affectionately refer to as Kiddo) is 7, and I have had a series of interesting conversations with her that have led me to ponder how we talk about sex in healthy, age-appropriate ways with children.
A few anecdotes to contextualize this situation: when she was four, Kiddo asked for a whip for Christmas. When asked why she wanted a whip, she responded, “I think people would like it if I hit them with it.” In the South, spanking kids is something that is considered normal and encouraged, and her primary parent decided to try to spank her as a consequence for something. Her response to being was to ask for more- which quickly put an end to that as a consequence method. She has also commented that, if the tooth fairy came, she would pee in his or her mouth (her words).
These are the innocent statements made by a seven year old with an active imagination, that’s true… there is nothing inherently or intentionally sexual about them. And yet, all of her parents are kinky and laugh, recognizing that there is a good chance she will grow up to be as well. But it led me to wonder how (and when) to provide information to her about alternative types of sexuality. The obvious answer, of course, is to bring it up when talking to her about masturbation, or perhaps sex in general. Except that conversations about sex only really come up when talking about babies.
She and I have had many conversations about where babies come from. We talk about biology, about bodies with eggs and bodies with sperm and bodies with uteruses (for a really amazing book that deals with conception and pregnancy without ever mentioning gender, check out What Makes a Baby ). She has some understanding that babies are a product of the mingling of an egg and a sperm inside of a uterus. She might even have some understanding that one of the ways sperm enters a body is through sex, but I don’t think she has a firm idea of what sex is.
Which leads me to this point: how to we introduce and talk about sex as a recreational activity (and not just simply a means to an end, e.g. conception)? Forget kink; how do we address the idea that sex is something that we do because it feels good and is a way to be intimate with someone we care about? As parents, we are one of the primary sources of information for our kids- and what they don’t learn from us, they learn from school (such as sex ed) or other peers.
I remember the sex education I received from my peers in the guise of dirty jokes and juicy gossip, and it makes me shudder. I would like to inform and equip Kiddo to be better prepared to than that.
In truth, though, I want to raise her in a better informed world. I want to raise her in a world where her body is not criminalized and debated in public arenas. I want to raise her in a world where she doesn’t see her sexuality as a hindrance or a thing to feel shame about, but is excited and equipped to explore her sexuality in safe, responsible ways.
I want to raise her in a world that celebrates all of who she is. And yet, I wonder if I struggle so much to find the entry points for these conversations because we as adults are not accustomed to having these conversations. We have no framework to allow sex to be a part of normal, adult conversation. When we do choose to explicitly reference it, we do so in euphemism (“We’re going to have some alone time” wink wink) or in self-serving ways (“I’m gonna get laid/lucky tonight!”)
We talk about having age-appropriate conversations with children, and that is incredibly important. As a queer person, I know I worry that I will say too much, or push a conversation, and I worry about what’s age-appropriate. Queer parents often feel that sense of scrutiny…we work hard to have families and, once we do, want to make sure that we do it exactly right because we want to prove that we are just as capable as heterosexual parents. Besides, the queer community (particularly gay men and bisexual people) have been accused of being “obsessed with sex,” so there is a certain trepidation about bringing up sex at all.
We talk about having age-appropriate conversations with children. But what, I wonder, is the appropriate age to talk about sex as a pleasurable activity (and not just a means to an end)? By the state of United States culture, it seems that many of us haven’t reached it yet! We don’t talk about sex as a part of our lives. We have very little framework to help us create safe space to talk openly about sex and allow it to be a part of our conversations.
If we aren’t doing it, then how can we hope to model that type of behavior? As a child of queer parents, I know that my understanding of sex was severely limited… what I took away from the conversations was not mechanics or concepts of intimacy, but an overwhelming sense of shame. Although my parents never said it, I knew that sex was something to be ashamed of. Once I updated my understanding of the mechanics of sex (I confess, the physics of heterosexual sex made no sense to me until I started watching porn- not the best method of sex education, but a helpful lesson in the technicalities), I started working on my emotional hangups. It’s taken me years to get to a point where I feel even remotely comfortable talking about sex… there is still a long way to go.
Last week, Robin and I talked about the terrifying political climate after the Republican National Convention. Since then, we have seen the Democratic National Convention seek to provide an alternative to the alarming display the previous week. While I think there were many important concepts discussed at the DNC, I am reminded that the next president will nominate judges to the Supreme Court, and I have a seven year old girl looking to (among others) me for guidance.
This election is not just about us, but about the world we shape for the generations that follow. I want to live in a world that is well-informed, and I want to shape the next generation to be thoughtful contributors. I want people in Kiddo’s generation to be able to push beyond what we are fighting for now. I want us, as adults, to know how to have these conversations with one another so that we are able to impart these lessons to the next generation. I want us to be comfortable enough with ourselves that we are able to answer questions without imparting a sense of shame. But most of all, I want us to actively be a part of creating a better world for those who follow after us.
“Kids say the darndest things!” Those of a certain generation (mine) will remember how Art Linkletter mined that truth to make money with a book of the same name, as well as part of his “House Party” radio program. In 1998, Bill Cosby found the same rewarding path for several years on television.
What these venues featured were kids saying “cute” things, definitely not using “bad” language or, e.g., sexual or excretory terms. However, my experience with children features some differences. My daughter Emily, while enrolled in Cambridge, MA public schools in 1984, came home to ask me, “Daddy, what does ‘fuck’ mean?” (a word neither her mother nor I ever used). She was in First Grade, age 6. Of course, she did this at the playground in front of her younger sisters, and waited, as they did, for an answer.
Bear in mind I had already had to try to explain to her, and to them, what “being gay” meant—I had responded by talking about “liking men and the company of men,” and then stumbled about when she asked in response if I would still want to spend time with her and her sisters!
Frankly, I do not remember what I said in response to the playground query, except I am sure I strongly suggested she did not use the word again (which probably only heightened interest).
Fast forward to this year, last week in fact. Our five-year-old granddaughter (who shall remain nameless), realizing her mother was getting frustrated with her two-year-old sister’s slow response to a request to find her diaper, said, “Susie (name changed to protect the innocent), where’s your fuckin’ diaper?”
What a difference 32 years can make. And yet, have things really changed in any important way?
Things have changed in terms of conversations about sex. In some respects, there is more openness. But note that our granddaughter’s sentence, correct in terms of everyday usage, continues the pattern of negative value being connected to sexual “street language.” (See our blog, “What’s Your Body Language?”) And just because she can use the word in a grammatically correct way doesn’t mean she has any more idea what the term means than did her aunt before.
Sexual scandals are reported more easily and fully these days—there always seems to be some celebrity and/or politician embroiled in compromising photo-sharing or sightings on a nude beach or having a sex video flying around cyberspace. Sex certainly still sells—that has not changed—still brings readers and customers.
But what about actual conversations among adults? Surely, many use “fucking” and other exclamatory and negative terms. But do we talk about sex, really talk about it, even in private spaces?
The other day, when Malachi and were trying to find a time for our weekly editorial conference, he proposed an evening time. I texted back that I would not be available because Jonathan and I had carved out time for us, and we would, I hoped, be having sex at the time mentioned. After I wrote the text, I thought “You can’t say that,” and then I thought, “Oh yes you can, this is Malachi, and he not only knows you and Jonathan have sex, you know he and his husband (and others) have sex, and you sometimes talk about it in preparation for writing this blog. You both even write about it!”
Then I thought one more thing: “Wouldn’t it be great if I felt comfortable saying things like that to other loved ones, not just the co-editor of a blog about sexuality and spirituality and my very dear friend?”
Of course, six months ago, when Malachi were friends but were not yet colleagues on this blog, I would not have texted, or certainly said, anything about Jonathan and me having sex.
Relationships matter. In truth, I have only two other relationship (besides with Jonathan) in which I might make that statement (two gay male friends of mine with whom I have discussed some of my sexual function issues). I want to change that. I want my sex talk with others to reflect not only troubles but also the sheer joy and celebration of sex with my husband. And I want it to be more commonplace. I have written an honest and open (what others might label “explicit” or NSFW) poem about recent sex with Jonathan, and I am trying to decide where to publish it (Jonathan likes it).
I don’t want to use language I have heard some use, things like (as someone, usually a man, heads out on a date), “I hope I get lucky tonight” (wink, wink). I not only want to use the word “sex,” but also I want it, at least in my case, to be about mutuality and shared pleasure (and if about masturbation, my own).
Last week, we wrote against the backdrop of the Republican National Convention. This week, the Democrats have completed their gathering.
And what a difference! They gave openly lesbian and gay speakers, and a Transgender speaker, prime times to speak (I don’t know if they provided that to an openly bisexual person). Many of the non-LGBT speakers spoke positively about LGBT people. And there are no platform planks about bogus methods to “cure” same-sex attraction nor linking sex only to reproduction or repealing a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
Also, a search on the internet revealed no reports about a boom in business for male sex workers, as at the GOP event in Cleveland. Maybe that’s because there were many more out, self-affirming gay men already at the convention?
But one thing remains the same at both conventions. Nobody talked openly about sex. Former President Clinton had an opportunity to lament the effect on his presidency and his family from his affairs (especially the one with an intern) but nary a word from him, or Chelsea or Hillary either. We all know that when people talk about Hillary’s toughness, it refers not only to negotiating with dictators but also to hanging “tough” with her husband. But it is not discussed except in hushed and judgmental side conversations.
Think how much more healthy it would be for them , and us, if we could get it out in the open—we don’t need to judge him, or her, but we can understand the situation as human. It could be a time of education for many.
We could be more real about the power and divine roots of sex, and its centrality in our lives.
Maybe then we could talk more openly with our children about it, too, not only to tell them about reproduction, how the parts work, but even to talk about pleasure and joy it can bring (as well as the potential for pain possible with such a great power). We could talk openly with them about masturbation, no longer giving messages about its dangers as they discover its pleasure (leaving people confused).
When Emily posed that question in 1984, I was only 18 months or so out of the closet, recently divorced, and still dealing with a lot of internalized homophobia. There is no way I had the conceptual understanding or language I have today to speak affirmatively about sex.
Would I have had a different conversation with my daughter then? Perhaps (I really don’t remember what I said). I do know I would have had different conversations with her and her sisters as they grew up.
It is not my place to speak with my granddaughters about sex (unless they ask), but I can share my thoughts with their parents. And that I will do, knowing how much they love their daughters and how I trust them to do the very best they can to insure bright futures full of love and joy for each girl—futures that include the kinds of sex that bring them joy and fulfillment God intends for them.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What do you think? How do you feel about talking with children and youth about sex? Have you done it? How did it go? Can you share from your experience things the rest of us might need to know? Or are you troubled and uncertain? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
New Educational Adventure!
Please plan to join us on the third Thursday of each month at 3:00 pm ET for a one-hour online educational and discussion session with Malachi and Robin! First session: August 18, 2016! Stay tuned for further details (Note: available for CEU credits for MCC Clergy).