Monday, June 14, 2010

Sex Ed, Then and Now (5.21.08)

My formal sex education at home was limited to this single piece of advice from dear Aunt Ruth, who raised me: "Sometimes a boy will be dancing with you and he might bump up against your chest and it will hurt. Well, he didn't mean to hurt you." And that was it. Seriously, that is all I remember her telling me. Oh, and she showed me how to wash blood out of my underwear with cold water. Were you the kind of twelve year old who would ask a follow-up? Not me. Voluntarily go through another excruciating moment with a grownup who had obviously never known anything like the thrills I felt watching "Hungry Like the Wolf" on MTV? No way.

I can't blame sweet distracted Ruth who was born in '23, married at 23, and who, in her own adolescence, found Rudy Vallee about as heart-throbby as they get. My entrance into the teen years coincided with some major family upheavals; I'm sure it was less complicated for her to set strict curfews, limit nights out and say "no," than to actually discuss what might be going on outside the castle walls. (In truth, Ruth's enduring marriage - 62 years! with Uncle Phil! - has been her most powerful lesson.)

For relationship questions I could call on my friend Mary Beth who magically KNEW that Greg and I kissed that night on the way to band practice, even though neither one of us said anything. Mary Beth advised useful information like "Always order a hot chocolate when you go out with a boy. It's not expensive for them and it looks cute and cozy when you hug the cup."

Or I could confer with Kim, the friend from Girl Scouts who gave words to the formless weirdness when she confessed, "It makes my stomach feel funny," after we read the sex scene in a cheap paperback movie novelization.

Other sex ed instructors when I was a teenager: Glamour and Cosmo, Judith Krantz and Helen Gurley Brown, although Krantz and Brown's explicit teachings came across like a geography lesson of some exotic and far off continent.

My cousin Jeanne explained hickies and even offered to demonstrate. Carrie from speech club provided the instructional logic of, "Well, I just ask myself what Jesus would want me to do. I don't think He would want you to let the guy go below your waist. I think He would want you to at least keep your pants on." To balance this, I spent a little too much time studying that song from Grease, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," fully missing the irony in its defense of promiscuity.

So I went out into the great unknown of college semi-independence armed with a load of Catholic warnings, a mishmash of technical knowledge and an enormous amount of curiosity. I knew a little about the mechanics, but not much about the power of sex. And it turned out the broken hymen didn't devastate me - the broken heart did.

Twenty-five years later I have a loving and lovely partner. We have two daughters, five and three, and their sex education has already started.

My three-year-old reaches up under my shirt to cop a feel of my belly skin every chance she gets, then sighs deeply in a sensuous way that I often love but sometimes don't.

"Please stop that, Nora," I try gently, then try to explain as she insistently reattaches her hand, "You need to respect your body and the body of others. No means no and if someone doesn't want you rubbing their belly, then you need to stop."

Nora wails, "I want to rub someone's belly! I WANT TO RUB SOMEONE'S BELLY!"

In the bathtub, Nora and her sister giggle as they poke themselves until I holler, "Stop brushing your yoni with the toothbrush! That's private! It's beautiful, but it's private!" trying for the same tough but loving tone I use when I call for them to slow down on their training-wheel-supported pink bikes.

These are the loud corrective lessons I give, trying to normalize talking about the body and its wonderful wonders. The quiet lessons happen too, every day, with the examples and attitudes I try to show the girls. I want my daughters to enjoy their bodies. I don't want them to be hurt or exploited. I want them to be responsible and well informed about anatomy and physiology, but also with their feelings and those of others. I want them to exercise wise caution, but I don't want them to be afraid.

Right now I love that they are unfamiliar with shame. It makes me laugh when they strip off their clothes in the backyard for no other reason than because the spring sunshine feels good and peeing outside makes them laugh. When one whispers "Peeee-nus!" the other will dissolve into giggles.

I can't wrap my daughters' hearts in bubblewrap - I don't want to. But I do want them to approach their friendships and deeper relationships with solid self-esteem and confidence, with trust tempered with wisdom, and with a belief in the basic good of others.

I'm hoping their attitudes about love and sex and affection can be an extension of the way they love the world right now and the way they love to be close to their friends and family, the way they love hugs and snuggles and tickling and the thrill of riding the swing at the park. An extension of the simple rules of human behavior that we try to instill now: Respect yourself and others; love the wonderful treasure that you are.

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