Reproduction and Sexuality 101
I live in a progressive diverse neighborhood where pre-schools stock copies of "Heather Has Two Mommies," but even where this love-makes-a-family consciousness has a strong voice, it does not seem to translate into how we talk to our kids about sexuality and reproduction.
In my family and family of friends, there are mixed-race lesbian couples, mixed race straight couples, single mothers with children - some adopted, some not. There are lesbian biological Moms with offspring fathered by friends, aquaintances, and sperm bank donors. And there are straight couples - some with biological offspring, some with stepchildren, and some adopted.
It was in this context that my then 6-year old ran up to me one day and said, "Mom. Maddy and I are having a fight. She says you have to have a man and a woman to have a baby, but I say you don't. Who's right?"
That's a tricky question. Barring developments in cloning, divine intervention, and parthenogenesis, you do need a sperm and an egg to make a baby. But after that it's pretty much up for grabs. Just about anyone who wants to have a baby can have one or get one in any number of ways.
Which leads to the question of how we talk to our children about reproduction. It seems that when children start asking questions about sex, we reply with the ins and outs (!!) of heterosexual copulation. Sex equals reproduction. Sex therefore is intercourse between heterosexuals who want to make a baby. Or at least that would be how it appears to most unsuspecting elementary school kids who start asking questions about sex, where babies come from, and that sort of thing.
When my daughter got the "straight" answer about reproductive sex, she thought about it for a long time, and then said, "So, you mean you did that with Dad to make me?" I nodded. "And you did it again to make Sila?" I nodded again. Long pause. "Do you think you'll ever do it again?"
Clearly, she had absorbed something of the meaning of reproductive sex, but not much about sexuality. Without overwhelming our children, we need to differentiate between reproduction and sex. We need to reinforce the fact that families can be chosen and created in all sorts of ways. And we need to introduce some language for talking about our capacity for sexual pleasure and expression - bodily experiences that are not related in the slightest to passing along our genes.
What are some ways we could do this and why does it matter?
To start with, let's toss out the vagina/penis paradigm. In today's liberated language, we think we're doing well when we explain the central gender difference in the following way: boys have penises and girls have vaginas. Indeed, it is a step in the right direction that we've moved beyond the old-school language that gave boys an attribute, and girls the absence of one, as in: Boys have a penis and girls don't. But since when is the vagina the defining feature of female genitalia? It certainly plays a key role in reproductive sex, but the clitoris is of much more interest for other reasons. Yet you don't hear enlightened little children mention it too often. Any little girl who's out of diapers certainly knows about it, but she doesn't have a name for it, and the peculiar silence around it (we name all of our children's other body parts, after all) makes it seem verboten.
Next let's think again about those stuffy old diagrams that our high school gym teacher used to teach us "the facts of life." Were they really so bad after all? Didn't they accurately communicate what has to happen between a sperm and an egg in order to set those cells multiplying? We laughed at those diagrams because they revealed nothing about sexuality, and that was what we really cared about. In some circles, liberals tried to bring pleasure into the equation. Another positive step forward, I guess, sort of like "vagina" entering the lexicon, but here's the problem: if you marry the concepts of pleasure and reproductive sex, then how do you explain the other 90 percent of sexual expression?
Most kids and teens have experienced some version of their own sexuality - most of it not related to procreation - yet we talk to them about sex only in procreative terms. Confusing at best. At worst, sexual feelings are cloaked in secrecy and we share no language with our children for talking about them. So bring back the charts that explain the mechanics of where babies come from. Throw in explicit information about birth control as appropriate. And then figure out age-appropriate ways to talk frankly to kids (and listen openly to them) about pleasure and sexual expression. Allow words and concepts like masturbation, pleasure, sexuality, sensuality, gay, lesbian, and bisexual -all of which don't have much to do with reproduction - to be part of family and community dialogue. If we don't, we cede the discussion to marketers (mostly) who fill the airwaves and our consciousnesses with images of straight male sexual aggressors and passive female receivers of male attention.
One last thought: Thanks to feminism, we have come a long way, baby. But patriarchy and heterosexism live on in our language and our ways of conceptualizing important human interactions like sex and sexuality. Take, for example, the seemingly progressive, sex-positive kids' book entitled, "Where Did I Come From? The facts of life without any nonsense and with illustrations." The following excerpt from the section called, "The beginning of a baby," gives all sexual agency to the man. The woman is a willing receptacle. "The man loves the woman. So he gives her a kiss. And they hug each other very tight." After some more details about the man developing an erection, we hear that he now wants to get as close as possible to the woman so he decides to put his penis in her vagina.
Well, that's just great. Read this book to a little girl and you've communicated to her a very neat synopsis of a woman's role in life and in sex: Men have really powerful urges, which women must accommodate.
We need to remember the power of language: if kids (especially girls) don't have words to describe the parts of their bodies that give them pleasure, then we are robbing them of the tools they need to communicate about and be agents of their sexuality. If we don't distinguish between reproductive sex and sexual pleasure, we are relegating all forms of sexual expression (besides heterosexual intercourse), to the unknown and not-to-be-talked-about margins. If we don't explicitly find healthy ways to talk about sex and sexuality with kids, then we leave it to Disney and beer commercials to define the parameters of sexual expression. And if we try to bring a progressive, sex-positive feel to the question of "Where babies come from," then we are associating sexual pleasure uniquely with reproductive sex; we are not honoring the manifold ways children and adults experience sexuality; and we are bypassing a more realistic explanation of how families create themselves.