Read it on Salon
British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
Most parents loathe talking to their kids about the birds and the bees, let alone pubic hair grooming, faked orgasms and “water sports” — but most parents are not legendary “sexpert” Susie Bright.
Better than talking about these things, she penned an advice column in 2009 with her daughter, Aretha, then 19, for the ladyblog Jezebel. Their answers to questions about everything from porn to Paxil were unflinching but playful, and at times controversial. Now the pair have collected those columns into a new e-book, “Mother/Daughter Sex Advice.” Together, they read as an irreverent version of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” for the Internet age. The mother-daughter team also reflect on what the experience of writing the column was like, and it turns out it wasn’t as weird as many would think: For the most part, it was just a continuation of conversations they had been having throughout Aretha’s life.
I spoke with them both by phone about sex-positive parenting, where they draw the “TMI” line with each other, and their tips for making “the sex talk” less awkward.
Aretha, this might be an annoying question, because I’m sure you’ve gotten it for most of your life, but: What’s it like having a “sexpert” for a mom?
Aretha: I’ve been getting this question since second grade. Kids brought it up in the line at the cafeteria. I remember being way more defensive about it then, because just saying the word “sex,” it was like a four-letter word.
But now? It’s the same answer I always give, which is that it was pretty cool. I was the envy of all of my friends throughout puberty and high school. It’s interesting because now that I’m college-aged, I can see differences in how kids were brought up and, you know, I can see how my upbringing has affected me.
Did you have friends in high school who desperately wanted to come over and ask your mom for advice?
Aretha: I started community college when I was 13, so I had college friends who were in their 20s and late teens, and they felt really comfortable talking to my mom. Sometimes I got really jealous because they’d want to have alone time with her to talk about their relationship problems. With my high school friends, they felt too shy and inhibited. It was more that they’d come to me with a crisis and then I’d bring it to my mom.
Were you ever uncomfortable talking to your mom about sex when you were younger?
Aretha: No. Never. From age zero to now, I don’t think it’s ever been uncomfortable.
Susie: There’s an important distinction between “Do you feel comfortable talking about your personal sex life with your parents?” and “Do you feel comfortable talking about other people’s sex lives and sex in general, sex in the news and ‘what if’ sex, where you say, ‘I have a friend …’” All of that we’re very comfortable with. I think anybody would be shy when you feel like you need a little distance between you and your parents.
Sometimes I talk to kids and they tell me, “I have the opposite problem. My parents confide to me as if I was their little friend.” For me, that isn’t a healthy, sex-positive parental frame any more than being uptight and refusing to let a single word be said about it. Somehow, it’s the opposite but the same thing. A good parent says, “You can talk to me about anything and it can be in general terms. If you’ve got a physical problem and you’re uncomfortable talking, can I help get you to a clinic or a doctor that you would feel comfortable talking to?” Don’t get all hurt that they don’t want to tell you, just help them find someone that they can talk to instead of getting all sulky about it and saying, “You have to tell me everything or else I won’t help you!”
Aretha: I think we’ve always been sensitive about talking about each other’s sex lives. Except for when it comes to things that happened earlier in her life. I remember being really curious about how my mom lost her virginity. I could hear that story a million times.
Susie: There’s so many different levels of what it’s like to have conversations about sex, and because so many families don’t discuss it at all, they think that once you open the door it’s somehow like there’s no privacy, there’s no boundaries, there’s no self-respecting way to talk about anything. But I knew that wasn’t the case, even from my own growing up. My mom told me about getting her period, which I thought was fascinating, because she told me about the nuns stuffing a rag down her pants and they wouldn’t tell her what was happening. Her moral was, “I’m telling you this because you’ll never have to go through that, because I’m going to tell you the scientific reason for menstruating.”
My dad was the same. He would say, “I was so shy, I never kissed anyone until I kissed your mom, and I was in college,” but there were other things he wouldn’t have expressed to me — and of course not. It just starts to feel creepy, and I guess not everyone’s creep line is in the same place.
It’s just knowing that you can hold your privacy and yet you can share things that are part of a valuable conversation. Part of what I liked so much about writing the Jezebel column, and writing this book, was that I could hear Aretha’s reactions to things and it made me realize how strongly she felt about certain topics. I wasn’t going to just say to her, “So, Aretha, what do you feel about oral sex personally?” No way, I would have been too embarrassed and she would have been like, “Are you out of your mind?” When I heard her sticking up for other girls getting satisfied in bed and not just lying there and crying afterward …
Aretha: Why would I want them to do that? That makes no sense!
Susie: Well, you say that, but I know plenty of women who would say, “What do you expect, you shouldn’t be so romantic or you should try harder.” There are some really negative, shaming answers. The fact that you were such a good advocate, it just made me so happy inside. It wasn’t like I had dragged you over to a desk every day and said, “Now, Aretha, how do you spell ‘orgasm’?”
Susie, what sort of parental anxieties did you have about sex?
Susie: Well, I still have them in the sense — this is more dating and relationships — when she meets someone new, I wonder if I’ll like her boyfriend. If I don’t think they did something right or they hurt her feelings, there’s part of me that wants to run over and slap them — even though I’m supposed to just listen and be cool because they’re probably going to make up in 10 minutes and then I’ll look ridiculous.
Aretha: From my side, I see my mom worrying, like, “I want Aretha to feel like she can ask for what she wants with anyone, because not everyone’s had the same upbringing she’s had, so they might not know that everything’s supposed to be egalitarian.”
Susie: Yeah, but you haven’t had any really terrible sweethearts. You’ve had pretty open-minded people in your life so far.
Aretha: Well, there might be ones that maybe you don’t know about …
Susie: OK, now it all comes out! [Laughs] When you first asked that question, Tracy, I wondered what you meant, if it was, “Were you worried that Aretha would get pregnant too young?”
Well, here’s another question: What do you think most parents are afraid of when it comes to sex and their kids — is it the fear of them getting pregnant, of them having sex too soon?
Susie: I think the fear of having sex too soon is this big, tender topic that covers a lot of things. On the surface, they would say, “An early pregnancy or some sort of STD could be tragic and wipe my kid’s life out.” But if you scratch at that a little bit, lots of times it’s because the parent identifies with the kids and is having memories about regrets, about things they did or didn’t do when they were teenagers. So their child’s coming of age is like their chance of doing it over again.
As much as it’s true that I could just jump in there and completely micromanage every detail for Aretha, it is so important not to do that, to be a good listener and let them know that you hear them, to respond if they want your help but to mostly just be really solid and say, “I’m there for you.” You have to take every lesson you ever learned from a good therapist and bring it to bear and give them the space to figure it out on their own — not to be neglectful but not to be a busybody either. It’s such a hard line to walk, I’m not trying to make it sound easy.
Why is it so hard for most parents and kids to talk about sex with each other? We make such a big deal about the Sex Talk, as though it’s one talk that happens, ever, between parents and their kids. Why is that?
Aretha: Where to even start?
Susie: There’s so many fingers you want to point. For me, it had a lot to do with being raised in a religion that was very condemning of sexuality outside of procreation and women’s subjugation.
That sure covers a lot territory. So how can you make talking about sex with your kids, or with your parents, less awkward?
Susie: I got some of my first lessons of how to handle this when I worked in a vibrator store and someone would say, “How do I raise this with my husband?” or “How do I raise this with my wife?” I got really good at answering this: First of all, if talking is the part that freaks you out, buy a book and leave it in the bathroom or on the coffee table.
Aretha: I think you have to be careful with that, though! So many people complain, “My parents left a book under my bed about our changing bodies and they never said word one, they just expected me to find the book and come to them with questions later.” And guess what, they never came to them with any questions because they figured, “My parents are too shy to talk to me about it so I shouldn’t talk to them.” Not to, like, totally slam your suggestion, mom.
Susie: But they did something! People are always asking me, “Are there any particular books I should have in my house for sex education?” and I say, “You know what? If you have books at all, that’s great.” Books! Newspapers! Talk about what you’re reading on the Web! Sex will inevitably come up if you’re talking about it like you’d talk about anything else — in politics, in science, in arts. It’s not a ghettoized topic.
Here’s another thing: I call it “the cool aunt theory.” You realize that you, the parent, are too upset and uptight about sex to say anything, but your sister or friend or ex or someone you know very well has a sense of humor and has a good head on their shoulders and you go to them and ask, “Could you do this?” Or here’s another thing, when your kid raises an uncomfortable question, to just say, “You know, that is a really good question and I’m not sure I know the answer.” You’ve given yourself some time, but you’ve been friendly about it and then you can decide if you bring in somebody in the family or you get a book or find a documentary on PBS. The point is you don’t just freeze like a deer in the headlights and go, “Ahh!”
You can use that for a million things. People act like this is the only difficult topic — try talking about death in the family or money issues. There are so many things where people feel tense and if you can find some calming, loving ways to handle touchy questions in one area, you can pretty much apply it to everything.
Aretha: And definitely you can never start too early. Kids are talking about sex in one way or another starting in kindergarten.
Generationally, how were your youthful sexual experiences different?
Aretha: My mom was in high school in the ’70s — you know, a lot of free love everywhere. Seriously, when I was in high school and I liked two boys at the same time, my mom would suggest that we have an open relationship, like it was the most normal thing in the world! And she was like, “Why are you so possessive of each other? You’re so young, you don’t know who you are yet, so just experiment! They can’t even say they’re straight yet.” I just remember feeling like, “She does not understand. It is so different now.”
There’s also way, way more virgins and people who are waiting to have any sexual experiences. In some ways, I think kids know more, but they also know less, practically speaking.
Susie: I knew I was being kind of snotty when I was saying, “Why not have an open relationship?” but I just had to make my little feminist point.
Aretha: Well, you said it a lot.
Susie: I have a lot of feminist points to make, I guess. You know, all these people that are trying to live out the romance bible are going to grow up and realize that life is more complicated, and why not be exposed to reality? People either are having open relationships or they’re cheating, and here are these people in ninth grade acting like they’ve got to take their vows and it’s just so silly!
I not only came of age in the ’70s, I was also in a major urban high school and I was in a feminist consciousness-raising group, I was involved in an underground commie anarchist newspaper. So it’s like, yes, I was in an extremely different scene, but the tenderness, the inexperience, the shyness and all the drama that happened every day, that was the same.
Did you notice any themes in the questions that you got for the column?
Aretha: Um, that they have horrible boyfriends and that they should dump them?
Susie: The funniest line was people would always say, “Our sex life is awesome, but …” and then they would tell me this problem that would negate it being “awesome.” This is from my crabby old feminist dyke warrior lady position, but I was constantly saying, “Why would you give a fuck what he thinks?” Or I’d think, “What you need is a nice, big lesbian experience.” I would think that the lesbian cure, if you were in a lesbian milieu, you wouldn’t be so second-guessing yourself and your femaleness all the time, but I realized that’s a generation gap too. I get some questions from young lesbians and some of them are just as fragile as any straight girl. I realized it’s more my feminist point of view rather than gay or straight.
What was your favorite question that you got for the column?
Aretha: This wasn’t my favorite question, it was what happened afterward: Someone sent us a picture of her hand and an engagement ring on it and I was like, “Yes! It worked out!” I liked the throw-up column, the girl who throws up every time her boyfriend comes in her mouth. I liked the boyfriend who asked how he could ask his girlfriend to shave her pubic hair, politely.
Susie: Aretha’s answer to that is, “There is no polite way!”
Aretha: I stand by that.
Susie: My favorite was we answered a question from a girl who was given a Paxil prescription after a five-minute intake and it had a terrible impact on her libido. We wrote her a super-sympathetic, supportive thing that basically said, “Go see someone who will pay attention to you.” We thought it was a great answer, but it got a lot of pushback from people who are using and approve of the SSRI’s in their life. The Paxil cheerleaders were enraged!
But the girl who wrote the question really, really liked our answer and felt encouraged. It felt good, it makes you feel great when you’re a total stranger and you’re able to make a positive difference in someone’s life or their health. That’s what I like about my job in general, and it was even more poignant to do it with Aretha. It was like suddenly having a million daughters instead of just one.
British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
Gillian Anderson, aka Scully, with a conger eel.
British actor Nickolas Grace with a red mullet.
French actress Aure Atika with a parrotfish.
French-Portuguese actress Barbara Cabrita with a herring.
French actress Caroline Ducey with a barracuda.
French actor Emmanuel de Brantes with a barramundi.
British DJ Godlie with a redfish.
French/American actor Jean-Marc Barr with a mako shark.
BBC star Jeany Spark with a seabass.
Opera singer Joanna Bergin with a mackerel.
Japanese fashion designer Kenzo Takada with a bonito.
French actress Mélanie Bernier with a European eel.
British actor and director Serge Hazanavicius with a thicklip grey mullet.
French jazz guitarist Thomas Dutronc with a dusky grouper.