I was at a party recently, one of the first parties I had been to since the birth of my daughter. I felt a little frayed around the edges -- after all, it was the first chance for uninterrupted adult conversation I had had in months. The party was a casual, post-poetry-reading affair, the kind where the food consists of a single bag of chips that gets passed around, lots of jug wine and whiskey. Maybe someone ordered a pizza. I had been smoking cigarettes. I like to smoke when I drink, which is seldom enough to make it a social quirk but not enough to make it a habit. I was so proud of being a bad-girl mother out at night.
A group of us were jammed into the corner of the kitchen when someone asked if any of us had seen a T-shirt with one of those top 20 lists of euphemisms for masturbation.
"Male or female?" I asked.
"What?" a young man replied with a surprised look on his face.
"Male or female? Were the euphemisms for male or female masturbation?"
A conversation stopper. He confessed that they were probably the former. It became a bit of a party game to guess at a few of the likely examples: jerking off, waxing the board, shooting a wad.
I was then asked by a handsome young man, "Well, what do you call it -- jacking off?" My husband's name is Jack, so that's not an option. I asked another woman in the group if she had a name for it.
She smiled and said, "I call it 'The last time I saw Elvis.'"
We tried to come up with others, such as tying knots, twirling, ring around the rosy, but none sounded right. Someone suggested "playing with yourself," but I didn't like that because it made me think of dressing up a Barbie doll. I left the party dissatisfied. And curious.
So I did what every modern mother does -- I invited a focus group of mothers I know over for a virtual cup of coffee. I e-mailed each of them a short questionnaire about how they learned about sex, and from whom, and a variety of other topics like masturbation, oral sex, homosexuality and orgasm. The mothers mentioned in this article are practicing artists, as well as active feminists with original minds, ranging in age from early 30s to early 60s. To protect their privacy, I've used initials instead of their full names.
I should start with my own story, which is part of my quest to be an enlightened mother. I want to figure out a way to tell my daughter about things like masturbation and orgasm -- not to mention sexual intercourse -- in a more creative way than my mother did, which was to completely avoid the subject. The only conversation she and I had about sex was when I was 16 years old. It went something like this:
The scene is the den. We are both watching something on television.
Me: "Do you believe in premarital sex?"
My mother: "No."
Me: "Well, I do."
End of conversation.
When it came to how they learned about sex, my friends were split. But one thing everyone shared was having gotten a pretty clinical explanation of the birds and the bees, whether it was from the folks, from a sibling or in the dark of a segregated sex education class. The two older women, who had raised their kids in the 1960s and 1970s, seemed to have participated in the cultural changes of the times and were more open and available to their kids. Most of the group had stumbled on masturbation or been told about it by friends. Oral sex seemed to have come in the moment, so to speak. And the women had learned about menstruation in sex education classes in school. What follows is what they told me about how they learned about sex.
K. is a writer in her mid-30s and the mother of two children, a 9-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy. She was the only one in the focus group whose parents were both available to talk to her about sex. "I also learned a few things from the book 'The Joy of Sex,' which was on our family bookshelf. Of course, I never wanted them to know I was reading it (and looking at all of those contorted sex positions), so I would sneak the book away into my bedroom. They never would have cared and probably would have been right there to answer questions. I was always willing to listen to what they wanted to tell me, but I wasn't much for asking for more. Now that I have my own 9-year-old daughter, I really appreciate how candid they were about sex. I realize now how tough it is, because you feel like so much is riding on how you deliver the information and what you say to your child."
T. is a photographer in her late 30s and the mother of a 9-month-old girl. "I was in fifth grade when I officially heard about sex. We had to watch the movie. I had already known about sex because I was always sneaking around looking for things. My mom had told me, 'Don't go in that top drawer of my dresser.' Underneath her lingerie were the two forbidden books, with cartoons ... the '50s kind of drawings of the smiling sperm and the bashful egg. I had already educated myself by the time I was in third grade, but in fifth grade it became public knowledge. When we got the note to get the parents' permission to watch the movie, my mom just handed me the book. Of course, I pretended that I had never seen it."
B. is a 50-ish writer, screenwriter, teacher and author of a book about money. Her son is in his mid-30s. "I came home from kindergarten and told my mother I had read 'fuck you' written on the sidewalk. I asked what 'fuck' meant. She told me it was a terrible word for the act that men and women did together when they wanted to make a baby.
"I don't remember how she described the actual act of intercourse, but I know she did describe it before I was past the fifth grade. She always made it very clear that intercourse was something that one must never do until after marriage.
"She told me a story of a girl who had been in her crowd in high school. This girl had gone to New York and had affairs with men she wasn't married to. She died in a hotel fire when she was in her 20s. This story was told over and over. I'm sure it was to drive home what happens to girls who have sex when they're not married."
J., 60, is a businesswoman, feminist, writer and mother of two grown children, a daughter and a son: "I went to a progressive elementary school and we had a very good class in human biology. But we didn't discuss sex as pleasure, only as reproduction.
"I came from a supposedly liberal, intellectual New York family. But I knew zero about sex, struggled for years to figure out what women's sexuality was all about, was abused by men, didn't know how to find sexual satisfaction with men, who knew little and cared less, and in general had a horrible time of it till my 40s and up! When my marriage was on the rocks, I asked my mom for help. I said I couldn't have orgasms with my husband anymore, and she said, 'Oh, darling, just lie back and relax!' This from a mother who had collaborated with my dad on a groundbreaking marriage manual in the early 1960s."
J.C. is an artist, writer, cultural critic and mother of a 3-year-old boy. "I mostly learned about sex in bits and pieces, from neighborhood kids and my Italian cousins ... I was the youngest of a huge Irish Catholic family in which sex was and is talked about very tentatively. In the neighborhood, we talked and laughed about 'first base, second base' (hand up shirt, but why?) and 'home run,' which we knew was 'it,' but hell if we knew what 'it' was! I remember being at the Jersey shore one summer and I put some change on my belly while licking an ice cream cone and lying on a towel. My cousins started laughing and yelling, 'You're a prostitute, you're a prostitute! You have money on your body!'
"I must have been about 7 or 8 years old and I didn't have a clue what they meant. But it made a big impression and I immediately removed the money and felt ashamed. No one ever objectively or maturely discussed it. Sex was always something of a secret."
M., 34, is a visual and graphic artist from Lithuania and the mother of two girls, a 4-year-old and a newborn. "The topic of sex was almost taboo in Soviet Lithuania. It seemed like people did not have sex at all, just like there were no political prisoners, handicaps, marketing incentives or issues of spirituality. When my mother was pregnant with my sister, the answer to my question about how the baby ended up in her tummy was: 'The doctor gave me a special bean to swallow so that the baby could start growing inside my stomach.' I was 7 and I remember being completely mystified by that special bean -- until my girlfriend quickly dispelled the myth three years later."
C. is in her mid-40s. She is a dance therapist and has a 14-year-old daughter: "On an afternoon outing to the local park with my Scout troop, a bunch of girls ran by screaming. They swarmed the leader and reported meeting a man in the woods. He was old and had exposed his penis to them. My friend, Kathy G., explained to me that this man could have raped the girls. I didn't understand the word 'rape.' She told me everything that she knew about the subject, which came from her older sister. Somehow rape, sex and pregnancy got all mixed together that afternoon. I was 11 years old."
As helpful as it was to talk to these friends, I wanted some expert advice. I logged on to the Web and searched for sex ed sites. One of the best sites is that of SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S.). As I scrolled through the pages, there were helpful hints for parents to explore their own attitudes, start early, take the initiative, talk about more than the birds and the bees, communicate values and relax.
But as helpful as the site was, I wanted to talk to a human about this most human of issues. The folks at SIECUS put me in touch with Debra Haffner, past president of SIECUS, who has a master's in public health and is the author of "From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children." Haffner is a no-nonsense sexuality educator who believes, "It is up to you and your partner to decide on the messages and values you want to give your child about sexuality. Every family has its own set of sexual values; it is your right and your responsibility to share them."
I asked Haffner if we are doing a better job than our parents did in talking about sexuality with our kids. "We want to, but data says otherwise. Parents are the first -- and most important -- sexuality educators of their children. And most of us let down our children in this important area. More than eight in 10 parents believe it is their job to provide sexuality education to their children, yet few actually do it. Only one in four adults in the U.S. report that they learned about sexuality from their parents, but most say they want to do a better job than their parents. But few seem to have the skills, comfort or information they need."
In her book, Haffner says the conversation about sexuality begins in the delivery room -- is it a boy or a girl? She also says that "sexuality is about much more than sex. People often hear only the 'sex' part of 'sexuality'; teaching your children about sexuality is not just teaching them about anatomy and reproduction. It is teaching them who they are as boys and girls and laying the foundation for who they will grow up to be as men and women. It's about giving them the skills to develop good interpersonal relationships, now and in the future."
And Haffner stresses that sexuality education should be a two-parent/partner job, so that children "learn that sexuality is a topic that is discussed openly ... and that men and women can both talk about these issues."
Tell that to my father, who, when he realized I was quite possibly sexually active (I guess my getting home two hours past my curfew, looking flushed and out of breath, was a hint), did what every other father of his generation did. He tried to lock me in my room until I was 30 years old.
I especially like Haffner's last guideline -- "don't forget to talk about the joys of sexuality" -- because it brought me back to where I had started with all this. I didn't just want to talk to my daughter, Mila, about the details of sexual intercourse and protection. I yearned to find the way to also talk to her about the pleasure of being a sexual creature.
I next turned to someone who works on the spiritual and cultural side of the issue. Melissa Michaels, who has a master's in education, is an artist, dancer and mother with a capital "M." Michaels creates movement-based rituals for people of all ages. She told me that sexuality is sacred and should be celebrated by the community through movement-based rites of passage. She teaches methods such as "smart touch" and "straight talk" to guide adolescents consciously through their sexual life in a body-centered manner.
Michaels believes that sexuality and creativity are one and the same. She also one-ups Haffner in saying that "the conversation about sexuality begins at conception." Wow. She confirmed my belief that the way we educate our youth about sexuality doesn't do much more than make them either afraid of dying or think sex is a total joke. "There is a universe between a first kiss and intercourse," Michaels said.
Michaels believes that teaching kids about "intimacy is the theme, and that does not necessarily mean sex. We all need touch, conversation and creativity. But sometimes, when people aren't connected with their bodies, that can be channeled through sexuality when that's not really what they're looking for." While "no one is to blame, it is all our responsibility. We must individually and as a group investigate our own biology in order to properly educate our children."
I was ready for some serious talk about pleasure with my friends, all set to share with them my first experience with pleasing myself. The first time I heard the word "orgasm" was when I was 14 years old, at summer camp. Nine of us sat in a circle, a candle lit in the center. An older girl, Diane, talked about her sexual experiences. She was 16, talked low and deep, used words like "fuck" and "come." And "orgasm." I sat there with my shoulders hunched. I'd never done much except maybe kiss the back of my hand. I looked over to my best friend, Carla. She saw my worried look.
"Do you know what an orgasm is?" she whispered to me.
I shook my head no.
"I'll tell you later."
She never did.
In my mother's defense, her mother did less than mine did. Despite the utter lack of information I got, I did grow up with a fairly healthy attitude about sex and I think it's because my parents showed plenty of affection toward each other and us. At least they provided me with a healthy meta-example of two people who were and are, after 47 years of marriage, gaga over each other.
When I was 15, my first boyfriend, Paul, introduced me to my clitoris. We were in his car, an orange Nova, waiting for the left-turn signal to turn green. The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" played on the eight-track tape deck. Paul's right hand was down the front of my jeans, zipper open, underwear pushed to the side. The light turned green and I found out what an orgasm was.
"You know, you can do that for yourself, when we're not together," he said as he pulled into the driveway of my house. "Just put your finger on it and go in circles, small circles."
We kissed good night and I ran up the stairs to the house. The front door clicked open and I was inside. "Oh honey, you have to listen to this. It's really funny." My parents were in the den, watching Johnny Carson's monologue on TV. I sat down on the couch between them.
"Did you have a good time?"
"What did you do?"
"Oh, the usual -- hung around, listened to music, nothing much. I'm a little tired. Think I'll go to bed." I kissed them good night.
I turned on the TV on in my room and crawled into bed. Johnny Carson was interviewing Charo. She was doing the coochie-coochie-coo. Johnny laughed. Ed McMahon laughed. I laughed. My right hand rested on my stomach underneath the blanket. I parted my legs and felt for it. Small circles, counterclockwise. A little bit of pressure, not too much. I figured out that part myself. Just as Charo was kissing Johnny good night, a rocket launcher went off in my body. Wow.
There was a knock on my door as it opened.
"I thought you were tired. Why don't you turn that thing off and go to sleep?"
"All right, Mom. Good night."
I turned off the TV. The house was quiet. I found it one more time, just to make sure I'd done it right the first time.
So I guess I do have a name for masturbation after all. I call it making a left turn.
The subject of masturbation brought out an unexpected shyness from most of my friends, except for K. and T. K.'s open relationship with her father had helped to dispel some myths early on: "The first time anyone openly talked to me about masturbation was with a priest! Basically he let me know that it was a sin and good boys and girls didn't gratify themselves that way. I explained to my father what the priest had told me and he laughed. (He was not Roman Catholic.) He told me that masturbation was perfectly acceptable, everyone does it (including the priest) and very few admit it. I was immediately overtaken by an image of the priest masturbating and couldn't control my embarrassed laughter. My father then told me I didn't have to go to church again if I didn't want to."
T. told me that she was introduced to masturbation at age 21 by an aunt. "She handed me a jar of Vaseline and told me about it. Before that, I explored a lot sexually; I played doctor every chance I could get."
Interestingly, none of the respondents had had a conversation with anyone about the role of pleasure in sex. While we had all gotten plenty of biological information -- what goes where, where things come from -- not many of us had gotten any information as to the emotional, spiritual and pleasurable elements of sex.
Will our generation be any different? Have my friends who've raised their children done a better job than their parents did? Will those of us with infants and young children do any better at stepping up to the sex education bat than our parents or past generations of parents?
K. said adamantly that her daughter is "very aware that her body is her body and that no one may touch her without her permission." She and her husband are in a unique situation because he works on behalf of sexually abused kids.
"The subject of inappropriate touching is talked about more in our home than in most, I am sure. So we have the extra job of helping to make sure that our children don't think all sex is bad or dangerous. I think the most powerful tool we can give our children is the knowledge that the final decision is theirs and that they only serve themselves by taking it seriously and being conscious of their options."
B. started telling her son about sex when he was very young. Unlike the other mothers, she followed her mother's example of "always answering every question about sex as fully as possible, and never hiding anything. My son was very interested in sex from about 3 years old. I was always allowed to be private about playing doctor with my friends, and I allowed him the same privacy and freedom. He was never told sex or exploration was bad. Because I was a part of the '60s generation, free love was a big part of the culture that he grew up around. He felt free to ask any of our friends about sex, and most of our friends were straightforward with him."
When J.'s children were growing up, they "had an open household as far as information about sex ... I think my brother had more intimate conversations with my son than I did (I was divorced when the children were very young), though my son did talk to me in general terms about his girlfriends when he was a teenager. My daughter was reticent with me about menstruation and sex, though I always kept the door open. For her own reasons, she seems to have preferred discussing sex with contemporaries. I like to think that my children felt total freedom at home with me. My son knew he could have his girlfriends in his room and did. My daughter may have had an occasional boyfriend at the house. All this was acceptable as long as we gave each other privacy and space."
J.C. said, "As a parent who is watching her 3-year-old, rapidly growing child discover his body and sexuality, I feel like I'm in it already. I've had boyfriends who've told me that they remember being or feeling very sexual around 4 years old -- having crushes and urges and desires. So I've kept that in mind, since I have a little boy who discovered his penis right on time according to my husband's understanding of Freud. He suddenly realized it grew and gave him a tingle, and he wanted me to be out of the room. This went on for about a month or two.
"I feel I have a greater overall awareness than my mother did, or than she ever let on she did. I think she just ignored these things pretty much -- you know, you were on your own and the less you knew, the less trouble you would get in. But the opposite happened: The less we knew, the more trouble we had and, in fact, the more vulnerable we, both brothers and sisters, were. My husband is pretty frank about sex, so I'm sure he'll be very helpful. But I guess my Catholic upbringing comes to bear because even if my child's a boy and can't get pregnant, I want him to be careful and cautious about sex, for health reasons certainly but primarily for emotional and some vague spiritual sense I have that it's a sacred act."
M. feels a bit more hesitant about the prospect of explaining sex than the other women do: "Now that I have a 4-year-old girl myself, and another one on the way, the thought of going through it all together with them is torturous. I did not have a good example of how the subject should be handled, therefore the burden is even heavier. What I noticed, however, was that once I fell in love, and was loved in return, the 'hazardous' activity of sex turned into making love, and had nothing to with the sins and the dirt of the world. I plan to talk about it with my daughters from that perspective, as well as participate more actively in their premarital stages than my mother did."
C., the person who turned me on to Melissa Michaels, has been conversing with her 14-year-old daughter about sex ever since her first questions emerged: "When she was 2 years old, she would ask people, 'Do you have a penis or a vagina?'"
As the mother of an infant, T. is in the same boat as I am: "I don't really know, because she's so young. But [I hope to be] open and honest, and trust that I am going to have the appropriate answer at the appropriate time. I am basing it on honesty and I want to educate myself with what is age appropriate, because I wasn't treated that way and had a lot of violations. I have a gray area, so I would like to have a better understanding."
So where has all of this led me? I certainly know my friends better than I did when I started out, which is part of the issue. Until we stop dealing with sexuality as something to talk about in isolated whispers or fear and include in the conversation not only biological function but pleasure, we will continue to raise children who have less-than-healthy attitudes about their bodies and sexuality. Until we begin to instruct our sons and daughters about the responsibility of being a sexually conscious person, they will continue to make decisions that are confused and filled with ambivalence and regret. Now that the time has come, my partner and I will work as hard as we can to find the words, as awkward as they may be, to talk to our daughter about the joys of pleasing oneself and others.
Oh, and by the way, thanks, Paul -- wherever you are.