This is an old newspaper column from about 11 years ago when I was writing about parenting for the Missoulian.
Everything You Already Knew About Sex
(But were afraid to talk about)
By John Sommers-Flanagan
I’ll never forget the night my older sisters saved my life. I was 12 years old. My sisters were babysitting me while my parents went out. They said, “Sit down, we’ve got something serious to talk about.”
I was a compliant little brother and because my sisters enjoyed dressing me up like a girl as I sat down, I was silently hoping that I wouldn’t have to do the girls clothing thing again. To my surprise, their serious topic had nothing to do with girls’ clothing and everything to do with what’s underneath girls’ clothing.
They pulled out a gigantic book. In our family, it was called the DOCTOR book and we only got it out when someone was sick. I started to worry . . . mostly because I wasn’t feeling sick.
They opened the book and showed me anatomically correct pictures of naked men and women. Then I started feeling sick. While looking at various body parts they explained the relationship between male and female sexual organs. I remember thinking “There’s no way this is true.” My sisters, one 16 and the other 14 suddenly looked like the wisest people in the world and I eventually realized they had more knowledge in their little toes than I had in my entire brain. They explained: “Mom says it’s Dad’s job to tell you about this sex stuff. But Dad’s too shy to talk about it. So tonight, we’re telling you everything.” And they did.
At some point in their explanation that night, I understood several school jokes that everyone had been laughing about the week before. But more than anything else, I remember them saying: “Sexual intercourse is very special. You only have sex with someone you really love!”
Sex education in America is like a crapshoot. I got lucky. I learned a big lesson about sexuality from two people who deeply cared about me and whom I respected. Not everyone gets so lucky.
If you’ve got children, you should directly discuss sex and sexuality with them on an ongoing basis. If you don’t, you can bet they’ll learn about sex anyway, indirectly and from other people. Given this choice, most parents decide, despite their discomfort, to talk about sex with their children.
Direct discussions about sex are easy to avoid. So, before you drop this essay and rush off to talk to your children about sex, take a moment to mentally reflect on your answers to the following questions.
1. What did you learn about sex from your parents and family?
2. What did you learn about sex through school sex education?
3. What did you learn about sex from friends and peers?
4. What did you learn about sex from television, magazines, and the movies?
Now. . . if any of you are still with me, you’re probably realizing you didn’t learn the same sex lessons from your parents as you did from your friends or from television. Many people learned (from parents) not to talk about sex. In contrast, many people are learning today (from television) that they should constantly think and talk about sex. Hardly anyone learns consistent and reasonable lessons about sex. Most people learn about sex in extremes. . . either you avoid it or you’re bombarded with it.
Sex is exciting and confusing. One way that many soap operas and sitcoms keep us tuned in is by keeping us wondering who will be sleeping together. When, on “That 70s Show,” Kelso tries to grab Donna’s breasts even though her boyfriend is one of Kelso’s best friends, young viewers undoubtedly feel twinges of both excitement and confusion. Sex makes for great comedy. Unfortunately, great comedy is usually poor sex education.
Teaching children about sex should begin early. There are many natural opportunities for discussing sex with your children – including television, magazines you see at the grocery store, and occasionally, our local and national politicians. Other opportunities occur around ages four or five, when young children begin talking, sometimes excessively and inappropriately, about poop, pee, penises, and vaginas. Although addressing such topics with your children can be uncomfortable, you should begin this process while your child still respects you. About 10 years later, when your child returns to thinking about these topics with rapt interest, he or she may be less inclined to listen to a wrinkly old adult.
Of course if you’d rather not deal with the issue, you can always use the approach my parents used. Give me a call. I’ll put you in touch with my sisters.