Talking to Parents About Sex: An Anecdote

My parents are not perfect.  Surprise!

This post, however, is going to mainly be about my mom.  My dad and I, while close, never had the type of relationship where we talk about boys or sex or feminism too much.  (Although he does send me articles he comes across about feminist issues, which is really sweet.)

Whenever my mom watched TV or a movie with me or my sister and there was a sex scene, she’d be all, “That’s bad, they shouldn’t be doing that.”  I assume this would be different if the couple were married, but I can’t think of a time when that came up.

My mom is fairly liberal.  She is definitely in favor of comprehensive sex ed.  I don’t think she would condemn consenting adults for having pre-marital sex.  But it was made perfectly clear to my sister and I that sex was bad.  She gave me a chastity ring in eighth grade.  She didn’t notice things like how terrible my self esteem and outlook on life were at the time, but she thought it was important to tell me not to have sex.  This particular conversation emphasized the badness of oral sex, and how it is “all about the man” (no, I’ve never asked her if she knows about cunnilingus).

After I’d gone away to college and started learning more about gender issues, I had an interesting conversation with her about my brother.  At one point in high school, my brother had wanted to wear eye liner, and my parents were strongly against it.  This conversation took place about four years later, and I mentioned to my mom that it seemed very narrow-minded of her.  She responded with something like, “Well, I figured if he really wanted to do it, he would anyway.”

This planted a thought in my head.  What if my mom felt the same way about sex?  What if she felt that, as a parent, she was supposed to be an anti-sex force in my life, but that I’d have other influences and make my own decisions regardless?

If that’s the case, I think that’s terrible.  Maybe she underestimated how much influence her opinions had on me, for way longer than I’d like to admit.  I developed some really unhealthy ideas about sex that took a lot of working through.  And at this point, I don’t ever want to talk to my mother about my sex life.  Ever.  She has made it clear to me that she is not a safe confidante for this kind of thing.  And I’m not saying that I think kids and their parents should be able to share intimate details about their sex lives.  I mean, I can’t say, “Hey, I should get tested for STDs, can I bill this through the insurance?” to her, because even the best case scenario there still involves me divulging information that I feel uncomfortable divulging to her.  And that’s clearly not good.

I don’t know if there’s a moral here.  I don’t know if there’s an ideal way for this to work, but I know that I disagree with the choices my parents made here.  I know that parenting is always an experiment, but it’s upsetting to look back at conversations and see them as clearly harmful.

Language We Should Be Giving High Schoolers

Articles like this one and discussions I’ve been having with some friends have made me realize that there is a serious disconnect between the actual issues at hand with slut-shaming dress codes and the language accessible to teenagers to respond to these policies.

I never had a problem with my high school’s dress code, but I did have an issue with a church-related mission trip.  The youth leader made a couple dress code policies that I took issue with.  He said that any girls who wanted to swim during the trip (one summer, we spent the week at a hotel with a pool, and a couple other times we bought a slip ‘n’ slide during some time off) must wear one piece bathing suits.  I remember arguing against this because one pieces are really annoying to wear, and pointing out that there are some very revealing one pieces and some very modest two pieces.  Other girls complained that this was unfair because they only owned two pieces, and he was making them spend money on things that the boys didn’t have to spend money on.  None of these arguments affected his policy.  The other issue he brought up was work shorts.  He said that every person had to wear shorts down to their knees so that, if someone was standing on a ladder, they couldn’t see up your shorts.  The main argument I raised against this, at the time, was that women’s shorts don’t generally come in that length, so again, this was a policy that was creating extra inconvenience and expenses for the boys but not for the girls.

All those arguments are relevant and worth thinking about when sexists dress codes are put into place, I think.  (And, in that youth leader’s defense, when the boys on the trip started playing a game of shirtless soccer and I complained that this was clearly unfair when we weren’t even allowed to wear tankinis, he made them put their shirts back on.)  But the MAIN PROBLEM here, the one that goes way beyond the “That’s not fair!” instincts I had in high school, is that policies like this suggest that it is girls’ responsibilities to make sure that nobody else is looking at them inappropriately.  And that’s flat-out not true.  It’s not true about high school girls or adult women.

I’m not saying that organizations aren’t allowed to make dress codes.  Of course they are.  I think it’s totally fair to demand high schoolers to dress in a put-together way for school.  To me, that means no ripped pants, no bare midriffs, no exposed undergarments.  And I guess “no hats” gets shoved in there, which, sure, go ahead and make a policy on.  Even things like “No outside jackets,” while generally pointless to me, at least aren’t sexist.  If you’re a private school with a uniform, you’re allowed to do that, too, as long as you aren’t being a dick to anyone who doesn’t fit into outdated, rigid sexual stereotypes (so, don’t force anyone to wear a skirt or pants if they’d prefer to wear the other option).  I can understand these policies.  The problem comes when dress codes, as they tend to do, affect girls’ clothing choices way more than boys, or when administrators state that the reasoning behind their dress codes is to prevent girls from distracting the boys.  The article I linked to at the beginning of this article talks about one school where they took all of the girls out of classes to sit through an assembly on dress code policies.  This sends a clear message that this school is valuing boys’ educations over that of girls’.

In high school, I was angry about dress code policies because I believed that teenagers had the right to express themselves however they want through their clothes.  Now, I’m angry about them because I believe that teenagers have the right to not be blamed for possessing female bodies.

Sex Conversations

There’s a great new post on Pervocracy that you should check out if you’re interested in some of the ideas of sex-positivity that this post kind of rests on.

I’ve been thinking recently about sex (surprise!).  I’m going to a wedding this summer of a high school friend who was always very into waiting till marriage.  I don’t really talk to her much anymore, so I don’t want to make any judgements about her and her fiance, but it’s been making me think about how scary it’d be to commit to a sexual relationship with no knowledge about your own sexual desires or your partner’s.

Which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with waiting for marriage, or that this is a situation that would only come up in couples that are waiting for marriage.  I just think that it poses a separate set of problems that aren’t discussed very often.

So here is my proposal for conversations that I think people should have before they enter a relationship where they expect to have sex regularly.  Or maybe at all.

  1. “How will we communicate our sexual desires?”  This includes “I want to have sex,” “I don’t want to have sex,” “I want to be having different sex than we have been having,” “This isn’t working for me,” “This hurts,” “This feels great,” “Do that more,” and so on.  This includes discussions before sex, discussions during sex, or scheduled discussions that you have every month or so.
  2. “What will we do when one of us wants to have sex and the other one doesn’t?”  This is so important!  I think that, especially for a lot of couples for whom virginity has been placed on a pedestal, it’s hard to imagine sex with your future partner as anything other than special and magical.  Or maybe not.  Maybe the frequency of the “man wants to have all the sex, wife wants none!” trope makes people expect to have different sexual desires from their partner.  Either one of those can be damaging; the first because neither partner expects to either one of them to want to say “no”, and the second because it can make the couple believe that sex is something the woman is supposed to “get through,” whether she wants it or not (OR it can be damaging for couples where the roles are reversed!  It’s tough to hear a man say, “No, I don’t want to have sex tonight” after a lifetime of hearing, “ALL MEN WANT SEX ALL THE TIME FROM ANYONE”).
  3. “What will we do if we are sexually incompatible?”  This should be a huge concern!  I guess this one applies to marriages more than other couples; it’s easier to break up over something like this if you haven’t just gotten married, I imagine.  But seriously, put this all out on the line.  If one of you wants a lot more sex than the other one, how will you reconcile that?  Is bringing someone else in to satisfy that partner’s needs an option?  If one of you can’t stop fantasizing about a sex act that the other one finds decidedly unsexy, how will you handle it?
  4. “What will we do if one of us has physical trouble with sex?”  This relates to #3.  Are you comfortable talking to each other about how your bodies work and the problems or pain they’re experiencing?  Will you be comfortable consulting a doctor if there’s an issue?
  5. “How do you feel about contraceptives?” and “What will we do if we get (or don’t get) pregnant?”  Obviously, this conversation will change depending on what type of relationship you’re entering into, and probably goes side-by-side with conversations about future children you might want.
  6. “How do you feel about masturbation?”  Some people consider masturbation in relationships to be cheating!  Some people consider masturbation at all to be wrong.  Some people consider masturbation to be a necessary part of their sex lives!
  7. “Are there any situations you know of that you might find triggering?”  If one of you has had a traumatizing experience in the past, that would be a good thing to know beforehand!
  8. “What do you currently know about your sexual desires?”  If either of you has a lot of specific fantasies that they think they’d be interested in acting out, it can’t hurt to know that before you start having sex that one of you finds to be lacking.
  9. “What do we consider cheating?”  Even if you’re not entering a poly or open relationship, a lot of people define cheating differently.  Are close friendships with members of the sex(es) your partner’s interested in okay?  Is flirting okay?  Hugging?  And how will you handle these things if you feel threatened by or uncomfortable with one of your partner’s relationships?

That’s all I can think of for now.  I’m sure there’s a lot of things I’m forgetting!  Feel free to add on in comments!