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.

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!

Gender

I just read through this: http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2011/11/list-of-cisgender-privileges/

and looked at this: http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Genderbread-2.1.jpg

and I can’t help thinking about my own gender identity and expression.  Not so much now as when I was growing up.  Let me start off by saying that I am biologically female and have always identified as such.  I know that I have not suffered the stigmas and hardships that non-cis people face every day.  I know that I am very fortunate.  I intend for this post to be more a reflection of how gender expression has affected my life than for it to be any kind of “I know how non-cis folks must feel” post.  Because I am very lucky.  This is more about middle school being a hard time for me than about gender identity being a constant source of judgement and confusion in my life.  No offense is meant to anyone who for any reason might ever read this.

Okay, so.  When I was in middle school, I often got mistaken for a boy.  I never fully understood why. It’s true that I’ve always been tall, but middle school girls tend to be taller than middle school boys.  I had noticeable breasts by 7th grade.  My hair was never shorter than chin-length.  I didn’t wear dresses a lot, but I often wore form-fitting shirts in colors that most people considered to be “feminine.”  I mean, look, I was a weird kid.  I wasn’t a pretty middle schooler.  My mom didn’t want me to get my eyebrows done or wear makeup or spend a lot of money on clothes.  I didn’t know how to make myself look the way society told me I should look.  I had a unibrow.  Here are instances that I remember where my gender was misinterpreted or called into question:

1) In 7th grade, we had a substitute in math class.  He was going over answers to our homework.  I raised my hand to give an answer, and he checked the seating chart to find my name.  He immediately said, “Are you guys switching seats on me?  Because that doesn’t look like a ‘(my obviously female name)’ to me!”  I was mortified.  I couldn’t fully wrap my head around what had happened and what I had done to have failed to be…me.  How he was allowed to decide that I didn’t look like me.  The rest of the class quickly jumped in to assure him that I was, in fact, “(my name),” and he let me answer the question.  No apology.  If that happened to me now, I would have lectured him and left the room.  I cannot stand adults who act like it’s okay to embarrass children for any reason.  This incident has always stuck with me.  Even now, about ten years later, if people are looking at me, I’m never sure if I should think they’re checking me out or that they’re trying to figure out my gender.

2) In 8th grade, we had another substitute in another math class.  I handed in an assignment and he said, “Thank you, sir.”  I didn’t say anything.  I sat down and said to my friend, “I think he just called me ‘sir’.”  “What?  That doesn’t make sense.  Look at what you’re wearing!”  I was wearing a tight-fitting pinkish purpleish shirt.  I felt very self-conscious for the rest of the day.

3) Later that year, a couple other classmates and I went to compete in a regional science fair.  These two boys, who were younger than us, kept following me around and harassing me.  “Are you a boy-girl?” one asked.  “No, she’s a girl-girl,” a classmate who I wasn’t very close with responded.  (I was so grateful to her for that.  The confirmation that everyone in our class wasn’t calling me a boy behind my back was just what I needed.)  We were wearing name tags, so they knew my name.  They kept calling to me, making jokes about being in love with me.  They did this once in front of one of their mothers.  She smiled and made some kind of comment about me being out of their league.  She did not understand that they were insulting me.

These incidents have had lasting impact on me.  I used to have dreams that I would suddenly discover that I had a tiny penis in addition to my vagina that I’d never noticed.  Every time I’ve learned about any kind of gender/sex irregularity, I look it up on the internet to see if it’s something that I might have.  I have a hormonal imbalance that causes me to grow thicker/darker facial and body hair that began to manifest itself in high school.  It is very difficult to be a girl with facial hair.  Even when it’s “taken care of”, I’m terrified that someone will know.  Bearded women are made fun of on TV programs.  A friend made a joke about me having facial hair once, and didn’t understand why I got so mad until I finally calmed down enough to explain it to him.  (He of course had no idea that I had more hair than I was supposed to and apologized and we all grew from the experience but it was still quite painful for me.)  I feel like I constantly have to prove to people that I am a girl.  I was talking recently to a guy I’m interested in about shaving legs, and about how I like shaving my legs but I don’t like feeling like I HAVE to shave my legs.  He told me to just stop doing it for a while.  I realized that I can’t.  I never want to do anything that might bring my gender into question.  This, of course, sounds completely irrational to me, but it’s been built into me for so long.  I’m terrified that I might accidentally not be a girl.

So, back to the links I posted at the beginning.  I was thinking about gender identity and expression and wondering how to best phrase my experiences.  Does gender expression have to be conscious?  I identify as female.  I thought I was expressing myself as female.  I guess, really, it never occurred to me at that age that there was a way for me to be a girl but not to appear as a girl.

(Sidebar: I always have trouble with this, because I hate words like “masculine” and “feminine” and I just want to be like, EVERYONE DO WHATEVER THEY WANT AND DON’T WORRY ABOUT LABELING IT, but I know that that’s not how it works and that those words are a big part of many people’s identity and sense of self, so forgive me if I seem like I’m kinda going back and forth here.)

So, in conclusion: middle school sucks.  If it’s possible for me to be biologically female, think of myself as a girl, and still get bullied for not being “enough” of a girl, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for someone who doesn’t have the same advantages I do.  I wish I could make more people understand that they don’t get to decide what it means for me to be me, or for anyone else to be themselves.  I work at a camp with 8-12 year olds right now, and I’m constantly trying to make them understand this.  Expressions like, “Boys will be boys,” “Man up!”, “Real men do/don’t ____,” and “Stop being such a girl!” are such a bigger part of their lexicon than I realized.  It’s frustrating.