My daughter is on the brink of adolescence, scary new territory for the both of us. She’s trudging through that precarious, almost-but-not-quite-a-teen state of limbo, we’ve all had to struggle through on our way to adulthood. Of course, I want to help guide her through this awkward phase and see her come out the other side a strong, self-assured young woman.
So on days when she’s more defiant than usual and has me at my wit’s end. I remind myself to take a deep breath in and calmly try to see things from her perspective. Remembering that during the earliest stages of puberty, life can suddenly become a precarious state of existence. It’s a time when it can feel as though your very own body is turning against you. As well as becoming a source of intense anxiety. Not to mention, the new found fascination with sex that usually makes its appearance around the same time.
Putting myself in her shoes has caused me to do some looking back at that turbulent time in my own childhood. When my body was doing things I didn’t fully understand and sexual curiosity made its first blips across my radar. Back then my ideas about sex were still abstract and relatively vague. Sex was still a shadowy concept I’d heard adults discuss in hushed voices.
Sometimes I’d snuck glimpses of “it” in the actors’ portrayals during the day time soaps my grandmother watched. It was shamelessly displayed in the photos I’d nervously snuck a peek at, in the Hustler magazines. I’d accidentally found, hidden under my Uncle’s bed. The summer he moved in with us while going through his divorce. Though, I was still unsure of what exactly these images portrayed.
Looking back, I clearly see I was a scared, confused young girl. Adrift in a sea of sexualized imagery, still and moving. Even in line at the grocery store, I found myself surrounded by photos of provocatively dressed women on glossy magazine covers with a certain look in their eye. Unfortunately, with no adult guidance to help interpret what I was viewing. I was left to make my own, and often wrong assumptions.
This commercialized representation of sex, shown to me through the lens of male heterosexuality, left me feeling uncertain of how to feel about sex. I didn’t see a reflection of myself in it. It left me feeling isolated and alone. Sadly, there was no trusting parent to sort things out for me. Someone to point out that what I was observing was only a small sampling of human sexuality. That my sexual desires would take their own unique form as I matured and discovered who and what I was attracted to. Someone to tell that confused little girl that there is nothing dirty or wrong about sex. That sex isn’t just for the thin, toned, and tanned, a concept that I’d already begun absorbing into my subconscious, but intead, that sex is as natural as breathing.
My childhood was a little peculiar, I was raised by my widowed Grandmother, who was already sixty years old by the time I was born. Even though my parents lived next door and I often saw them. Grandma took on the majority of the child-rearing responsibilities of my older sister and me.
The rare times my Grandmother dared broach the topic of sex, was only to warn us not to get knocked up. Although, I do remember another occasion when she told us about my Grandfather returning from WWII with a newly discovered penchant for oral sex. If you can imagine, this didn’t go over so well with my ultra-conservative Grandma. She unapologetically called it “dirty sex” and refused to have anything to do with it. My sister and I still laugh about that awkward little conversation with Grandma. I’ve often wondered since, how our poor Grandfather endured his probably near sexless, and most definitely passionless marriage.
So many laughable memories have recently come flooding back. Like the day in fourth grade, on the playground. When my friend Tori explained what sex “really” is. She used a pine cone and her hand to show to her captivated audience, how a penis penetrated a vagina. All of us, a group of 11-year-old girls, were mortified. I remember thinking, “wouldn’t that be painful?”. I simply refused to believe her.
Determined to prove her wrong, but with no adult, I felt comfortable asking, I smuggled the family’s Medical Encyclopedia off the shelf and hid it under my bed. This book ended up being the source of most of my sexual knowledge for the next few years. Later that night my worst fears were confirmed, Tori was sort of right. This new revelation terrified me and left me feeling even more uncertain about sex. (Sadly, it would be years later before I realized that a penis inserted into a vagina wasn’t the only “thing” that qualified as sex.)
The idea of talking to either my Grandmother or Mother about sex made me feel ill. I still remember how foreign the idea seemed to me then. There was no way for me to know, this was a normal discussion for a parent to have with their child. Today my mother is still unable to have a candid discussion about sex, masturbation, or orgasms. If I pursue a dialogue about anything related to sex with her, you can cut the tension with a knife. She gets very quiet, then in a strained voice quickly changes the subject. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, considering we were raised by the same sexually repressed woman. Yet, I find myself continuing to yearn for that missed connection with her.
Ending the Legacy of shame
These recent trips down memory lane, just remind me that parents bear a huge responsibly to their children. In helping them grow into sexually functioning adults. People who can go out into society and feel at ease with their bodies and how they work. Women who are not satisfied with merely pretending to feel pleasure, but demand the real thing. Adults who understand that no, means no. Sadly though, sexuality and sexual pleasure, in particular, is skipped over by well-meaning parents. Whether its due to the adults feeling embarrassed when speaking openly about sexuality with their kids, or they think they will be taught at school by either their teacher or their peers, or both. I’m not sure.
I do know, that at bare minimum parents owe it to their children to educate them about how their bodies work. The correct names of their anatomy. Along with an understanding of sexual consent, and how reproduction works. Our children deserve to feel at ease when discussing these topics, especially in the privacy of their home. We need to open a dialogue, let them know we are available to answer any questions they have. The shame surrounding sexuality needs to end.
It has taken the majority of my adult life to work towards undoing the damage the lack of parental openness about sexuality caused in my life. The secrecy and shame I associated with sex were not healthy. For such a long time I worried I was bad for daring to enjoy sex and masturbation, but no more.
I never want my daughter to feel the fear, shame, and isolation surrounding sex that I felt growing up. I want her to be able to embrace her sexuality from the earliest (and healthiest for her) possible moments in her journey though life. Never linking sex and shame together, the way I did. If I’m a hundred percent honest with myself though, I have to admit I’m terrified that I will leave the wrong impressions about sex on my her, too. Although, I am determined not to, because I know it’s up to me to break the cycle of shame. This legacy ends with me.~