“You’ll learn when you’re older.”
This is a phrase I heard from my parents many times growing up. As if the answer were so terrible, I couldn’t handle it. As if sex were inherently violent. As if men were inherently predators. As if women were prey.
The fateful day when I got older never seemed to come.
Instead, I learned what I knew about sex from kids on the school bus. I learned what I knew about periods from girls at camp, who made it sound like I’d be rushed to the hospital. When I learned it happened more than once, I was terrified.
My mom warned me of the class where I’d learn this, telling me the night before, “There’s going to be a program tomorrow on… maturing… and developing.”
“But why do they have to do that?!” I argued. I was secretly excited, but she seemed so uncomfortable, I knew I had to object. I couldn’t let on that I was a pervert hungry for sexual knowledge.
The girls gathered in a classroom, and the teachers came in with grave expressions, like they were breaking bad news to us. The bad news of being a woman.
We learned about boys’ erections and wet dreams and orgasms but not our own. I wondered if I was the only girl who had them. It was confirmed: I was a pervert.
I had fantasies I didn’t understand. I thought no one else would either. As a little kid, I didn’t know what it meant when I leaned into the pool jets or moved one of those floaty noodles around between my legs. I just knew it made my parents unhappy, so it was bad.
In high school, I heard stories of girls being “taken advantage of.” I thought that was the only way to be sexual. I thought I’d never find someone who acknowledged my pleasure. I didn’t acknowledge it myself, keeping my masturbation routine a shameful secret.
But by the time I got to college, I’d learned something different from what my parents’ silence taught me. I met partners who wanted to please me, and I didn’t feel used. I was doing it for me. It didn’t feel wrong or bad or nasty or dirty at all. It didn’t feel like something that had to be kept a secret.
I started writing about sex to teach other women they could have this.
To teach them they weren’t dirty for asking questions, and they didn’t need to wait until they were older to get answers. Because there’s nothing about this that we have to keep from children. Nothing about this is scary unless we instill fear through silence.
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What’s scary is thinking your period is the blood from an actual wound. What’s scary is believing that your first time has to hurt. What’s scary is not knowing how to avoid pregnancy. What’s scary is being a sexual being with parents who don’t approve of your sexuality — who don’t approve of you. Always tip-toeing, trying to make sure you don’t give away who you are.
Today, writing and speaking about sex is my life — a life my parents refuse to be part of. At seven, I couldn’t ask them questions. At 27, I can’t answer their questions. Like: “What did you do this weekend?” Or “What are you working on?” Or “What have you been thinking about?” When I reached a milestone with my book, I had to celebrate with friends. When I got a tattoo representing female sexual empowerment, I had to hide it from them.
Parents: is this what you want for your relationship with your children?
They may not all be sex writers, but most of them are sexual beings. When you disavow their sexuality, you disavow them. Is avoiding your discomfort worth it? Is it worth it for them to split off their sexual selves from their “good” selves, to think part of them is bad? To put up with bad sex because the whole concept of sex is tainted with badness?
Talking about sex may make you uncomfortable, but so would having children who grow up in ignorance and fear. Maybe your own parents didn’t talk to you about sex, and that instilled shame in you. But that shame isn’t yours to pass on to your children. If you want them to grow up free from shame, model this attitude yourself.
Your kids, after all, can pick up your attitude from what you say. Even if it’s as simple as “You’ll learn when you’re older.”