When I was in 5th grade, there was a boy named Jason who was wild and unpredictable. He had just moved to our town, but he had very quickly gathered a group of friends. I sat near them one day at the lunch table and listened uncomfortably to their conversation.
The group of boys were calling out the names of girls in our class, and Jason would say whether he'd like to a) Hold Hands with this girl, b) Kiss her or c) Have "bed sex" with her.
I was raised in a home dripping with, lathered, honey drenched, saturated with the wrath of the Lord. Although there were plenty of whispers about things happening in the dark corners of the sanctuary, (her uncle made her touch him during private guitar lessons... after his car accident he lost his impulse control and his daughter started peeing the bed... he gave the babysitter a ride home and she says he was drunk...) sex was not something to talk about, think about or even wonder about. If you wondered about naked bodies and what they did, exactly to make a baby, you were a sinner of the worst kind.
So, I was a fifth grade girl and we had started to learn about sex in school. They took all of the boys into another room and gave them pamphlets with blue covers, instead of pink. We learned about tampons and armpit hair, how to ease the pain of menstrual cramps. One day, the nurse put a condom on a banana.
I picked up little things about boy parts and girl parts, how the boy had a hotdog and the girl had a bun. I thought I had a pretty okay understanding of sex, especially since I spent the first few years of my formative life in a trailer park. The boy had a wiener that was pink and smooth and jiggly, and he would lay it in my bun, someday. Easy enough. And then somehow, magically, a baby was born.
I took some paper and markers upstairs to my room and I sat indian-style on my bed with a hard backed book in my lap, and I drew a picture of a naked lady with boobs, and a naked man, with a hotdog. They were laying in bed together. I labeled their actions as "bed sex" like that bad boy at the lunch table had done. And then my mother threw open my bedroom door.
I freaked out and jammed the picture under my pillow. She asked me what I was doing, and I told her nothing. Nothing! She snooped and found the picture, and the holy wrath of God the Father was upon me. I was in SO MUCH TROUBLE.
I hadn't felt titillated when I drew the picture. I didn't draw it to get some kind of perverse kick. I was just interested in what this "bed sex" might look like, with the boobs and the bun and what not. My knowledge of sex was so scant and so imbued with secrecy and weirdness... I was just trying to make sense of the things I had been learning.
Well, now none of that mattered because my life was over. My mother was furious. She threatened to tell my father, although we both knew my father was an actual sex pervert who went around snapping people's bra straps and talking about women's "bosoms." She wouldn't tell him, I knew that, at least. What she would do was accuse me of being a monster, grill me about why I had done this terrible thing, give me dirty, knowing looks every time we were in a room together, and refuse to speak to me for about a week. When she did start speaking to me again, it was to threaten me and hold the dirty picture over my head. I remember that I was misbehaving in the back yard and she said to me, "You better cut it out. You're already in the dog house."
We never mentioned the picture or boobs or bed sex or buns or hotdogs. She just said things like, "You're already in the dog house," and I knew. Guilt and shame came raining out of the sky and I cursed myself for being such a disgusting, filthy little pig. Why, oh why, oh WHY did I do something so terrible and gross? You can't imagine how much I hated myself and felt all squirmy and tied up inside as I tried to sleep at night. You also can't imagine how much I internalized this experience, how many times I thought about it, even into adulthood, and how much shame I felt over the course of so many years.
We're afraid to talk to our kids about sex. I'm afraid to talk to my kids about sex. But really, what if my mom had just talked through that picture with me? What if she had been calm and discussed the body parts and what I had learned about them? What if I could have told her about Jason and how he wanted to have bed sex with some of the girls in my class? What if she could have explained about the bun, and how there's nothing magical or scary or weird about it. How it's just something that happens in nature, how it's for adults, and how adults do it to make babies?
Why did I feel scared and nervous telling my husband this story a few days ago about how I drew this sexy picture when I was 9 years old? Why did I feel like he was finding out a dark secret about me, and when he heard it, he was going to decide that I was a monster and that he didn't love me any more?
After the picture, there were times where something embarrassing happened, like once, when determining whether or not I had chicken pox, the school nurse looked down my pants at my butt. My underwear were old and the elastic was all stretched out, so they had fallen down and were bunched up in the seat of my pants. She said to me, "Aren't you wearing any underwear?" and oh god, I grabbed manic fistfuls of my oversized, stretched to the max undies and hiked them up as far as they would go. I felt humiliated, and my thoughts immediately rushed back to the bed sex picture.
Another time, at my brother's soccer game, I went inside of the unfamiliar, empty school to use the bathroom. While I was peeing, a janitor stuck his head into the bathroom and said, "Is anybody in here?" I said, "Yes, I am! Just a minute!"
When I walked out into the hallway, he was standing there next to a bucket on wheels filled with gray cleaning solution and he said to me, "What were you doing in the boys bathroom?" Wait, I was in the boy's bathroom? Shame, shame, shame, I would never tell anyone this because I was already a dirty freak because of the picture.
That picture colored my view of myself for a long time. It seems silly now, because I'm adult and I know all there is to know about cookout food and it's application in an adult setting. I know all about how the hotdog meets the bun. I have girls, now and they're too young to start asking questions about sex, but I understand how it's going to be a hard subject. I also understand that I need to be careful about how I treat them, while they're learning about this hard subject, because I don't want any part of their self-esteem as people to be dragged down and tied up because I have insecurities about their sexuality.
Childhood is full of those things that haunt you at night, make you feel alone and different and afraid. I wish it didn't have to be this way, but when an older kid takes your seat on the bus and then nobody offers a space for you to sit, and you end up in the front row with a kid who writes swear words on his jeans and doesn't have a mom... you come home sullen and uncomfortable and embarrassed. When your mom asks you what's wrong, you say, "Nothing!" because the shame is too great. Over such small things, the shame is too great.
It seems like a lot to manage, the fragile senses of self that our children carry. It makes me feel a little bit alone and afraid, myself, just thinking about it. But I'm the mom. It's my job to teach my girls what they need to know about the world. To demystify scary subjects. To let them know that they're people, and every person who came before them had to learn this stuff, too. It's my job to help support and diffuse the shame the world will inevitably place on them, and that they will mercilessly place on themselves. It is my job, most of all, to never be a contributor to that shame and to be aware enough of myself and the impact of my actions.
They are so precious. They are the most beautiful creatures ever to have lived.
PS. I was inspired to write this after reading this post on one of my new favorite blogs, Love, Joy, Feminism.