Update / Correction: I have changed this post slightly from when I first posted it in 2013. I have replaced previous instances of the word “breed/breeding” with “mate/mating,” which is more accurate. Otherwise, the piece is just as originally posted.
Several years ago, a friend of mine spent the summer in South Africa. She stayed with a family in a small town where, as in so many other small towns all over the world, the houses each consisted of one large common room. After a couple of weeks of sleeping in a room with several other people, she summoned the courage to ask a young unmarried woman about her age, “When do your parents get any… umm… privacy?” The young woman laughed, “You mean sex, right? They are modest, of course, but they don’t really get true privacy the way wealthy people do in some other places. I understand that there are children who have to be told about sex! Not here. No matter our parents’ best efforts, most of us have seen them having sex by the time we are 5 or 6. It is no big deal.”
No big deal! Contrast that with the Kia ad that premiered during this year’s Super Bowl, in which a dad and mom anxiously avoid their child’s question about where babies come from, making up a ridiculous fairy tale, and then drowning out his rejoinder with the car stereo.
About a year ago, my husband and I took the baby monitor out of my daughter’s room, but she still wakes up in the middle of the night about 1/3 of the time, so we leave the door to our bedroom a little bit open, so that we can hear her if she calls. But she doesn’t always call out, especially in the morning — sometimes she comes to our room instead. In the past, I had considered the monitor and our doorknob’s creaky turning to be our early warning systems. Instead, over the past months, I have been trying to work out what we are going to tell her if she walks into the room when we are having sex.
I had been a bit anxious about it, honestly. More than once I have paused to check the clock and done some calculations about when she would likely wake up that morning before deciding whether I was comfortable having sex right then. But in the past few days I came up with something to say that has me almost hoping that she does walk in on us one morning in the next year or so. Remembering my friend’s story – that for many children all over the world, having seen their parents have sex is “no big deal,” I wondered about the difference between that attitude and the conviction of my friends when I was a child and teenager that the mere thought of their parents’ having had sex was “gross!” In movies and on television, I have “walked in on” countless young, beautifully airbrushed couples having sex – but rarely married couples, and never in real life.
But back to what I would say to my six year old, if she were to walk in on my husband and I having sex in the next several months, and were to ask what we were doing:
1) We’re mating… This might sound like a weird thing to say, but I would be beginning here by placing what she had seen in the context of what vocabulary she already has. My daughter LOVES animals, and has been checking lots of books about animals out of the library – and a word that comes up a lot is “mate.” She doesn’t know what mating entails precisely, but she knows that it is something that two animals do together in order to make a baby (or lots of babies). So by saying, “We’re mating,” she knows right away that what she saw is related to how humans make babies, without me having to go into a lot of age-inappropriate detail.
2) … but unlike most other animals, humans don’t mate just to make babies. This is important for three reasons. The first is because it is true, and I want her to learn what other things sex is for from me, not her peers. The second is because it is the necessary thing to say before telling her anything else sex is for. And the third is because, as a family that has been trying to adopt for a few years, my daughter is aware that, “Mommy can’t grow any more babies in her belly.” So if Mommy and Daddy are mating (doing something that makes babies), then already that raises several questions in her head.
3) When humans mate, we call it “sex.” And couples have sex to strengthen the bond between them. This is the critical part right here. Too often, “the talk” includes (or even begins with) “when two people love each other very much.” This can be very confusing. Love can mean a lot of different things to different people. Talking about love – about what comes before sex – tends to endorse anything that might happen when swept up in an emotional moment. Instead, I feel like it is important to frame sex in terms of strengthening of a bond between two people – the results of sex. Unlike “making a baby,” which only results from sex sometimes, “strengthening the bond” happens every time. It can strengthen that bond in good or bad ways, it can strengthen that bond with a person who is good for you or bad for you, but it makes the bond stronger each time. My daughter already knows (from us telling her, and from her observing us) that Mommy and Daddy love each other very much, that we respect one another and trust one another, so there is really no need, if she walks in on Mommy and Daddy having sex, to tell her that it has something to do with love. But as parents of her friends divorce, I imagine the idea of sex as strengthening commitment will be reassuring to her.
Naturally, this version of “The Talk” leaves a lot out. After all, I have thought about it with my six year old in mind. For instance, now is not the time to get into “there are many ways to have sex, but only vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman can result in a baby, unless you take advantage of in vitro fertilization, which is a way of making a baby without sex at all,” or “There are ways to avoid having a baby when you are having sex, and some of them work better than others, and some don’t work at all, for instance…” These matters can be addressed later, in bits and pieces, as she gets older and as she has more and more questions. Actually answering those questions honestly (instead of trying to distract her from her questions by singing her favorite song, like the parents in the Kia commercial) will tell her that I am open to this conversation, and that will encourage her to continue asking me questions when they arise, instead of asking someone else.
“The Talk” is not one conversation, but a commitment to years of conversations. In a sense, I already began talking with her about sex when I talked to her about marriage more than a year ago. “One day, when you are older, you may find someone who you like so much, and who likes you so much, that you want to see them every day, and help one another do everything, and be family with one another…” Liking one another, commitment, helping, family… again, I didn’t use the word “love” because it didn’t seem to be the most helpful word in the situation.
Love is great and important! My daughter and I use the word love a lot! But because there are so many different ways to love people, I didn’t want that to be the only word that comes to mind when thinking about marriage. Our culture will guarantee that it is the first word she thinks of – I can give her other words as well. And by giving her these other words when she thinks about marriage, she will think of these words too when she thinks about sex. As long as the first context she has for thinking about having sex is marriage, and not the sex she will see portrayed in movies and on TV time and again as she grows up — the sex that is simply scratching the inexplicable itch of desire.
Most of us will inexplicably desire many people in our lives who would be poor partners – to whom we know we would prefer not to be strongly bonded. Respect and mutual support and commitment and enjoying one another’s company and desire? That’s what I want for my daughter. My hope is that she is given unmistakable clarity in finding such a partner. But because we are all fallible, because it is so easy to be deceived by our desires, shame is not on my agenda for my ongoing conversations about sex with my daughter. If she is to flourish as an adult in a sexual relationship, if she is to continually strengthen the bond between herself and another person, I don’t want to do anything to impede her freedom to sever a bond that is better broken. Especially if the sex was nonconsensual, for instance as Elizabeth Smart spoke about at Johns Hopkins when sharing her experience when she was abducted from her home. But even if the mistake is hers – even if she chooses to have sex with the wrong person – telling her that she is now something like a “chewed up wad of gum” that no one will want is not simply hateful and contrary to the demands of Love, but also a way of preventing her from being equipped to form a life-giving relationship later.
So I am going to stop eyeing the clock in the morning, and not worry so much about our creaky bed frame. If our daughter sees my husband and I having sex, it is no big deal. It might even be a good thing.