“The Talk”

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.

“Together we Serve”

In the United Methodist hymn supplement The Faith We Sing, Hymn 2175 is “Together We Serve” by Daniel Charles Damon:

Together we serve, united by love,
inviting God’s world to the glorious feast.
We work and we pray through sorrow and joy,
extending your love to the last and the least.

We seek to become a beacon of hope,
a lamp for the heart and a light for the feet.
We learn, year by year, to let love shine through
until we see Christ in each person we meet.

We welcome the scarred, the wealthy the poor,
the busy, the lonely, and all who need care.
We offer a home to those who will come,
our hands quick to help, our hearts ready to dare.

Together, by grace, we witness and work,
remembering Jesus, in whom we grow strong.
Together we serve in Spirit and truth,
remembering love is the strength of our song.

Just yesterday, in a cranky mood, I told my husband that I needed to stop spending any time on Facebook or Twitter.  It just seemed like I received a barrage of one thing wrong with the world after the other – things that I was powerless to change.  It was not a lot different from watching television news, and I have given up on the news — the very goal of television news seems to be to desensitize me and overwhelm me at the same time, because it is impossible to process the magnitude of any one news story when there is no pause between one injustice and the next and the next and the next – for 24 hours now, if you watch cable.  (I think this is why I like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – because they are not news anchors, they can express their emotions about a piece – genuinely or ironically – before moving on to the next piece.  For me, that moment of reacting to the news item is cathartic.  Also, they tend to report on stuff that is off the “approved television news topics” list.)

But today, I am noticing the difference between the Twitter barrage and the nightly news barrage: community.  A story develops in the reactions that people have to a story, so that the different angles of the story are examined, and articles and other pieces of evidence are proffered, until a thesis in 140 character chunks is laid out.  It was on my Twitter feed that I discovered that I was not alone in being offended by the proposed “Fitch the Homeless” campaign, which was reassuring.  (And probably excessively re-tweeted related stories – apologies to all who follow my feed.) As I followed the story on Twitter, I learned something new, too:  that there is an excess of cast-off clothing in this country – that textile waste is a growing problem.

I started to think about the recent death of more than a thousand garment workers in Bangladesh. Interesting that people seemed to be getting much more worked up over a CEO saying sociopathic things about what body types could belong to “cool kids” than over a number of CEOs sociopathically profiting from unsafe overseas labor.  Why were we singling out one person as a jerk instead of getting angry at the whole system of textile manufacturing: from pesticide runoff and waterway habitat destruction resulting from cotton farming, to the toxic manufacture of synthetic fibers, to the closing of U.S. factories and destruction of local economies, to the opening of factories in countries with little environmental or labor (or building and fire safety!) oversight, to child labor, to the high environmental cost of trans-Pacific shipping, to union busting… how could anyone simply hand an Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt to an impoverished person and feel like they had done their part?

And as I was thinking about all of that, I found an editorial by Stephen Thomgate on the Christian Century blog talking about the Bangladeshi factory disaster (again via Twitter!!), in which he draws on an idea of Justo Gonzalez about powerlessness.  Thomgate writes:

…the key element is naming not our relative power—the instinctual move for us western liberals—but our relative lack of it. The world’s evil is not something we could stop if only we cared enough to; we are captive to it—and the path from impotent guilt to true solidarity requires naming this powerlessness we have in common with those who have far less power still.

He goes on to write about the need for collective action, because we are indeed powerless on our own.  We can choose to shop in thrift stores, for example, but that does not necessarily change very much about the global economic system.

We do not like feeling powerless.  So we get depressed, or we tune out the world’s problems.  Or we pray, which is much more functional than hiding in our blanket cave – because as we pray, we are acting out of the reality that we are powerless – each one of us alone is, to a greater or lesser extent, powerless.  No wonder the larger, thorny issue of the global economy (particularly as it relates to our clothing) was not getting attention – it is so big, we feel powerless to comprehend its scope, much less do anything about it.

If we think in terms of being members of the Body of Christ, we remember that rather than being called to be functional on our own, we function as parts of a Body in concert with one another.  As thankful as I am for Twitter tonight, I am even more thankful for Church – for the Body of believers that, in their best and truest moments, acts out of love instead of out of fear.  “Together we serve… our hands quick to help, our hands ready to dare.”

So friends – what will you dare to do as a small part of the solution to a very big problem – the global textiles industry?  In solidarity with all the others powerless before this big big problem – from cotton farmers to Bangladeshi garment workers to the displaced former textile factory workers who have left North Carolina trying to find work elsewhere… to the countless Americans, yourself included, who are considered important only as buying units – as “consumers” – what collective action shall we take?

Even as my weight fluctuates, I am going to attempt to buy no newly manufactured clothes for a year.  Second-hand clothes only between now and May 15, 2014.  Will you join me?  And if not, what action will you take? Working together in opposing injustice, we strengthen one another. “Remembering love is the strength of our song.”

Epiphany

I have been slowly moving through the television series Angel.  Very slowly – I am a little more than halfway through season two, and I started watching two years ago!  I had gotten so that I was ready to give up on it altogether (the last few episodes had me wanting to throw Wesley and Cordelia under the proverbial bus), but today I gave it another shot.  Season 2, episode 16: Epiphany – in which Angel stops being quite so tortured by thinking big, and starts thinking small.

Which led me to recall a conclusion that I made near the end of  a post that I wrote earlier this year about Sudanese Christianity:

No person is more critical than another.  Or rather, the critical person is the person or people that God has given to me (today, now) in order that we might, through our time together,  draw one another closer to God.

Guess I am going to keep watching Angel after all.