Recently, my son emerged on my computer screen for one of our regular video chats and spoke in a voice that I didn’t recognize. I had just seen him at the beginning of November donning his northern California gear and sophomore swagger. But, in three short weeks, his voice shifted into a different gear and I found myself struck by the evidence of his inevitable manhood.
Then, I spotted some writing on his arm. His explanation was that his friend, a girl, drew a fake “MOM” tattoo on his arm in marker. I tried to control my snap back, remembering my own silly antics as a teenage girl. The gesture, however, signaled the growing intimacy that is bound to develop between my kid and his female counterparts.
I’ve never been one to shy away from relationship and sex conversations with Emmanuel. When he was four years old, he asked how babies were made. I told him simply that an egg and a sperm come together to create a baby. I found a grainy microscopic picture of just an egg and a sperm on the internet and showed it to him. He accepted this basic explanation and went back to whatever he was doing. That was all he needed in that moment.
When he was seven, he sought a bit more information. So, I bought the book, It’s Not the Stork and we read it together. My heart was pounding and my hands were sweating as I passed page by page through the text. It wasn’t too terrible until he asked his follow up questions.
“How does the penis get in there?”
“Well, it gets hard and you have to be really, really close and naked.“
“Does it hurt?”
Oh boy. “No, actually it is meant to feel good.”
The questions stopped there and his little old soul graciously comforted me as I finished my explanation. “There, Mom. Now, you’ve told me about the sex.” Yes, he really said that while patting me on the back. I’m surprised he didn’t say “Good job.”
Over the years, more conversations followed. My favorite was when he was within earshot of a Viagra commercial on the television and proceeded to ask me, “What is reptile malfunction?” which makes perfect sense because an eight-year old would have no reference point for the term erectile dysfunction. I tried not to laugh and decided to text my father. His advice was to say it’s when a snake can’t get out it’s venom. Not very helpful.
Emmanuel and I have discussed oral sex (see my Parenting Out Loud entry), sexual orientation and gender identity. He even asked why his father and I had a child together even though we weren’t married. With each discussion, I have felt good about helping him make sense of the world as he crossed his own development milestones emotionally and cognitively.
Now, the stakes are higher and I find myself trying to figure out how to navigate these conversations while haunted by my own experiences. I want him to have a healthy curiosity about sex, but to also understand that it’s sacred energy that we often don’t honor or give away too casually. I want him to see clearly the power dynamics and vulnerabilities tied up in sex without losing the sense that it is as basic a need as the food we eat or the air we breathe. There is no stigma to our desires.
Generation X nostalgia is on fleek these days, especially as we are either being completely ignored or forced to sit idly by as the Boomers and Millentials fight for power and attention. Keanu Reeves, a generational icon, has reclaimed his place in our hearts and Eddie Murphy is queuing up all the things that made him great. Stranger Things is a straight up homage to 80’s kids while Sesame Street, the reason we all can read, is celebrating 50 years by casting our favorites in new ads. Miss Piggy looks great, by the way. No sooner had I started writing this post did E.T. and Eliot share a heartwarming reunion on Thanksgiving Day.
Our sex education, however, was a bit more problematic. Our pop culture emerged out of the “free love” era of the Seventies and was rife with mixed messages about how we were to manage our sex lives. Madonna’s front and center sexuality was meant to empower us girls. We were also subjected to Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High where sex was always narrated as a male conquest with no attachment or little regard for the women in the story. Even Sixteen Candles, our ultimate high school Cinderella story, is riddled with questionable elements that oriented sex as an entitlement for men and boys.
We learned very little about sex beyond its value for bringing us fleeting pleasure in a moment. For those of us in the church, lessons of morality may have kept our desires at bay for a little longer. The freedom that came with our college campus independence and the accessibility of alcohol often led to throwaway narratives about sexual encounters. I knew of boys who earned their “trophies” or badges of honor for their “hook ups”. In retrospect, it was demeaning for everyone involved.
It took years for me to clear the shame of my own misadventures. If I had understood the energetic component of sex, I would have made different choices for sure. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but the gravity of this issue has never felt more urgent as I steward the heart and soul of another while he approaches such pivotal years in his life.
On my most recent flight, I watched the movie Good Boys, a hilarious quest of three 12-year old boys trying to learn how to kiss in preparation for an upcoming party. I died laughing as they innocently confronted and attempted to make sense of the crazy details about sex. The boys were absolutely adorable as they accepted where they were developmentally. I was also impressed with the film’s centering of the idea of consent throughout the story. There is no question that we are moving in the right direction.
Yet, even teaching boys to ask for consent still suggests that sex is an acquisition or destination as opposed to a genuine sharing of energy and connection. An interesting juxtaposition to the boys’ focus on consent was the behavior of the older boyfriend of a girl in the film. When she wasn’t available for sex, he first threatened to hang out with his ex-girlfriend and then rejected her outright. It was jarring the way he turned so quickly on her when his entitlement was not met.
Parenting a teenage son, I’m trying to lean back and trust his emotional intelligence on these issues but I don’t trust the world to send him a different message about sex. Asking for consent does empower women to say “No” or “I’m not ready” or “Can we discuss this?” or “Am I safe with you?” However, if men are still socialized to believe sex is an entitlement, our choice can sometimes be punished regardless of our reasons.
This socialization doesn’t serve men and boys either. Our choice is viewed simply as rejection so the remedy is to go find a “yes” somewhere else as soon as possible. A textbook maneuver to repair the illusion that a man’s sexual dominance defines his manhood, but one that complicates our relationship dynamics by inviting other people’s energies into the mix.
About a month ago, I was out with my friend, Fred, and we were approached by a Canadian opera singer who was drawn to the English that we were speaking. This guy’s presence and booming baritone voice were undeniable and he quickly unloaded his story of loneliness as he had been away from from his wife and kids for months while working here in Paris. Things seemed tame enough until his excessive wine consumption unleashed his sexual energy.
Looking past his theatrical good looks and impressive professional background, this guy’s energy was riddled with complications. He made it abundantly clear that returning home to make love to his own wife was not something he was necessarily interested in. It wasn’t long before his gaze and invasion of my personal space made his desired plans more transparent.
When Fred set his intention to peel off and head home to his partner, I knew I would have to manage this gentleman’s growing advances. For me, it was a no-brainer as I had no desire to get tangled up in his energetic mess. And he must have picked up on that because he proceeded to say that I was “afraid of him.” A statement I found a touch insulting and provocative at the same time. How about I’m just not keen on sleeping with a married man harboring bitterness over his wife “not missing him enough?” Why would I invite that energy into my body?
I didn’t take the bait and made my exit with Fred, but before I did, I offered our friendship thinking that an occasional cup of coffee would give him some level of companionship as he lived his life so far from home. He declined.
For a long time, men have staked their claim on sex, contending that they want it more than women as biologically they are compelled to spread their seed and ensure the survival of the species. Research has shown that simply isn’t true and that women desire sex just as much as men. Hell, the clitoris has double the nerve endings as the tip of the penis AND we are capable of multiple orgasms so why wouldn’t we want to do it?
The reality is, however, that we are inviting someone into our bodies. Energetically, that is a big effing deal. Consent is more than asking if a woman wants to do it. It’s also letting her know that you might be having sex with someone else so that she can make the choice if she wants to get in the mix. And we should be teaching our girls to ask that question of the people they are with and for themselves. These details really do matter.
So back to my kid. I just want him to have a completely different perspective as a man. I want him to raise the bar beyond simply asking for consent. To see sex not as a transaction, but as a bonding of energies. In doing so, maybe he will be more discerning in his own choices when the time comes. Boys and men should feel empowered to say “no” too and to consider that protecting their own spirits and energy is much more valuable than a passing moment of pleasure.
While he was in eighth grade, Emmanuel and I had a conversation about the girls at his school and if he liked anyone. I wanted the scoop, but he expressed no interest. It wasn’t a question of orientation as we discussed that as well. With a little probing, he finally disclosed that he felt like the girls at his school either all acted alike or all tried to look the same and that just didn’t interest him. It was such a compelling insight into his thirteen-year old mind.. . and probably a commentary about how girls are socialized. That’s a whole other blog post.
And while one man who has been accused of committing sexual assault is holding the highest office of the land and another has a seat on the Supreme Court, I have to believe there’s more we can be doing for Gen Z, especially as they emerge with a broader understanding of gender and sexual fluidity. My hope is that Gen X does right by our kids as they make their transition into adulthood; teaching them to take a new perspective when contemplating their sex lives.
Not much has changed for Emmanuel on the dating front as he enjoys his early years of high school. I can’t say I’m not relieved. To my Gen X comrades, send your lessons my way. We’ve got a big job to do.