“The ‘sex talk’ won’t be a one-time occurrence, vaguely around the time of puberty, it will be an ongoing conversation.”
Recently, an article caught my eye: “The Challenge of Being a Porn Star Parent." As a mother and the Curator of the Museum of Sex, I was more than a little interested in reading past the headline. What I didn't expect was to identify so much with the author, Aurora Snow, a former adult performer and director, and now an established writer for The Daily Beast.
Motherhood is hard enough, but many of us likely haven't given thought to how this job is complicated by a professional career that falls into the “adult category." As Snow outlines “mixing parenthood with sex work is seriously tricky business." As she describes “parents in adult entertainment are faced with having to build a wall that separates their work and home lives. More secrets, less conversation. And children have lots of questions."
When I first began working at the Museum of Sex, just out of college and straight into a Master's program in Anthropology, having children was still a distant dream. The intersection of my “adult" work, in this case curating exhibitions on the topic, never seemed in opposition to the goal of motherhood. But now as a mother, I must recognize that most mamas don't spend their time with their nose in a sex book researching or collaborating with sex collectors, sex scientists, sex toy designers, sex educators and at times, sex workers. While I don't see my work as a being in conflict with my status of mother (it does make for some interesting conversations at school pick up), I must acknowledge that because of the nature of my work that I will be confronted with a set of questions that others may not need to address.
With my eldest turning four in a few months, and having just entered the world of “Why?" all I do is answer questions. Some are benign, “Mama, what is thunder?" some funny “Why don't you have a penis?" and some that just stump me with their complexity, “What is heaven?" The constant and ever-present probing makes me proud of his curiosity, as well as exhausted, and I know that some harder questions are just around the corner. Just recently my son started to ask me more about what I do when I'm not with him. While “I'm at work, sweetie" used to placate him, now with a few memorable museum visits under his belt, I'll tell him that “Mama, works in a museum. Remember the dinosaurs?" With the summer, and a few exciting visits to Papa's office, he's now been asking to visit me at work as well. “One day, my love." So far this satiates him, but we all know that isn't going to last forever.
But I have it easy.
While I work with sex, and assumptions are made about me, my desires, my interests and my personal activities, “Museum" typically imbues my work with a high-minded, cerebral quality. It's not that I haven't been confused for being a more hands on sex worker over the last decade, and many of my days do involve curatorially sorting through various forms of pornography, on the whole, my title as a “Curator of Sex" makes me “safe" enough company. But the reaction isn't always so kind to other mothers, women who work in many different capacities in the field of sex work, in some cases choosing to work in the adult industry specifically to support their families.
While my work outside of the home doesn't define me as a mother (as I believe it doesn't for other women working in adult industries) it has given me a very clear idea of how I want to approach conversations about sex in my home. With over a decade working in the field, I have encountered too many adults who have spent lifetimes thinking about sex as a dirty topic, internalizing their sexual desires and identities with shame. With these professional experiences, I am committed to doing everything in my power as both a mother and educator to keep shame from being a part of the culture of my household. But that means answering, truthfully, but in an age appropriate manner, all of the hard questions that are going to come my way.
Starting at a very young age, in my household we begin the conversation with the body, always using the real words for body parts and not nicknames. We don't call our elbows “our flower" so why should this be used for genitalia? All this does is signify there is something about this part of the body that we do or should feel uncomfortable with. Instead, from an early age I have discussed with my son (my daughter is less verbal at 17 months), how his penis is a special part of his body, which has made it significantly easier to have conversations about inappropriate touch. Giving children words for these parts of our bodies isn't just philosophical, it also about health, safety and empowerment.
With my son knowing he has a penis and that his sister has a vulva (that's the 'official' word sex educators use but, confession, even I sometimes call it a vagina), my family has the building blocks to one day talk about sex, a conversation that will evolve in detail as he evolves and matures. While we haven't begun to talk about sex, I see this foundation of language already at work, making some conversations already easier. For instance, I was recently asked, “When I was growing in your belly, did you poop me out?," making the association of what happens to food inside our bellies. With an almost impossible to control smile on my face, I could simply say, “No baby, you came out of Mama's vagina." But as children are bound to do, he surprised me again with his follow up, “But why didn't I come out of your penis?"
Although my son is still working out some of the specifics (and seems to be really wanting to work out why I don't have a penis), I was so proud of him for having the real words to have this discussion with me, in turn making it so much easier for me to answer his questions. As both my children grow I know these questions are only going to grow more complicated and more nuanced, but I intend to have the important conversations about safe sex and healthy relationships in the same candid manner as we did in the toddler days. The “sex talk" won't be a one-time occurrence, vaguely around the time of puberty, it will be an ongoing conversation, one I hope my children know I'm open to having. But beyond pregnancy and disease prevention, I know this sex talk will also need to acknowledge the access to sexual content our little digital natives will be privy to. If my line of work has taught me anything, it's that I want to teach my children about sex in a healthy way (and it never hurts to keep a watchful eye on our little one's internet explorations). As the Curator of the Museum of Sex I know we can't hide sex from our children, but if we commit to speaking honestly and accurately about the topic we can teach them about it in a healthy and constructive manner.
But part of that frankness, at least in my household, is going to be based on having a very honest conversation with my children about mama's job. The same will be the case for women like Aurora Snow and others in the adult industry. I'm proud to do the work that I do and look forward to sharing who I am with my children. Sex is one of the best parts of life—and that's nothing to be ashamed of.