It’s an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon in coastal Maine, and I’ve brought lunch to our back porch for my eight-year-old son and his spritely female friend whom he has known most of his life. They’ve just come up from the tidal shoreline. The air is salty and thick.
I venture back inside to retrieve drinks and, when I return, I am met with giggling and sheepish grinning between the two old friends. It isn’t hard to imagine what they might have been discussing as I’ve gotten used to observing them unfurl so many of life’s mysteries together.
I have been anticipating a conversation about the mechanics of sex with my son for several years now. I had wanted to follow his lead, hoping to answer any questions he might have and then segueing into the details that I would like for him to know. I have wanted to normalize sex for my son in a way that was never done for me so that he might enjoy this vital connection throughout his life in a healthy way, without the hang-ups of shame and disassociation that so many of us have had to shed.
In my adolescence, my mother – while folding clothing together in our laundry room – spoke vaguely of a man planting a seed in a woman.
My father once made a comment about my holding a penny between my knees at all times and referred to me as a “fallen woman” (in apparent jest) when he found out I was sharing an apartment with my boyfriend after graduating from college.
There was no eye contact between any of us in these off-hand and uncomfortable attempts at providing information about the facts of life. There was no mention of love or connection or protection. There was no follow-up, no books to study. I was entirely unprepared as a young woman – as a human – for what it would mean to enter into my sexuality.
For a boy so deeply curious about the inner workings of all things in nature, culture, and even politics – don’t get him started on Donald Trump – my son has been remarkably indifferent, or perhaps reticent, in his inquiry about how babies are made and what our “private parts” have to do with it all. He’s all about being a boy, jokingly intensifying bodily sounds and functions. But outside of speaking about animals mating, he has shown little interest in learning about the human equivalent.
I’ve been teaching him about sexuality in subtle ways from the start. Our language around the body is anatomically correct, and we have a firm policy about listening to the “no’s” we receive from others. I have established this practice with the understanding that honoring physical boundaries now will translate into respectful treatment of partners’ bodies later in life. I feel a particular responsibility in this regard as a mother of boys and as a woman who recently chimed in, “me too” on my social media account.
When my son falls asleep at night, I sit on the edge of his bed, rubbing his back and neck. Sometimes he will convince me to rub his legs and feet, which can feel a little indulgent at times. He directs me to his sore muscles, so I place extra attention there. In these quiet moments, he tests out what it means to share his inner workings and thoughts while nestled in a bed with a woman at his side who loves him with every cell of her being.
I listen intently to what he has to say and engage in this tenderness of touch so that he may one day experience such healthy intimacy as a mature young man in the embrace of someone he loves. I work hard to preserve his connection with his feelings – to help him decipher them and share them verbally so as not to turn on the switch that perpetuates the male tendency to use sex alone as the sole means for connection and comfort.
Back on the porch, I asked the two friends what made them giggle so. My son indicated that they might have been talking about something inappropriate. They had found a couple of horseshoe crabs stuck together down by the shore, and his friend had said that human beings do a similar thing – stick themselves together – to make a baby.
In the brief pause before I spoke, I took in my son’s face – one part cherub, one part Huck Finn – and noticed how he peered at me squarely in the eyes without shame or hesitation in anticipation of my response. I absorbed how comfortable and confident he felt coming to me with this inquiry.
I told him that she was exactly right, that we humans do put ourselves together in a similar way at times. I assured him that I wanted to share everything he wanted to know on the topic, that families like to provide these details to their own children, and so we would have that conversation very soon and in privacy. But if they had any pressing questions, I would be happy to answer those.
They both looked at me and smiled with ease. No questions.
On Sunday afternoon, the house was quiet, and I peeked my head into where my son was working on a drawing. I asked him if we could pick up our conversation, and he suggested nonchalantly that we talk while he continued working. I agreed. As soon as I began to share my thoughts, he turned away from his drawing and looked at me head-on.
I engaged my son in some guessing about what our various parts are meant to do. It turned out he already knew what went where. I was not surprised, but happy to confirm (in anatomically correct language) what he’d already heard in cruder terms at school.
Then we discussed the things that really matter. We spoke about the love and warmth involved in “human mating.” I assured him that, while he will likely hear all sorts of things suggesting that sex is somehow dirty or bad or something to hide, it is actually a beautiful miracle to be cherished between two people.
I ended the conversation by asking for his trust – that I be the person he turns to if he has any questions or concerns about sex, now or in the future. It felt like any other conversation we’ve ever had about the things he needs to know as a human being new to this earth without a map.
I called my sister later that night. We celebrated another hurdle in forging new ground as parents better equipped than our parents were to nurture our children’s emotional and physical well-being. We know that, if they could have, they would have provided us with more information about sex, and we would have learned about the value of our bodies – our rights and responsibilities as women – in less painful ways.
A few days later, my son came home from school and told me about a boy making a joke about breasts using jocular hand gestures. In all earnestness, he said, “ He doesn’t respect women’s bodies.”
I did a little happy dance inside and stifled a smile.
I don’t anticipate that my son will always be so perfectly respectful. I don’t pretend that he will never test out some objectifying behaviors, which are so frequently modeled in our culture. But for now, I feel assured that he is on the path toward learning that sex is something he can discuss openly with me.
I like to imagine that what I’ve shared will live inside him and be available when the time is right. I like to imagine that the prospect of his sexuality causing him or his partners shame or pain will be something he can never understand.