No one ever had “the talk” with me. My parents were, in many ways, quite up front and comfortable with sex and sexuality. In others, not so much. Early on, I knew the basic mechanics of penis-in-vagina sex. (A good friend and I made a fair sum from our second-grade classmates by winning a bet about how babies were made.) It wasn’t until my late 30s, though, that I had even the beginnings of a clue as to how sex and desire really work.
I’ve been thinking a bit about “the talk,” and about just what my talk should go like, what I wish I’d been told, what I think I might say. I’ve watched (and previously written about) Julia Sweeney’s hysterical account of her talk with her kid.
My own thoughts here are somewhat unformed. This isn’t so much a proposal or a plan as a brainstorming session – not so much the outline of a talk as the outline of the basic points I hope to get across as a parent. But I’m curious – have you had “the talk” with your sons/daughters? What’d you say? How’d it go? How did your parents’ talks with you go? What did they say? What do you wish they’d said? Have you read good things on the subject? Where? By whom? (I asked this question the other day and was sent lots of great links, and thoughts, by readers, both in the comments and in back-channel e-mails – thank you all. I’ll follow up with some thoughts on those links in a separate post.)
Here are the points I’m thinking I want to get across as a parent, to my child:
I’m not so interested in talking about the mechanics of reproduction. You know them, in broad brush terms. You’ll learn the more detailed anatomy and mechanics in biology, in sex ed, as it should be. Honestly, I don’t know that stuff all that well – teachers trained to teach you should teach you. What I hope to communicate about is desire, about the meaning of sex, and about the power of sex.
1. What is sex, really?
When I was growing up I was told sex was “when a man puts his penis in the vagina of a woman he loves.”
And this certainly is one kind of sex. But the truth is, sex is much more than this. Sex isn’t one act. Sex doesn’t require two people (nor is it limited to two people). People have sex with themselves (usually first, and usually more than in any other format over the course of their lives), they have sex with another person of the same or another gender, and some people, sometimes, have sex with more than one person. Sex doesn’t require a penis. It doesn’t require a vagina.
To me, sex is simply this: any activity in which we engage primarily for sensual (bodily) pleasure, pleasure which typically, but not always, is centered around our genitals, but which often features other erogenous zones including the entire rest of our bodies, and especially, the insides of our brains.
2. Why do people have sex?
One reason people have sex is to reproduce. But this is not the main reason people have sex.
I mean, it may be the main reason from an evolutionary perspective, but humans evolved, unusually (but not uniquely) among species, to have sex for fun and pleasure, and not just for reproduction.
Mostly, when people have sex, they hope very much it won’t result in reproduction. Like almost every person I know, I can’t possibly count the number of times I’ve had sex. But I can count on the fingers of one hand – actually, in my case, with just one finger – the number of times It’s resulted in reproduction.
Almost all of the time, then, most people have sex for fun. We have sex because it feels good, and/or because not only does it feel good, but it’s something really fun we can do with another person (or people) – and fun is almost always more fun when we share it with others. And when another person isn’t available, or interested, it’s something we still can do with ourselves. And we do.
3. With whom (other than myself) should I have sex? When? Why?
My parents told me sex is something people do “with someone they love.” But this, too, simply isn’t true a lot of the time. Maybe most of the time. Most people spend most of their young lives having sex with people they know, people they like, and occasionally, people they love. And sometimes, with people they can’t stand. Or people whose approval they want. Or people they’re scared of.
You should have sex with yourself when you can do so discreetly, and when you want to. (No one other than a sexual partner wants to see you masturbate, or even to know explicitly that you do so. This doesn’t mean it’s shameful or embarrassing. It’s just private.)
You should have sex with other people when you want to, and when they want to, and when you and they both are aware of and comfortable with the risks and rewards of sexual activity (see below).
In general, good sex happens when people have it with people they communicate well with, with whom they feel comfortable saying what they want, what feels good, what feels bad. And most important, with people they trust – people they trust not to hurt them, not to use them, not to abuse them. (Except to the extent those are things they actually want to happen – more on that in a moment.)
But there’s more to it than this: good sex often happens between people who want similar (or complementary) things. Because sex is so complicated, there are so many different ways to have sexual fun, it matters what you want. It’s important to learn what you want, what you like, so you can be sure that the people you have sex with want similar things.
4. What if what turns me on is gross, or bad?
Desire is funny. We don’t pick what turns us on, what gets us excited. Gay people don’t choose to be gay. Straight people don’t choose to be straight. As you get older, you’ll find all sorts of sexual practices on the internet (and that’s fine – look around, take it all in, in private, away from the prying eyes of others). You’ll see people doing things that disgust you, and people doing things that you’re surprised to learn excite you. (More on internet and other pornography in a subsequent post/talk.)
Listen to your desire: not every desire needs to be fulfilled, but if you try to deny that you feel something, nothing good will come of that. Some desires definitely shouldn’t be acted on. But you are not what you want. Your desires happen to you. Don’t judge yourself – or anyone else – on the basis of what they want, what they like. And learn to fulfill those of your desires that you can, consensually, to the greatest effect.
Don’t be surprised that surprising things may turn you on. Some people are excited by feeling pain, some by inflicting it. Some people are turned on by dressing up like babies. Some, by pretending they’re animals. There’s literally no end to the wild and crazy things that turn people on, and there’s nothing wrong with any of it.
The only things that are bad, sexually, are things that hurt other people, or that are done to them without their consent, or without their ability to consent meaningfully. So sex with people much younger than you, sex with people whose judgment is impaired, sex with people who, for whatever reason, can’t say yes (or no) is much more risky, is nearly always bad.
5. What are the dangers of sex?
Well, the biggest, worst danger of sex is that it can be used as a weapon. Having sex with someone against her or his will – or interacting sexually with a person without her or his explicit consent – is a bad thing. It can leave serious physical and emotional scars, and it’s just a shitty thing to do. Never do it, and, if anyone does it to you, be sure to tell someone you trust right away. It’s bad enough to be sexually assaulted; it’s worse to live alone with the aftermath of a sexual assault. While assaulting someone sexually is an awful thing to do, there is no shame in having been assaulted. Sadly, it’s happened to lots and lots of people – some people say as many as a third of women have been assaulted sexually, and though a smaller number of men have been assaulted, it happens to men, too.
The second biggest danger, in my opinion, is that sex often leaves people feeling bad. People often find themselves regretting things they’ve done sexually because they did them for the wrong reasons (see above). People have sex because they hope that by doing so, they’ll make someone like them. Or because they hope that by doing so, they’ll feel better about themselves. Or because they’re just scared not to. These sorts of reasons almost always leave people feeling worse than they did before they had sex, and my advice to you is, the only good reason to have sex is because you want to. If you do that, if you have sex when you want to, alone or with people you want to have sex with, and who want to have sex with you, you can’t go wrong.
The third biggest danger, and in some ways the most important, is the danger of pregnancy. Pregnancy and reproduction are wonderful. Unless they’re not what you’re trying to do. In which case, pregnancy can be, in a best-case scenario, an expensive pain in the ass for the pregnant girl/woman, and in a worst-case scenario, a life-altering error. It’s not a bad idea for any heterosexual having vaginal intercourse to talk through how they imagine they’d handle an accidental pregnancy, should one occur. (This may not be realistic, but, as a parent, I’d like to imagine it is.) And for God’s sake, if you’re not trying to cause a pregnancy, be sure that you know that contraception is in place.
And then, the danger that people spend the most time talking about? Disease. This one seems fairly simple to me. It is true that sex is one way people transmit diseases to one another. The vast majority of sexually transmitted diseases are no big deal, treatable by antibiotic. A few are more dangerous, chronic. Sometimes even fatal. Do your research. Read up on the various diseases you need to be aware of (HIV, HSV, HPV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, pubic lice/crabs*, for starters). And practice safer sex practices.
There’s no single collection of practices that are universally agreed upon here. The policy that has worked for me (and most people I know) all my life has been always to use a condom for vaginal or anal intercourse except when I’ve been profoundly comfortable that the person/people I’ve been having sex with a) are HIV-negative, and b) are not having unprotected sex with anyone else. Beyond that? Do what feels right.
But other than that? Sex is wonderful, and fun. Think of it as a playground – a tremendous place to enjoy yourself, where you have to be mindful that you don’t hurt yourself, but where risk is, for the most part, rewarded with fun.
Enjoy it, above all else!
* Do people even get crabs in these days of shaven pubes?