"When do you plan to have 'the talk'?" one mom asked me at the playground. I wasn't sure what she meant. "Oh, you mean talking to my kids about sex? We've been having conversations in that realm since they were infants," I responded to her horrified expression. I tried to explain my reasoning to help her understand that I wasn't ruining my child's innocence, but trying to raise healthy, body-positive, open-minded children who didn't have to hide their eyes and giggle uncontrollably at the age of 15 when someone says the word "vagina." It's also because I had the exact opposite with my own parents.
When I was younger, I was incredibly naive. "Let her keep her innocence for as long as possible," my mom would say to people. When I was 13 — after I got confused by everyone's laughter in the movie theater when Doofy went into the bedroom with a vacuum cleaner in Scary Movie — she started to inquire if I knew anything at all about sex. When I said I didn't understand why everyone thought that scene was so funny, my mom and older sister went into hysterics.
It took me a very long time to shake off the shame and trauma surrounding sex and such a restrictive upbringing.
"If you plan to have sex . . ." she started to say later that day in the mall food court, her boyfriend sitting next to her. My insides froze. I practically stuck my fingers in my ears saying, "La la la, I can't hear you!" My family barely hugged each other, let alone spoke about physical intimate relations. If anything, I imagine they thought that if I didn't know, I would be less curious. "It's better you wait until your married, anyway. There's less heartache that way," she said after I refused to be submitted to such an embarrassing experience.
Fast-forward to me at 19 years old. I had so far avoided having a boyfriend because I was always told to "never want to lie down next to a boy because they'll only want sex." I didn't know how sex worked, let alone what a penis looked like. Growing up in Arkansas, I didn't even know that it was "allowed" for me to have physical relationships with women, too, although I was already having emotionally intimate relationships with them. All I knew was that sex was a taboo topic. I distinctly remember the conflicting message that came at me from all sides growing up in the Bible Belt. "Don't have sex before marriage, but if you do, make sure you use birth control. Except you can't get birth control without saying your having sex and that would be wrong. So don't have sex before marriage." That was the end of it. The full extent of my sexual education. Abstinence.
It took me a very long time to shake off the shame and trauma surrounding sex and such a restrictive upbringing, even after moving to a substantially more progressive area. Some of it still lingers in my psyche, making me feel wrong or broken somehow. But sex is a healthy and natural experience that doesn't need all of these rules and stigma around it, which is why I've decided to keep the one-and-done "talk" out of my house, and instead have open discussions with my children about consent, properly identifying body parts, mechanics of making a baby, how they're formed, and all the different types of relationships and identities there are.
My kids are 4 and almost 8, and they know what a vulva and penis are. They know that a penis has sperm in it and that sperm travels through the vaginal canal on its way to fertilize an egg. They know that a man and a woman, two women, two men, or one parent can have a baby in a variety of ways. They know that some women have a penis. They know that some people don't want children, and that's OK. They know that their bodies are their own and are encouraged to take full ownership over what they want done to their bodies. As they grow, the conversations will evolve and be more focused on what they're experiencing in the moment. I imagine when they become teenagers they'll have a full mental toolbox on what sex can be like, for pleasure or for purpose. They'll know how to practice safe sex. And they'll know that they can always have an open, safe discussion with their mother about their sexual experiences, if they so choose.