TGIPF: Let’s Talk about Sex, Baby!

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sexWarning: This post isn’t so much about penises as it is about sex. Apologies to all you Thank God It’s Penis Friday purists out there. 

Sex. It’s a difficult topic for grownups, but the conversation can be downright excruciating when a child is involved. (Don’t believe me? Watch this.) Perhaps because my parents were uncomfortable, I never got the sex talk. So I relied on hearsay and rumor to figure out where babies come from. I vaguely remember a sleepover where we hotly debated the risk of pregnancy from French kissing.

Sex ed came in the form of films. In fifth grade we watched one about our own bodies. (Who knew that when girls get their periods, their moms take them for ice cream?) In sixth grade we got to watch the boys’ film. Afterward, we furtively scribbled down questions on slips of paper and handed them to the nurse, who did a terrible job of providing answers. What’s a blow job? Well, something a man and woman do when they love each other very much. The films explained how our bodies work separately, but I still couldn’t quite picture how it all worked in concert. I was this guy. (Ok, not quite).

Then, when I was maybe 11, I found a present on my bed: a sex ed book – something along the lines of Our Bodies, Ourselves. (Had my dad noticed me swiping Playboys from his secret stash?) I slunk off to the basement to read up. Mind officially blown.

Until recently, I thought this was the typical way kids learn about sex. You muddle your way to an understanding by using tiny slivers of information to construct wildly inaccurate theories about sex and babies and the workings of human genitalia. And then, if you’re lucky, someone hands you a book in your tweenage years.

But it turns out some parents explain sex to their kids much, much earlier. Case in point: Here’s an image from a book my in-laws gave my husband when he first got curious.

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This Danish book — The True Story of How Babies Are Made by Per Holm Knudson — was published in 1972, the height of Denmark’s sexual revolution. You wouldn’t find this in America. Americans are notoriously prudish. Where do babies come from? The 1928 book Safe Counsel offers this poetic, yet vague answer:

The seed is inside the mother flower, but it doesn’t grow into a new flower until the pollen dust has mixed with it. Every life begins with the mixing of the seeds. Every grown-up animal and every grown-up man and woman have tiny bits of life or seeds inside their bodies which have to come together before new life can start. A part of their bodies is fitted by nature for this purpose.

And our prudishness apparently hasn’t dissipated much since the twenties. Mayo Clinic’s Web site advises answers like this: “A mom and a dad make a baby by holding each other in a special way.” (Though, to be fair, they note that you should give more details if the child asks for them).

The True Story makes it plain. No birds. No bees. No flowers. Just cartoon people having good clean Danish sex. Lady Dane gets pregnant, of course. And then you get to see the baby grow inside her womb for a few pages.

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Then this Danish couple goes to the hospital. And BAM! A baby hoists itself from her vagina.

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My mother-in-law dug out The True Story one evening after dinner. A friend was having trouble talking to her young daughter about sex, and my mother-in-law thought it might help. At first I was sort of . . . well . . . horrified. The illustrations rattled my delicate Midwestern sensibilities. But gradually I began to see the genius of this book. Sex shouldn’t be something we hide from our kids. It’s a natural part of life. Why should we have to pussyfoot around it? If parents can embrace Everyone Poops, why not this?

Hard copies of The True Story aren’t easy to come by. Lucky for you there’s a film version of the book. Why not sit down with your kids and watch it today? (Unless your kids are adults. By now they probably know.)

Or if you prefer something a little more delicate, you could always go with this George MacDonald poem I found in Safe Counsel. Here’s an excerpt:

Where did you come from, baby dear?

Out of the everywhere into here.

…..

Where did you get those arms and hands?

Love made itself into hooks and bands.

Feet, whence did you come, you darling things?

From the same box as the cherub’s wings.

How did they all come just to be you?

God thought of me, and so I grew.

But how did you come to us, you dear?

God thought about you, and so I am here.

And now, dear readers, I’d love to hear your stories. How did you first learn about sex? Have you had the sex talk with your kids? Was it awful? Did they immediately share their newfound knowledge with the clerk at the grocery store in an outside voice?

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Top image courtesy of kyz on Flickr

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22 thoughts on “TGIPF: Let’s Talk about Sex, Baby!

  1. This is fantastic. My experience with “the talk” was not much different than yours… it involved coming home to a book on my bed explaining everything… but a few years too late.
    But more importantly, in college I stumbled upon a book my friend’s parents had given her when she was younger, it is “Where did I come from? The facts of life without any nonsense and with illustrations.” I loved it so much I held on to it. I recommend you check it out. It is full of fantastic quotes like this one: “making love is like skipping. You can’t do it all day long.” It also details orgasms for you: “when the man and the woman have been wriggling so hard you think they’re both going to pop, they nearly do just that.” And apparently it feels like a sneeze, but much better. How anyone ever read this book and didn’t immediately go try to have sex is beyond me.
    The book is all around amazing. I am going to start reading it to my 3 month old as a nighttime story.

  2. Coming from a family whose parents thought playing cards were “Tools of the Devil”, sexual theory was not an elective in my home schooling. I had my ideas however, but they were as your’s were at that age. I wasn’t until 4th grade when I began to figure things out. Seems our hometown barber had a back room were some of the older kids hung out. Smoking, dirty jokes and ah….. Playboys and Penthouse magazines were the fare in the back room lair. Sooo….. I would have to say older kids had assisted me in figuring out how stuff is made and not my parents. My son on the other hand, I had queried him at he ripe old age of 9 and his response was; for christ sake dad, I wasn’t born yesterday! Although, it seemed as he had. I took his word on it.

  3. Stacy — My in-laws have that one too!! Unfortunately I was so blown away by the Danish illustrations in True Story, I barely glanced at it. I think they also have its companion “What’s Happening to Me,” which talks about puberty. (Here and here on Amazon.) Now I wish I’d read them thoroughly.

    Like a Sturgeon — He knew it all at 9?!! How did I manage to stay so ignorant?

  4. Wish I had had that Danish book in my pre-teens. It would have been a helpful reference guide for my teen years.

  5. My parents answered specific questions, but they never expanded. We had some sort of book so that by age 9 I knew about sperm and eggs. I knew about pregnancy and deliveries at hospitals. But I was a city girl. I’d never seen animals mating, and I couldn’t figure out how the sperm and eggs got together. Something was missing in the story, I could tell. This question bothered me for several months. Fortunately I had a sister who was 5 years older than me. One day, we were cleaning house together — specifically, making my parents’ bed — when I began grilling her about the PROBLEM. How do the egg and sperm meet? After stalling for a few minutes, she told me (with considerable glee). I just remember staring at my parents’ sheets in horror. Oh. My. God. Then I went around for a week looking at adults (teachers, too) with new eyes.

  6. I love this book. I would have bought it for my 2.5 year old if I had seen it. Instead, we have read similar books like Lennart Nilsson’s “How was I born?” I went out of my way to buy the original version of that one because I had heard that it, unlike a later edition, actually described the sex act and had illustrations. (They are not as good as the ones in True Story, but at least it addresses this key part of reproduction, and includes a photo of a baby emerging from between a woman’s legs.)It truly depresses me that we have to turn to 1970s Scandinavia for children’s books that convey this factual biological information…

  7. My mom gave me the facts of life talk when I was pretty young (5 or 6 maybe?) The story began, “when a man and a woman love each other very, very much…” but it included all the nuts and bolts information. I don’t remember ever feeling much mystery about it, though I’m pretty sure my first reaction was, “ew, gross!”

    My mom gave me the book you mentioned “What’s happening to me” and it was a huge help. One thing that was nice about having a book is that it answered all my questions without having to ask them of my mom, because that can get awkward.

    In my high school human anatomy class, the instructor made us write questions on little slips of paper. He stood at the front of the class (Dan Savage like) and answered them all without ridicule or shame –Including the only question I remember (we all speculated later about who had asked it…) “how many calories are in semen?”

  8. I also really *REALLY* like this video (of course it’s not American, it’s Icelandic (with subtitles)) designed for young teens – I’ll probably watch with with my girl next year (when she’s 12). There are criticisms for the lack of sexual orientation diversity, but it’s otherwise pretty excellent. http://e3.stemp.cache.is/Fadu_Ja_576p_enska.mp4

    I think an important part of the conversation with this topic is the ways in which the sort of frank sexual education like the book you highlight results in lower rates of STDs and unwanted pregnancy.

  9. This book would come in handy, no doubt! We explained the basic mechanics of sex to our kids about a year ago, when they were about 9 and 7. I’m not saying that they have a full appreciation of all the nuances, but I have to say, parents make way, way, way too big a deal out of this. We just told our kid in a very straight-forward way what happens. (A man’s penis gets stiff and straight, and he sticks in the woman’s vagina and moves it back and forth, etc.) It sure would have been a lot easier to get this information across with these illustrations, without question. But it really wasn’t difficult emotionally to have this conversation. First off, children are used to being told weird, seemlying random things all the time. We’ve had conversations about how the car works, why the moon appears to follow you, etc. They’re so used to just taking information in that being told all this didn’t seem to phase them in a bit. (Although our daughter now says that “it’s gross.”) And the younger they are, the more their likely to just accept it without getting embarrassed or self-conscious. Second, as soon as we started having this conversation (in the car) I knew that we were doing the right thing by just telling them the truth. Seems to me a parent has an obligation to be completely truthful with his or her kids. Once you’ve got that idea in mind, the alternative of lying or obfuscating seems a lot more stressful than just being honest. Now, explaining *death* to a 10-year-old… *that’s* tough. Way, way harder than explaining sex.

  10. I neither got the talk nor the book. Luckily a middle school friend parents gave her a book and she showed it to me.

    Before that I remember the tall tales my friends and I would share at sleepover parties. Pure speculation, often delivered as truth. I remember theorizing that the sperm must pass from man to woman when they kiss at their wedding. (I was a little iffy on how the sperm knew it was the wedding kiss, but…)

  11. Christie, I wish I’d had that puberty book. I used to spend summers with my dad, and it just so happened that I discovered a tiny lump in my breast when I was at his house. I freaked out and told him. In the doctor’s office we learned about “breast buds,” a normal part of a woman’s development. MORTIFYING!!!

    PS. HOW MANY CALORIES DO SPERM HAVE??

    Adrian, yeah explaining death is way tougher than explaining sex.

    Jill, wedding kiss sperm!!! I love that story so much.

  12. There is a really excellent program called “Our Whole Lives,” a values-based sexuality orientation program that is very matter of fact in its presentation of the many facets of sexuality (i.e., taking care of your body, recognizing sexual identity, learning appropriate vocabulary, and learning respect for self and others, etc.). The OWL program (http://www.uua.org/re/owl/) targets different age groups, and having taught the two youngest age groups (K-1 and grades 4-6), I can say that it is an amazing program. Apart from normal discomfort with new, semi-familiar terminology, these young minds show wonder, amazement, enlightenment and compassion in truly amazing ways. During a recent 4-6 lesson, my co-leader and I demonstrated the differences between a tampon and a sanitary napkin. You could have heard a pin-drop (on carpet), these students were so attentive! Because the OWL program delivers information that satisfies youth curiosity as part of an open 8-week or more dialogue, and because there are opportunities to ask questions anonymously or openly, the range of questions is truly impressive.

    The OWL program draws from some of the resources highlighted in other posts, as well as the Robie Harris book, It’s perfectly normal, which participants read with their parents as part of weekly assignments.

    My 9 year old daughter has been through the K-1 program, and it has been very useful orientation for my wife and I, as well as my daughter.

  13. I haven’t had to do the sex talk myself yet… but I was a step-parent in my twenties, and I remember realizing I actually had no idea what puberty was like for boys — apparently, I was too focused on pads and tampons in health class. So I went out and bought the “What’s Happening to my Body?” book for boys… and read it myself before giving it to my 12 year-old.

    Also — I’m pretty sure I saw the calorie count of sperm in a Dan Savage column once. Can’t remember the number, but it wasn’t bad — not gonna break a diet.

  14. This is all so interesting. I will have to check out all of these links to help with my conversations with my kids!

    I apparently got taught about how sex works when I was in kindergarten or 1st grade at my (very liberal) Quaker school. I came home with a six- or eight-cell cartoon strip that I drew in school. My parents framed it and hung it in the bathroom off the kitchen. So I now have the words memorized because I saw it so many times growing up:

    “The mom’s name was Sally. The dad’s name was Marty. The baby’s head stuck out and it came out. And it grew and grew.” The illustration of the third sentence included a naked Sally with a baby’s head between her legs. (Not quite as great as the Danish book’s drawing, of course — which is simply fabulous.)

    The only thing embarrassing about the cartoon strip was that my dad’s name really was Marty… but my mom’s name wasn’t Sally!

  15. I really feel I should have been interviewed for this article. Good ol dad brought me up to my room with a copy of Where Did I Come From and bottle of Ivory pump soap. After realizing you have to be overweight and unattractive to have sex and that sperm was actually Ivory soap I was forever scarred and never ever wanted to have sex. I think my dad was successful in his lesson.

  16. Hey Cassandra,

    Where I come from, arranged marriages are still very much the thing, and a girl seen around town with more than one boy, not.

    Sex-ed was restricted to one chapter in Grade 8 – a chapter most teachers skip.

    I do remember my mom embarrassing the hell out of me one day (I was about 13 then) with a horrifically detailed anatomical rendition of the union. I rolled my eyeballs almost out my sockets.

    Thanks for this lighthearted piece! I wrote about an experience I had with my 8 year old on the subject here: http://kataclysmichaos.wordpress.com/2012/10/07/the-shame-that-is-sex/ – read it sometime!

    xox

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