Human Sexuality 101

The idea of when to discuss sexuality with children has been contested over the years, but the general argument has boiled down to “when the parents think they’re ready.” Well, that’s true for the most part, but some kids don’t have a parent they can go to when they have questions. Thankfully, I did.

My parents were never close-minded about sex, but when I was small I’d ask where babies came from and receive a joking answer like, “the stork brings them,” or “they’re born under cabbage leaves.” This was my dad’s way of dodging the question. Questions posed to my two older brothers were met with open-mouthed silence followed by, “ask Mom.”

When I was nine, my mother figured it was time to tell me about the birds and the bees. I was woefully physically and emotionally immature, but she wanted to catch me early, before I started my period (my mom’s own mother had started her period at age eleven without having had “the talk.” When she fell over some railroad tracks and started bleeding, she thought she had cancer). Mom was naturally cautious about waiting too long to tell me about the female cycle.

Armed with her degree in physical education, Mom pulled information from her textbooks to explain to me the mechanics of the female body. She drew me a diagram of a uterus, ovaries, and Fallopian tubes, and explained what happened each month as a woman shed her uterine lining. I cried, because I was afraid. She hugged me and assured me that the menstrual cycle was perfectly natural and happened to every woman, even though most didn’t talk about it.

Mom explained that when a sperm fertilizes an egg, the woman becomes pregnant. Then she showed me pictures from her textbooks of the baby at different stages of development. I was rather overwhelmed with all this information, so I was given permission to look at the pictures in the textbooks as often as I wanted and encouraged to ask questions. She intentionally left out the crucial missing link, though. I understood the changes my body would make as I entered puberty, and I understood conception, pregnancy, and the birthing process. I just didn’t see how they fit together.

I spent several months pondering the link between a woman’s cycle and pregnancy, and finally I decided to ask about the missing information. Marching into the kitchen one evening, I saw Dad and my two older brothers helping Mom fix dinner. Not having any idea of the gravity of my question, I asked, “Mom, how does the man get the sperm into the woman’s body?” I looked down at my hands, and when I looked back up, Mom was alone. Where had everyone else gone?

Mom sat me down and explained, with no diagram this time. Although she tried to describe the act of sex as very acceptable and natural, especially the part about two people really loving each other, I still had a hard time comprehending the concept. It wasn’t long before I figured out what my parents had done to produce us kids. The family joke is that my parents had sex three times, once for each of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher for forty years, Mom has given “the talk” to hundreds of her female students. Mom taught in a low-income school, and many of the girls had no formal sex education besides what they got from her. Back in the 1970s, she would save the sex ed unit until closer to the end of the year, when more girls would be emotionally mature enough to handle the content, but by the end of her career, she was teaching it near the beginning of each year because she became convinced that high levels of growth hormones in meat caused girls to start their periods earlier. Physical maturity began winning out over emotional maturity. Street talk began trumping her scientific approach as girls became more sexually aware earlier in their development.

Years later, on one of my first long-term substitute positions, I was asked to take over for a science teacher just as the students were starting the new, district-approved Human Sexuality unit for seventh graders. Although the unit was very prescriptive and quite dry (“Day three: place the transparency of a fetus on the overhead projector”), I had just two short weeks to help these students feel comfortable enough for me to teach them about this sensitive subject.

Fortunately, the curriculum was so benign and politically correct it wasn’t too difficult, at least until the day we had to separate the students by gender. Our team was comprised of one man and three women teaching four subjects to 107 kids, 65 of whom were boys. The male teacher expressed his discomfort in addressing sensitive questions about male sexuality to such a large group. Even though the curriculum stressed the “abstinence” approach, he was reticent about talking to the boys alone. He recruited the PE teacher for backup.

I, on the other hand, was ready for anything. Because my mom was so thorough in answering questions during my adolescence, I wasn’t shy about answering any of the girls’ questions, no matter how intimate they might be. I was looking forward to dispelling rumors and debunking urban myths. I had even studied the district’s recommended answers to the most awkward questions, just in case.

We handed out squares of white paper upon which the girls wrote their questions. Then we collected the uniformly-folded squares in a box which we shook before drawing out and answering the questions. “If a woman has an ectopic pregnancy, does that mean she has a pregnancy in her leg?” “Does washing with Mountain Dew after sex really prevent pregnancy?” Yikes! Nothing in the developed and approved curriculum prepared me for these questions.

Thankfully, Mom did. I fell back on the scientific approach, treating each question as if I had asked it at home. I gave a careful, pragmatic answer, describing what worked and what didn’t when it came to pregnancy, and stressing the idea that a girl’s self-worth was not determined by her body, but by her decisions of what she did with it.

Because she taught me to ask questions, Mom gave me so much more than the right answers. She taught me to be ready for all the questions, even those I don’t expect.

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