Let’s Talk About Sex…. But Only If We Really Have To…

This may come as a shock to some of you, but I have a difficult time talking about sex.

[I will pause a moment while my friends, colleagues, and former students pick themselves up off the floor and recover from the raucous laughter that I’m sure they just engaged in.]

Okay. Let me clarify: I have a difficult time talking with my son about sex.

Now, he’s only on the cusp of eight years, so, thankfully, there hasn’t been much sex talk yet. But this is a kid who has been asking “Where do babies come from?” in one way or another since he was three years old. He knows that the mommy and daddy both contribute something to the cause. He knows that the mommy has a uterus that opens when the baby is ready to come out, and that the baby enters the world through the mother’s vagina. He also knows that some mommies have to have surgery for the baby to be born, that some women get a special injection to make the baby start growing, and that some women can’t grow a baby at all. He also knows that couples don’t have to be married or in love to start a baby. Add to that his obsession with animals, his keen interest in evolutionary science, and the fact that has watched nearly every Jeff Corwin, Animal Planet, History Channel, and TLC program on those subjects. Frankly, he already has enough information to piece it all together. He knows that most creatures on this planet mate in order to produce offspring. This is a fact he accepts without any trepidation, embarrassment, or question. And he has no problem sharing this information with others. Example: recently we were at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. He observed the Japanese spider crabs pictured below and commented, “They are either fighting or mating. I wonder which it is.”

The other parents around me gave me sympathetic looks. I just sighed. This boy clearly has mating on the brain. I am absolutely not ready for it. This became abundantly clear later that day when he asked me, point blank, out of nowhere, sitting on my friend’s living room couch, “So how does the daddy get his stuff to mix with the mommy’s so that they can make a baby?” I’m pretty certain that I stopped breathing and time stood still. I could hear the tick of the clock, the dog thumping his tail on the floor, and my friend guffawing in the kitchen. With a red face and shaking voice, I struggled to answer his question as matter-of-factly as possible.

My partner and I are big believers in being honest with our child so long as the honesty is tempered with what is appropriate for his age. This works well with our own personalities as well as that of our son, who, at seven years of age, can speak very engagingly about his spiritual beliefs, the ethics of opposing bigotry in all forms, and the importance of protecting the planet. [Lest you think he is a freak, let me reassure you that he spends the vast majority of his time talking in great detail about Pokemon©.] As I’m sure you have already figured out, I’m very proud of him and his Spock-like mind. You’d think I’d be prepared for whatever question he threw at me, especially since I have, after all, written a book on sex. Not a chance. While I am confident that I gave him just enough information to satisfy his curiosity for the time being, I also know that I need to get myself pulled together before his follow-ups begin.

The challenge, as with any of these Big Questions, is to figure out what is age appropriate. What is it that he really wants to know, and what is it that he is ready to know? Last summer, he asked me with just as much gravitas whether or not there was a Santa Claus. When I asked him why he wanted to know, he said, “I want to know if it is you and Daddy who buy me all those presents, or just some old guy.” This seemed pretty clear to me, so I told him the truth. Five months later, he watched The Santa Clause, decided fantasy was better than reality, and we had the most magical holiday ever. In other words, and I’m sure many of you parents will agree, even when you think you know what’s the right course of action, your kids can still baffle you with their responses. If I can misread his cues on Santa, how am I supposed to know what to do about sex? Fortunately, when it comes to sex, there are some experts out there. I found this and this and this and this and this to be especially useful.* As I read over these materials, though, I began to wonder how this rite of parenting passage came to be such a bogeyman.

The Sex Talk, it really should not be a surprise to anyone, is a very recent phenomenon. It’s only necessary to have this kind of sit-down talk with adolescents when reproduction is something that they are not exposed to on a daily basis. When most children grew up on farms, observing mating of the sheep and cattle and whatnot, and their mothers gave birth at home, it all sort of came together. Maybe they would have needed a few details sorted out, but by their early teen years, sexual reproduction was just a basic fact of life. It’s only with the emergence of an urban middle class that prides itself on refinement and privacy that the mechanics of human reproduction became cloaked in mystery. Part of this was the notion that childhood was a time of innocence, when young ones should be protected from the dark and dirty details of the real world. I could go on and on about the history of childhood, but in the interest of staying on topic, I’ll just point you to the reading list below. Here, let’s get down to the point: when were parents expected to burst this idyllic bubble and expose their children to The Awful Truth? More importantly, what were they supposed to say?

According to the authors of Teaching America About Sex: Marriage Guides and Sex Manuals from the Late Victorians to Dr. Ruth, the earliest authors advised parents to discuss these “delicate subjects” with their children before the onset of puberty. Most of this advice centered on encouraging the youngsters to exercise complete sexual restraint until after marriage. In fact, many of these books intended to guide parents through this difficult task didn’t even mention reproduction. Instead, they offer advice on a healthy diet, cold showers, and the dangers of “self-abuse.” Not much help.

Thankfully, one young man who grew up in these mysterious times decided that a little more information might be useful. In 1904, G. Stanley Hall published his two-volume work, Adolescence. This new creature – the adolescent – was facing a sexual world far different from that of earlier generations. Public schooling and a growing hostility to child labor, coupled with an earlier age of puberty and a later age of marriage, meant that young people were caught in a stage between childhood and adulthood at the very moment that their hormones were raging. Add to this the new forms of leisure – movies, dance halls, amusement parks – and the stage was set for sexual disaster. While schools began experimenting with various types of sexual education, the consensus remained that it was both the right and the responsibility of the parents to be the first source of sexual information for their children.

For those parents who knew where to look for it, there was a great deal of advice out there. One such example is a pamphlet produced by the New York Social Hygiene Society, Inc. in 1914. Written by Nellie M. Smith, The Mother’s Reply was intended to provide women with the information they needed to answer their daughter’s questions about reproduction, particularly if a sibling was on the way. Ms. Smith provides ample information on how birds build nests and how baby chickens hatch from eggs, as well as detailed descriptions of ovum and sperm, but, honestly, reading this pamphlet, I’m still not clear on how they meet. “In order that the baby may begin its life,” Smith writes, “the father places his sperms where they can reach the ova, at the entrance to the mother’s womb.” What happens when the daughter asks the obvious question of where, exactly, all this takes place? Ms. Smith offers no help with that part of the story, perhaps because a rooster doesn’t have a penis.

I had hoped that another pamphlet, Sex in Life, would be a bit more illuminating. Published in 1916 by the American Social Hygiene Association, it dispels many myths about sexual urges and encourages young women to expect just as much physical pleasure in their married lives as their husbands. But it also advises that girls “must not bathe with cold water during menstruation.” Moreover, it, too, skips the climactic moment. Even the section that uses the term ‘intercourse’ only makes vague reference to the deed: “There are many tender caresses, and one high and special act which are the particular symbols of love between man and wife.” Amazingly, this description of intercourse was awarded a $1,000 prize by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company as “the best explanation of these truths.” Later generations didn’t have much more information. In the 1952 book, For Boys Only: The Doctor Discusses the Mysteries of Manhood, a doctor explains to young boys the importance of waiting for marriage to have intercourse, but without ever explaining what intercourse entailed. In Wonderfully Made, a 1967 volume aimed at children in the fourth to sixth grades, there is no mention of how, exactly, the sperm and egg meet, despite a wonderful cartoon graphic. If parents and educators stuck to these guidelines, it would take a miracle for the human race to survive.

As I paged through these volumes, I congratulated myself that even if I was feeling a little nervous about the whole thing, at least my son would be part of a generation that had real information about sexuality and reproduction. In order to bolster my confidence and because I believe that reading a book is the solution to any problem, I decided to order one for my son. He is, after all, an avid reader. After some research, I decided to go with It’s So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families by Robie H. Harris. It has cute cartoons and is targeted for my son’s age range. I very happily read medically accurate information about bodies, reproduction, and birth, as well as discussions of men who love men and women who love women, contraceptives, and even abortion – all of which would reinforce the same messages about love, respect, and responsibility that my husband and I already try to impart. But then I read a sentence that stopped me cold: “When a woman and a man want to make a baby, they hug and cuddle and kiss and feel very loving, and get very close to each other – so close that the man’s penis goes inside the woman’s vagina. When this happens, it is called ‘sexual intercourse’.”

Uh, what?

Can’t we just skip that part?

So, here is what I have learned: I am no better than Ms. Nellie Smith in 1914. Perhaps I will read the chapter on building a chicken nest to my son for his bedtime story tonight. I just hope he doesn’t ask about the rooster.


***UPDATE 9/4/2012***
I am happy to report that while I was out of town last week, my husband had The Talk with our son. The subject came up after my husband tried to explain about a friend’s recent miscarriage. He very confidently pulled out the book and turned to the section on pregnancy loss…. which then opened the door to the full discussion. So far, our son is fascinated with this new scientific knowledge. Overall, I think this could not have gone better, and we’ve definitely laid the foundation for frank, honest discussions of sexual health in the future. Unfortunately, he already has more questions, such as “Mommy, how does the erection know exactly when to release the sperm?” I told him only the rooster knows…


* Please note that I’m providing these links simply as a source of information. I am not a sexual health advisor or medical practitioner. Since I’m struggling with this issue as a parent, I certainly am not advocating anything for anyone else here. That said, it seems pretty clear to me that good information from parents is better than bad information from friends. This is true on this issue and many, many others. But whatever you decide to do as a parent, please do it because it is the choice that is right for your family, not because you are too afraid or uncomfortable to do anything at all. Good luck to all of you who are facing The Talk!


Further Reading:
Howard P. Chudacoff. Children at Play: An American History. New York: New York University Press, 2008.
Susan K. Freeman. Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
Janice M. Irvine. Talk About Sex: The Battles over Sex Education in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Lisa Jacobson. Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
M.E. Melody and Linda M. Peterson. Teaching America About Sex: Marriage Guides and Sex Manuals from the Late Victorians to Dr. Ruth. New York University Press, 1999.
Steven Mintz. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.
Jeffrey P. Moran. Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Sex Talk Books Mentioned:
Donald B. Armstrong, M.D. and Eunice B. Armstrong, A.M. Sex in Life. The American Social Hygiene Association, 1916.
Ruth Hummel. Wonderfully Made. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967.
Robie H. Harris. It’s So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families. Candlewick Press, 2004.
Frank Howard Richardson, M.D. For Boys Only: The Doctor Discusses the Mysteries of Manhood. David McKay Company, Inc., 1952.
Nellie M. Smith, A.M. The Mother’s Reply. New York: The New York Social Hygiene Association, 1914.


Carolyn Herbst Lewis is a co-founder of Nursing Clio. She is the author of Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era (UNC Press, 2010). Her current project is a history of the Chicago Maternity Center.