At the age of seven my daughter inquired: “When you said I was an IVF baby, what did you mean?”
I explained how doctors took an egg from me and some seeds from dad to make a baby in the lab which was then returned to my body for incubation. “When they took the seeds from dad, where did they come out of?” she asked. “Did they come out of his mouth?”
Pointing in a southerly direction, I said: “No, they came from down there.” She looked at me aghast and cried: “They came out of his bum?”
“Follow me,” I said and led her to a framed print of Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia (Love conquers all) that was hanging in the living room. It’s one of my favourites: the impish smile on naked Cupid’s face, the exquisite photographic clarity of the crinkles in the skin on his waist, the grubby toenails of a real child, rather than those of a clean cherub. I pointed to Cupid’s willy: “That’s where dad’s seed came from.”
“Eeeow,” she exclaimed – a sensible response, I thought. I’ve always taken a somewhat keen anthropological interest in watching my daughter’s response when she learns something new. Perhaps it’s that expression of awe that fades as we age. In an attempt to rejuvenate my own sense of wonder, I said: “That’s how you make an IVF baby. But that’s not how you make a baby naturally.”
This is how the conversation began when I first explained the birds and the bees to her. I didn’t think twice about her age or whether it was appropriate. By my logic if she’s curious enough to ask the question, she at least deserves an honest answer.
I pointed to Cupid’s willy: “That’s where dad’s seed came from.”
But the birds and bees talk with girls involves much more than the mere technicalities of sexual intercourse. It has to be delivered in the richer context of human reproduction and that means talking about periods.
I took her through it step by step, in a way that my own mother had spectacularly failed to do. I enlisted the help of Secret Girls’ Business by Fay Angelo, Heather Anderson and Rose Stewart. And together, on that grey windy afternoon, snug in bed, we read Secret Boys’ Business too. I’d bought these books years earlier in anticipation of this moment.
In all, the most challenging question she posed was: “But if you didn’t want to have a baby why would you let a man put his willy in there?” Explaining orgasm and intimacy to a child is much harder than the nuts and bolts of sex. I told her sex made humans feel good, like when you eat lots of chocolate, and she nodded as if it all made sense now.
I made sure we covered all the basics: contraception (it’s as much as man’s responsibility as it is a woman’s), masturbation (it’s perfectly OK, just do it in private), abortion (it’s your body, you fight for your right to exercise choice), pornography (it affects your respect for the opposite sex), genital mutilation (it’s wrong, it’s always wrong).
My daughter is now 10 years old and being taught “Sexuality Education” at her all-girls school. This education is outsourced to Family Life Victoria, a non-government, not-for-profit, secular association established in 1926 originally as Father and Son Welfare Movement of Australia. I was thoroughly proud of her when she came home and told me she was the only one in her class who knew the meaning of “scrotum” and “fallopian tubes”.
I received sex education, as it was once called, in an English secondary school at the age of about 14. It was delivered by the science teacher who, presumably more comfortable talking about petri dishes and bunsen burners, struggled to answer a more human question posed by a girl called Louise: “Miss, how long does he have to leave it in there?” Much tittering ensued.
A generation later my daughters’ friends are tittering too. Nothing new there. Disturbingly, it is the attitude of modern-day mothers that I meet that has taken me by surprise. One mother felt schools ought to forewarn parents when sex education classes take place. Another expressed anxiety about “how much” her daughter would be told. “You don’t really want them to know too much at this age,” she said. Too much? How much is too much? More to the point, why is too much unacceptable?
I was thoroughly proud of her when she came home and told me she was the only one in her class who knew the meaning of “scrotum” and “fallopian tubes”.
I’ve heard of one girl who is excused from her school’s sex ed classes, perhaps for religious reasons, who knows. But what good can come of this? Would it not be better for her to hear about the facts of life from her mother first and then have them reinforced at school, rather than risk the possibility of the poison of misinformation being poured in the girl’s ear from a fellow student in the playground?
Parenting is a personal matter – to some degree. No one can tell parents how and when to teach their kids about sex. But the general sum of knowledge about sex in the playground, its accuracy, its understanding and whether it is mired in shame and embarrassment is something that affects everyone’s kids.
If girls and boys are to grow up understanding sex, its human purpose, its ethereal beauty, its frightening power, then parents must find the confidence to be open about it, even if it means struggling through the jungle of their own shame and embarrassment, religious hang-ups or ingrained socialization.
The latest national research shows 93 per cent of young people learn about sex and sexual health from school based education programs. Family members were a source of information for 61 per cent. I’d rather those two statistics were the other way round.
Lack of reliable contextualized information from a trusted source poses risks. The research is clear: children who are well informed and comfortable talking about sex are the least likely to have intercourse when they are adolescents. All the more reason why parents should be involved, rather than quietly muttering about their anxieties at school pick-up time.
Sushi Das is a journalist and author. Twitter: @sushidas1