All my formative sexual lessons were steeped in shame, secrecy, and fear. And it’s precisely for that reason I refuse to engender sexual ignorance and shame in my son.
Daddy taught 5-year-old me that touching naked bodies (mine or anyone else’s) was something secretive, something so shameful that no one else was supposed to know about it. Not even my mother. But if this was something loving (like he said), something that felt good (like my body said), what was there to hide? So, confused, but still trusting the wisdom of adults, I kept the secret until my lack of guile brought the situation to light. At which point there was much yelling and fighting and crying that brought about my father’s eventual banishment from our lives. Because he touched me. How awful I must be to cause such a thing.
Mommy taught 9-year-old me that masturbation was shameful because when she caught me for the first time, exclaiming “WHAT are you DOING?!”, the horror and disgust and fear in her voice were palpable. My heart jumped into my throat, my gut clenched in fear, and a wave of red-hot shame flushed my chest and face. The takeaway I remember from that conversation was essentially “Think how disappointed Jesus would be in you if he caught you masturbating upon his return.” How awful I must be if touching my clitoris would be noticed by the Son of God himself.
Steve, the adult male who called our house one day and captivated 12-year-old me into chatting with him taught me that sexy talk was also a secret. I still don’t know who he was or how he found me, or the exact way the situation came about, but it lasted for weeks. He grooming me, sexy talking me, telling me all sorts of naughty stories while I masturbated under a blanket in the basement, terrified my mother or step-father would find me. Terrified that Jesus could see me. And then it just stopped. I don’t remember why, but I remember the distinct sensation that it was because I wasn’t sexy enough, wasn’t grown up enough to warrant his “attentions” any longer. How awful I must be to not only enjoy the attention, but to hide it from my parents.
Ernie, the short, aggressive, high school senior I met as a freshman taught me about the realities of sexual pressure. I was 6 feet tall, awkward, socially clueless, and not considered dating material among my peers. So when Ernie ran his full-court press, I was initially flattered and then anxious as I began to sense the heavy reality of what he expected from me as his “girlfriend.” I knew about sex from reading (LOL) and I really wanted to be “popular,” so I arrived at his house one afternoon, allegedly prepared to “make out.” It was just dumb luck that he was a terrible kisser, smelled awful, and completely grossed me out. I made hurried excuses and ran home, terrified and ashamed. I know now it was further dumb luck that I wasn’t raped. How awful I must be if these were the kind of boys I attracted.
Darren, the older, white trash, high school dropout with the pockmarked face and the stained sweatpants taught 18-year-old me about rape. Our relationship was basically Ernie 2.0, but with bonus features like alcohol and the illusion of “adult consent” on my part. He disgusted me from the moment I met him, but he showered me with compliments and gave me a lot of attention, so I swallowed my distaste and told myself it was worth it for the experience. I was a virgin. After a few weeks, when he invited his friend to come get some, too, it didn’t occur to me that I could refuse or run away. I had completely bought and accepted the notion that my experience didn’t matter and my body was a commodity. How awful I must be to not stand up for myself.
Of course, there were many more painful sexual lessons to come; lessons about objectification, performance, compliance, appeasement, competition, insecurity, power, STIs, remorse, abortion, and silence. Always the silence.
Oh, there was plenty of talking about the performance of sex: tools and toys, positions and kinks, lingerie and platform heels. You know: how sex looks. All dissociated, all done unconsciously. Because how could I possibly be conscious to the painful and embarrassing reality that was my nonexistent sexual identity?
How could I talk about the dark shameful hole inside me? How could I give attention to a lost and abused little girl who didn’t believe she mattered at all? Who would stand up for her? Be her ally?
My years of therapy have taught me that *I* had to become her ally; I had to stand up for myself and advocate for the health of my sexuality. And so it’s no surprise to me that I feel passionately about ensuring my son grows up without feeling ashamed of his body or his feelings or his desires. I am doing the work to ensure he grows up with sexual allies, and I intend to lead the way.
Part of that comes through participating in the community and discussions that occur on the Facebook page Raising Kids Without Sexual Shame. An extension of the revolutionary work being done by Nekole Shapiro, this community provides a safe place where we can talk about children, their inevitable sexuality, and our guardianship over that without totally freaking out and falling into our shame spirals. Because in our current world, there’s a lot to freak out and be ashamed about. Case in point, the following quote was recently shared on the page:
“The sexiest thing a woman can bring to the bedroom is her sexual desire and a sense of freedom in her own body.” –Pamela Madsen
In that context, one of the group moderators posed the question “How do you feel about your child’s desire to feel sexy?” *CRICKETS* And so, in that silence (and as one of the group editors), I posted the following:
The part of this quote that resonates for me is “a sense of freedom in her/his/their own body”. Because I’ve been programmed too heavily around what it means to be sexy and how children should never be sexy (because PREDATORS) and we’re stuck in this societal hard spot of having no fucking idea how to talk about children and sex in the same breath without totally vaporizing on the spot.
So, backing it back up. Taking sexy allll the way back to how a child experiences it (which doesn’t have the pornographic, predator, vilification aspects and overtones we, as adults, can’t escape from) – takes me to a place where the child is free to explore and experience their body however feels good for them. For my 4-y-o son, that currently manifests in fondling his penis. Sometimes to erection, usually not. He isn’t goal driven; there’s no point to it except exploration.
In those moments when he’s fondling himself and knows it feels good and he smiles, I know that he is feeling ‘sexy’. Or maybe I could say he’s feeling divine or he’s feeling embodied or he’s feeling blissful – all words that are also connected to feeling sexy.
A place where a child is free to explore and experience his body in whatever way feels good FOR HIM. To me, that (combined with consent, which is an entirely different and equally important conversation) is the nut of the whole argument. It’s about agency, how you want to feel, and who has a right to your body. I want my son to know that NO ONE has a right to his body; not to touch it or kiss it or push it or anything. His word is law when it comes to his skin.
And, conversely, that this applies to other people. My son can claim no right to another person’s body (not even mine). It’s a critical (and rather revolutionary) distinction, this idea that every human has a right to experience freedom inside their own body. A freedom I am just now beginning to wrap myself around, value, and accept as true.
I get that there’s a LOT of societal programming to slog through on this point and it’s not simply a matter of semantics, although that’s a reasonable place to start. For myself, I’m starting with what I stated in my FB comment: I want to focus on my son’s divine right to feel embodied and blissful (as opposed to ‘sexy’)—whether that takes the form of stroking his genitals, playing naked in the back yard, getting tickles and scritchies while cuddling with me, or lying next to his daddy on the couch. Because sexy is an abstract, subjective, adult concept that’s way overloaded and primed for triggers.
The simple fact is, I want him to know he’s free to touch his body wherever he likes, that he can trust his body’s signals, and that to feel blissful inside his skin is his right as a human. To that end, I answer his questions honestly, I don’t hide my naked body or its functions from him, and I strive to touch his body only with consent (not always successfully because UGH little kids like to run into the road). I trust that this approach is working because when I do touch him roughly, he lets me know immediately and loudly that it’s not okay. He’s awesome.
I have vowed to integrate my own sexual shame so that I don’t pass it down inadvertently to my son. This is no small thing; it’s a lifelong commitment and a scary one at that, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him grow up thinking about how awful he is.