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Opinion: How to Talk to Your Children about Sex and Nudity

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My children have the benefit of what most of my generation (and those before us) didn’t: a parent who talks (endlessly) about sex. But even if you don’t enjoy it nearly as much as I do (the talking … okay, not just the talking), you can still do your damnedest to explain it well. Not by pussyfooting around the really important bits. Yes, pussy. Tell them about that too. So, they’ll titter while they learn. Where’s the harm? Knowing too much is better than too little. It arms them against assault, disease, heartache, and transgressions of their own. And it is undeniably better than the gaping vacuum with the occasional bizarre bit of misinformation rattling around that was our sex education.

Their dad and I wanted to hide nothing from the kids. Or as little as possible. We wanted them to grasp (metaphorically and literally) the human body. See it for the lovely but commonplace thing that it is, thereby demystifying and destigmatizing it all at once. If it isn’t shrouded in mystery, it can neither be beast nor bait. It’s like toast for breakfast (still scrumptious with chocolate or cheese) but not any more mysterious, obfuscated or unnaturally alluring. We did not, of course, set up a naturist commune or spend all day in the nude! We just decided not to turn prudes and hide our light under bushels (or jiggly bits in unnecessary layers). And because I think it’s worked rather well, let me share with you my six piddles of wisdom (pillars you say? If you’ve got kids, piddles it is).

  1. Why not wear what you would have worn round the house before the children came along? If that’s not full body armour, then it shouldn’t be with kids around either. Kids have a lot of questions and you might have to explain your sartorial choice of shorts over, say, a salwar (‘which Leena’s mommy wears’). But tell them why that is and then carry on; you have to be yourself and not Mother Hubbard.
  2. You may not want to lock the door in their faces when you’re changing (wouldn’t you much rather know they are safe than saintly?). And you know what? They aren’t saintly, they never were. They, like you, came into this world with questions and thoughts about their bodies. And the urge to explore. Of which they’ve done plenty already. Trust me.
  3. To see you at ease in your skin will give them immense confidence in their bodies, and this will act as an invisible shield against unreal media and social expectations. Your free-spirited children will blossom into self-respecting adults.
  4. Don’t stop their explorations of their own bodies. It’s normal, healthy and a much better way to learn about the human body than many others out there, which you might just drive them to if you don’t allow this simple pleasure.
  5. Maybe have baths with them when they’re little? It gets them used to the human body. If they grab, ease the slightly inappropriate extremity out of their grip and replace it with a bath toy. It’s all squidgy to them.
  6. Try to answer all their questions, all the time, especially the ones about sex. This one is quite often the hardest to do, but also the most important. Mine, at three and four, had a preschool version of the birds, bees, tiddlers, ‘front-bottoms’ and what they instinctively refer to as ‘the nibbles’ talk.

Of course, this openness can and does lead to embarrassing situations. At a recent extended family dinner, our little girl loudly informed everyone that her parents had been ‘bobbing up and down on each other AGAIN!’ In fact, it was a fully clothed cuddle, the mildest of PDL moments (public displays of love because calling it affection doesn’t cut the custard). Would it matter though if they had happened on more? I would rather have my kids think of sex as wholesome, maybe even mundane and obviously, totally for the doddering, than something filthy, furtive and fly-by-night. Because when something is forbidden, it follows that it has to be taken by force.

British sociologist Stevi Jackson explains how the home is the first place where children weigh up what’s right and what’s wrong. But their need to know is often thwarted by evasion and the sexual repression of their parents. ‘In attempting to protect children from sex, we expose them to danger,’ she argues. ‘In trying to preserve their innocence, we expose them to guilt. In keeping both sexes asexual and then training them to become sexual in different ways, we perpetuate sexual inequality, exploitation and oppression.’

But parents and schools have been traditionally wary of teaching their children about the birds and the bees. This toughest of jobs, the most important of jobs, is left to the banal media and the profiteering sex industry. Every year from 2013, Channel 4 has run a Real Sex season to help Britain regain ‘a healthy perspective on sex, in a world where pornography, fantasy and fetish are considered the norm by many.’ But with shows like Sex Box that set couples canoodling in a box, a concept that’s hardly out of the box, they were never going to usher in a sex education revolution. Plus, what could you possibly learn about sex and the human form when you don’t even know which part is jammed against your face? Yet this coitus cardboardus did get people talking, and if one or two of these conversations were parent-child chats where sexual fears, misconceptions and expectations were addressed, then it was well worth the trite TV.

As for the porn industry, I’m fairly ‘c’est la vie’ about it too. Where there’s a demand, there’ll be a supply, but let this demand be an exclusively adult one. Because children and adolescents exposed to the norms of this industry are indelibly affected. What do they learn from watching films that often pander to the darkest of male desires? They learn that women are objects to be ‘taken’. Boys are led to believe that girls who say ‘no’ really mean ‘yes’. Girls are told they should shut up and take it. The message that is clearly being sent out is that women are not worthy of respect.

No young person exposed to this unequal, unreal sex could possibly learn how happy, warm and giving it can be between ordinary people. It is a well-documented fact that even adults find real-life sex difficult to deal with once they are hooked on porn. So, do talk about everyday sex with your babies. Or if you’re bashful, you could look for a good, age-appropriate, educational video (screwing up your courage to answer questions afterwards!). Campaigning, like a group of parents I know, for their school to start a relevant and effective sex education programme is a great idea too. Please don’t leave it to someone else.


(The author of this postShreya Sen-Handley, is a former television producer and journalist who also wrote a wildly popular column about body parts and body fluids, flings and romantic encounters. Her new book, Memoirs of My Body, is about everything: masturbation and the first kiss, pregnancy and sagging breasts, the wrong man and the right man — all intensely personal and utterly universal. Published by HarperCollins India, the book is now available in bookstores.)

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