The Old Normal, and the Imperative of Self-Defense Training for Women

In light of the countless high-profile assault charges recently meted I challenge us, individually, collectively, indivisibly, to say no. To scream no.

I was “date raped” in college. I put that in quotes because I wasn’t on a date at all. We were merely friends, or so I thought, and he had offered to escort me home after a late-night party. He was an upperclassman, a leader in our social house, respected by all accounts and ostensibly charged with the task of getting me home safely.
Instead, he brought me to his room.
The feeling that sticks with me more than any other when I look back on that experience is the shame I feel for not having done a better job of preventing it.
I blame him, too, of course, for his calculated coercion tactics (“Let me walk you back to your dorm. It’s late.”) and his psychological maneuvering (“Here, we can just snuggle…” and not long after, “You know you want this, Jill.”).
A rugby player, he was significantly brawnier than me, and back then, I didn’t know my own strength or many tools for how to use it. When he didn’t appear to hear my protests, the following notion flickered at the edges of my jangled, buzzing mind: Resist and you could instigate him further … submit and, with luck, it’ll be over quickly.
So why do I still carry the bulk of the blame 20 years later? I’m not entirely sure, but I have a few theories….
First, I have reduced this person in my mind to the basest of characters, a coarse operative, if you will, a 20th century equivalent of the nefarious Shakespearean rogue who somehow plants himself at the right hand of the King. How can you require anything, let alone decent behavior on the most basic level, from someone so odious and depraved? He is a victim of his own awfulness. He must be sickening to himself, I tell myself. We can’t expect anything from people like this, so we expect everything from ourselves instead.
Here’s how this plays out in my mind: You see, I could have taken some right action along the way. I could have had one less drink. I could have been smarter. I could have predicted and therefore prevented the assault. How ridiculous and innocent I was! How stupid and naïve! How blind.
While those things could be true of every young, trusting undergrad, this misappropriation of guilt makes me feel less the victim somehow. It helps me take back some control. It helps me believe that I will be the one in control next time, should there be a next time. I know now that I wouldn’t give a second thought to acting “unpleasant” or “making a scene,” even though society constantly reminds us that it’s “unbecoming” for a woman to get angry.
Second, I believe that each person in any kind of relationship makes up half the equation. If you’re annoyed with your partner for being irritable, think on how your behavior exacerbates his impatience. You’re angry with a friend for not considering your feelings? When was the last time you considered hers? If your child is non-communicative, what could you do to help him feel he can talk to you? While it’s easy to heap blame on others, I do my best to own my role in every interaction, whether I’m the one who’s hurt or doing the hurting.
So how does this compute when the “hurt” is rape?
It doesn’t (I repeat over and over to myself). It is not your fault if someone abuses you. You didn’t “ask for it,” whatever you happened to be doing with your hips, like moving them when you walk, which is kinetically necessary as far as I’m concerned. You didn’t toss your head back in laughter to show him your bare neck. You did it because you thought something was funny.
And no, the abuse you’ve suffered has nothing to do with how carefully you considered your reputation – my girlhood warning to avoid emitting a sexual selfhood of any perceptible or desirable kind.
Which brings me to the third, and perhaps most difficult self-inflicted guilt-wad to deal with: the memory of my father’s reaction to the incident. I told my parents voluntarily because rape felt like less of a personal shortcoming if I could talk openly about it with the people who love me the most and had worked so hard to raise me well. I would feel like I had betrayed them less if I could tell them and have them understand and still accept me, regardless.
Of course, my father was deeply worried for me, as any normal father would be, and spitting mad at the upperclassman (I remember watching his knuckles whitening as his fists clenched and unclenched involuntarily). But in his state of shock and confusion, the words he managed to conjure up came in the form of a question: “How could you put yourself in this position?”
Oh god, how? I thought in a panic. I’ve failed them. I’ve failed at being a strong woman on my first go-round, my first chance at proving myself worthy of respect and dignity and real, untainted, caring love. I’ve ruined myself. It’s over.
I wanted to crawl inside a hole.
Despite all the shame, I talked candidly to the nurses at the college infirmary about my experience and made myself available to any other students who had suffered through abuse, on campus or in life. I figured that if we could sit together in the pain, at least we would not be alone. And while the option was presented to me, I decided not to press charges. That admired, affable upperclassman’s friends and family were, and are, none the wiser.
I am fine with that. Because I am wiser now.
In light of the countless high-profile assault charges recently meted – and to shine a light on a systemic cultural sickness that we all knew was there long before the avalanche of allegations came crashing down – I challenge us, individually, collectively, indivisibly, to say no. To scream no louder and louder and louder and louder until we are finally heard and the perpetrators back the fuck off.
We must dismiss anything that insults our own souls until our souls are fully restored. We must break the chain of sexual discrimination and violence against women and children and anyone perceived as lesser or different or weak – a chain that’s made up of centuries of generational links of learned hostility, social exclusion, androcentrism, patriarchal privilege, and sexual objectification.
We do this through sound parenting and education and programs that support socioeconomic equity. But we also do it by fighting back, by taking the attacker by surprise with a palm thrust to the nose and a knee to the groin, by shocking the playground bully with a scrappy uppercut to the jaw. We’ve been fighting for a long time, of course, and we will continue to fight until a woman no longer shoulders the blame for a man’s reprehensible behavior.
We clearly have a long way to go. Prominent elected officials and so-called “civil servants” commit and even brag about sexual assault and somehow manage to retain their positions. The Women’s Action Team in Brattleboro, Vermont, galvanized in the fall of 2016 “with the explicit purpose of advancing reproductive justice and combating rape culture and misogyny,” said filmmaker and photographer Willow O’Feral in an interview on Vermont Public Radio’s Morning Edition.
“(W)e are here to say, ‘we are not going to take this,’” she continued. “‘We are fighting back.’” O’Feral’s latest film, “Break The Silence”, features women talking about their reproductive and sexual health histories. Proceeds from the film will support a transportation fund that helps minors gain access to Planned Parenthood’s medical support and abortion services.
I recently worked with my sons’ taekwondo teacher to organize a women’s self-defense class. When I polled my online network to gauge interest, the response was enormous – astounding, really, for a loosely populated northeastern state known for its happiness index and high quality of life. Dozens and dozens of women responded, admitting they’d been searching for opportunities to build these skills, to feel safer, to know they would have what it takes in case … just in case.
Last weekend, nine women managed to carve four hours out of their Sunday to attend. One of them was my mother, who has been reeling from an unsettling encounter with one of the night watchmen at her continuing care facility. We each had our nervous tics, our hurdles, our fear-facing moments, our breakthroughs, but no one practiced those maneuvers with as much vigor as my mom.
I don’t think I will ever forget the sight of her, a 100-pound spitfire of a 76-year-old grandma, feet planted firmly on the floor, her small arms raised, palms front in the universal gesture of defense. “Back off! I don’t know you! Go away!!” she shouted. “Back off! Back off! Back off!! BACK!!! OFF!!!” Over and over in a voice so angry and adrenaline-tinged that I hardly recognized it as hers.
At last, the instructor (playing the advancing attacker), stopped and backed away.
When it was over, my mother stood there visibly shaking, her eyes ablaze with fight and fury. It was as though she was rooted to the spot, riveted by the specter of her own power. Slowly and very gently, the instructor came to her, kneeled in front of her, and took her hand.
“You won,” she said, with a tenderness that dredged a sob from the pit of my gut. “He left. He’s gone. You won.”

A Straightforward Approach to Teaching My Kids About Sex

I made a conscious decision early on to be open and honest with my kids and to incorporate sexuality and sexual education naturally into their lives.

The week before my 13th birthday, my mother, a registered nurse, handed me the small booklet called “A Doctor Talks to 9-to-12-Year-Olds.” That and occasional reminders to “be a good girl” and to “save myself for marriage” were the extent of my sexual education at home.
In seventh grade, after my mother hesitantly agreed to sign a paper allowing me to participate in the public school’s sexual education program, I remember thinking finally some real information might be shared. Mrs. Trent’s classroom was covered with posters of Voyager and Spacelab with planet mobiles made by students hanging from the ceiling. She encouraged questions and went into great detail in her answers.
But the fertilization part was exactly like in the doctor’s book. It wasn’t until the last day of our chapter on sexuality that it looked like we might finally be getting to the truth about exactly what sex is. I don’t recall what was shared and don’t remember asking any questions, but clearly, I still didn’t get it. My journal at the time states in big bold letters: “Today Mrs. Trent told us all about SEXUAL INTERSECTION!”
With my lack of information in mind, I made a conscious decision early on to be open and honest with my own children and to incorporate sexuality and sexual education naturally into their lives. The only problem was, with no experience talking as a child or with a child about the subject, I wasn’t confident in my own knowledge. I felt awkward and uncomfortable, and I didn’t know what to say or how to say it.
So I bought books. Peter Mayle and Arthur Robins’ “Where Did I Come From” and Robie Harris and Michael Emberley’s “It’s So Amazing” had a place on my children’s bookshelf before they could read. Sometimes I’d find them looking at the pictures like any other book. Every once in a while, I’d pick one up and casually read a few pages to them just as I did “Frog and Toad” or “Winnie the Pooh”.
Despite my deeply ingrained Catholic guilt and my lack of role models for valuable communication, I gradually became more relaxed about addressing the basics. I learned things no one ever told me about. The vas deferens and clitoris never made an appearance in Mrs. Trent’s basic diagram. I was using words that I’d never heard spoken out loud and certainly never said myself. Vagina became common vernacular.
From the start, I attempted to be straight-forward and factual with my children about puberty and sex. Even as a little dude, my son knew about menstruation. When he was five and found a tampon on the bathroom counter and questioned whether I smoked cigars, I gave him the basic details about periods.
My description must have included some facts about gestation because, over a year later, when he and his older sister were playing LIFE, they had gone around the board twice and my daughter had two cars full of children. I overheard my son say to his sister, “Hey, you haven’t had a period in five years!”
At first, I was thinking, “The kid is a math whiz!” and then I realized that he was no more than seven and actually grasped the fetal-growth concept I had shared so far back that I barely remembered the conversation. Point is, the kids seemed to be listening, and they seemed to be willing to share and ask questions.
During the summers, when we had some time on our hands and my children were each around 11, I made them sit with me and read through “It’s So Amazing”. My son hated it, but I told him that it was my responsibility as his mother to give him this information. Did he know how much I wanted to be a good mother? Yes? Well then, dude, you have to help me out, here.
When the subject came up in seventh-grade health, he told me he was glad he’d already heard all that information and more, and he wasn’t as uncomfortable as many of his friends clearly were.
Those early talks helped set the stage for the more difficult conversations as my children have moved through their teenage years. We’ve talked about blow jobs and masturbation, reproductive health and orgasms, hook-ups and body image, sexual orientation, identity, and sexual pressure.
We’ve talked about asserting needs, desires and limits, and a girl’s right to pleasure. When a subject gets tricky and I don’t know how to address it, I’ll check out sites like More Than Sex-Ed or Peggy Orenstein’s book “Girls and Sex” for tips.
I’ve had frank conversations with my children about the easy access to pornography and how watching it might shape ideas of what sex is or should be. I’ve shared that, when I was young, about the only access to such images were in the magazines I found at one of the houses where I babysat and how the videos were far less graphic and only available at XXX stores or if friends passed the contraband around.
Music wasn’t as graphic either. Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” was scandalous (at least in my house), and the first time I ever saw sex was when I had it myself. Now people can watch it on their phones.
I am not like my mother. I don’t say “Just Say No” without giving explanations. Just as we talk about what alcohol and drugs do to your body and when and why you might not want to make that choice, we also talk about how the images in pornography may stay in your mind and become an expectation of how you or your partners should feel, act, or pretend to act. We talk about how those videos aren’t real life.
I tell them how I hope that, when the time is right, they will have more authentic experiences. We talk about respect, for themselves and others. We talk about the emotions that go into the decision to have intercourse.
I was the first person my daughter told after she had sex for the first time. I would never have told my mother, who tried, awkwardly, when I was 29 to return to the conversation we didn’t have when I was 13, asking if I felt comfortable choosing a white wedding dress as we prepared for my wedding.
I had conversations with my own daughter for several months as she considered whether her long-term boyfriend should be her first lover. Of course, we talked about safe sex. And we talked about protecting the heart.
She still calls me from college and shares anecdotes of her relationships. Sometimes she asks for guidance, and I promise no judgment. All indications are that she is confident in her sexuality. She’s taking care of herself and has healthy attitudes about what she wants and how she should be treated. That is what I was hoping for when we first opened up “Where Did I Come From?” when she was tiny.
My children came from a safe place where they could talk about anything, and still can.

Teaching My Son About Sex in the Age of Harvey Weinstein

I ended the conversation by asking for his trust – that I be the person he turns to if he has any questions or concerns about sex, now or in the future.

It’s an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon in coastal Maine, and I’ve brought lunch to our back porch for my eight-year-old son and his spritely female friend whom he has known most of his life. They’ve just come up from the tidal shoreline. The air is salty and thick.
I venture back inside to retrieve drinks and, when I return, I am met with giggling and sheepish grinning between the two old friends. It isn’t hard to imagine what they might have been discussing as I’ve gotten used to observing them unfurl so many of life’s mysteries together.
I have been anticipating a conversation about the mechanics of sex with my son for several years now. I had wanted to follow his lead, hoping to answer any questions he might have and then segueing into the details that I would like for him to know. I have wanted to normalize sex for my son in a way that was never done for me so that he might enjoy this vital connection throughout his life in a healthy way, without the hang-ups of shame and disassociation that so many of us have had to shed.
In my adolescence, my mother – while folding clothing together in our laundry room – spoke vaguely of a man planting a seed in a woman.
My father once made a comment about my holding a penny between my knees at all times and referred to me as a “fallen woman” (in apparent jest) when he found out I was sharing an apartment with my boyfriend after graduating from college.
There was no eye contact between any of us in these off-hand and uncomfortable attempts at providing information about the facts of life. There was no mention of love or connection or protection. There was no follow-up, no books to study. I was entirely unprepared as a young woman – as a human – for what it would mean to enter into my sexuality.
For a boy so deeply curious about the inner workings of all things in nature, culture, and even politics – don’t get him started on Donald Trump – my son has been remarkably indifferent, or perhaps reticent, in his inquiry about how babies are made and what our “private parts” have to do with it all. He’s all about being a boy, jokingly intensifying bodily sounds and functions. But outside of speaking about animals mating, he has shown little interest in learning about the human equivalent.
I’ve been teaching him about sexuality in subtle ways from the start. Our language around the body is anatomically correct, and we have a firm policy about listening to the “no’s” we receive from others. I have established this practice with the understanding that honoring physical boundaries now will translate into respectful treatment of partners’ bodies later in life. I feel a particular responsibility in this regard as a mother of boys and as a woman who recently chimed in, “me too” on my social media account.
When my son falls asleep at night, I sit on the edge of his bed, rubbing his back and neck. Sometimes he will convince me to rub his legs and feet, which can feel a little indulgent at times. He directs me to his sore muscles, so I place extra attention there. In these quiet moments, he tests out what it means to share his inner workings and thoughts while nestled in a bed with a woman at his side who loves him with every cell of her being.
I listen intently to what he has to say and engage in this tenderness of touch so that he may one day experience such healthy intimacy as a mature young man in the embrace of someone he loves. I work hard to preserve his connection with his feelings – to help him decipher them and share them verbally so as not to turn on the switch that perpetuates the male tendency to use sex alone as the sole means for connection and comfort.
Back on the porch, I asked the two friends what made them giggle so. My son indicated that they might have been talking about something inappropriate. They had found a couple of horseshoe crabs stuck together down by the shore, and his friend had said that human beings do a similar thing – stick themselves together – to make a baby.
In the brief pause before I spoke, I took in my son’s face – one part cherub, one part Huck Finn – and noticed how he peered at me squarely in the eyes without shame or hesitation in anticipation of my response. I absorbed how comfortable and confident he felt coming to me with this inquiry.
I told him that she was exactly right, that we humans do put ourselves together in a similar way at times. I assured him that I wanted to share everything he wanted to know on the topic, that families like to provide these details to their own children, and so we would have that conversation very soon and in privacy. But if they had any pressing questions, I would be happy to answer those.
They both looked at me and smiled with ease. No questions.
On Sunday afternoon, the house was quiet, and I peeked my head into where my son was working on a drawing. I asked him if we could pick up our conversation, and he suggested nonchalantly that we talk while he continued working. I agreed. As soon as I began to share my thoughts, he turned away from his drawing and looked at me head-on.
I engaged my son in some guessing about what our various parts are meant to do. It turned out he already knew what went where. I was not surprised, but happy to confirm (in anatomically correct language) what he’d already heard in cruder terms at school.
Then we discussed the things that really matter. We spoke about the love and warmth involved in “human mating.” I assured him that, while he will likely hear all sorts of things suggesting that sex is somehow dirty or bad or something to hide, it is actually a beautiful miracle to be cherished between two people.
I ended the conversation by asking for his trust – that I be the person he turns to if he has any questions or concerns about sex, now or in the future. It felt like any other conversation we’ve ever had about the things he needs to know as a human being new to this earth without a map.
I called my sister later that night. We celebrated another hurdle in forging new ground as parents better equipped than our parents were to nurture our children’s emotional and physical well-being. We know that, if they could have, they would have provided us with more information about sex, and we would have learned about the value of our bodies – our rights and responsibilities as women – in less painful ways.
A few days later, my son came home from school and told me about a boy making a joke about breasts using jocular hand gestures. In all earnestness, he said, “ He doesn’t respect women’s bodies.”
I did a little happy dance inside and stifled a smile.
I don’t anticipate that my son will always be so perfectly respectful. I don’t pretend that he will never test out some objectifying behaviors, which are so frequently modeled in our culture. But for now, I feel assured that he is on the path toward learning that sex is something he can discuss openly with me.
I like to imagine that what I’ve shared will live inside him and be available when the time is right. I like to imagine that the prospect of his sexuality causing him or his partners shame or pain will be something he can never understand.

A Sexual Assault Pun is Not a Halloween Costume

I thought maybe we if we all contacted Spirit Halloween, they’d take this costume off their shelves next year:

All the #MeToo headlines in recent weeks have definitely caught my attention and sharpened my Sexual Assault-Dar. I thought maybe we if we all contacted Spirit Halloween, they’d take this costume off their shelves next year:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about Halloween. I don’t find a lot of things inappropriate. I took my kids to this pumpkin massacre scene earlier in the day, and we all had a good laugh at the one pumpkin lawn-mowing the other pumpkin, whose bloody orange guts were spilling out everywhere. We took selfies and high fived.

But my daughter’s almost 10, and while she’s beginning to notice that girls’ costumes tend to involve short skirts and bathing suits, how the hell am I supposed to explain the rapey gynecologist costume to her? In a couple years, she’ll figure out that her looks are where our culture wants her to put her focus. But we can draw the line at the light riff on sexual assault, can’t we?
It takes a lot to shield her from the headlines about Harvey Weinstein and the other men being exposed in this wave of revelations about past and current abuses. I somehow kept her from knowing about the recent Las Vegas shooting – but the next one may have to be confronted.
We want to preserve the innoncence of our childrens’ experience in this world as long as possible. We are here to be their rocks, to keep their impressionable brains developing on a vector unblemished by the trauma of shootings, natural disasters, and sexual predation.
She’s old enough to process that there is racism in this world. A proud understanding of Rosa Parks’ bravery could inspire her to be strong and stand up for what’s just, to treat her neighbors with sensitivity and respect.
She’s old enough to know that hurricanes are a reality, that people on islands which bore the brunt of the storm need our help. She understands that the oceans are warming and that scientists think our environmental impact is a part of the problem. She knows we had a hurricane here in New York when she was little, and we know we can always find ways to be safe if another one comes.
Somehow explaining that Dr. Howie Feltersnatch (how he felt her snatch) is a joke about a doctor who touches women’s private parts with a creepy grin feels like a conversation we don’t have to have.
Spirit Halloween, your seasonal pop-up shops with overpriced pink hairspray and employee only bathrooms bring us much joy. But you can do better than this.
Get this crap off your shelves!
Tell Spirit Halloween what you think via Twitter or email customer service here.

My 7-Year-Old's Top Concern After Getting "The Talk"

All that research and preparation goes out the window when you’re face-to-face with your kid about to have “The Talk.”

So my seven-year-old son has been asking that infamous question, “How do babies get in Mommy’s stomach?” Ugh!

My wife and I previously agreed that I would talk to our son about sex and, when the time came around, she would talk to our daughter about it (Thank God). Now the time has come for “The Talk.”

Last night he was telling me about a certain girl at his school that likes him, and he obviously likes her too. He told me how she likes to hug him on the playground. He’s seven years old, dear God it can’t be time for that already! That’s what I was thinking but nonetheless, the time was upon us. What do I do? How do I begin? What questions will he ask? Do I prepare a powerpoint presentation?

I believe I was more nervous than he was, so I took a few minutes to prepare myself. I’d done my research on best practices and tips for having the sex talk with seven-year-old boys. So I felt I was ready for anything. Yeah, right. I actually tried to sneak upstairs to my home studio but he heard me and yelled out, “Are you ready to have that man-to-man talk, Dad?” He obviously wasn’t going to let me back out.

With a deep breath I yelled back, “Yep, come on up to the Man Cave.” He zoomed upstairs and jumped in the chair across from me.

I started by reminding him that the conversation we were about to have was for his ears only, and not to run back and share with his classmates. Once he agreed, we began. I asked the question, “Have you ever heard the word ‘sex’ before.”

He laughed and said, “Dad, only in grown-up movies.”

I asked him what he knew about it and he responded, “Nothing.”

Judging by the smirk on his face, he knew something but he wasn’t going to share it. I proceeded to go over the miracle of life with him from conception to birth. I talked a little about puberty and the changes he’d experience in his body so that he would know that he is normal. I can remember being a little boy and wondering what in the world was going on with my body and why certain things changed and grew for no reason (usually right before the teacher asks you to come to board to write an answer). To bring it all full circle, I brought in this young girl that likes him and hugs him. I didn’t want him to be caught off-guard if he felt a “change” in his body when she came around.

After all the “icky” sex talk and miracle of birth animated video, he had one major concern. To my surprise it wasn’t the fact that a baby comes out of a vagina, nor was it that a man actually puts his penis in that very same vagina. It wasn’t even the fact that his body will start to change. His main concern was sperm coming out of his penis. To him this seemed like a very scary thing. To have little living tadpole-looking things inside him just didn’t sit well in his mind. He wanted to know everything about these little creatures and I calmly explained to him that it doesn’t hurt when they come out and that when he finds the young lady that he wants to spend the rest of his life with, he’ll love it.

Lastly, I asked if he had any further questions. He seemed completely unbothered by load of information I had just dropped on him, while I, on the other hand, was still trying to keep myself from running out the room and hiding in the bathroom until bedtime. Before he headed down the stairs to continue playing, he did drop one last bombshell question on me. On his way out the door, he looked back at me and asked, “So Dad, do you and Mom have sex?”

I was not ready for that. My natural response was to laugh and say, “More than you want to know, buddy.”

Ironically, he laughed too and kept walking. Whew!

Case in point, all that research and preparation goes out the window when you’re face-to-face with your kid about to have “The Talk.” The good thing is that now the door is open, he will hopefully feel comfortable with asking me anything. I’d rather he hear it from me than from a classmate or, worse, learn by experimentation. I’m so glad I don’t have to do this with my daughter. I’m sure that conversation would’ve started out with a stork bringing the baby in a blanket. Ah, the joys of parenting.

Don't Talk to Your Sons About Sex – Talk About This Instead

If you’re wondering about the right time to talk to your son about sex, then recent research has some recommendations for you: don’t.

If you’re wondering about the right time to talk to your son about sex, then recent research has some recommendations for you: don’t. Don’t talk to your son about sex. Instead, talk to him about relationships. Talk to him about romance. Talk to him about those funny feelings in the pit of his stomach and how that certain person turns his brain to mush. Talk to him about what a healthy relationship looks like, talk to him about mutual respect, and, oh please, talk to him about consent. Talking to him about sex? It doesn’t appear to be working. So, y’know, don’t.

I said, “Hey, What’s going on?”

The majority of sexual education in schools is based around contraception, pregnancy, and avoiding sexually transmitted diseases. The problem is that these programs aren’t answering the kinds of questions school kids have about sex and relationships. The programs assume girls are the gatekeepers of sex and pitch lessons towards them. They underestimate the emotional capacity and interest of boys and, tellingly, these programs just aren’t working.

In America, 66 percent of 12- to 25-year-olds report regretting their first sexual experience. However in the Netherlands (proud owners of a relationship-based sexual education program that begins at age four), the same age bracket reported “wanted and fun” first experiences. Interestingly, states that run abstinence-only programs have the highest rate of teen pregnancies.

By focusing on the facts surrounding sex, we’re missing the relationships component and our kids know it. Teenagers are confused about relationships and sex, and they aren’t finding the answers in the classroom. This is where parents can step in, but don’t have “the talk.” Have lots of talks, and have them early and often. Because all the things we know about boys and sex? None of them are true.

Boys only care about one thing

Is it romance? Or is it boobs? Research says it’s connection. We are all aware of the culturally sanctioned stereotype of the sex-obsessed teenager: the boy who places his friends at the center of his world and uses and discards sexual partners like takeaway coffee cups. This notion of toxic masculinity does teenage boys a disservice. While some may focus on living up to this unfortunate standard, research suggests that teenage boys need and want information about relationships much more then they want tips on picking up.

A study conducted on 105 10th grade boys found that the vast majority preferred and were seeking out meaningful relationships rather than sexual activity. This research appears to be consistent across the life span, with a comprehensive study on adults finding that the most commonly wanted sexual behavior was romance and affection. These most-wanted behaviors included things like kissing, cuddling, and saying sweet things to each other.

The assumption that boys only care about sex renders them invisible in discussions regarding the emotional components of relationships. As it turns out, this is information they sorely want and definitely need. Which leads us to: where are they actually getting their information?

They’ll find out from their friends

Boys already know all about sex, right? They learn from their friends (who know everything right?), and general society, and sometimes even from pornography. The problem with their current sources of information is that their friends are relatively clueless, society lacks the depth needed to navigate the murky waters of positive sexuality, and pornography rarely portrays healthy sexual relationships. All of these sources of information are inadequate and can reinforce the negative stereotypes regarding teenage boys.

People who are working with adolescent boys report the same finding over and over – they want to know what to do about emotions. Professional mentors and youth workers have found boys need permission to talk about feelings, otherwise they won’t. They follow the expectations of their gender and don’t talk about how they feel. This leaves boys with fewer outlets for emotional development and impacts their chances of healthy romantic relationships.

However, when they’re given the expectation that emotions are valid and anticipated, then they’re all over it. The things boys were interested in? How to ask someone out, what to do if they liked someone, how to let someone know they liked them, and what to do if someone likes them. Relationships were the basis of their concern.

What about, *gulp,* pornography?

Pornography is a poor teacher about relationships. Even if boys are using sexualised language, this doesn’t mean they understand sexuality or that they have the tools to cope with it. Polly Haste, a researcher on sexuality and relationships, found that even 12-year-old boys (who had already seen pornography), were concerned about the availability of porn and the view of sexuality it offered. They were also highly aware that adults often thought of them as “experienced,” so they were hesitant to reveal the extent of their inexperience or insecurity regarding sexuality.

When boys don’t anticipate being taken seriously by adults, they don’t talk to them even though their concerns regarding sex were still there. Teenage boys know that they’re not getting the information they want; what they need is a mentor or parent to fill this role. Parents and mentors need to talk to their boys, and adolescence is too far along for boys to learn about healthy relationships and sexuality. This conversation must start early, with the expectation that boys are capable of having rich emotional lives and making good choices. This doesn’t mean talking to a four-year-old about sex, but instead about love and relationships.

“When two people love each other very much…”

It becomes easier to talk about sexuality when you think of love as the basis of it. Talking about how we show each other love every day can be a great conversation starter. Asking your kids questions like, “What makes you feel loved?” and “How can you be a good friend?” can help them make good relationship decisions later on in life.

Problem solving and decision-making skills are imminently transferable. By learning these skills early in life, children are already on the road to making healthy romantic and sexual decisions. Talk about what kinds of intimacy make you feel safe and what kinds don’t. Talk about having feelings and how fantastic it is to be a man and be emotional. Talk about what consent means and how they can practice. Model consent with your children. When playing wrestling or tickling games make sure you have your child’s full “Yes!” rather then a lack of “No.”

Parents can also model great relationships, and model respect for other people’s bodies and emotions. By gaining an awareness of their own boundaries and the kinds of friendships they value, boys can use those decision-making skills when they start entering the world of romantic relationships.

Teenage boys are inherently capable of having rich and mutually fulfilling relationships. They want to know about love, they want to know how to show love, and how to be loved in healthy ways. When boys are told it’s okay to talk about their feelings, they talk!

They are also very aware that their current sources of information are failing them. This is where parents and caregivers can step up. Talking to boys about sex rarely involves talking to boys about sex. Instead, talk to your sons about love, that’s what they’re actually looking for.

The One Sex Talk Upgrade Your Kids Want

The sex talk has been making all parties involved uncomfortable for generations, but to the great relief of parents, there’s a revolution underway.

The birds and the bees. The talk. The sex talk. Its lore runs deep through American culture, from hilariously uncomfortable movies and TV shows to an entire genre of books devoted to preparing for or completely replacing it. Indeed, the sex talk has been making all parties involved uncomfortable for generations, but to the great relief of parents, there’s a revolution underway.

The sex talk as a process, not a milestone

These days, more and more often, the sex talk is happening earlier and more gradually. My four- and five-year-olds can already describe the basic ways that babies begin to grow and are born. They can identify their own body parts by the appropriate names. They can and do ask me any question that crosses their minds about sexuality, anatomy, or biology, and I’m not alone in my matter-of-fact responses.    

The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that parents start “early parental discussions” about sexuality at home, using opportunities such as the birth of a sibling to answer children’s questions “fully and accurately.” Similarly, a recent study out of Georgetown University suggests that formal sexual education through schools worldwide should begin at age 10, including information about contraception, sexual orientation, and consent.   

By the time your child is a teen, you might wonder what’s left to talk about. Do you really need to sit down and review where babies come from? If you started talking about condoms and birth control when she was 10, does she need to hear it for the 20th time again at age 16?

Maybe, but that’s not all. To really amp up your sex talk for the 21st century teen, new research suggests it’s not sex itself that needs more airplay.

Change your sex talk to a love talk

By shifting the sex talk earlier, we create an opportunity with our teens to focus more on the emotional side of sex and romance. If you want to set your teen up for a lifetime of healthy relationships and a positive attitude towards sex, you need to shift your teen’s sex talk to a love talk.

As part of a recent national survey conducted by Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, over 3,000 teens and young adults from across the country shared their perspectives about the current culture of young people’s romantic and sexual experiences. Through formal interviews and informal conversations with these young people, along with their teachers, sports coaches, parents, and counselors, Harvard researchers wrote a new report titled “The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment.”

One recurring sentiment shared by most of the teens and young adults surveyed was that the current version of the sex talk doesn’t cover what they really want to hear. Instead, they want to learn more from their parents about the emotional side of relationships, including how to have mature relationships, how to navigate the early stages of a relationship, and how to cope with break ups or hurt feelings.

In short, today’s teens want to know how to nurture young love and bounce back from a broken heart, and they want to hear it from us, their parents.   

How to have the love talk

You can get the conversation started by talking about what being in love means to you. Share your experiences of falling in love and of having your heart broken. Let your kids learn from your mistakes in hopes that they won’t have to make the same ones. Be open about your past romantic relationships, and tell them what worked and what didn’t.

Many young people think they’re in love, when really they’re just caught up in physical attraction or lust. Talk openly with your teens about the difference between love, attraction, and infatuation. Let them know that all of these powerful feelings are normal, but not all of them mean they’re in love.

Encourage your child to identify what he or she finds attractive in a person and emphasize that attraction should be based at least in part on qualities like kindness, honesty, and selflessness. Many other qualities can inspire strong feelings, such as being physically attractive, seeming mysterious, or having a “bad” persona, but none of these should be the basis for loving someone.

In addition, talk about what healthy, loving relationships look like. Again, draw from your own experiences or use examples from TV shows or pop culture. Point out relationships that seem to be working and point out those that seem unhealthy. Ask your teen to consider how each member of the relationship feels and how they make each other feel.

Finally, be open about the fact that nearly all healthy relationships experience stumbling points and go through both easy and difficult times. Reassure your teen that if both members of the relationship work to maintain it and make sacrifices for one another, they can persevere. If only one person is willing to do these things, it isn’t fair and the love may not be reciprocal.

Teaching your teen about love might seem like a tall order but if, like the sex talk, you start the love talk early and have it frequently, you’ll raise a kid who knows how to build healthy, loving relationships and how to cope when young love doesn’t work out.

As Harvard psychologist and researcher Rick Weissbourd notes, “It may be the most important thing we do in life; learn how to love and be loved.”

You Don't Have to Freak Out if Your Toddler Masturbates

Of all the milestones you look forward to with your new toddler, from their first words to their first steps, masturbation definitely doesn’t make the cut.

Of all the milestones you look forward to with your new toddler, from their first words to their first steps, masturbation definitely doesn’t make the cut.

Toddler masturbation (medically known as infantile masturbation) is a surprisingly common phenomenon in children between the ages of one and five. What is uncommon is new parents knowing what is happening and how to handle it in the best interest of their children.

Toddler masturbation is not as illicit as the common term for the phenomenon may convey. In reality, it’s completely innocent and natural. In actuality, not only is it natural, it’s also considered healthy.

How do you recognize it?

According to Dr. Thirunavukkarasu Babu in an article for the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, “Infantile masturbation: Pitfalls in diagnosis and possible solutions”, toddler masturbation usually starts by two months of age and increases and peaks by four years of age.

Frequency varies from once a week to 12 times a day, and duration ranges from 30 seconds to two hours. He also states that, unlike masturbation in older children and adults, infantile masturbation involves little or no genital stimulation.

Toddler masturbation cannot be discussed in the same manner as masturbation. Oftentimes with toddlers, as Dr. Thirunavukkarasu states, masturbation might mean no hand simulation of any kind. Your toddler may rub their private parts against pieces of furniture, their toys, and even parts of your own body until they climax.

James Palmer, a new father who recently found out that his two-year-old daughter had been masturbating, was scandalized that she could be entertaining sexual thoughts (which of course was not the case). He discovered that his daughter had been wedging her favorite teddy underneath herself and rocking back and forth until her body spasmed, after which a look of what he described as contentment would fill her face.

At first, the new dad feared she had a neurological problem and took her to a doctor, who diagnosed that it was infantile masturbation and nothing to worry over. (In the past, toddler masturbation was often misdiagnosed as some sort of seizure or epilepsy.)

Why is it happening?

Many parents like Dave fear that the habit is brought on by some sort of neurological or developmental challenge, or maybe even sexual abuse. In reality, it’s merely another way your child’s curiosity manifests. Exploration of their genitalia is born out of the same curiosity that leads them to explore a new toy.

The pattern of behavior often begins when a child starts to toilet train. They are freed from their diapers and suddenly gain access to a part of their body that had previously been restricted and out of reach.

In a clinical profile carried out by Dr. Heitham Ajlouni, masturbation in children was linked to reduced estradiol levels, but not to any other sex hormones.   

Should you worry?

The simple answer is no. Albeit a little embarrassing for the parents, especially when done in public, toddler masturbation is completely natural and nothing for parents to worry about.

What can be done about it?

According to Dr. Michele L. Yang and Dr. Erika Fullwood in a recent publication, parents should resist stopping a toddler from masturbating. Scolding or threatening a child is inappropriate, they contest, and efforts to stop the behavior forcefully will only reinforce it and possibly instill a sense of shame or wrong-doing as the child gets older.
In most cases, it’s just a phase that will pass (until rediscovered in teenage years) along with the child’s fascination with that region.
If your toddler is at the age where communication has become easier, teach them that masturbating is something done in private. Gently explain to them why without conveying any feelings of disapproval. Emphasize the fact that the behavior is completely natural and not a bad or shameful thing. You can liken it to the need for privacy during showers or potty time.
If you feel your toddler is old enough to understand, you can attempt to explain to them what they are doing. Use a conversational and relaxed tone when talking about it. An urgent or disapproving tone is easily detected by children.
If your toddler is too young to understand the concept of privacy, distract them when they begin to masturbate in public. Send them on errands or set up a game (such as a jigsaw puzzle) for them to complete. When in the privacy of your home and if at all possible, simply ignore it and allow them to climax.
As your toddler grows older, talking about sex as soon as they are able to grasp the concept is important. Use proper terms when describing sexual organs and activities to ensure they gain a full understanding.
According to the American Social Health Association, children who are afraid to approach their parents with concerns about whether they are “normal” or not (in terms of their sexual organs and feelings) may feel isolated and confused, which may lead to depression and anxiety. Children who don’t learn about sex from their parents may be receiving information (often incorrect) elsewhere – from peers, the media, and other sources.
Once you notice that the behavior has begun to affect certain behavioral tendencies, you should seek professional help. For example, if you notice that the habit has become the sole focus of your child, causing withdrawal from daily activities and human interactions, take your child to a professional.
Although medical complications resulting from the habit are very rare, the possibility of their occurrence is real. Excessive friction resulting from constant rubbing on toys and bits of furniture can traumatize their genitals, especially with girls whose private parts are more sensitive to this manner of trauma. In this case, medical intervention is necessary.
Make sure that the habit is not brought on by anything other than mere curiosity. Observe your toddler at home, at school, and when interacting with family and friends.
In a few cases, the habit may be brought on by a sense of low self-esteem or a distinct lack of communication skills, which also may hinder your toddler from making friends. Boredom is also a leading catalyst of the habit. Remember to keep your kids engaged with mind stimulating activities.

Have you experienced this with your toddler or are currently going through it? Share stories of how you first found out and tips on how you best handled it.

Think Beyond the Maxipad: How to Help Your Modern Teen Manage Her Period

Today’s teenagers have a wide variety of options when it comes to managing their periods.

Women and girls have been dealing with periods since the beginning of time. From mystical powers to a well-understood scientific annoyance, the miracle of becoming a woman has a fascinating evolution.
Women in ancient Egypt are credited with making the first tampons out of rolled papyrus and other types of grasses.
Ancient Greeks are said to have made their tampons out of lint wrapped around small pieces of wood.
In Roman times, periods were associated with mystery, magic, and even sorcery. A Roman author wrote, “Hailstorms … whirlwinds and lightening even, will be scared away by a woman uncovering her body while her monthly curses are upon her.”
Early Mayans believed that menstruation originated as a punishment after the Moon goddess slept with the Sun god. Do not mess with Goddesses.
In Europe in the 1800s, British Medical Journal published a statement saying that menstruating women were medically unable to successfully pickle meat. Seriously, who pickles meat anyway?
And one more fun fact: When Judy Blume released “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” it was the first book to mention a girl getting her first period. This book was published in 1970! We sent a guy to the moon only one year before we were okay mentioning periods in a book written for girls. Periods have been misunderstood, shamed, and secreted away for thousands of years.
Considering the first period products were rolled grasses, we have not come that far. A tampon is slightly more comfortable than a piece of wood wrapped in lint but woman can still die from Toxic Shock Syndrome, pads are still bulky, and who hasn’t had an unplanned bikini wax from those sticky wings?
I do believe the teens of modern day are leaving a mark of their own on the history of periods. They are bringing humor and an openness never before seen in the history of menstruation. Teens are refusing to hide in shame, or stop doing things they love. Instead of quietly unwrapping a pad in the school bathroom, teens are proudly grabbing their period bags and walking with heads held high into the bathrooms. Not only are teens laughing about the good, the bad, and the ugly of periods, they are changing the demand in the market. They want comfort, coverage, convenience, and environmental consideration.
Here are four products that are slightly more comfortable than what Ancient Egyptian teenagers used.

1 | The menstrual cup

Once teens get past the “where do I put that thing” horror, the cup reveals itself as an environmentally friendly alternative to pads and tampons. These reusable, bell shaped cups are made out of silicone and are worn internally and collect rather than absorb menstrual flow.
Menstrual cups have actually existed since the 30s but have taken a long time to become mainstream. Leave it to teenagers to buck the system!
Note: There is a learning curve to using cups. They require teens to get up close and personal with their body and they are not easy to get in or out.
Cups cost between $30 and $40 dollars but can be reused for many years. There is virtually no risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome. They can be worn for up to 12 hours at a time, while swimming and sleeping. They come in many colors and sizes specifically designed for teens.
Check out The Lily Cup, Femmy Cycle, and the Lena Cup.

2 | Period panties

Period Panties are basically super absorbent underwear that take the place of a tampon or pad. They are super thin (so no diaper butt) and come in many styles/colors/designs to fit any booty perfectly.
This underwear needs to be rinsed in cold water after use and then simply run through a regular load of laundry. The only catch is that they need to be hung to dry.
Period panties are a great option for teens who aren’t quite ready to explore all of their lady bits and aren’t ready for adventures in inserting and retrieving. Period Panties even have a line of swim wear so every teen can rock the pool or beach with confidence.
Teens may like Knixteen, a period panty designed specifically for teens. Their website states that their panties are to be worn in the days leading up to their periods as a backup – with a pad or tampon on the heaviest days – or as an option on the lightest days. They are priced at $17 per pair.
Knixteen has a teen-friendly website that answers period questions and even allows teens to send an email to their parents with size and style to make ordering and conversations about periods even easier.
Be sure to check out THINX, too. These cost a bit more per panty but can be worn instead of a pad or tampon. They offer period panties of all sizes and shapes and they are also doing great things around the world with their THINX Foundation. They are partnering with grass roots organizations to educate and empower girls and women across the globe about female health and reproduction, eliminate the shame associated with menstruation, and lower our combined carbon footprint. Girls across the world should have the power to manage their monthly periods with dignity.

3| Sea sponge

If you and your teen are super adventurous you can try a Sea Sponge. Yep. An actual sponge harvested from the Mediterranean Sea. These gals come in many different sizes and can even be trimmed for a perfect fit. These sponges are 100 percent natural and environmentally friendly and can be rinsed and reused many times.
The downside is that teenagers in particular aren’t as comfortable with their bodies and have difficulty retrieving the sponge after use.

4| Reusable pads

Washable pads are made of absorbent cotton and are used much like a disposable pad. They can be rinsed and then washed for multiple uses. Lunapads have great starter kits and accessories in fun colors and patterns.

6 Reasons to Have the Sex Talk With Your 3-Year-Old Instead of Your 13-Year-Old

If you have a little one you should be thinking now about how and when you want to introduce the topic of sex to your child.

One of a parent’s greatest responsibilities is to teach their child about life’s big stuff. In the very early days of parenthood parents teach their children that their needs will be met by responding to their cues and cries. As they grow, parents teach them to identify shapes, colors, letters, and numbers – the things that help them make sense of the world around them. As they mature into their teen years parents help their offspring begin to understand the gray between all the black and white and how to define the beliefs and values they want to incorporate into their lives.
Somewhere along the way they’ll also teach them about sex. While most parents are excited to see their kids acquire new knowledge as they grow, many are squeamish or apprehensive when it comes to teaching their kids about where babies come from and how bodies work. Whether it’s a desire to keep kids “innocence” intact, a discomfort on the parents’ part, or a general feeling that it’s not the right time, many parents put a hold on the sex talk far longer than is in the best interest of their kids.
If you have a little one you should be thinking now about how and when you want to introduce the topic of sex to your child. Check out the six reasons below that starting the conversation with your child when they’re young is far better than starting when their older.

1 | Nothing sounds weird when you’re a kid

In many ways, kids are blank slates. In the first few years of their life they accumulate a vast well of knowledge about the world around them. When they’re very young, before formal schooling, much of this knowledge acquisition is passive – they watch you use a comb and a tooth brush each day and, by a few months past their first birthday they’re using those objects as you do. To kids, what they see, and what they hear and learn just is. It’s not weird or awkward or unbelievable. So, in the same way you explain electricity or rainbows or butterflies to your kid (which are all kind of unbelievable when you think about it) when you explain sex at a young age they typically take it at face value without any of the awkwardness that adults often place on it.

2 | It’s not just one talk

Sometimes, when parents think about the “sex talk,” they imagine it as one comprehensive conversation that covers everything from biology to gender identity to pleasure. Not only does this really up the pressure to get it right, it also makes it feel like it’s probably way too much for a preschooler to take in. In reality, talking about sex with your kids should be an ongoing conversation that starts in toddlerhood, when first questions arise, and grows with them as encounter new ideas or find themselves in new social situations.

3 | It’s actually pretty simple

While the topic of human sexuality is rich and deep, the biological basics are actually pretty simple. Many parents shy away from talking about sex with their young children because they don’t want to discuss the details. The good news is that when you’re talking to kids they don’t have a desire or need for the kinds of details that make most parents squeamish. In preschool, most kids will begin to ask questions about where babies come from – by answering the questions that kids ask, no more and no less, parents will be providing the simple answers that help their kids understand the basics.

4 | You’ll actually be the first one to give them the information they need

Many parents who wait to introduce the topic of sex with their kids do so because they want to “keep their kids young” or “preserve their innocence.” While this is problematic for a number of reasons, these parents would be disappointed to learn that their kids are not living in a bubble of innocence. The reality is that kids are talking about sex and, if you want your kids to have accurate information that resonates with your family’s values, you’ll have to introduce the topic early.

5 | It will keep them safe

In order to keep themselves safe in the world, kids need to know the basics of their body. When parents provide their kids with proper terminology and help them begin to understand the concept of consent, they’re giving them important tools that will help them stay safe.

6 | It sets the tone for a lifetime of openness

Every time you answer your child’s questions openly and honestly, you’re showing them that you’re someone whom they can trust. If you want your big kids to come to you with their big questions, make sure you’re available to answer their questions when they’re little.