The Sex Talk

As we discussed sex in small groups with blushed cheeks and darting eyes on Wednesday in Campus Ecology, the conversation shifted to the infamous “sex talk.” When do you have it? How do you teach your kids to be open to talking about sex? How do you keep them “safe?” How (and from whom) do they ultimately learn the cultural conceptions and  expectations of sex?

For all of us, the sex/puberty talk began around the age that we got our first periods–nuanced with the horror and confusion of having to deal with puberty and what it means to be a “woman.” Those inevitably awkward night time chats carefully planned by anxious mothers (or, in more mortifying cases, fathers too) were often prefaced with the distribution of some sort of informative book. For Jim Farrell, this was a forbidden book about sex written by a priest and kept on a high shelf. Knowing that his kids would be curious about something they weren’t supposed to read and consequently read it and become informed about sex without ever having to actually have a discussion about it, Jim’s father strategically placed the scandalous title high up. For the three of us discussing our indoctrination into the world of sex talks, the American Girl Period Book was a common thread. Covering everything from body odor to breasts, this book was a “how-to” for puberty. This past summer I read it to the little girls I nanny for over and over. They couldn’t get enough (this might be somewhat of a rare reaction, but I found it amusing.) We read about leg shaving and kisses from boys and training bras and deodorant. This book made it almost cool to go through the painful changes of adolescence. In information sources like this one, it becomes much more acceptable to talk about puberty and sex. I see how the topic of sex has become less taboo for my generation, discussed in friend groups and in close relationships with parents, but I wonder how the increasing wealth of information will impact future generations. Will sex continue to be portrayed as something that is normal and fun and a sort of collegiate rite of passage? Or can we tailor it to mean more for our future children–channeling the positive views of sex as incredibly meaningful from more traditional times and the importance of safety and the precautionary principle (wear a condom!) that has become so central in the modern view of sex? Perhaps we can find a way to combine the pervasive influence of MTV with the more “natural” perspective of authors like Wendell Berry.

In a column of today’s New York Times, the question of when to have “the talk” was explored in an article titled “A Younger Group for Feminine Products.” The article references the recent appeal Kotex has made to an incredibly young consumer group: girls as young as 8. Glittery boxes of pads with hearts and doodles across their wrappers can now be found on the shelves of your local Walgreens. Apparently this marketing makes sense in light of the fact that “A study published in Pediatrics last year found that in the United States, 15 percent of American girls begin puberty by age 7” ( Though this fact is surprising, it calls attention to the idea that parents might need to start talking to their daughters about puberty and sex by the time 2nd grade hits. Is it okay to let the media start this conversation with our daughters before we do?

Though our discussion in class and in Jim’s book focused on dense facts like condoms and sex, I think that the “period talk” should also be included. Today, we take advice from the “experts,” media, and fellow mothers. We take advantage of access to endless information and use it to make things less awkward. Here’s a video made by Kotex (interestingly enough, with connections to Disney) that tells mothers how and when to have “the talk” with their daughters:

How could this conversation include nature? The menstrual cycle is, after all, a natural cycle. How could we expand our understanding of it to look at how it connects us to each other and the world? I’m not exactly sure where I’m going with all of this, but I do think it’s worth considering.

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