I don’t remember The Talk, precisely because there wasn’t one. Instead, discussions about sex, sexuality, bodily changes, and so on were sprinkled throughout my adolescence as necessary, and this method ensured that I never felt ashamed to talk to my mom.
“My next column is about how lucky I am to have a sex-positive mom.”
“Cool, I’m a sex-positive mom! Wait. What does that mean, exactly?”
“It means that you celebrated milestones like my first period, gave me a positive body image, and used that one Toni Braxton song to teach me about masturbation.”
“Oh yeah. I guess that is pretty cool.”
Last month, Ellen Kate published a handy guide for parents on how to approach parenting in a more sex-positive way. It’s a much-needed piece, considering we still often think of explaining sex to the next generation in terms of “The Talk”—an uncomfortable sit-down conversation we hope goes as smoothly and briefly as possible, so that we can quickly pretend it never happened.
But communicating with children and teens about sexuality requires a longer commitment than 10 awkward minutes. “Do you remember The Talk?” friends of both sexes have asked me. “Mine was awful.” I don’t remember The Talk, precisely because there wasn’t one. Instead, discussions about sex, sexuality, bodily changes, and so on were sprinkled throughout my adolescence as necessary, and this method ensured that I never felt ashamed to talk to my mom.
I got my information from a reliable source.
“Don’t you think that you’re too open with her about sex?” my dad asked my mom once, when I was in middle school. “Aren’t you worried that it might encourage her?”
When I started working in education right after college, I noticed just how many people shared my dad’s concerns. It’s a “seatbelts cause car accidents” sort of view that by sharing information on consent, contraception, and STIs, parents and educators are actually encouraging teens to be sexually active who otherwise wouldn’t be.
My experience was just the opposite. “I knew a girl in high school who thought that you could become pregnant through your clothes,” my mom told me once. Instead of demeaning sexual activity as a whole, she drew a distinction between safe, responsible sex and sex that results from either a lack of information or misinformation. Equipped with right guidance given at the right times, I could make the healthiest decisions for myself (which, incidentally, involved waiting until after high school).
My mother also wasn’t afraid to broach topics beyond the immediate facts of life. One of my favorite memories from elementary school is riding home on the day my teacher had alluded to living with a same-sex partner. “What’s ‘gay’?” I asked.
“Well, you know how your dad and I decided that we loved each other and wanted to live together, like a lot of moms and dads do?”
“It’s just like that with your teacher and her partner. Sometimes, instead of a man and a woman liking each other, women like other women and men like other men.”
“Oh, OK.” And not too long after, when all the other kids started to learn what gay was via bullies hurling slurs on the playground, I understood that it really was as simple as two women or two men wanting to be together.
Womanly milestones weren’t covered up or criticized. They were celebrated.
“I can’t wait to get my period,” I told my middle school girlfriends, peering over them with a toothy grin as they rummaged around for emergency supplies.
“Because it means I’ll be a woman.”
That morning, my mother pressed me to her chest and presented me rather ceremoniously with my first maxi-paid. “Oh honey, look at you growing up!” With those words, I was inducted into womanhood—bloated, crampy, messy womanhood—but at nearly 15, I felt on top of the world.
We went through something similar when I lost my virginity. Once she got over being initially displeased that it happened in our house, my mom asked me a few things. “Was it with someone you know well and trust?” Yes. “Did you feel pressured to do anything you didn’t want to do?” No. “Do you have any questions that I could help with?” Well, Mom, how long have you got?
Instead of sweeping these occasions under the rug, my mom treated them as new chapters of life. The result was that I forged positive associations with topics that are so often dismissed or condemned by parents. I never felt the shame and embarrassment that other girls my age did when their periods came: I was proud that my body was doing something pretty incredible. I never felt that I had “lost” my virginity, that there was somehow less of me or that my value had been reduced: I had gained initial knowledge that would guide me through all of my subsequent sexual experiences.
I developed a positive relationship with my body.
By far one of the most relatable moments of Sex and the City is when Charlotte confronts her body image issues at the sauna. Uncomfortable with taking her towel off, Charlotte gestures to a woman from across the locker room, clearly confident, baring all. “I bet she grew up in a…naked house,” she whispers tentatively to Carrie.
Naked House? I guess I grew up in one of those too, because from as far back as I can remember, there was never any need for my mother and me to conceal our bodies from one another. It was not uncommon for us to have full conversations with one of us in the tub or while getting dressed or undressed. “That’s so weird,” a girlfriend told me in elementary school. “I don’t need to see that much of my mom.”
I can’t say whether our nonchalant nudity is weird. It’s all I’ve ever known. What I can say is that I’m grateful for this openness (notably without feeling like my privacy was violated) for a multitude of reasons.
Women learn very early on that our bodies are not our own. They are accessories for the viewing, pleasure, and scrutiny of others; they are free for the taking if we put the wrong clothing or not enough clothing on them; they must abide by the rules of being covered according to age, weight, and other factors largely determined by what makes men comfortable, curbs their repulsion, or supposedly dissuades them from acts of sexual violence.
Over years of exposure to the strong body of the woman who gave birth to me, I’ve learned that curves, tummies, stretch marks, birthmarks, wrinkles, and our other physical nuances aren’t things to be scorned or hidden as others deem fit. They are evidence of a life spent maintaining itself with exercise, nourishing itself with food, carrying children, gaining wisdom. Armed with this knowledge, I’m able to understand why women, myself included, become more comfortable in their own skin as they age, and why public figures like Jennifer Aniston and Susan Sarandon seem immeasurably more radiant now than they did in their 20s.
“Sexuality is not an amorphous entity that lives separately from our children and which we need to protect them from unilaterally,” Ellen Kate writes. “It’s a part of who they are and something they’ll benefit from nurturing and developing.”
On the other side of adolescence, having received continuously sound advice, explored my sexuality without shame, and accepted my body for what it is and does, I wish the same for every other girl with questions for Mom.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.