For most adults there is no conversation more uncomfortable than talking about sex and sexuality with their child. This is especially true for fathers with daughters. But why is it so hard?
To start, we live in a society that objectifies women. We grow up watching and listening over and over again to messages that portray women as sex symbols. We are taught that real men are players, sleep with a lot of women, and have the upper hand in relationships with women. We are taught that menstruation is gross and taboo to talk about, and testosterone equals strong and entitled.
Then we become a father of a daughter and we are forced to see the world as we never saw it before. We must see a female as more than object. Earlier on in fatherhood that fact can be ignored, but there comes a time when a father must come to terms with his perspective sex and sexuality.
When we want to talk with our daughters about sex and sexuality, fathers must challenge the way we were raised to see women, sex, and sexuality.
It is important to begin by recognizing a few common barriers that can shine a light on how society has made talking about sex and sexuality with our daughters (and non-daughters) very uncomfortable.
1) We are afraid that what we say will cause more harm than good.
2) We are taught from a very young age to associate sex with pain, shame, and disgust.
3) We learned inaccurate information about sex from peers long before anyone provided scientific facts.
4) We tend to believe that children don’t need to know about sex until they hit puberty.
Here are the facts: Young children are not uncomfortable talking about sex and sexuality. They are receiving messages about aspects of sex and sexuality from their earliest ages of life. They don’t become uncomfortable until people make it uncomfortable for them.
For girls, this occurs during early childhood when gender roles and stereotypes define friendships. This is also around the time we hear the first questions or comments about sex and sexuality.
If we ignore them, then they will no longer ask us. That’s a good thing, right? Wrong.
There’s no destination on this journey
Prior to our second pregnancy, I was in denial … which I’m only now beginning to recognize. At the time, my then-three-year-old daughter asked the typical questions of a child in her position. Where do babies come from? How are babies born? Can sister go back into mommy’s tummy?
If I was asked these questions I immediately called on my wife to take over.
My wife could comfortably use anatomically correct language (which is very important) and she taught my daughter about things I wouldn’t have ever considered—because I live in a society that tells me a woman’s issues are a woman’s problem. I was always willing to talk about racism, ableism, classism, and ironically, patriarchy … but sex and sexuality, that was not my problem.
When she was six-years old that changed.
We were sitting in her pediatrician’s waiting room when she said, “Daddy, I know where babies come from, but how do they get into their mommy’s belly?”
Pause … perspiration … deep breaths … an internal voice crying out for my wife … 20 seconds pass … and then, thankfully I got a call from my wife.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I say with a mild sense of relief.
My wife speaks for a few seconds and then says, “There are donuts here at work, do you want me to bring some home?”
Without hesitation, I move the phone away from my mouth and direct my attention to my children. “Mommy has donuts for dessert!”
With that, the decision was made, my wife and I exchanged a few final words and ended our conversation. The conversation my daughter wanted to have about babies was averted. Moments later we were in the Dr.’s office and the conversation was put on hold until we got home where I punted the question off to my wife.
Later that night, when I uncomfortable watched and listened to my wife answer my daughter’s question, I began to realize how appreciative I am of her, while at the same time recognizing that everything she was saying I should have been able to say in the doctor’s office.
It was then that I decided I needed to step into uncomfortable discussions about sex.
Stepping in rather than stepping out
For about a year I was perplexed. I welcomed both of my daughters’ questions related to concepts of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and such. I had strategies to talk about these. But I did not have strategies for talking about sex and sexuality.
There aren’t any children’s books or movies that provide a context for talking about sex and sexuality. Recognizing that there are plenty of websites accessible to her if she and her friends were the slightest bit curious (which children tend to be) I knew I needed to step into conversations about sex and sexuality rather than calling on my wife and stepping out.
Retrospectively speaking the solution was pretty simple…in theory. After swallowing my pride and tolerating my discomfort I was able to respond to questions by being honest and objective. Turns out they don’t need a context. Unlike the -isms, questions about sex and sexuality are not abstract. In general, children are not looking for details. It is my rule of thumb that I only provide an answer to the immediate question.
I will go out on a limb and provide example of what I said. Trigger warning, it might make you uncomfortable. I’m even uncomfortable writing it.
Child: “How do babies get in their mommy’s belly?”
Dad/Parent: “The baby is not a baby at first. There must first be sperm from a daddy and an ovum from a mommy that come together. The sperm goes from the daddy to the mommy and gets into the ovum. Together the sperm and ovum becomes the baby.”
That might be enough for the time being…or not. If a child takes it to the next step then continue with an honest objective answer.
Child: “But where does the sperm come from?”
Dad/Parent: “Sperm comes out of a daddy’s penis.”
For us, that answer led to “Eww, that’s gross. Yucky.”
Side note: These answer also makes sense for what they observe with animals. By seven years old most children have seen animals mating or trying to mate on TV, at the dog park, or somewhere else in the community.
After these conversations it is usually a good time to commiserate with other fathers or parents and begin planning for the next stages of talking about sex.
Based on my conversations it is probable that my daughter won’t be asking more procedural questions about sex unless she walks in on my wife and me. And just like the other questions, I will be as honest and objective as I need to be.
Regardless of my gradually increasing confidence, I don’t think I will ever be completely comfortable. But the same can be said about any other tough conversation with children about the social world around them.
#OurChildrenAreListening, watching, absorbing, and coming up with questions.
What’s your take on what you just read? Comment below or write a response and submit to us your own point of view or reaction here at the red box, below, which links to our submissions portal.
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Photo Credit: Motortion on iStock