As I add to my blog post series on the case for sex ed (part 1, part 2, part 3, & part 4 are all available), I thought I’d leap in with a slightly more personal reflection on how informal sex education can be normalized and how this can benefit everyone.
I was fortunate to grow up in a fairly sex-positive household. This doesn’t mean that anything inappropriate happened, like, ever. Remember, sex-positive doesn’t mean sex-fiend and sex-positivity doesn’t connote constantly being exposed (or exposing others) to sexual things. And I don’t know, in retrospect, that my parents would necessarily identify with the label of being sex-positive (if you’re reading this, hi Mom and Dad…hope you don’t mind the publicity!). But I’m running with it anyway.
Here’s why I think my upbringing was sex-positive:
- We established that bodies were normal and natural. Nudity wasn’t shamed in our household, though once my sister and I grew out of being cute toddlers it became less of a clothing-optional thing.
- Bodily functions were also normal and natural in our house. We learned early on about periods, because we were curious about what was going on with our mom.
- Reading wasn’t censored. I found a “where babies come from” book when I was pretty young (I was an advanced reader from an early age) and my parents didn’t freak out, but rather made sure to talk to me about it.
- We didn’t consume tons of movies, TV, or video games, but we did watch a lot of things together as a family, even some R-rated things (mostly foreign films). I remember my mom saying: “I’d rather you see sex than violence in movies; sex at least is natural and creative, whereas violence is destructive.” And given that the film Willow scared me a ton when I saw it in theaters (did I just date myself?!), I was happy to follow that directive.
- We didn’t belong to a religious organization that shamed sexuality or promoted intolerance. My upbringing was mostly in a secular Jewish context, with more emphasis on family gatherings and food than dogma.
- Other sexualities were accepted as normal. There were some non-straight people in our lives, and my parents didn’t act like we needed to be protected from them. Some of our relatives lived together in domestic units without being married. I once asked my mom what she’d do if I wanted to date women, and she replied that she’d love me all the same.
- Our consent was respected. Yeah, we had to do things we didn’t want to, like chores and homework and piano practice and not bringing books to the dinner table, but we never were forced to hug relatives or be in uncomfortable proximity to people we didn’t like or know. Bodily autonomy is an important lesson for children to learn, as it establishes a precedent for them as adults.
- Sexual violence was never dismissed, normalized, or made light of. It wasn’t a joking matter. Rape culture is damn insidious, but it didn’t have a huge foothold in our home.
- Gender roles weren’t emphasized as the determinants of our worth. Sure, my mom did the bulk of the cooking, but she was good at it (dinner with dad meant going out or reheating leftovers). I was equally encouraged to play sports, compete on the Academic Decathlon team, and take belly dance classes.
I’m sure there are other ways in which my upbringing was sex-positive, but these are the ones that stand out the most in retrospect. Every family is different, with their family folklore and customs both expressing and reinforcing their values. There are lots of ways that sex-positivity can look in the context of a family raising kids; I’m not trying to promote my own experience as normative or ideal for anyone but me.
My sex-positive upbringing prepared me for life as an adult in many ways. I didn’t grow up with a sense of shame around my body (having a period, masturbating, being a woman, eventually wanting to become sexually active with others). I didn’t feel like sexual desire was dirty. I felt assured that my parents would love me no matter what my sexuality turned out to be (or for that matter, my career, or the rest of my life), and I carry that confidence and self-worth forward into all my relationships. I feel comfortable expressing myself in different gender roles, though I gravitate toward conventional femininity in many ways (and I acknowledge that being cis-gendered comes with bunches of privilege). I had a working model for common-sense feminism early on; we weren’t necessarily debating gender performativity at the dinner table, but I saw my parents both conform to and rebel against gender norms in the various choices they made while figuring out how best to nurture me and my sister.
Reading the above paragraph, it doesn’t seem like these experiences should be unique or revolutionary, but in our sex-phobic culture, they are. I meet so many people who grew up feeling shamed about their bodies and sexuality. I meet people who were conditioned to feel dirty when they masturbated, or inadequate because of how their bodies look, or sinful because of who they’re attracted to. This is a major reason I’m a sex educator: because if attitudes about sex can be learned, they can also be unlearned. I was fortunate enough to have a sex-positive upbringing, and I know firsthand the confidence and security in oneself that feeling okay about your body and sexuality can bring about.
I want to help others manifest similar sex-positive attitudes, to learn what sex positivity means to them, and make it happen in their lives. That’s why I do the de-stigmatizing work that I do around sexuality in my writing and teaching, and that’s why I facilitate spaces like Sex Geekdom, where people can have meaningful conversations around sex, gender, relationships, and so on. If you didn’t get these things early in life, you can make up for lost time, and I’m on board with helping!