We’ve been talking about sex around my house a lot lately.
As my 10-year-old gets ready to enter middle school next year, he’s been getting increasingly curious about bodies, puberty, and of course, s-e-x. He’s not interested in having sex, he’s quick to inform me ― in fact, the first time I explained the physical machinations of intercourse, his initial response was, “I don’t know, I’d rather play video games.”
But he is interested in understanding sex, a circumstance that has led to a series of increasingly difficult-to-answer queries along the lines of “But what does semen look like?”
We’ve looked at a diagram of the inside of a penis together. We found out that the hole on the tip of the penis is called the “urinary meatus.” I finally convinced him that a man doesn’t pee inside a woman to make a baby. It’s been a wild time.
I try to answer his questions as honestly as is age-appropriate while using the clinical and appropriate terms for body parts and sex acts. Sometimes, I get a little stumped or tongue-tied by questions I didn’t anticipate, like when he asked me how old you have to be to have sex. (I came up with: “There’s no set age, but you want to make sure you’re emotionally mature enough to handle it, that you’ve found someone you trust enough to take that step with, and that you have the necessary information to do it safely. Also, sex should never happen between children and adults.”)
While it’s not always easy or comfortable to have these conversations, I love that my preteen feels comfortable with himself and unashamed to approach me with any and all questions about sex and sexuality. (Although I did have to tell him recently that it’s not necessary to inform me every time he has an erection.)
I have also, throughout his life, been careful not to assume my son’s sexuality; if we talk about the idea of a future partner, I refer to a potential “boyfriend or girlfriend,” “husband or wife.” He has queer people in his life, and he knows other kids with gay parents. He knows about trans and non-binary people, and he once told me a great joke that went: “What are a chocolate bar’s pronouns? Her/she.” The time he came home from school repeating what some boy had told him — “Boys can’t kiss each other” — I didn’t hesitate to tell him that, my dear, they can and they DO.
“What if my son does turn out to be gay? Wouldn’t my ability to provide LGBTQ-inclusive sex education be of dire importance?”
I am very much a parent who says gay, because my son’s sexual orientation (and potentially, gender identity) has yet to be revealed to me, and it’s imperative to me that he knows I will love and support him no matter who he turns out to be attracted to.
So, the other night, when he asked me if two men can have sex together, I had no problem telling him enthusiastically: “Of course they can!” It’s when he asked me HOW they do it that things got hairy.
Tripping over my words, I gracelessly gave him the main idea. (Clinically, and not in excessive detail, but he got the gist.)
Then I immediately started to second-guess my decision. I should have said something nebulous like, “People have different ways to kiss and touch each other,” I thought to myself, feeling the itchy discomfort I get when I overshare with another mom at soccer practice.
So later, when he thought to ask me how two women do it, I sort of pawned him off with a nonanswer and sent him to bed. (But not before he asked me if I had ever done it, to which I responded with a swift and only slightly panicked “NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS,” which I stand by.)
The next day, I was still thinking about our conversation and sitting with the vague feeling that I hadn’t handled it correctly.
In light of the “Parental Rights in Education” law passed in Florida, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in the popular lexicon, there has been a lot of talk about how supporters are assuming that discussion about the existence of sexual orientation or gender identity and related topics is somehow sexual in nature, and thereby inappropriate for children. That is wrong.
Knowing that some families have two mommies or two daddies is not sexual information. Small children don’t sexualise things in that way, and there’s nothing inherently deviant or inappropriate about knowing that LGBTQ+ people exist.
But what about when children are old enough to be taught about sex? (And experts do agree that these conversations are perfectly appropriate for children between 9 and 12, or even younger, especially considering they are on the cusp of puberty.)
If my son is old enough to have gotten a frank explanation of the mechanics of hetero sex, why did I feel so uncomfortable giving him the same information about queer sex? Especially considering that the sex acts engaged in by queer people are also performed by straight folks.
Somehow, when he asked me about two men together, the same information had just felt instinctually more, well, sexual.
I had to look at that discomfort. How had someone as well-intentioned and liberal and frankly not even entirely straight as me fallen into the idea that gay sex is somehow dirtier or less appropriate to talk about than straight sex?
“If my son is old enough to have gotten a frank explanation of the mechanics of hetero sex, why did I feel so uncomfortable giving him the same information about queer sex?”
And I don’t think I’m alone. When I started trying to research the topic, I found a lot of information on how to explain the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity to children, but practically nothing about actually talking to them about queer sex, at any age.
And what if my son does turn out to be gay? Wouldn’t my ability to provide LGBTQ-inclusive sex education then be of dire importance? Don’t I want my son to be sexually prepared, informed, and provided with the information he needs to stay safe, no matter what his sexual orientation? Who would tell him about things like safety in anal play and dental dams?
Not necessarily the teachers at his school. According to the GLSEN 2019 National School Climate Survey, only 8.2% of students (including those who received no sexual education at school) “received LGBTQ-inclusive sex education, which included positive representations of both LGB and transgender and nonbinary identities and topics.”
As a high school junior who identifies as a lesbian told The Atlantic in a 2017 article on LGBTQ-inclusive sex education, “We were informed on the types of protection for heterosexual couples, but never the protection options for gay/lesbian couples.”
Despite my attempts to resist assuming my son’s heterosexuality, when I half-answered his questions about gay sex, wasn’t I assuming it was information he didn’t need? If I was truly considering the possibility that my son might not be straight, wouldn’t I have answered him differently? Pretty sneaky, hetereonormativity.
The more I Googled and the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I’d gotten it wrong. Luckily, this is no uncommon experience for a parent. I make mistakes all the time, and when I do, I think there’s great value in modelling my ability to admit it, take responsibility, and apologise.
So last night, around bedtime, when all the most important conversations seem to happen, I went back in.
“Last night, you asked me some questions about how two men and two women have sex together,” I told him, “and I think I felt a little bit uncomfortable, or nervous, and I didn’t really answer what you asked. But I thought about it more and I realised that if you’re old enough to know how straight people have sex, there’s no reason you’re not old enough to know how gay people have sex. So we can talk about the different ways that gay people have sex together, which, by the way, are also ways that straight people have sex together, and I will answer any questions you have.”
There was nothing dirty or inappropriate about the conversation we proceeded to have, and at the end, he just wanted to know which acts could result in pregnancy, which, hey ― is really important information to have!
He even made me proud when he pivoted from a reaction of “Wow, that’s so weird” to “Actually, it just wasn’t what I was expecting. I shouldn’t call it weird,” in less than 3 seconds with no prompting.
Maybe as importantly, I told him that I’d felt uncomfortable talking about all this because of a prejudice I had, and that everyone has prejudices, but we have to investigate them and try to move beyond them when they come up.
I hope that’s a lesson we all can take to heart because the core belief contributing to my discomfort around the topic of talking to my son about gay sex feels to me like it’s on the same continuum of the ideas fueling Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” and copycat bills.
To be clear, I do not think that we should be educating young children about how anybody has sex. But just as gay people are not inherently inappropriate, and education about LGBTQ topics is not inherently sexual, providing education about gay sex to children who are old enough for sex education is not any dirtier than providing them with information about straight sex.
And in the case of LGBTQ kids, it just may be vital.
Emily McCombs is the deputy editor of HuffPost Personal. She writes and edits first-person essays on all topic areas including identity (race, gender, sexuality, etc.), love and relationships, sex, parenting and family, addiction and mental health, and body politics.