Author’s note: I’ve collected so many great kid questions that I’ve divided them up into three different Perfectly Normal installments. This column includes the “Am I normal?” questions. It will be followed by a future column on building sexual vocabulary and then finally, part three… fascinating questions.
“What is sex? What is it… exactly? What is it all about? These are questions lots of kids wonder about. You needn’t feel embarrassed or stupid if you don’t know the answers, because sex is not a simple matter.”
—It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, Robie Harris
In our group of ten and eleven-year-olds there are kids from public school, private school and home school. They are black, white, Chinese, and Hapa. Their families are gay, straight, single, and adopted. What they all have in common is their parents’ permission to work with the male facilitator and me to provide them with honest and accurate information about sexuality for eight weeks.
During the orientation we introduced the question box, which is a craft paper covered shoebox with a wide slit. At the end of each class we hand around index cards and everyone must take one and everyone must write. If they don’t have a question, they write, “I don’t have any questions.” They all put questions in the box and my co-facilitator and I answer them at the beginning of the next class.
I anticipated that answering questions loaded with sexual terms in front of red-faced and giggling kids was going to be difficult, but it wasn’t. Instead it was my irrepressible habit of talking with my hands that challenged me most. The research on people who gesture while they speak found that not only does it engage listeners, but it helps the talker access information from their brain. When I talk, my whole body gets involved. Psychologists call it “embodied cognition.” I led an activity once with teachers and asked them to describe a spiral staircase while sitting on their hands. The `embodied cognitionators’ (my term) like me were sitting on their hands, but using their mouths, necks, and shoulders — anything to demonstrate the spiral. I imagined trying to say the word nipple without pointing to my very own nipples or pulling out my shirt in two points. It was a challenge.
The best way I’ve found to articulate the power and importance of early comprehensive sex education is to share the questions that our 10- and 11-year olds are asking. I offer my answers to their anonymous questions as one pathway toward education.
As I reached into the question box after the first class, I pulled out an index card written in fat loopy letters with hearts on the i’s; it read: “My friend’s nipples turn purple when she is mad or sad, why is that?” Uhhh…while I knew about nipple color change during pregnancy, I didn’t know much about emotional hypercolor nipples. With a little bit of digging, I discovered two main reasons for nipple color change: sex hormones and circulation.
What we are taught in our training session is to be explicit and clear with language and never answer more than the question is asking. The following week my response to the children was, “Nipples are the tips of the breast that stick out.” (This is me now trying not to point my fingers straight out from my chest to demonstrate.) “In this question, the person states that nipples change color. It’s true that the color of nipples ranges from light pink to dark brown. Nipples may change color due to changes in hormones, which we’ll read more about next week, or circulation meaning how the blood moves through the body, and this is perfectly normal. If the friend is concerned, this is a great question to share with a parent, trusted adult, or doctor.”
The second week this one was waiting in the box: “My boyfriend drinks and smokes. He says he’s already had sexual intercourse. When I ask him, ‘What are you thinking?’ he talks about inappropriate sexual things that he wants to do with me, which makes me uncomfortable. What should I do?” Uhhh… How old is this boyfriend? It turned out that the question-asker hung around after group to chat with me and openly shared her concerns about her boyfriend, age 11 (yes, her mom knew they were “going out”). I contemplated this question for a week and reread what she was asking: what should I do? Something told me that saying, “Break up with this scary loser and don’t look back,” would not be the best choice. in our training we learned to address physical and emotional consequences. In my response in front of the whole group I said, “It’s important to remember that two things can result from choosing to have sex: pregnancy — even if a girl hasn’t started her period yet — and disease. I noticed the person who asked this question wrote ‘which makes me feel uncomfortable,’ so I’m thinking that means she doesn’t want to be treated that way. You choose your friends and you can tell people when you don’t like a certain kind of talk. You could use an I-statement like, ‘When you talk about sex, I feel uncomfortable. I want you to stop.’ Everyone has that right (I extended my hands palms up to emphasize: everyone). Parents and other trusted adults can also help in situations like this one too. Postponing sex until you are older and can be responsible for the consequences is smart.” Looking around the group, I noticed every eyeball was on me.
That question encouraged a batch of “What should I do?” questions the next week like this one: “One of my friends is obsessed with sex. She talks about it in ways like ho, whore, slut, etc. I do not feel comfortable with it, but she is my friend and gets mad and offended easily. What should I do?” Again, I restated that we choose our relationships based on respect and modeled another I-statement. I had practiced saying the words ho, whore, and slut to my husband to achieve the ho-humness of words like dog, cat and school. “You are unshakable,” he encouraged me, rubbing my shoulders like a boxing coach.
That same week we got this one: “I want to say ‘bad’ words even though they are just words. Is that weird?” In a reassuring tone I said, “This class is about learning what words mean. I don’t know what this person meant by the word `bad,’ but words like breasts, penis, and vagina are just scientific words. I’m thinking this person was talking about cuss words or swearing. Part of this class is figuring out how you live the three values of respect, relationship, and responsibility. And as far as weirdness, it’s perfectly normal to be curious about bad words.”
With every new question in the box I felt a sense of honor that these kids were trusting us with their deep, thoughtful wonderings. But not all questions were so easily answered… stay tuned for the October column when a ten-year-old asks, “At school somebody said they teabagged someone else. I don’t know what that means but I saw the person’s penis go near the other’s face,” and I get to answer (without using my hands).