I’m a bit of a collector. I don’t have Starbucks bears, coins, or shot glasses from around the world, but I do have questions. Since my own children started questioning, I’ve recorded their inquiries. From Maya — at age three — asking, “How many kinds of hoods are there? I mean there is Robin Hood, sisterhood, brotherhood…” to Jamin at the same age questioning, “Did you put my hot wheels in your big mouth?” and my youngest Ahna wondering after hearing nursery rhymes, “If we saw a cow jumping over the moon, shouldn’t we scream and stop the car?” Now that my kids are 11, 14, and 6, their questions have changed. Ahna just asked, “When are you going to be done with that article?” Good question.
It was natural to collect the questions from the tweens in our sexuality class. Take for example this question that I pulled from the anonymous question box on week #1: Girls have to go through periods, puberty, and pregnancy. Boys only have to go through puberty. Why?
From the perspective of a pre-period ten-year-old female, the deck is stacked unfairly. However, I know from having a son go through puberty that the very same worries that plague young girls about their period, concern boys about their first spontaneous orgasm: the dreaded wet dream. What if it happens at a friend’s house? What if I make a mess? What if other people know? Boys and girls can both fear being out of control of what is happening to their bodies.
My response was, “This question is about the P’s of puberty, periods and pregnancy. It’s true that boys and girls both go through puberty and have many of the same body changes. About this time, girls begin their periods as their bodies release an egg each month. Boys also release sperm as they go through puberty. Sometimes they may ejaculate in their sleep. We’ll be learning more about periods or menstruation and ejaculation or wet dreams in our reading. And while only the female can be pregnant and give birth, in a loving relationships both partners are a part of the experience.”
Every week as the kids filed in, the boys sat on one side of the room and the girls on the other. Often the facilitator and I let them dwell in their comfort zones, but for several of the activities they were mixed. During the puberty study, the kids pinned descriptors onto a Venn diagram to indicate “boys only” and “girls only” or “both boys and girls.”
Jerome (a pseudonym) picked up the term menstruation and pinned it under boys. The girls blushed and looked at each other.
“Do you agree?” I asked the group.
One girl shook her head and I encouraged her to speak up. “Well, menstruation is like a period, right? When an egg is released?”
The boy clapped his hand on his forehead and said, “Oh, right! I was thinking eject-u-ation.”
“Ejaculation, yes,” I affirmed, “Menstruation and ejaculation have the same ending sounds.”
We had created this unusual bubble of safety not only to think about sex, but to be wrong about it too. I knew that wasn’t the case outside of our class, especially with questions like Why do boys mostly tease other girls about growing, but I don’t see as many girls teasing boys?
My response was, “In some situations boys may tease more and in other situations girls may tease more. Girls do start puberty earlier and it’s noticeable with breast development. Girls also tend to talk a lot with each other, and boys may not have those same opportunities. Maybe some of these teasing boys are doing so because they have questions and interest, but they don’t feel they have another way to talk about it. If someone is teasing you in a way that feels uncomfortable, you can tell them to stop and get an adult to help if needed.”
Yes, teasing is just one of the many ways we find to talk about sex. The kids uncovered many other ways with their questions, like I have heard some nasty jokes. Why do kids find those funny? Another question was Why do people make songs about sex?
My response was, “We are sexual beings from the time we are born. Without sex, there would be no more human beings so it’s very important. I think people sing and joke about things that are important or that they wonder about or that they want to celebrate. Like sex.”
There was an interesting response to these questions. It was subtle, as all guarded responses are with youth, but noticeable. Maybe they sat up a little straighter and smiled slightly. It was as if they were being validated for something that was on their minds. The idea that we are sexual beings simply by being born, not because of questionable moral character, may have been new. And yes, it is important and, dare I repeat, perfectly normal, to be thinking, talking, joking and yes, even singing about sex.
But not all forms of expression were easy for me to talk about as I worked on my response to this question: Why do people put them having sex on a video or online?
Mike Birbiglia, a stand-up comedian, does a schtick about how some people like to video themselves having sex, but for himself he says, “All I can think is, I’m just glad no one saw that,” which pretty much sums up how I feel. But this class isn’t about me, it’s about having the children consider their own values.
My response was, “This is a values question. Some people may put video or pictures of themselves in public to make money or get attention or feel important. Some people feel sex should be completely private. You will make decisions in your life about what you share publicly or privately about your sexuality.”
As the questions became more intimate, I knew the time would come when someone would ask if they could really trust us. One asked, If you are sworn to secrecy, will you tell our parents what we say?
My response was, “The only time I would share something with a parent is if I feared for your safety. But no, we’re not sharing anything with your parents. Do you notice how when they pick you up after class and ask, ‘How did it go?’ that I smile and say that we are having a good time and learning a lot? I don’t give details. I hope that you feel comfortable sharing with your parents what happens in class, but that’s for you to decide, not me.”
After class that day one of the students overheard his mom saying, “How’d it go?” and he said, “Oh, I know what she’s going to say! ‘We had fun and we are learning a lot.’ If you want details, you have to talk to me.” Then he wiggled his eyebrows at me.
And one of my favorite questions was How come Greek sculptures do not put on arms, but they spend so much time on the penis and vagina?
I responded by saying, “Actually, the Greeks did spend time on the penis, because there were more nude statues of men than women. It was significant in art because they were portraying human bodies accurately. As far as showing sculptures without arms, from what I read, arms were very expensive and fragile to put on statues. Sometimes they were attached, but broke off when they were being moved.”
As I wrote and practiced responses to the students’ brilliant questions each week, I questioned my answers. Am I answering what they are asking? Am I using the right language? Am I giving them something more to think about with their own values? Can I say this without laughing? And most importantly, am I inviting more questions with my responses?
With my fascination of what people wonder, I will probably always be a question collector. I doubt my collectibles will be of any value on the Antiques Roadshow, but I have to believe that giving kids the opportunity to ask anonymously about multi-colored nipples, jizz, teabagging, difficult conversations, and of, course Greek statues is rare and rich.