In the words favoured by almost all politicians, let me be clear: I’m not actually discussing sex with my under four. But the subject has begun to percolate in my mind as I recognise the beginnings of a certain form of curiosity in her behaviour. She had already immersed herself in all things princess, but it remained very much within the confines of ‘girl’ world. With the introduction of a Thumbelina dvd however, the seeds of romantic love and marriage were sown.
When the love/adventure-hungry Thumbelina meets fairy prince Cornelius, they fall instantly in love. But before they can seal the union, Cornelius flies off on his unwieldy bumblebee to iron out some details with his fairy parents. Left to ponder her exciting future, Thumbelina is suddenly kidnapped by a Charo-voiced show toad, who demands Thumbelina marry her toady son. The thumb-sized heroine is hitherto thrust onto a course where she becomes increasingly lost (geographically and emotionally), contorting to the various pressures of those around her – namely men. All ends well for her though when she finally resolves to go it alone and is thus rewarded with the return of her Cornelius. Happiness all round. Though the fate of her heartbroken mother seems somewhat unresolved.
The upshot is that the story triggered something in Child One. I began noticing a tendency in her play of coupling up all her figurines. For lack of options, the couples were disconcerting ones too, such as Cinderella with George Pig (I remember having similar dilemmas myself, begging my mum for a Ken doll so I could have a proper ‘man’ for my Barbie). As more films have been added to the repertoire such as Cinderella, The Little Mermaid and The Swan Princess in particular, her penchant for romance has infiltrated everything. There isn’t a bathtime where I don’t hear her exclaim, amidst all her breathy imaginative ramblings, ‘Oh Derek!’ only to suddenly become coy and instruct me to go away when she realises there’s an audience to her secret play.
All this behaviour seems relatively on course as far as I’m aware (although I don’t remember being into it quite so young, but perhaps the difference is negligible) and in and of itself doesn’t concern me too much. Yet it does feel like the thin end of a sexual wedge.
Toward the slightly plumper end of the wedge, I was recently belted with the question: “Mummy, do babies come out of your fanny?” Child One, who herself has recently gained some insight into the realities of pregnancy and birth with the advent of her younger brother, has a number of little friends whose mothers are about to drop their next babies. Obviously, the subject of where babies come from has been bandied about amongst them during their play dates and nursery chatter. The use of ‘fanny’ by my daughter was a distinct shift from her more prudish description of babies coming from ‘mummy’s tummy’ and a phrase garnered, I’m told, from her little friend’s slightly older cousin. My answer to her question was of course ‘yes’, but then I wondered how long this line of questioning would go. I’ve told her what her fanny is in the past, though she continues to refer to the whole nether area collectively as ‘bottom’. For the time being however, my answer seems to have slaked her thirst.
These factors have in turn led me to ponder what my approach will be. Will I answer her questions candidly as they crop up and assume she’ll gain an understanding of sex from a combination of my responses and what she gleans from alternative sources? Or do I sit down with her at some point and discuss the birds and the bees? The literal version obviously, as I still don’t follow the metaphorical one.
The Doc and I have never really workshopped what our approach to these milestones will be because I don’t think either of us feel it necessary; we’re both of the opinion generally that one should be frank with kids. We’ve used the word ‘sex’ a few times now in front of the children as an explanation of how babies come about, though no further questioning seems to have emerged from that. Child One for instance has never asked ‘what is sex?’ which is surprising given her predilection for asking incessant questions.
As a child, I don’t remember an explicit moment when I suddenly found out what sex was. I kind of had a general sense from as early as I can recall, mainly because I grew up closely with older aged friends so was always party to information that was slightly beyond my comprehension. I remember chuckling over the pages of Where Did I Come From? with my little friend at the age of seven or so and secretly getting a little warm and furry in my underpants. And fingering the retro illustrations of my father’s copy of The Joy of Sex, which he strategically left lying about, presumably for mine and my brother’s benefit. I also remember watching a porno at age eleven called Joanna’s Dreams that belonged to my friend’s older brother; this was a strange experience as I was outwardly embarrassed but inwardly (in more senses than one) excited.
Yet despite these fairly graphic interludes, I didn’t grasp the concept of penetrative sex – or indeed, penetration generally – until about that age of eleven, when I first bought a packet of tampons. I hadn’t at that point had a period, but I assumed it was imminent and so wanted to be prepared. I was in year five at school, away from home on a class trip and I distinctly remember sitting on the toilet in our cabin, some of my little school friends hovering and tittering outside the bathroom door, while I looked over the instructions, tampon at the ready. I was of the understanding that you simply placed it amidst your lady bits. But when I did this, I couldn’t understand how it stayed there, nor what the string was for. As I examined the diagram more intently, I suddenly felt extremely faint and panicked. I realised I had no concept of the vagina being separate from the urethra – that girls have three holes, not two – and that the tampon was supposed to go up inside me. I felt profoundly freaked out and then annoyed that something as basic as this could have escaped me. Me, with my older friends and my supposedly informed ways.
It was from this point that something voracious was awoken in me. Despite all my inferred exposure to sex, it was at this point that I became fixated by it with a perhaps unsettling desire to understand and experience it.
All children are different and it is difficult to say whether some children follow particular courses as the result of character, condition or environment. I would argue that sex, in a nebulous sense, was very present in my upbringing and yet I managed to have such a limited understanding of it. Furthermore, I couldn’t say whether my preoccupation with it in my early teen years was the result of something inherent in me or whether it was the influence of my peers and the approach of my parents. As such, it’s difficult to predict whether my daughter will have the same curiosities at the same level of intensity. In many ways I hope not. I would like to think that she would spend a bit more time developing a sense of herself before she dives into that realm as it can be one so fraught with insecurity and exploitation.
In writing this piece, one thing has become clear to me: I will have a candid talk with her at some point, probably earlier rather than later. My preference is for her to have a grounding in the facts which may assist her in being less bewildered by all the emotion that is inevitably involved in sex. For her to develop a strong enough sense of herself so that she is assured of her limits, of what is comfortable for her and that there be no overwhelming surprises (of the bad sort). Even in saying that though, I realise that this approach has its flaws. In speaking candidly with her, am I tacitly encouraging her to go out and do it? I hope not.
For now, I will let her enjoy the naivety of making her Barbie kiss Woodie (ahem), and try and curtail any projections of my own sexual neuroses.
PS. I must confess that the image of Barbie and Woodie is a slight misrepresentation. They were actually dancing together and then dumped on the table in a rush to leave for nursery. Having found them accidentally in this more suggestive pose, I decided to seize the opportunity… It was in fact the catalyst for the entire post. As I said, it’s about what’s triggered in me – doesn’t always have a firm grounding in reality.