E. asks:

Hi Lauren, I love reading about your adventures. I was wondering what your approach is with your daughters to teach them about body safety, sexual abuse, etc. and at what age you provided information to them? Coming from Perth — where this is very much a part of primary curriculum — to Victoria where it’s not on the curriculum at all anymore, I wondered what your thoughts are.

Thanks, E., for raising this topic. Sex education is a complex subject, often heavy with the emotional baggage we have carried since childhood. We need greater awareness of a positive way to educate our children on sexual matters. Here’s how I’ve done it.

Tree root resembling a cunt, Tasmania
“Even if it has not been your habit throughout your life so far, I recommend that you learn to think positively about your body.” ― Ina May Gaskin

I trust I have a very open, healthy relationship with my daughters in regards to body image, safety and sexuality. This is the result of starting the conversations early and often, in honest response to the age-appropriate issues to which they become aware. I also remain mindful to share positive feedback on my own and other people’s bodies, the full spectrum of genders and our diverse range of culturally-appropriate sexualities.

Look within

My starting point — as always — is to examine my own ingrained attitudes towards sexuality and how they emerge in the remarks I may make, the judgements I hold, my own body image and my sexual conduct. It’s an extremely recent topic for me, as I grew up in a sex-shaming culture whose negative effects continue to this day.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been educating myself on feminist and LGBTQI perspectives, have talked with sex workers and sacred tantric yogis, have discussed polyamory with theorists and practitioners and have practiced active LOVE, as well as I can manage it. I am seeking to adventure within the freedom of positive sexuality so that I have practical experience that I can one day use to offer guidance as my daughters navigate their own intimate relationships.

Communication

Right from birth, genitals were verbally assigned their no-nonsense names (vulva, penis, testicles) along with all the other, more visible body parts. As part of a busy household, the girls often saw David and I in the nude. I breastfed openly — freely airing my nipples when they needed it — and remember how as toddlers they would climb on me and unabashedly examine my breasts while I calmly labeled the part to which they were pointing.

Conversations about sex probably first started around one of my pregnancies and through the multiple books I have on the topic. I shared the very excellent Where Do Babies Come From? on Sparkling Adventures because babies were a hot topic in the months leading to Delaney’s birth. Aisha was four at the time, with Brioni three and Calista one. Likely, Aisha would have been introduced to ideas of genitals in procreative sex as a three-year-old when I was expecting Calista. All four girls were present for the births of Elijah and Daníel Valur.

From early lectures, books and apps like the The Human Body, the knowledge grew with the girls and they passed on their wisdom to their younger sisters and friends. Occasionally I heard conversations that contained technical details I felt needed correction, and I would interrupt and set the record straight. One time they rebuked me, however. They were inhabiting a make-believe realm, and the technical details of Earthside human reproduction were not relevant to their game!

The girls sit at different levels with their interest in, and information of, sexuality. I maintain a close relationship with each one so I’m aware of their levels of maturity. I share different details with them and trust the younger ones to either learn from their sisters or approach me to find out what they need to know. It’s an honour to guide them in this way, mindfully holding space for them to develop healthy attitudes towards the subject.

Our conversations are non-emotional and technical. We don’t giggle but we do google anatomy when necessary. I’ve given the girls the foundation in cliteracy that I wish I (and all my lovers) had received.

Consent

I distinctly remember a conversation I had with all four girls (then aged three to eight) in which I detailed our culture’s main sexual taboos (pedophilia, incest, rape). I explained sexual intercourse as a pleasurable massage that feels good on the inside as well. On a metaphysical level, it’s a form of energy exchange, so you need to welcome and reciprocate the other participants’ energies.

Love-making is something you share with someone you like and trust, and is never-ever right where there’s a power imbalance. Examples of power imbalance include those that come from an age difference, maturity difference, bullying or exploitation. In a non-emotional way, I’ve shared my own experiences with inappropriate sexual activities, offering my honesty as an invitation for the girls to keep the conversation going when they need to.

Consent goes hand-in-hand with body-safety awareness. Our culture generally agrees that the parts of the body which are covered by a bathing suit are private. Children understand this and accept boundaries that we may choose to put up around our own genitalia as we encourage them to reserve these body parts for their own touching.

Consent, of course, is introduced by the parent. Even with a little baby, I would ask (rhetorically), “May I wipe your bottom?” The practice of seeking consent when touching private parts continued into the toileting phase, and when pain or discomfort has obliged a closer inspection of my girls’ genitalia, I do so only with their informed consent. From when they were infants, I’ve liked to rest the palm of my hand against my daughters’ hearts as we cuddle together. So — aware that I want to foster their body-ownership — I ask permission before I touch or reach under their shirt-fabric for their heart-beat.

Consent is also about playing with someone’s hair, picking them up and moving them around. When I approach babies or toddlers, I ask their consent before touching them, holding their hand or picking them up. When a reach to hug a parent cuddling a toddler, I ask the child’s permission before I include them in the hug. Consent is very important, and our children learn it best when it’s modeled consistently to them from a young age.

I make an effort to verbally remind my girls about consent, sharing that it’s a fun but powerful ally in sexual exploration and safety. When we are at festivals or temporarily living within a community, I raise the subject often and encourage strong body-ownership ideas so that the girls know no one should touch them without their full consent!

Body ownership

This aspect is a challenge for every parent who truly acknowledges that their child owns their own body. It means we cannot abuse our superior strength to restrain a child, modify their appearance or physically force them against their will. To teach body ownership, we must first give our children back their bodies and allow them to make decisions regarding them.

This is super hard because we are programmed with stories about safety, health and cultural norms that inform how we would like our children to appear and act. Our sacred challenge is to find a way to communicate — with love, rather than fear — our concerns and desires, then trust and allow the child to respond in a loving manner. I can guarantee that a child who has been consistently shown loving respect will respond with mercy and grace. If you’re just transitioning into a more gentle parenting style, it may take persistence in unconditionally loving a child before the child responds in kind. Even if you’re unsure if it’s the right thing to do — if you’re going to make mistakes in parenting, always err on the side of LOVE!

A child owns her own body, and we should not be bullying her into doing things she doesn’t want to do! When we force a child to sit still or allow us to brush her hair or hold her breath underwater or stay in bed or sleep in the dark, we are sending mixed messages about bullying and who the child must submit to. Do you really want to draw up a list of people the child should submit to (teachers, caregivers, doctors, etc)? Shudder. Aren’t these the very ones who anecdotally abuse our children?

I deliberately choose to honour a child’s boundaries — even if it’s spoken in jest or fun. When I’m tickling, and the child says, “Stop!”, I stop. This develops into a new game where I seek her permission before touching her or tickling her again, but the point is, I’m teaching her that I obey her commands regarding her body. I also speak up when I hear children say “no” to others. “That’s very clear,” I say, “I heard _________ say to stop.” As a community, we can do a better job with our children by reinforcing their clear directives around body ownership. It will help keep them safe.

I don’t need to introduce the idea that there are some people out there who prey on children. Instead, while creating a hypothetical as an example of an inappropriate power balance and bullying, I can reinforce the fact that it should never happen and should be spoken about if it does.

Rather than highlighting the possibility (or probability) of sexual predators, I believe a better way is to foster self-confident body-ownership within the child, make reasonable requests that are well-explained in love, avoid unnecessary instruction that affect their bodies (do they really need to sit down to eat while at the park?) and model your own personal boundaries around your body (please stop, that doesn’t feel nice to me). Children need to hear the message that if it doesn’t feel good, they have the right to make it stop. Always.

Regarding genital education, the girls have participated in clothes-optional gatherings frequently through our involvements in festivals. I’ve spoken with them as they experiment with their comfort levels in wearing fewer clothes. Each child has her own preference, and we accept that what feels right for one of us to wear (or not wear) doesn’t make it right for another. Practical considerations like sun-protection, prickles and cleanliness have come in the form of lessons and instruction.

Through their experiences with communal, non-sexualised nudity and proximity to me during all my body-shape changes, the girls have seen many different examples of body types, including breasts and genitalia. When appropriate, we have discussed the differences and discharges, especially my very private ones during the weeks either side of my last birthing experience. A recent trip to the Wall of Cunts in MONA saw me pointing out to my daughters (and their friend) all the differences in the shapes and sizes of the plaster-cast vulvas. We’ve seen the contrast between circumcised and uncircumcised penises, and trimmed and wild bush. Their idea of “normal” spans a wide spectrum, and I believe this is very healthy! When necessary, I’ve kept the girls informed of new nicknames for genitalia so they don’t remain naive as their peer group grows wiser.

A positive idea of body-ownership and body-image contributes directly to a sex-positive attitude. The autonomy a child feels regarding her physicality is a great basis for a unique understanding of personal sexuality.

Sex positivity

My friend Sæþór summarised sex positivity really well recently:

“[It’s] teaching your child that sex is a positive thing, not a negative thing. It doesn’t mean a lack of instruction, but it does mean a presence of instruction. Using weird nicknames for privates, waiting too long to discuss sex and how it works, setting unrealistic expectations (abstinence ‘til marriage, for example) or presenting only limited information (such as ignoring homosexual and lesbian sex, or the topics of consent and pleasure) is a surefire recipe for someone with an unhealthy attitude toward their own sexuality.”

Through our friendships with people across the spectrum of gender binaries and sexuality, the girls have seen examples of loving, non-hetero relationships. Although they may not yet know all the technical details of imaginative pansexual love-making, they accept that it happens and know that their own future brand of consensual sexuality will be celebrated. That’s sex-positive.

As I’ve reflected on this subject today, I realise that I’ve haven’t yet talked with the girls about necrophilia and zoophilia. We have enough Kiwis in our community so that sheep-shagging jokes come out often, so I know they’re already exposed to the idea in a humorous fashion.

While browsing Netflix, the girls are free to watch whatever comes across their path. Generally, they choose movies that don’t have a sexual sub-story. This is changing as they get older, however, and eleven-year-old Aisha is watching more sophisticated stories on par with her greater sexual awareness. I like to watch things alongside her so we can discuss ideas like consent, rape, foreplay, homosexual sex and masturbation. (I often pause the movie and say, “That’s not realistic because of [insert technical details here]…”) She knows that there is graphic porn online because I’ve told her. I’ve also told her that it’s not realistic nor representative. I’m not monitoring her internet browser to find out what she sees, I’m pursuing a relationship with her in which we trust each other.

I also believe it’s important to encourage empowered masturbation within girls so they are less likely to participate in dodgy or mediocre sexual affairs. I’ve already started talking to the girls about self-pleasuring, and at the right time I will invest in a vibrator or sex-toy for each of them if that’s what they desire. Some of them are aware of where my personal sex-toys are hidden — and they know what they’re for — but honestly, the subject doesn’t really interest them yet.

Safety

The main message I wish to convey to my daughters is that sex is fun when it’s consensual and safe — both emotionally safe and and physically safe. Entering into such intimacy with other beings should only been undertaken when a person feels really good about themselves and their lover(s).

And this, of course, is where I summarise the practical safety of sex — stds, genital health, lubes, condoms, contraception, etc. Condoms are explained as mandatory except in exclusive relationships, and wow, what a different world it will be when the onus for contraception rests equally on both genders! We’re still awaiting the male contraceptive pill, ladies…

A positive body image, a strong body ownership and a healthy emotional intelligence create a space where we can love freely and generously. It can be purely for the physical pleasure or it can transmit a message of deeper intimacy. It is good fun, and I look forward to when my daughters are experiencing their own safe, sexual adventures.

***

It’s not necessarily a daily conversation, but open and practical sexual communication is a conscious parenting choice. I trust that the girls will learn more about sexuality from sensible, positive sources — whether it’s me or not — when they’re the right age.

With the foundation of openness we already share and from multiple experiences, I know they’ll approach me with any questions if they want clarification or more details. Recently, Aisha was hanging out with a group of young women. “I knew they were talking about sex,” she reported back to me, “They were using code words, but I understood.”