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Sex and the Third Grade Girl

By Eileen Flanagan

Most of what I knew about sex by preadolescence I had figured out from the train-in-the-tunnel jokes that had gone around my Catholic girls school in third grade. My mother had explained who Halderman and Erlichman were, as well as the meaning of the word "impeachment," but she never got around to explaining "menstruation," or any of the other surprising things that were about to happen to my body. So in sixth grade, when my neighbor Lorraine mockingly asked me what "getting your period" meant, I had only the vaguest idea. Lorraine teased me mercilessly and finally explained it by playing hopscotch with a cherry soda can held upside down between her legs.

My daughter lives in a different world. Not only did she spend years in the bathroom with me -- a boundary my own Irish Catholic mother would never have crossed -- she lives in a culture where sex is everywhere. She's seen shampoo commercials where women feign orgasm. She's heard lyrics I'd blush to repeat in print. The differences in our childhoods struck me one day when she said, "Hey, Mom, did you know you can get gonorrhea from riding a tractor in your bathing suite?" My mouth dropped, but I knew exactly where she had gotten the idea, having watched that episode of Seinfeld years before.

Frankly, the basic biological facts (alluded to by the train-in-the-tunnel jokes) are pretty easy to explain compared to the gonorrhea-from-a-tractor joke, which was a man's excuse for giving his girlfriend an STD. Even more than the disease or the presumed infidelity, it's the sexual assumptions of Seinfeld humor that I find difficult to translate to a nine-year-old who can't imagine why anyone would want to kiss a boy, let alone do anything else with him. It's also hard to explain why the woman in the shower is making those crazy noises to sell shampoo or why the women in Dancing with the Stars wear such skimpy outfits, while the men get to keep their clothes on. But I'm glad my daughter asks these kinds of questions. Not only does it show she's paying attention to the world, it gives us an opportunity to talk about sexism, as well as sex.

I confess I sometimes err on the side of giving her too much information. In response to a recent question about societal attitudes toward sex, I gave a rambling explanation that somehow led to the stoning of adulterers in Iran. This was so unimaginable to her, she just said, "Can I go watch Maya and Migel now?" She is, after all, still a kid, a fact I want to respect.

Abstaining from television altogether would be the most obvious way to protect her from both the sexism and the sex, but just saying "no" to TV doesn't solve the problem as long as Cosmopolitan is displayed in the supermarket checkout lines. Even though we mostly watch moderate amounts of PBS (the Seinfeld episode being a notable exception), my daughter hears things at school, just as I did. In second grade, for example, one of her classmates taught the other girls how to swish their shoulders and hips when walking down a fashion runway. My daughter had felt uncomfortable and refused to participate in the playground fashion show. "I just can't do that, Mom," she explained. "It just isn't me." I was proud of her for knowing her own boundaries and being able to articulate them to her friends. She seems already aware that women's bodies are sexualized in ways that make her uncomfortable and has decided that if she becomes a rock star someday, she will not wear a bikini top on stage.

Teaching my daughter to know and draw her boundaries seems like one of the best things I can do as a feminist mother. Sure, I want her to be comfortable with her body, too. I'm all for affirming our sexual natures, and I want her to know pleasure…some day, a really long time from now, when she's old enough to know and mean her "yes." Until then, I'd prefer she err on the side of saying "no." If she gets some practice by refusing to walk like a fashion model on the playground, perhaps she'll be better equipped when the harder challenges come.

I didn't even need to say "no" until twelfth grade, when I went on my first date with a boy who wanted to slobber on me throughout the movie we went to see. In contrast, I recently heard of a sixth grade girl preparing for a first date, a prospect that I as a mother am frankly not ready for. My daughter assures me she'll never be interested in dating, but who knows how she'll feel in three years. At the very least I know she'll have to face fashion choices that I never faced. By sixth grade, much of the clothing marketed to girls has a sexual flavor that I didn't need to deal with thirty years ago. When I was in sixth grade, I was just trying to figure out what my neighbor's cherry soda demonstration meant.

My son needs protection too, but his five-year-old antennae are mostly tuned to violence, not sex, which is a whole other essay. In either case, I vacillate between wanting to totally shelter my children and wanting to teach them how to understand the world they will inevitably have to deal with. I try to do a bit of both, but it is exhausting. After they watched Seinfeld, I gave my children only a sketchy explanation of gonorrhea, but not getting the joke didn't keep my five-year-old son from trying to repeat it to another Kindergartener. "Hey, Rachel, want to hear a joke about a tractor?" he asked. Fortunately, I was standing there and was able to shelter her, but not for long.

mmo : march 2006

Eileen Flanagan is the author of Imperfect Serenity: Listening to My Inner Voice While Kids Are Screaming in My Ears, which is currently being read by publishers. The book, like Eileen's blog www.imperfectserenity.com, explores being a Quaker, mother, writer, and activist.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the MMO or its staff.
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