Hoping to Teach Joy by Anne Regentin

My son has a parakeet. He's a little blue and white one with black stripes over his back. Very cute. Also a bit of a sex fiend. He has a thing for one of his toys, and he coos to it, flirts with it, and mounts it, rubbing the base of his tail rhythmically and purposefully against it until some form of parakeet fulfillment is reached. I think he'd even buy it roses if he could figure out how to work the telephone, but as it is, he rubs it gently with his beak and makes grateful noises to it afterward. He's a considerate little guy.
 
My son is seven. Most of his brain is taken up by school, Legos and Pokemon cards. He knows that his mother is a writer and he has this vague idea that she writes about sex. As he made it quite clear one day in a somewhat contemptuous tone of voice, he knows what sex is. He should. I got a book about it when he was two and asked me why I didn't have a penis, the sort of books that explains where babies come from, and I read it to him every night for a week. However, this was the only time we'd ever discussed it and I was beginning to get a bit antsy. The book only covered basic plumbing. More needed to be said, I just didn't know when was the best time to say it.
 
Blue Streak fixed that for me. Whether it was whim or the increased use of the central heating system, I'm not sure, but his toy was getting extra attention for a while. It seemed that the bird was using every spare second for self-stimulation, and a parakeet has a lot of spare seconds. My son looked up from his Pokemon cards long enough for it to register that the parakeet was doing something out of the ordinary.
 
"Mom, what's he doing?"
 
"He's masturbating, honey."
 
"What's masturbating?"
 
I spend a fair amount of time at the computer writing explicit, hopefully artistic descriptions of people doing things like that, either alone or with each other. Even still, I got a little vertigo at this question. I'd been thinking that something needed to be said, but I hadn't really rehearsed anything. It had just crossed my mind from time to time. So here I was, confronted with the sort of question that might lead to the sort of answers I felt he needed, but without any prepared material.
 
I took a deep breath. "Masturbating is when people-or birds-touch their genitals to make them feel good."
 
"You mean their private parts?"
 
"Yes."
 
My son's eyes went from me to the bird, who was in the post-coital courting stage. "Why?"
 
Why indeed? "Because it feels really nice."
 
"Why?" He knew the basics. He knew that a man puts his penis inside a woman's vagina and that's how babies are made, but he was missing the rest, the closeness and pleasure. Time to fill him in.
 
"It's like sex, honey. It feels really, really good."
 
His look was one of disbelief. "It does?"
 
People don't need to worry about sex education giving children ideas. Ideas come with hormones, not information. Prior to puberty, children think sex is proof that adults really are a separate species, probably from Mars. Whatever pleasure kids get from touching themselves, it's not enough to explain this particular adult lunacy. I wasn't worried about giving him ideas, I was worried about keeping his attention without grossing him out.
 
"Yes."
 
"What does it feel like?"
 
What indeed? As an erotica writer, I put a lot of effort into descriptions of pleasure, even of orgasms, but they all depend on the reader being in the know. I defaulted to the most common comparison. "It's a bit like a sneeze, only it feels a lot nicer."
 
"What's like a sneeze?"
 
Now we were down to the nitty-gritty. "There's something called an orgasm that happens when people are having sex or masturbating. You feel really good for a while, and then suddenly you get this feeling that's a bit like a sneeze, only tons better. That's an orgasm. Think of the happiest thing that's ever happened to you. It's a lot like that."
 
He glanced at the bird. "That's why he does it?"
 
"Yes. That's why people do it, too, and that's part of why people have sex." There was a faint echo then, the voices of men who wrote to Chere Hite describing the fear and confusion they felt when they first came and no one had told them what would happen. "There's something else you should know, honey. When you get old enough to have orgasms, white stuff called semen will come out of your penis."
 
This time, his look was of shocked horror. "Are you kidding?"
 
"No, I'm not kidding. It won't happen for a long time, not until you're around eleven or twelve or even a bit older. But that's what happens when men have orgasms."
 
"Stuff comes out of their penis?"
 
"Yes."
 
"That's really gross, Mom!" His nose was wrinkled in disgust.
 
"No, honey, it's not gross. It's a little sticky, but it's not gross. And it feels wonderful. Believe me, when it happens, you won't mind."
 
"Is there lots of it?"
 
"Not really. Not like when you pee."
 
"Why?"
 
Here's another piece that was missing from the "Where did I come from?" book. Sure, there was this idea that the penis went into the vagina and somehow sperm got to the egg, but how? "You know how we talked about how babies are made? How a sperm mixes with an egg?"
 
"Yes." Dubious tone of voice.
 
"The sperm are in the white stuff, the semen. They get into the woman when a man has an orgasm with his penis inside her vagina."
 
"Mom, that's gross!" He was half laughing, half horrified, unable to believe what he was hearing.
 
I laughed, too. I couldn't help it. The contrast between now and about age fourteen struck me full force. Another seven years, I thought, and you won't be able to get enough of the idea, or of masturbation, either. "Honey, you're not ready for it yet. You're still very young. When you're older, you're body will start to change and then it won't seem so bad."
 
"My body will change?"
 
"Yes. You know how your body isn't much different from your step-sister's, but my body and your step-mother's are different from your father's?"
 
"Yes." He was back to dubious.
 
"Well, when you're older, your body will start to change to look more like your father's. You'll grow pubic hair and hair in your armpits, your shoulders will get broader, and your voice will change."
 
"How will it change?"
 
This part of the conversation seems to be easier. No private parts or strange bodily fluids. "Your voice will get deeper, like your dad's."
 
"Oh. What else happens?"
 
"Well, you'll grow more hair on your arms and legs, too, and some on your chest. It's called puberty. Everyone goes through it."
 
"I've already got hair on my arms and legs," he said. "Little hairs. You have to look very closely to see them."
 
"Yes. They'll grow longer and darker."
 
"Why don't you have hair in your armpits? Don't women get that?"
 
"We do, but we shave it off."
 
"Why?"
 
Damn good question! "Because it's fashionable to do that. It's like men shaving their beards."
 
"Some men grow beards."
 
"Some women grow armpit hair."
 
"Do women have...?"
 
"Orgasms? Yes. But nothing comes out." At least not for most women. I wasn't going to get into female ejaculation just then.
 
"Why?" "Nothing needs to. The egg stays inside her body."
 
"Why does she have...orgasms?" He wasn't sure of this new word yet.
 
"Because they feel really nice. Having orgasms is part of having sex whether you're a man or a woman." At least it should be, I thought. Maybe if you know that now, it might help you when the time comes.
 
"It sounds gross."
 
"That's just because you're not ready. When the time comes, you'll want to very much."
 
No longer in the mood for his Pokemon cards, he came to me and snuggled into my lap. "I'm glad I'm still a kid."
 
"Being a kid is fun, but so is being a grown-up. When it happens, you'll be okay with it."
 
"What does the man do, just go up to the women and...?" Even still, he has no idea how this works and the best he can come up with is something out of the gorilla cage at the zoo.
 
"No, honey. They spend a lot of time together kissing and snuggling and touching each other. Sex is a very wonderful, loving thing. People do it even when they don't want to have babies."
 
Oops! I'd forgotten another crucial bit of biology. "You know how your penis gets hard sometimes?"
 
"Yes." He made a face. "It's annoying."
 
"Well, it's practicing for when you're older. The man's penis has to be hard to fit inside the woman's vagina."
 
The look he gives me is half amused and half resigned. His weirdness quotient has been filled up for the day. "I hate it when it gets like that. It just puffs up my underwear. It's not much use when you're seven."
 
"It's practicing," I said again. "You'll be okay with it when you're older." This conversation is winding down now, and there's so much I want to say. I don't just write about sex, I read about it, too, following the research and the news. The most disturbing trend to me is a tendency toward not merely loveless but pleasureless sex among teens. Taught only guilt, fear and plumbing, they give in to their urges, but without joy. I've read too many stories about obligatory blowjobs that neither the giver nor the receiver care about and unprotected anal sex as a way of preserving a girl's virginity and preventing pregnancy. I've read about boys and girls having sex because it's expected of them, sex that nobody wants. Their risk of exposure to HIV is rising. Our fear-based sex education has produced a sub-culture in which sex is merely a drive, and this combined with unsafe sex is a deadly cocktail. I want so much more for him than that.
 
There are decisions he'll need to make, other things he'll need to know, but those conversations will have to come later. Teaching my son about sex cannot be done in a single conversation, and I can only hope that we can still talk when it's time to talk about contraception and sexually transmitted disease. For now, there's one point I want to be absolutely sure to make, one thing I want him to carry away from this if he takes nothing else from it.
 
"Listen, honey, don't worry about it. You're not ready yet so it seems a bit strange, but when the time comes, you'll want to and it will be wonderful. Sex feels really good and really loving. It will be all right."
 
He snuggled back against me. "Do we still need to talk about this?"
 
"It's important, honey. It's part of life. Do you mind?"
 
"I don't mind, as long as we don't talk about private parts."
 
I laughed. "Sex is all about private parts," I said. "That's what private parts are for."
 
He made a face. "It's gross."
 
"I know. But when the time comes, it will be fine." On the outside, I'm relaxed and comfortable. When he wants to be, he can be very soft and cuddly. On the inside, though, I'm all but frantic. Enjoy your body! I want to say. Enjoy your lovers' bodies, too, and help them enjoy yours! Be careful, but don't be afraid! Sex, when it's right, can make you feel better than anything else in the world, but when it's wrong, it can make you miserable.
 
I know that he will make mistakes, but as his mother, I want to protect him. I'm not naive enough to think he'll wait until he's grown and married. He'll have his share of heartbreak. But if, when he's old, he can look back on his life and say at least that there was joy, that might be enough.
 
I needed to relay the gist of that conversation to his father. One of the trickier aspects of joint custody is making sure one hand knows what the other is doing. I gave my ex-husband the highlights, feeling a bit awkward talking about sex to a man with whom I had once shared a bed with mixed results.
 
"He thought ejaculation was a bit gross," I added.
 
My ex laughed. "He won't think so when he's older."
 
"That's what I told him," I said.
 
My ex looked at our kid, who was putting his boots on. "Trust, me, you'll like it."
 
Our son looked at us, his face quite serious. "I've been thinking about it," he said. "It doesn't sound so gross anymore."