I’ve known from the moment I saw my child emerge that one day this question would arise. I’ve rehearsed it in my head. I’ve got an answer all ready to go. I’ve planned for this moment. Now I know how astronauts feel. They prepare for years.
And still I was completely caught off-guard when, whilst driving to Tesco’s to do the weekly shopping trip, the small voice piped up from the back seat.
“Daddy? What is sex?”
Oh no. Oh no no no no NO no no NOOOOO she’s only six! Not now! Not here! Why now? Why does this have to happen at the most bland moment of the week? Whilst driving to the shop? Can’t it be when we’re all sat down on a Sunday afternoon when I’m smoking my pipe (I don’t smoke a pipe. I rather wish I did) and reading my paper, and my wife is knitting, and my child is playing with her dolly while we listen to the wireless? Why, when we’re in a rush to buy cereal??
In my mind, there was a whirl of answers. Should I tell her the truth, in an honest and frank way? I mean, I won’t go into extreme detail, but I could explain how it all works, with cutesy little words like “willy” and “foo-foo” and guff about putting seeds in Mummy’s tummy.
Or I could go the full clinical. She knows she has got a vagina. She knows that boys are made differently (not sure if she knows a penis by that name), but she all she knows right now is that these body parts are more or less for waste-expulsion, rather than procreation. I could just explain it to her, matter-of-fact, just like that, all the mechanics without the sticky mess, and the gooey emotional stuff.
Thing is, Alice is into romance. She’s a firm believer in the power of love, and squeals with delight at any film with the merest hint of a kiss. But this… no, this she’ll misunderstand, and she’ll talk about it with her friends, and they’ll all get it wrong. She’s got a boyfriend (well, according to her, she has a boyfriend; I suspect he has very little say in the matter), and I daresay that once she gets this particular misunderstood idea into her head, there’s no saying where her imagination will take her. And then the half-baked ideas about sex will spread around the playground and she will be identified as the source, and then I will be blamed for it. And then I’ll have to have an extremely awkward chat with the Head of the school (I’ll probably be summoned into his presence with a text message or email – how very modern), who is a nice enough chap, but I don’t want to sit in his office while his beard disapproves of my parenting.
The school playground is where I learned about sex. And boy, is it an unreliable source of information (Not the playground itself; it didn’t sprout a mouth and vocal chords and tell me about sex. That would be a remarkable playground. The Sex-talk Playground. The Asphalt Mouth That Talks Sex. Hmmm, short story idea…). The first time I was told (also aged six) it was explained to me that a boy puts his willy up her bum (which is a bit of a jump to a more advanced-level of sexual experience, let’s be honest) and I was horrified. Really? So babies come out of… out of the bum?? UUUURRRRGGGHHH!!!
I am determined that Alice does not learn about this from her peers. They’re all nice kids in her class, but they are still kids, and therefore, quite stupid. After all, it’s the sort of thing parents should tell their kids, in an honest and frank way. Heck, it seems you can’t move for hand-wringing articles in newspapers about how parents should be teaching kids about sex in an honest and frank way, but to be honest, quite a lot of parents don’t do this. Instead, there’s a lot of pussyfooting and unnecessary emotional frippery from parents when it comes to talking about sex.
I’m damned if I’m going to be one of those ineffectual, dishonest, repressed parents. I was going to be modern! I was going to be progressive! I was going to be honest and frank about it (I’m now thoroughly fed up with repeatedly writing the words ‘honest and frank’), and not completely fudge the issue. And at the same time, I was going to tell her about sex in a way that no-one could accuse me of corrupting my lovely, innocent, wide-eyed, gap-toothed little girl.
I know of course that there are wrong answers to this question. Wrong answers include:
1. “Don’t ask me that! It’s something you should not know about. NOW NEVER ASK ME AGAIN!”
2. “Sex is wrong and if you ever do it, you’ll die.”
3. “Ugh! Sex is rude! Very rude. It involves your foofy and a boy’s willy and it’s disgusting and sticky.”
4. “Ask yer mother.”
5. “God will punish you for even thinking about such things.”
6. “Well, I’ve got a 1-terabyte hard drive full of stuff that’ll explain EVERYTHING. Knock yourself out.”
7. “Just lie back and think of England”
8. “Let me tell you what my Dad told me: Any hole’s a goal.”
9. “You know what? I can’t be arsed with this. Type ‘sex’ into Google and go from there.”
So, knowing this was a question that was going to come up sooner or later, I had planned my response. Obviously, I didn’t want to come across as though it were a slightly frightening public information film, and nor did I want to give too much explicit information, or be too technical. Bascially, I wanted to be a modern parent about it, and not an outraged Victorian. Oh for fuck’s sake, why can’t we be more Scandinavian about it??
The moment had been rehearsed so that I would give a coherent answer. It would go something like this:
When two people, who love each other very much, want to express their romantic feelings for one another, do something very special together that goes beyond kissing. This is called sex. It’s important that both people are happy to do it, and when they are, it’s the most wonderful loving thing to do.
It’s difficult to explain, and I don’t think you’re ready to know all the details yet, because it involves parts of your body, but it’s something both Mummy and I want you to know about. Let’s talk about this as a family together this evening, OK?
However, unlike most people who seem to have adulthood very much sorted out, my brain decided to go on holiday at that very moment. I can’t remember what I said, ‘cos I was flustered, and driving through afternoon traffic, but I suspect very much that Alice got something like this as an explanation:
Well, it’s… ah… when you have a mummy and a daddy… not that they have to be married… or even a mummy and daddy… it could be a boyfriend and girlfriend… or a boyfriend and a boyfriend for that matter… daddy and another man… or girls!… but anyway… when they love each other… or even not love, you don’t have to ‘love’, it can be just a one-night thing… maybe they met in a bar or nightclub… okay… when you have two people… who have the biological imperative to… actually there’s a special sort of cuddle…and you have to say Yes to it… NO! You don’t HAVE to say yes, you can say NO, and that’s very important… anyway, once you’ve agreed to it… you get into bed, or it could be a sofa… sometimes the back of a car will do…anyway, you sort-of cuddle and… well… you get the idea.
I looked in the rear-view mirror. Alice’s owl-like eyes peered back at me, slightly confused.
Look, can we talk about this when Mummy gets home?, I pleaded.
Alice nodded. She went back to looking out of the window.
Bollocks. I had fudged it. I had given Bad Answer #4. I had pussyfooted. I had beaten around the bush.
“But Daddy, what IS sex?”
And so the babbling began, theorising in her sweet, naïve way about what sex might be (she got it spectacularly wrong, but it was rather touching and involved lots of dancing and holding hands with your boyfriend in parks). She has already worked out that ‘sexy’ means attractive, and sometimes involves underwear (thanks, The Simpsons), so a lot of her ideas then involved wearing mostly underpants. Then she began singing songs, pop songs mostly. All of them contained references to sex or sexiness in some way. Alice being curious is all very well and good, but Alice is often curious about things at the top of her voice, especially in public, and everytime she said the word sex, she seemed to yelp it. The more excited about the subject she got, the louder and more giggly she became. We pulled up in the car park, and I turned around to face her.
Look, I said. We’re going shopping. I know you have lots of questions, but I don’t think I can answer them right now. Not in the Tesco car park on a Tuesday afternoon, anyway. I’m sorry I can’t answer them, but I must ask you to keep your voice down. Some people really don’t like sex being discussed in public – especially by children – and the last thing I want is for someone to get cross at you. They might even get cross at me for letting you talk about sex. It’s stupid, because there’s nothing wrong with sex itself, but people are very sensitive about it. So please keep your voice down, and don’t ask me the question while we’re shopping, OK?
You’re confused about this, aren’t you?
Yeah. I know. Sorry about this. We’ll talk about it later, I promise.
So we did the shopping. For once, Alice was reasonably quiet. She didn’t ask me again about sex, not even to test if I would get cross or not, and the subject was dropped. We came home. I cooked, and Sarah arrived home much later.
Once food was out of the way, and we were sat in the living room watching TV, I turned to Sarah, and announced loudly, I think we need to have a discussion.
“Oh?” said Sarah, putting her crochet down (fuck’s sake, what I needed now was a newspaper and pipe, dammit).
Yes!, I continued, perhaps a little too loudly, and nodding significantly and gravely at Sarah, much to her bewilderment.
Alice asked me a question today. What was it, Alice?
Alice tore her gaze away from a rerun of Robot Wars.
“What is sex, Mummy?”
I held my breath…
“Sex is making babies”, replied Sarah with barely a moment’s pause, and she went back to her crochet.
“Oh. OK”, said Alice.
That was it.
Hang on? That’s it? It’s that easy? That’s fucking easy! Why didn’t I think of that?? How come Sarah just came up with it as if it were the simplest thing to explain ever??!
I think I must have shown all that in my face, because Sarah then looked up from her crochet and gave me a shrug as if to say ‘Why are you making a fuss?’
Sex is just ‘making babies’?? I spluttered. Come on, there’s more to it than that…
“Well, that’s what I’m telling her right now. That’s all she needs to know”
(bored by adults talking boringly over her head about boring things, Alice’s attention returned to Robot Wars)
I thought we were going to have The Big Talk…?
“Look, that was not even the ‘Big Conversation’ about sex. It’s just one of many that we’re going to have. It’s an ongoing thing that is going to be discussed a lot over the next couple of years. And anyway, Alice and I have already had a few chats about sex.” (this, right here, is an example of my wife being sensible, practical, and incredible)
You’ve already had conversations about sex? Really? Without me?
“Well, you weren’t there at the time, and when the topic comes up, she puts me on the spot. I’m not waiting around for you to show up.”
But… but that was all she needed to know? Just… ‘making babies’…?
But that was easy!
“Of course. You just have to tell her these things. Why? Have you not had these discussions?
Nope. This is my…
“Ah. Was it your first time?”