“My boobs are growing, Mommy!”
My three-year-old daughter was standing naked in the bathroom, having disrobed so I could give her a bath before bed.
As she shrieked out this latest observation about her alleged growth spurt, her hands pressed flat against her nipples, her shoulders drew back with pride, and a look of pure delight lit up her entire face. I couldn’t help myself. I snorted in an attempt to hold back my laughter.
My daughter was so eager to be just like me. I was nowhere near ready for her to hurtle into full womanhood, but I was trying my darnedest to make sure that she’d be ready when the time came.
Interactions like the one above are fairly common with my daughter.
One time, when she was still three, we had a conversation about which people in our family had vulvas and which had penises. The conclusion was that we all had butts, and that butts were very silly. Another time, Em noticed my pubic hair for the first time ever (I don’t know what took her so long) and asked me — with a look of pure disgust on her face — “What happened to you?” This led to a brief explanation of the things that happen to our bodies as we grow older.
And then, of course, there have been all the times Em has wandered over to me with a vibrator or a canister of condom samples or a riding crop she’s found in my bedroom or home office.
“What’s this Mummy?” she’s asked. I’ve sighed and quickly done the mental calculus required to figure out how much is appropriate to tell her. So far, “That’s mommy’s toy,” has seemed sufficient.
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As someone who often chats with sexuality educators and researchers — and who regularly immerses herself in the latest research on child development, female sexual response, and sexual violence — I hold myself to certain standards when it comes to my daughter’s sexuality education. I teach her about the body, and try to act with as much body positivity as possible… at least when I’m around her.
I read her books like Who Has What? and Let’s Talk About Sex, Grandma. I try to be open to any questions she might have, to be honest in the face of her boundless curiosity. I treat sexuality like a normal part of our lives. Because it is.
Do I know what I’m doing? Hell, no! But isn’t that true of all parenting? All of the information on how to be a perfect parent was not automatically uploaded to my consciousness when I popped a baby out of my vagina. While I read as many how-tos as I can, I’m essentially winging it here.
I’ll admit it. Before Em was born, I wondered if my sex writing would be an asset or a liability. On the one hand, everything I’d learned about sexuality over the course of my career could leave me better prepared me for the conversations we’d eventually have about boundaries and relationships and sexual decision-making.
On the other hand, everything I’d written about my own struggles with sexuality — or even just the fact that I wrote about s-e-x at all — might someday be seen as a source of embarrassment.
In less than a month, my memoir on how society treats female sexuality like a dirty word will be out. In it, I not only look outward at rape culture and gender disparities, but I also share my personal story of how I became a sex writer in order to fix what I saw as my own sexual dysfunction.
In the lead up to my book launch, my own mum has been full of questions.
"What's the title?" she asked me several months ago.
"A Dirty Word," I said, wondering how she didn't already know this information.
"No!" she said. "Will I be able to read it?"
I sighed. "That's your decision," I said. "If you're uncomfortable reading about certain aspects of my sex life, that's fine. But there's some important stuff in there."
She lowered her voice, even though no one else was around. "Will your daughter be embarrassed by this book?"
And that's the question that really rankles. Partially because it illuminates a fear I used to have myself, but mostly because the question is reflective of the mindset that made me want to write the book in the first place.
I don't want "sex" to be a dirty word anymore. I don't want sex to be seen as a taboo topic people need to tiptoe around. When we maintain silence around something that is such an integral part of our lives, we enable an atmosphere in which we always feel alone with our struggles and bad experiences. In which we always assume we are the only one.
I want people to be able to talk about sex so that they know they're not alone in their experiences. I want them to know that they're normal.
And you know what? I want that for my daughter, too.
Steph Auteri is a US-based writer and editor who has written about women's health and sexuality for The Atlantic, the Washington Post, VICE, Pacific Standard, Salon, Undark, and other publications. She also volunteers for the Center for Sex Education, the national education division of her local Planned Parenthood. She lives with her husband, daughter, and three cats in Verona, New Jersey.