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the Empathy List #113: Dr. Dobson Gave Me the Sex Talk
In 4th grade, a Focus on the Family cassette tape introduced me to the birds and the bees.
Hello friend, Liz here.
My kids are reaching the age when they need to know how babies are made.
They used to know it abstractly—something about mom, dad, private parts, and mom’s tummy—but now they need to know. Like, the details.
Like many of my female evangelical friends, I grew up with very little knowledge of the details of sex, and I only learned certain details ON MY WEDDING NIGHT. (Not kidding.) …My husband knew more about my body than I did.
Join a community of curious and empathetic Christians. (Yes, they do exist!)
In the ‘90s, the way evangelical parents told their kids about sex was to make it a BIG EVENT. The advice of child “experts” went like this: take your kid somewhere fun, and then hole up in a hotel room for the one and only conversation you’ll ever have about sex with your young teenager. Then you’ve done your duty and can ignore the topic for the rest of your lives.
My brother went on a weekend ski trip with my dad. My sister and mom went to Disney Land. And my mom and I went to Hershey Park. (I was the oldest, so got the lamest trip. Ha!) And we didn’t go to Hershey Park alone—nope, the one and only James Dobson joined us. On cassette tape, he broke down the birds and bees for me while my mom sat awkwardly beside me in our hotel room.
You won’t be surprised to hear that the way my husband and I have approached sex-ed for our children has looked quite different—for one, we do not ascribe to the Dobson worldview of sexuality and gender. We’re egalitarian, affirming of LGBTQ folks, and try not to ascribe gender norms to our kids.
And we do not see sex ed as a one-time event. We’ve been talking about sex for years, including using the medical names for body parts. And we plan to keep having these conversations for many years to come.1
As you know, for the past few weeks, I’ve been furiously editing my in-progress debut book… and I’ve finally finished!!!
So, I’ve been sharing a few of my favorite essays I’ve written over the years with you here so I can focus behind the scenes on the Big Project. :)
Today’s essay below lets you into that hotel room where an anonymous midwestern male voice informs ten-year-old Liz about sex.
And as always, thanks for reading. You’re the best.
Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
A Cassette Tape Gave me the Sex Talk
Originally published at the Redbud Post.
My mother gave me the sex talk in fourth grade because my public-school teacher had shown the class an educational video on the topic. My evangelical parents were horrified.
To correct the public school’s overreach, my mom and I drove north from our home in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania to Lancaster. We’d reserved a room in a Comfort Inn. As we parked, I ooed over the duck pond in the front lawn, the hotel’s only notable feature.
Later that day, we had planned to meet up with my aunt and my favorite cousin Carrie. Carrie and I were the same age. We spent our times together alternating between games of rummy and MASH (“Mansion Apartment Shack House”), which helped us plan our future lives. We both wanted to be wives to Jonathan Taylor Thomas and we wanted to spend our days sketching in Lisa Frank notebooks and jumping on our backyard trampolines.
But before the fun commenced, my mom and I would have The Talk. We wheeled our suitcases through the carpeted hallways and entered our room with the swipe of a key. I sat on the foot of the bed as my mother drew the curtains and fumbled with the portable tape deck she had brought from home. I stretched after the long drive, arms over my head, Hershey Kiss-sized breasts lifting, pudgy stomach lengthening under my t-shirt, unshaven legs straightening until I fell backward onto the bed. I sighed contentedly.
Then my mother inserted the tape into the machine, clicked “play,” and the tape began to spin. A saxophone blared beneath a man’s voice:
“Puberty is a special and exciting time,” he said.
My mother giggled awkwardly. I sat up, suddenly fidgety, studying the pattern of mauve, teal and burgundy triangles on the comforter.
As an adult, I have tracked down the material I heard that day. Turns out, it was a resource from Focus on The Family written by Dr. James Dobson called Preparing for Adolescence: Caution, Changes Ahead. Over 1 million Evangelical Christian parents bought the curriculum between 1989 and 2000 to host conversations like this one with their sons and daughters. A whole generation of indoctrinated young adults.
Meanwhile, in the Comfort Inn hotel room in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a 1,600-mile drive from Focus’s headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the tape whirred.
“Girls go through many changes,” the midwestern voice droned.
“Menstruation, for example, is a miraculous and exciting time when a woman’s body prepares for pregnancy.”
My period had barely started—a few drops, and not even every month. It hadn’t felt especially exciting, more inconvenient. Now I found myself wishing I had never mentioned this to my mother.
I especially wished I had never mentioned the VHS my class had watched together.
Not that I’d paid attention at school when the actors described the reproductive process. I had kept my head down, mortified, staring at the scribbles the student before me had carved into the surface of the pine desk. I vowed to immediately and permanently block the footage from my memory.
So, no, that couldn’t be it.
I bet Mom was making me listen to this because Meema had taken me to the department store for a white training bra, my first.
I should have refused to go.
The man on the tape continued: “In pregnancy, a baby grows in a special pouch inside a woman’s body and exits from a special opening at birth. Pregnancy is the most amazing thing that ever can happen to a woman!”
Was I really the most amazing thing that had ever happened to my mother?
My mother did not glance in my direction. But out of the corner of my eye, I considered her. She leaned against the headboard. A foot of faded comforter now separated us. I noted her frizzy hair, a shade lighter than her natural color; her pink lipstick and polished nails; her bra straps peeking out of the wide collar of her blouse; her rounded hips, thighs, calves. She represented womanhood to me. Or at least, she was the version I knew the best.
“You may notice that your breasts grow; this is normal. You may notice other changes as well. Boys will begin to show interest in your body, but you will only be attracted to their personalities. One day, you may want to have sex. When a man and a woman have sex, the man’s penis becomes hard and straight, the man and woman lie naked together, and the penis goes inside the vagina. Then the man and woman move rapidly until they get a tingly sensation.”
I felt my cheeks darken at the mention of boys. I focused on one swirl in the carpet—perhaps the same one my mom had picked. But then my mind filled with images of the ducks outside paddling in circles, pecking the dirt, jumping onto each other’s backs, spastically trembling, honking in pleasure…
The man continued, “However, sex is dangerous outside of marriage.”
“Getting an STD could be a death sentence. Those who have premarital sex may experience personality changes, becoming cold, bitter, and miserable. And if you’ve had sex even once outside of marriage, you may never enjoy sex again. But you won’t have to worry about that as long as you and your partner both have never had sex.”
Sex sounded like terrible news.
“You will likely experience sexual thoughts as you go through adolescence, and you may feel guilt or shame about this.”
Could this man on the tape read my thoughts? I scanned the room, caught my own gaze in the mirror hanging above the desk, and looked away.
My mother sat in silence beside me until the man concluded his diatribe. Finally, the tape stopped spinning.
She never did add her own words to those of the man on the tape, not even to correct what the man had gotten wrong:
That every bodily change I would experience would be normal and okay, not wrong or shameful.
That desire was not evil and that women felt sexual desire, too.
That pregnancy would not be the pinnacle of my life because I mattered beyond my mothering potential.
That my body was not a threat or an object to be used, but the mirror image of the Creator.
My mom left so much unsaid.
Instead, that afternoon, both still avoiding each others’ eyes, she and I left behind the man on the tape, the ducks in heat, and the 1970s carpet of our hotel room. We met my aunt and cousin at Hershey Park. There, we stood in line for roller coasters and gorged on chocolate, which was, I decided, the most womanly activity of all.
Tell me: how did you learn about sex? Give me the details! :)
By the way, I have really enjoyed talking through this book with my 11-year-old girl: Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth.
While I do not endorse every idea contained here, I love that it’s a graphic novel (comic book) so my kids LIKE TO READ IT, there are no images of grown-ups actually having sex , and it’s aimed at an 8-10-year-old audience rather than teens who are having or want to have sex today.
Other highlights: defining sex as a word like “play” with a zillion meanings and trying to capture a young kid’s confusion about the word as they encounter it in their world.