Questions Children Ask & How to Answer Them (or, y’know, not)

Sometimes even when I go into a book with low expectations, I still manage to be disappointed. Questions Children Ask & How to Answer Them pulled this feat off with flying colours.

Before I go any further, I have to admit I have not read the whole book – it is possible the sections dealing with religion, divorce, death, and other such things are better than the first section, which deals with sex. Maybe I will give the other sections a go at some point, but I was pretty blown away by how bad the bit on sex was.

To be clear, I went in assuming the discussion on sex was going to be mostly, if not completely, cis- and heteronormative (a.k.a. trans and LGB-erasing). I was not wrong on these counts, but was willing to judge it from within an exclusively cishetero context.

Stoppard has a great attitude about addressing tough topics with children; her basic premise is that it’s important to answer children’s questions in a truthful, but age appropriate, way. She is also careful to explicitly remind readers that children’s questions on these topics generally come from a very innocent place (while also outlining the signs to watch out for that may indicate sexual abuse); children don’t have the baggage we have around topics of sexuality, and if you don’t make it out as something to be embarrassed about, then there is no need for anyone to be embarrassed. With this in mind, the book presents potential answers to childrens’ tough questions, organized into age groups, with the answer for each older age group being more complex than those that come before it.

Stoppard also strongly encourages parents to provide their own spin on the answers (being willing to openly discuss your own feelings about tough topics when you were a child is a great way to build trust and comfort into these difficult conversaiton), and use their own judgment about an individual child’s maturity level and ability to understand the topic at hand. This is all great stuff, and I came out of the introduction feeling optimistic!

And then I got to the question “What is sex?”

I am so disappointed with the answer, y’all. I knew that it was mostly going to be “a man puts his penis into a woman’s vagina”, but it actually managed to be worse than that!

I’ll give you the excerpts that made me lose patience entirely – these are the points at which the author gets down to the mechanics of sex:

For 6-8 year-olds: “During sexual intercourse, a man’s penis gets stiff and he puts it inside his partner’s vagina, which feels nice.”

For 8-11 year-olds: “During sexual intercourse, a man puts his penis inside a woman’s vagina, and they feel good. The feeling becomes more and more exciting until it reaches a climax, when the man’s sperm spurts – or ejaculates – into the woman’s vagina.”

…Are you freaking kidding me? Here we literally have the idea that climax and ultimate end of sex is a man ejaculating. We learn what happens when a man is aroused (his penis gets stiff), but no mention of anything about arousal or climax of the vulva.

I just… Can? We? Fucking? Not?????????

I know that getting into the dynamics of differing levels of arousal is way beyond the scope of a kids’ question about what sex is. I really do. But it also really fucking pisses me off just how completely this is about the cis man and his pleasure.

I am, once again, oh so grateful that my mother talked to me explicitly about vaginal arousal right alongside erections – I was actually taught that a vagina would lubricate itself when it was ready for sex. In retrospect it was the most adorable thing ever – my mom was straight-up about the fact that without this lubrication sex was likely to be more difficult or even painful, and she talked about erections in the same sort of terms, that the penis getting hard is a practical thing, because if it’s soft it’s more difficult to get it to go into a vagina.

Practical, lacking in baggage, and not centering penile pleasure above all else!

This isn’t that difficult, so why can’t we get our shit together on this stuff?

Yet another perspective on (my) gender-related self-doubts

I’ve written a number of times about gender-related self-doubt, but I also want to to preface this by saying it’s not that I particularly do doubt my gender all that much, so much as that I am always searching for different models and approaches to it, and often I am pre-emptively trying to think of what I might say to someone if I were to be questioned on it.

Today, I want to look a little closer at some of the things I’ve talked about before, around how my rejection of of my old largely-by-default identity as a “woman” sometimes felt like an expression of internalized misogyny, as well as the fact that I don’t think my gender identity is particularly innate, but rather that it is intensely and deeply tied up in the ways gender is socially constructed and the ways I make my way through the world in which I happen to be living.

The thing is, though, that for every “Am I *sure* I’m not really just a woman who can’t deal with being objectified/hates being stereotyped as a woman/[insert problem faced by women here]?” question that might flit through my mind, I could just as easily ask the same questions about why I don’t just identify as a man. (Is it because I hate the ways in which men are unfairly advantage in culture, and the idea of actively pursuing that gives me the heebie-jeebies? (Would that qualify as internalized misandry, or something like it?) Or is it because I know I would “fail” at it?

The fact that I know I am more likely to be challenged on the fact that I don’t identify as a woman, than the fact that i don’t identify as a man is rooted in cisnormativity – I feel more pressure to justify my non-identification with my birth-assigned gender than anything else, because my non-identification with anything else is simply assumed by most people.

But as soon as I let go of that normativity, it becomes clear that my feelings about either position in the gender binary pretty well mirror each other, to the extent that anyone who felt inclined to act me (in an exasperated voice, I imagine) why I don’t just identify as a woman, they might just as well ask me the same thing about identifying as man, for all the value that idea has. Those identities just don’t work for me. And so I don’t make use of them. It really, really is just that simple.