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?

“What’s wrong with heteronormativity anyway?”

This question recently came up in a conversation I was involved in on facebook. What’s wrong with heteronormativity anyway?

The context was a straight cis dude expressing some typical straight cis dude sexual fantasies, and some people being eyeroll-y about it, thus prompting his question.

At the time, and given the context, I simply pointed out that no one was saying anything was wrong with heteronormative desires, just that, well, we are all inundated with them all day long, and for those of us who aren’t into those particular fantasies, it can be a bit much, y’know?

But then I thought about it some more. And the thing is, while there really was nothing inherently wrong with this particular dude’s particular desire on this given day, (or more generally, there is nothing inherently wrong with many fantasies that happen to be heteronormative), there’s hella problems with heteronormativity.

[Edited to add: For starters, (and as genderroling pointed out in the comments) pretty much all hetero norms are actually cis hetero norms – heteronormativity is almost always part and parcel of cisheteronormativity.]

And the thing is, most normative models of [cis] hetero sex are incredibly misogynistic. It is, very often, entirely focused on men’s pleasure, often to the point of forgetting that women have sexual desires and drives of their own. [Cis]heteronormative sex is so focused on penile-vaginal penetration that it is still common to have people genuinely confused about how it is possible for two people who don’t have penises to even have sex at all.

Heteronormativity as we know it today grew out of a culture where men literally owned their wives, where being married to a man was considered legal consent to sex whenever he wanted, where any kind of non-penetrative sexual contact is considered foreplay and not really sex at all, where having sex reduces a woman’s value to other men, etc etc etc. It has a lot of cultural baggage, is what I’m saying, and all of these values have contributed to hetero norms of sex today.

So while specific instances of heteronormative desires and behaviours could very well be benign, heteronormativity [and especially cisheteronormativity] itself is fucked, mmkay?

March 2016 Carnival of Aces Roundup

Here is the roundup of posts for this month’s Carnival of Aces, on the topic of gender norms and asexuality! I loved being the host this month, and I have enjoyed reading all of your submissions so much; there has been much squeeing with joy, so thank you all who contributed! Without further ado, here are this month’s submissions, in the order I received them:

Passive vs. Active Femininity: Does Asexuality Affect It? | the notes which do not fit
Sara examines the ways in which her femininity is often the result of passive conformity to female norms rather than an active gender expression, and considers whether her approach to femme-ness is related to her asexuality.

(a)Gender and (a)Sexuality: Chickens and Eggs | darkmetineknight
Maris considers the ways in which kyr dysphoria contributes to kyr sex-repulsion, and vice versa, and the way these things feed back into kyr agender and asexual identity, concluding that they are so deeply related they can’t possibly be pulled apart.

Female Stereotypes and Asexuality | aroacelennie
Lennie writes about how, despite their agender identity, other people often try to frame the aro and ace aspects of their identity through common female archetypes.

When Dudes Talk Gender & Asexuality | The Ace Theist
Coyote unpacks some of the oversimplifications and other problems with the ways some asexual guys talk about the tensions between their gender and their asexuality.

Gender and Asexuality | quizzicalsloth
Amber explores potential explanations for asexual people’s tendency to not feel a strong connection to binary genders, from a personal perspective, and considers how gender plays a role in their experiences of platonic and aesthetic attractions, and relationships.

Do gender roles serve any purpose for asexuals? | It’s An Ace Thing
Dee questions the purposes gender norms serve, and concludes that many gender norms simply don’t serve asexual people.

Genderqueer and demisexual: two sides of the same coin for me | Valprehension
I wrote about the ways in which my genderqueerness and my demisexuality are inextricably tangled up with each other, and fundamental to my overall identity and sense of self.

Sexism at work | A3
The author of A3 relates their experiences of sexism (and heterosexism) in the workplace, as an agender aro ace who is not out about those aspects of their identity, and who is perceived as a woman.

Gender, Or Why I’m Glad I’m Aro/Ace | Grey Is My Favourite Colour
Mara explains why they’re glad to be aro/ace, because of the potential complications of parsing gendered attractions (and sexual/romantic orientations) as a non-binary person.

The Healer Role | Prismatic Entanglements
Elizabeth considers her tendency to take on healer roles in video games, and considers how this role relates to her identity as a cisgender woman, and the ways in which this tendency is reflected (and not) in her asexual activism.

By nature of being asexual, I’m defying gender norms | From Fandom to Family
luvtheheaven unpacks some of the interactions between gender norms, (especially heteronormativity) and asexuality, and how those norms can make it difficult to come to an asexual identity, and even more difficult to get others to understand it.

Gender Norms and Asexuality | Aro Ace Gin
Gin considers the ways in which her asexuality has impacted her relationship to her gender as a cis woman.

Asexual E-Dating Diaries #1 | la pamplemouse
The author of la pamplemouse talks about her early attempts at online dating as an asexual cis woman.

Non-Binary Gender Norms and (A)Sexuality: Yeah, No | Queer As Cat
Vesper talks about why they just don’t see any connection between gender norms and sexuality for them, given that there are no gender norms that apply to their gender (maverique) in the first place, and much more!

On Gender and Asexuality | conasultingamadman
Bonnie explains how embracing her asexuality helped her understand her relationship to both femininity and androgyny, describes her journey toward a panromantic identity, and considers her feelings around others’ perceptions of her as a cis het white girl.

My Gender Aesthetics are All Kinds of Ace | The City of Cuova
S. Knaus unpacks the ways in which their asexuality has freed them up to explore their personal gender aesthetics without regard for whether they are attractive to others, and many other things.

Asexuality and Gender Presentation | [A] Life of Experiences
Jeremy writes about his experience in trying to subtly play with his gender presentation, how his asexual identity helped him find the confidence to do so, and both his struggles and enjoyment in pushing back against being seen as just another straight dude.

Obscure lines: agender and asexual comes together | golden weasel
golden weasel writes about the ways in which their agender-ness and asexuality are inter-related.

What Are You? A Question of Mixed Race, Gender, And Asexuality | Halfthoughts
The author of Halfthoughts explores the relationships and parallels among their Hapa/mixed race, asexual, and non-binary identities.

Gender in Space | Becoming a Person
elainexe explores her general lack of any strong gender identity, and her attempts to understand what gender is, linking some of her observations back to her asexuality.

No | Aros and Aces
Roses considers a wade range of influences – from Purity Culture to Megan Trainor – on their developing identity, and the ways in which coing to an aro ace agender identity has freed them from a lot of the baggage they were handed growing up.