We’ve recently been interviewing men for a project to find out what they really think, feel and do about sex, and found the early information they received was, in many cases, baffling. “Women don’t like it,” Bill was told as a teenager in the 1960s, “but you can do it all the same … [and] you only do it on Sundays when the children are out.”
Back in the 1940s, communicative adults were hard to come by, and children had to solve the mystery by themselves. Alan, aged 79, was evacuated from London to the countryside, aged five. There he spotted a large bull mounting a cow. “It was very significant,” he said. “I have never forgotten it.”
At primary school Bill, now 75, believed boys stood behind girls to do “it” (he was basing this on his observation of dogs). He was hugely embarrassed when told to stand behind a girl in a school folk-dance performance. “I thought that was very dirty.”
It was a rare grown-up who suggested that sex might be something pleasant, or something to look forward to; rather, a child’s sex education was more likely to elicit feelings of fear, danger and shame – and would often involve a lonely search for the facts. By the late 1950s, parental guidance was still fairly non-existent. At 14, Michael remembered finding a “dirty book” belonging to his father: “The Kama Sutra was an excellent source of information, but often mind-boggling too … the contortions! The big penises! And the pleasure shown on women’s faces. I couldn’t believe it could be like that!”
‘The Kama Sutra was an excellent source of information – but mind-boggling, too!’
While Michael was studying the Kama Sutra, the only sex still being taught in the classroom involved plants and rabbits, and was often expressed in Latin. Several more decades were to pass before human genitalia and procreation were bravely described in English. Not until the early 1990s did the national curriculum specify that sex education must be taught. But just the mechanics. Nothing about relationships. And making the subject even more shambolic was the decision that each school could have its own individual policy, and each teacher was stuck with their own capabilities, experiences, terrors and confusions in conveying this information.
The easy way out was to explain that sex happened “when people loved each other and wanted babies”. Pleasure, variety and consent were rarely mentioned. But some teachers bravely tried to further enlighten the children. In 1994, in his last year of junior school, Dean, who was then aged 10, went to a sex education lesson in which his teacher tried her very best to take an innovative, practical and robust approach.
“Miss Woods asked the class if they knew of any ‘barrier methods’. I didn’t really know what they were, but someone said ‘condoms’. Miss Woods said, ‘Yes, anything else?’ Then a boy called Dave said, ‘You can get them with feathers on the end, Miss.’ Miss Woods looked cross, and said, ‘No you can’t’ – but Dave went on and on, saying, ‘Yes you can, they’re called French ticklers, I read in my Mum’s book. It had pictures in,’ and then Miss butted in, and said ‘Nonsense’, so Dave had to shut up.”
Here was Miss Wood’s chance to grasp the nettle. But even then, in the late 20th century, she could not. Although bolder than many teachers, she was still not able to respond to any surprises that might crop up.
Even if teachers now manage to describe sex as pleasant, it sometimes seems to frighten and shock, rather than enthuse the children. Informed, six years ago, by a comparatively enlightened teacher, that people had sex “because it felt lovely”, eight-year-old George was horrified. “Miss made a terrible mistake,” he told his Grandma, with great authority and concern. “She said it felt nice! She’s got it really wrong!”
Age specificity hadn’t really been thought through. Slightly older, more intrepid boys, sensing that they still weren’t quite getting at the truth, or any satisfactory explanations – either from each other, or from adults – now gained access to a greater selection of more flamboyant, salacious, almost cartoonish information: porn.
“I think as boys we’d seen a few porno films here and there,” said Jason. “The first stuff I saw was on a video. I was 13, and the tape started doing the rounds – we thought that was the way you did it.”
As the years have passed, and porn has become more widely available online, younger and younger children have been seeing such imagery. In 2001, Jack, then aged 10, learned about sex from pornography. “Everyone was looking at it,” he said. “That’s how I found out I was gay. I didn’t want to look at the girls.”
Despite the overwhelming flood of pornography – and the continuing lack of guidance – there do appear to be a few glimmers of hope. The importance of relationships and feelings is now creeping into sex education at last, and it is a relief to find the idea of consent has surfaced. Many of the young men interviewed in the BBC3 documentary Sex on Trial were sympathetic when shown footage of a young woman whose consent had not been clearly given. In fact, they were more sympathetic than the young women. That’s reason to be hopeful, at least where young men are concerned.
Unfortunately, most sex education is still passed between children themselves, taught by the “naughty” peers who seem to have found out more than anyone else. Or are pretending that they have. Boasting has always been, and still seems to be for many boys, the beginning of proving that you are a proper man. Frequency, volume, conquest and size still matter to them. How are young men to understand women if they have never been taught to understand themselves, and the people teaching them have been taught even less?
Hopefully the new national curriculum mandatory sex education plans will bring about change for the better. It might help if lessons could be conducted in small groups, with the sexes separated. It would need to be age-appropriate, of course – with less emphasis on the mechanical details, and more on the importance of relationships, with appropriately trained teachers, prepared for anything the children might say, know or have experienced. They also need to be unshockable.
The objects and people children play with as early as toddlerhood may provide clues to their eventual sexual orientation, reveals the largest study of its kind. The investigation, which tracked more than 4500 kids over the first 15 years of their lives, seeks to answer one of the most controversial questions in the social sciences, but experts are mixed on the findings.
“Within its paradigm, it’s one of the better studies I’ve seen,” says Anne Fausto-Sterling, professor emerita of biology and gender studies at Brown University. The fact that it looks at development over time and relies on parents’ observations is a big improvement over previous studies that attempted to answer similar questions based on respondents’ own, often unreliable, memories, she says. “That being said … they’re still not answering questions of how these preferences for toys or different kinds of behaviors develop in the first place.”
The new study builds largely on research done in the 1970s by American sex and gender researcher Richard Green, who spent decades investigating sexuality. He was influential in the development of the term “gender identity disorder” to describe stress and confusion over one’s sex and gender, though the term—and Green’s work more broadly—has come under fire from many psychologists and social scientists today who say it’s wrong to label someone’s gender and sexuality “disordered.”
In the decades since, other studies have reported that whether a child plays along traditional gender lines can predict their later sexual orientation. But these have largely been criticized for their small sample sizes, for drawing from children who exhibit what the authors call “extreme” gender nonconformity, and for various other methodological shortcomings.
Seeking to improve on this earlier research, Melissa Hines, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, turned to data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. The study includes thousands of British children born in the 1990s. Parents observed and reported various aspects of their children’s behavior, which Hines and her Cambridge colleague, Gu Li, analyzed for what they call male-typical or female-typical play.
An example of stereotypical male-typical play, as defined by the study, would include playing with toy trucks, “rough-and-tumble” wrestling, and playing with other boys. Female-typical play, on the other hand, would include dolls, playing house, and playing with other girls.
Hines and Li looked at parental reporting of children’s play at ages 2.5, 3.5, and 4.75 years old, and arranged them on a scale of one to 100, with lower scores meaning more female-typical play and higher scores more male-typical play. They then compared those results to the participants’ self-reported responses as teenagers to a series of internet-administered questions about their sexuality.
Beginning with the 3.5-year-old age group, the team found that children who engaged mostly in “gender-conforming” play (boys who played with trucks and girls who played with dolls, as an example) were likely to report being heterosexual at age 15, whereas the teenagers who reported being gay, lesbian, or not strictly heterosexual were more likely to engage in “gender-nonconforming” play. The same pattern held true when they expanded the teenagers’ choices to a five-point spectrum ranging from 100% heterosexual to 100% homosexual.
Teens who described themselves as lesbian scored on average about 10 points higher on the gender-play scale at age 4.75 (meaning more stereotypically male play) than their heterosexual peers, and teens who described themselves as gay men scored about 10 points lower on the scale than their peers, the researchers report in Developmental Psychology. Questions of transgender identity were not addressed in the study.
“I think it’s remarkable that childhood gender-typed behavior measured as early as age 3.5 years is associated with sexual orientation 12 years later,” wrote Li in an email. “The findings help us to understand variability in sexual orientation and could have implications for understanding the origins of this variability.”
The paper “is just a well-done study in terms of getting around some of the problems that have plagued the field,” says Simon LeVay, a retired neuroscientist whose 1991 paper in Science sparked interest in brain differences associated with sexual identity. “It shows that something is going on really early in life and points away from things like role modeling and adolescent experiences as reasons for becoming gay.”
Others dispute the paper’s methods and significance. Parents’ own beliefs and biases about gender almost certainly influence how they described their children’s gendered play, which could skew their reporting, says Patrick Ryan Grzanka, a psychologist who studies sexuality and multicultural issues at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. But more worrisome to him are the cultural assumptions underlying the study itself. The authors appear to regard gender nonconformity as the primary marker of gayness, which doesn’t align with current research suggesting that your individual preferences for either stereotypically male or female behaviors and traits has little to do with your sexual orientation, he says.
Grzanka is also dismayed that the paper fails to critique the history of similar research that investigated whether childhood behaviors lined up with eventual sexual orientation. It wasn’t long ago that such research was used to stigmatize and pathologize gender-nonconforming children, he says. “I think it’s important to ask why we’re so invested in this purported link [between gender conformity and sexuality] in the first place.”
Consent can’t be implied, Michael Valpy writes. Why is that so hard for men to understand?
By Michael Valpy
I begin each university course I teach by stating that my course syllabus includes a website link to the campus sexual-assault centre and by explaining to my students what sexual consent means in Canadian law.
I find it necessary in an ordinary classroom of young Canadians to caution half the population against the other half, which I’ve thought about as I make my way through The Globe and Mail’s Unfounded series on thousands of sexual assault complaints blocked by disbelieving police officers from ever arriving in court.
What I do in the classroom may as well be labelled Patriarchy 101. Men sexually assault women because they can – because on average, they are larger and stronger – and because a lot of other men with power believe that women either fabricate the assaults or else act in a way that invites the assaults.
In nice Canada, this is still going on after half a century of sex education in public schools, in a country with progressive sexual-assault legislation and jurisprudence (barring the declarations of knees-together judge Robin Camp), in a country with the world’s greatest proportion of the population having formal postsecondary learning and being the ninth-ranked country (out of 155) on the United Nations gender inequality index.
Canadian researchers have written in the New England Journal of Medicine that between 20 per cent and 25 per cent of all postsecondary students are sexually assaulted in a four-year enrolment period with the highest incidence in their first two years when they’re teenagers. Combining the NEJM analysis with Statistics Canada postsecondary enrolment and gender data, that works out to about 160,000 victims annually, 92 per cent of them young women.
Yet, the public conversation usually gets no farther than tweaking administrative rules on reporting protocols, police investigations, prosecutions and the hammers that the courts should bring down on offenders – all important – while leaving the root cause untouched.
Men are always going to sexually assault women, goes the cant.
All of us guys have done it, exerted a bit of, you know, persuasion, resulting in what philosopher Simone Weil described three-quarters of a century ago as “a gendered violation of the soul.”
It is a social norm.
Pierre Bourdieu, the late French anthropologist renowned for his study of the dynamics of power in society, said that, for heterosexual males, “the sexual act is thus represented as an act of domination, an act of possession, a ‘taking’ of woman by man … [and] is the most difficult [behaviour] to uproot.” Men use words for sex that relate to sports victories, military action or strength: to score, to hit on, to nail, to make a conquest of, to “have,” to “get.”
Synonyms for seduce include beguile, betray, deceive, entice, entrap, lure, mislead – not one word in the bunch implying two people intimately enjoying each other with respect.
Most condom purchases are made by women, even though men wear them, and, increasingly, condom manufacturers are directly marketing to women, albeit using more feminine packaging.
In an episode of Downton Abbey, Lady Mary Crawley, having decided to go off on a sexual weekend with Lord Gillingham, asks her maid, Anna Bates, to buy condoms. “Why won’t he take care of it?” Anna asks. Replies Lady Mary: “I don’t think one should rely on a man in that department, do you?” Dr. Mariamne Whatley, a leading U.S. scholar on sexual education, says women have long been expected to take responsibility for men’s sexuality for which there is no defensible rationale beyond the fact that it’s women who get pregnant.
Adolescent girls, she says, are encouraged to “solve” the “problem” of teenage pregnancy. Whistles, sprays, flashlights and alarms are marketed to women. Women are expected to screen out potential rapists among dating partners and to learn some form of self-defense.
Why? Because men allegedly are overcharged on androgen hormones – testosterone – and can’t stop themselves from going “too far.” Which has no biological validity. “As a student in my sexuality class put it,” psychologist Noam Shpancer wrote in a 2014 article in Psychology Today, “‘If your parents walk in on you having sex with your girlfriend, you stop what you’re doing in a second, no matter what.’”
Since the Supreme Court of Canada’s R v Chase decision in 1987, judges have been able to consider a complainant’s subjective experience and look beyond contact with any specific part of the human body to consider whether the victim’s sexual integrity has been violated.
Belief in so-called implied consent has been thoroughly repudiated by Canadian courts – just because a woman does not repeat her initial “No” or push a guy away, it does not mean she is legally consenting. Obviously, there’s a limit to how deeply that has sunk in.
Yet there is a line of feminist scholarly thought that says when subordination of women is replaced by sustained anger from women, men become more receptive to change and the conventional categories of masculinity and femininity dissolve once, as political theorist Joan Cocks puts it, “the masculine self moves away from a rigid stance of sexual command.”
So angry, angry women: That’s what I hope my female students will be. No tolerance. No forgiveness.
In the prologue to her new book, What Love Is and What It Could Be, philosopher Carrie Jenkins is walking through Vancouver, from her boyfriend’s apartment to the home she has with her husband. She wonders at how the romantic love she experiences firsthand is so different than the model presented by popular culture and academic theory alike. “If indeed romantic love must be monogamous, then I am making some kind of mistake when I say, ‘I’m in love with you’ — meaning romantically — to both my partners,” she writes. “I am not lying, because I am genuinely trying to be as honest as I can. But if romantic love requires monogamy, then despite my best intentions, what I’m saying at those moments is not, strictly speaking, true.”
Her book examines the long, sometimes awkward legacy of philosophers’ thinking on romantic love, and compares that with a new subfield in close-relationships research — consensual nonmonogamy, or CNM. While singers and thinkers alike have been riffing on a “one and only” for decades, she argues that space is being made in the cultural conversation to “question the universal norm of monogamous love, just as we previously created space to question the universal norm of hetero love.” These norms are more fluid than they appear: In Jenkins’s lifetime alone same-sex and cross-ethnicity relationships have become common.
When I asked Jenkins to describe how it feels to have both a husband and a boyfriend — she rejects the “primary relationship” moniker altogether — she said that it’s like having more loving relationships in your life, like a close family member or friend. She and her boyfriend, whom she’s been with for about five years, used to work in the same building; he was teaching creative writing on the floor above her philosophy department, though they didn’t meet until they matched on OkCupid. While both men have met each other, they’re not close; Jenkins describes the relationship as having a “V shape,” rather than a triangle. Both helped in the development of the book: husband refining philosophical arguments; boyfriend editing the writing, and helping her to sound like a normal person, rather than an academic.
Still, CNM faces lots of stigma; even the study of it is stigmatized. Yet in the limited yet rich vein of research out there, the evidence suggests that it’s a style that, in some populations, leads to greater relationship satisfaction than monogamy. In any case, the researchers tell me, the insights into what makes more-than-two relationships work can be applied to any given dyad, given the communicative finesse required when three or more hearts are involved.
In a forthcoming Perspectives in Psychological Science paper, Terri Conley, a University of Michigan psychologist who’s driven the field, defines CNM as “a relational arrangement in which partners agree that it is acceptable to have more than one sexual and/or romantic relationship at the same time.” That’s distinguished from the “polygamy” practiced by some religious groups, where it’s not always clear whether wives can opt out of the relationship.
I was surprised to discover how common it is: A 2016 study of two nationally representative samples of single Americans — of 3,905 and 4,813 respondents, respectively — found in each case that about one in five people had practiced it during their lifetime. A 2016 YouGov poll found that 31 percent of women and 38 percent of men thought their ideal relationship would be CNM in some way. Other research indicates that around 4 to 5 percent of Americans in relationships are in some sort of CNM, be it swinging, where partners have sex with people outside their relationship at parties and the like; an open relationship, where it’s cool to have sex with other people but not grow emotionally attached to them; or polyamory, where both partners approve of having close emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships outside of the couple itself. People are curious, too: From 2006 to 2015, Google searches for polyamory and open relationships went up. Other data points to how sticking to the boundaries of monogamy doesn’t come easily to lots of people: A 2007 survey of 70,000 Americans found that one in five had cheated on their current partner.
Jenkins says that as a tenured philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, she’s in a unique, privileged position to openly talk about being in a nonmonogamous marriage. She’d been interested in being in more than one relationship ever since she can remember, but it used to seem like some sort of impossible dream situation — she didn’t realize it could be an option in her real life until she was about 30. (She’s now 37.)
Jenkins met her husband, Jonathan, who’s also a philosopher, back in 2009, at a philosophy workshop that he organized at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland; they later got married in the same hall the conference took place. They took one another’s last names as middle names.
Now married for almost eight years, they talked about polyamory early on, though defining the relationship that way came later. As philosophers are wont to do, they soon wrote a bit of a manifesto about their arrangement. They observed that even if their wedding guests were woke in any number of ways — not batting an eyelid if a colleague was gay or bi, eschewing heteronormative assumptions, and the like — there’s still the shared assumption that a nonmonogamous relationship is less sexually safe and less committed than a regular ol’ monogamous one. “Even our very liberal pocket of our relatively liberal society is massively — and, to us, surprisingly— mononormative,” they write. “Acquaintances, friends, and colleagues are constantly assuming that our relationship, and indeed every relationship that they think of as ‘serious’, is a sexually monogamous one.”
To Jenkins, the biggest struggle with polyamory isn’t from managing multiple relationships — though Google Calendar is a crucial tool — but rather the strong, sometimes violently negative reactions that she gets, especially online. When I spoke with her by phone, she was struck by a comment to a YouTube interview of hers, where a pseudonymous user invited “everyone” to read her column in the Chronicle of Higher Education about having multiple loves.
“THIS WOMAN IS A DISGUSTING ANIMAL,” the troll wrote. “Every bit as twisted and queer as the Mormons with their multiple lives [sic]. This femme-pig is the spectral opposite of Trump; a far far left-wing freak that desires to completely overthrow Western Christian Civilization.” Jenkins walked me through a deep reading of the bile: Bundling in politics — the “left-wing freak” bit — with the monogamy norms signals to her that there’s a judgment of what it means to be a good person in here, since politics is about living correctly, collectively. Plus “if you’re an animal, you’re out of the range of humanity,” she says. She’s also gets a lot of “get herpes and die, slut” suggestions, she says, which speaks to the hypersexualization of CNM. Nonmonogamy leads to lots of sex, the presumption goes, and with that STIs, and it proceeds from there. The way news articles covering CNM tend to be illustrated with images of three or four people in a bath or bed doesn’t help, either.
“The way we normally think about romantic love, we don’t imagine that it’s entirely about sex,” she says. “For a lot of people sex is a part of it; if we’re just having a hookup or a friend with benefits, we don’t call that romantic love. When it comes to polyamorous relationships, if you’re in love with more than one person, the same applies — to fall in love with someone is not the same as to sleep with them. We’re clear with that distinction in monogamous relationships, but in CNM that distinction between love and sex gets collapsed.”
Researchers who have studied stigma around CNM have found lots. In a 2012 paper, Conley and her colleagues found that monogamous relationships were better rated on every metric by different sets of the population, including nonmonogamous people. When 132 participants recruited online read relationship vignettes that were identical except for one being monogamous and the other not, the CNM was seen as riskier sexually, more lonely, less acceptable, and having a lower relationship quality. People in CNM were also seen as worse with non-relational things, like making sure to walk their dog or paying their taxes on time. Amy Moors, a co-author on the paper, says it had some of the biggest effect sizes she’s seen in her research. Elisabeth Sheff, a leading polyamory researcher who left academia for lack of grant funding, now frequently serves as an expert witness in custody battles; she says that often a grandmother or a former spouse will find out that a co-parent has multiple relationships, be scandalized, and demand to take the kids — even though her longitudinal research, reported in The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families, indicates that kids who grow up in polyamorous families aren’t any more screwed up than average American children.
That same paper finds that there were no differences in relationship functioning between monogamous and nonmonogamous couples. People in CNM had lower jealousy and higher trust — yet also lower sexual satisfaction with their partner. Polyamorists were more satisfied than people in open relationships, perhaps because it’s hard to block of feelings for people you sleep with frequently. Polyamorous people were a special case, with higher satisfaction, commitment, trust, and passionate love than monogamous individuals, though they had lower sexual satisfaction. CNM people also had higher sexual satisfaction with their secondary partners than their primary partners, though that difference fell away when controlling for relationship time, with primary relationships averaging three times the length of secondary relationships.
“Overall, the standard for human responses for relationships is habituation,” Conley says. “That involves a loss of sexual attraction, and we can tell that from stats from therapy. And to the extent that a couple is frustrated sexually, it spills over to other parts of life.”
There are other explanations for high satisfaction scores for polyamorous people, she adds. It could be that they’re just acting out a social desirability bias, given that they’re participating in a study about CNM and want the lifestyle to look good; it could also be that people who enter into polyamory have self-selected themselves into a hypercommunicative population — all the poly self-helpbooks emphasize the importance the need to explicitly talk things out. “People interested in polyamory are more relationship-y than the average person,” she says. “They like thinking about relationships, talking about relationships. That’s great in monogamy, but needed in polyamory.”
All this suggests the kind of people that are the right fit for CNM. Beyond being relationship-y, a Portuguese study out this year found that people with a high sociosexuality, or disposal to casual sex, had less relationship satisfaction when in a monogamous relationship, but those effects disappeared if they were in CNM. Still, they were just as committed to their relationships — signaling that exclusivity and commitment may not be one and the same. Harvard sexologist Justin Lehmiller has found that people who are more erotophilic — i.e., that love sex — will be a better fit for CNM; same with if they’re sensation-seeking.
Amy Moors, the Purdue psychologist, has found that people with higher avoidant attachment — where you’re just not that into intimacy — have positive feelings about and a willingness to engage in polyamory, but they were less likely to actually partake of it. While a correlational study, Moors explained that from a subjective perspective, it makes sense: “When you have avoidant attachment, you like a lot of emotional distance, physical distance, time by yourself,” Moors says, which is not a fit for the relationship-y remands of a poly lifestyle. Also, there’s reason to believe that folks who have relational anxiety, and are thus sensitive to separation, might be prone to the jealousy that’s known to flare up in CNM, though it’s not like that doesn’t happen in monogamy, too.
What motivated Jenkins to write What Love Is, she says, was a gap — or silence — in the philosophical literature, that polyamory was rarely discussed or even acknowledged as a possibility. “Noticing these philosophical silences and denials, while simultaneously being made aware of how society at large viewed me for being a polyamorous woman, made me realize there was something important here that I needed to do,” she says. “To do it meant bringing my personal life and my philosophical work into a conversation with one another. The familiar slogan says that the personal is political, but the personal is philosophical, too.”
Two key themes emerge from reading the book: that love is dual-layered, with social scripts overlaying evolutionary, physiological impulses. And that the “romantic mystique,” like the feminine one before it, assumes that love is mysterious and elusive and corrupted from examination — a sentiment that protects the status quo. But with investigation, and conversation, the mechanics of love reveal themselves, and norms can change socially, and be tailored locally. Like Jenkins, you can custom-fit your relationships to your life — if you dare to talk about them.
My elder son David was fifteen when he told us he was gay – not that he had actually intended to tell us quite then.
He said he was meeting someone but was evasive as to who this might be? I forced the issue never expecting to hear that this was some guy he had met on line through a gay website.
Alarm bells rung at the possible danger!
David must have guessed we might find the news of him being gay difficult as he kept repeating, “It’s OK Mum, there’s nothing wrong”.
My husband’s first thought was “I love my son. I don’t want to lose my relationship with him”.
As for me, I have an unfortunate knack of sometimes putting my big feet in things.
Whilst reeling from the shock, thankfully I avoided saying anything that my son would feel hurt or rejected by.
We both understood that what mattered most was for David to stay believing in himself and to know that our love and support was unconditional.
David appreciated the way we had accepted his sexuality and to stop us feeling anxious, he agreed to cancel the internet date.
David and Alison
Having “come out” to his friends and immediate family, David visibly looked happier by the day.
Now the ball was in our court. Was it our turn to “come out” as parents of a gay son? Would that be fair to David? Was it for him to decide who and when to tell others or not? At the young age of fifteen, we felt it was. That made it much harder because I wanted to feel accepted too.
Up to the point when David told us he was gay, I had no knowledge or experience of what being LGBT+ meant.
My head was full of fears which were further fuelled when I went on-line and came across far right materials discounting LGBT+ as wrong and blaming being gay on abuse or an unhealthy mother-son relationship.
Was I a bad Mum? I feared being judged. I was worried now how David would be treated. Would his school teachers who had praised him as a role model now think less of him?
Would he find himself rejected as unsuitable to be an RSY Summer Camp Leader?
Having brought my boys up to feel strongly Jewish, I now felt anxious that this might not sit comfortably with fully accepting and supporting David’s sexuality.
My Jewishness is all bound up in family and home, celebrating Friday night and all the family traditions. So for validation and support, I turned to my Jewish roots. As I said, I wasn’t ready to “come out” publicly and so like my son before he “came out”, I turned to the privacy of the internet for help. I tapped into Google “Jewish Mum of gay son” and up came “Parents of Jewish Gays and Lesbians” with a number you could phone in confidence.
Going for the first time to the group “Parents of Jewish Gays and Lesbians”, I was scared as to quite who I would find there.
The wonderful thing was how unbelievably just like the two of us the other parents all were. They could have come straight out of any Shul – parents anxious to do right by their children. We were no longer on our own.
Hearing from other parents and sharing our own story in a Jewish group in which we felt understood and accepted, helped us feel better. The first pernicious lie it immediately destroyed for me was the idea that being gay had anything to do with upbringing or by extension anything I had done or not done. It was a fact of life, period.
A Dad said that the last thing he would ever wish on his son would be to be imprisoned in an unhappy marriage hiding his sexuality. That hit home and made me rethink the dream I had been nurturing of one day seeing my son under the Chuppah with grandchildren to follow. My son had his own life to lead. I just wanted him to be happy and true to himself. And so in the group we parents chatted on into the night. We discussed why it was that so many of our LGBT+ children were going to Shul less? Did our LGBT+ children no longer feel they could count themselves as proper members of the club?
Perhaps like me before I became aware of LGBT+, our kids assumed by default that within Shul life their sexuality was taboo and that they would not be understood or accepted unless they hid their sexuality.
To be fair, if I joined any club, I would want to feel that there was someone there a bit like me and that I wasn’t just going to be tolerated, but actually wanted by the club.
My journey has been much easier than for some as being of my own making – struggling with my own prejudices. Thankfully the positive attitude of both our Shul and my son’s school explains why David has never felt ashamed of his sexuality and why both his friends and our Shul friends when told have had no issues.
In the twilight zone before feeling ready to come out to the world as a Jewish parent of a gay child, it helps to share feelings in the trust of absolute confidentiality with likeminded parent souls who understand. I am now Co-Ordinator for the parents’ group, “Parents of Jewish Gays and Lesbians” which helped me so much and which I would like to see there for other parents.
It is a really important group not just for the parents but also for LGBT+ children as “happy parents make happy kids”. Unfortunately the group is hardly known about so if you get a chance to tell others about the group, I would ask you to please do so.