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The Sex Toy Shops That Switched On a Feminist Revolution

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The “White Cross Electric Vibrator Girl” as pictured in a 1911 Health and Beauty catalog.

BUZZ
The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy
By Hallie Lieberman
Illustrated. 359 pp. Pegasus Books. $26.95.

VIBRATOR NATION
How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure
By Lynn Comella
278 pp. Duke University Press. $25.95.

Think back, for a moment, to the year 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. The Beatles released the “White Album.” North Vietnam launched the Tet offensive. And American women discovered the clitoris. O.K., that last one may be a bit of an overreach, but 1968 was when “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” a short essay by Anne Koedt, went that era’s version of viral. Jumping off of the Masters and Johnson bombshell that women who didn’t climax during intercourse could have multiple orgasms with a vibrator, Koedt called for replacing Freud’s fantasy of “mature” orgasm with women’s lived truth: It was all about the clitoris. That assertion single-handedly, as it were, made female self-love a political act, and claimed orgasm as a serious step to women’s overall emancipation. It also threatened many men, who feared obsolescence, or at the very least, loss of primacy. Norman Mailer, that famed phallocentrist, raged in his book “The Prisoner of Sex” against the emasculating “plenitude of orgasms” created by “that laboratory dildo, that vibrator!” (yet another reason, beyond the whole stabbing incident, to pity the man’s poor wives).

To be fair, Mailer & Co. had cause to quake. The quest for sexual self-knowledge, as two new books on the history and politics of sex toys reveal, would become a driver of feminist social change, striking a blow against men’s overweening insecurity and the attempt (still with us today) to control women’s bodies. As Lynn Comella writes in “Vibrator Nation,” retailers like Good Vibrations in San Francisco created an erotic consumer landscape different from anything that previously existed for women, one that was safe, attractive, welcoming and ultimately subversive, presenting female sexual fulfillment as “unattached to reproduction, motherhood, monogamy — even heterosexuality.”

As you can imagine, both books (which contain a great deal of overlap) are chockablock with colorful characters, starting with Betty Dodson, the Pied Piper of female onanism, who would often personally demonstrate — in the nude — how to use a vibrator to orgasm during her early sexual consciousness-raising workshops in New York. I am woman, hear me roar indeed.

Back in the day, though, attaining a Vibrator of One’s Own was tricky. The leering male gaze of the typical “adult” store was, at best, off-putting to most women. Amazon, where sex toys, like fresh produce, are just a mouse click away, was still a glimmer in Jeff Bezos’ eye. Enter Dell Williams, who after being shamed by a Macy’s salesclerk while checking out a Hitachi Magic Wand, founded in 1974 the mail order company Eve’s Garden. That was quickly followed by Good Vibrations, the first feminist sex toy storefront; it’s great fun to read the back story of Good Vibes’ late founder, Joani Blank, along with radical “sexperts” like Susie Bright and Carol Queen.
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The authors of “Vibrator Nation” and “Buzz” each put in time observing how sex toys are sold, so have firsthand insight into the industry. Whose take will hold more appeal depends on the reader’s interests: In “Buzz,” Hallie Lieberman offers a broader view, taking us back some 30,000 years, when our ancestors carved penises out of siltstone; moving on to the ancient Greeks’ creative use of olive oil; the buzzy medical devices of the 19th century (disappointingly, doctors’ notorious in-office use of vibrators as treatment for female “hysteria” is urban legend); and the impact of early-20th-century obscenity laws — incredibly, sex toys remain illegal in Alabama — before digging deeply into more contemporary influences. In addition to feminist retailers, Lieberman braids in stories of men like Ted Marche, whose family business — employing his wife and teenage children — began by making prosthetic strap-ons for impotent men; Gosnell Duncan, who made sex aids for the disabled and was the first to expand dildo production beyond the Caucasian pink once called “flesh colored”; the Malorrus brothers, who were gag gift manufacturers (think penis pencil toppers); and the hard-core porn distribution mogul Reuben Sturman, who repeatedly, and eventually disastrously, ran afoul of the law. Although their X-rated wares would supposedly give women orgasms, unlike the feminist-championed toys they were sold primarily as devices that would benefit men. Much like the era’s sexual revolution, in other words, they maintained and even perpetuated a sexist status quo.

“Vibrator Nation” focuses more narrowly on women-owned vendors, wrestling with how their activist mission bumped up against the demands and constraints of the marketplace. Those early entrepreneurs, Comella writes, believed nothing less than that “women who had orgasms could change the world.” As with other utopian feminist visions, however, this one quickly splintered. Controversy broke out over what constituted “sex positivity,” what constituted “woman-friendly,” what constituted “woman.” Was it politically correct to stock, or even produce, feminist porn? Were BDSM lesbians invited to the party? Would the stores serve transwomen? Did the “respectable” aesthetic of the white, middle-class founders translate across lines of class and race? If the goal was self-exploration through a kind of cliteracy, what about customers (of any gender or sexual orientation) who wanted toys for partnered play or who enjoyed penetrative sex? Could a sex store that sold nine-inch, veined dildos retain its feminist bona fides? Dell Williams solved that particular problem by commissioning nonrepresentational silicone devices with names like “Venus Rising” from Gosnell Duncan, the man who made prosthetics for the disabled. Others followed suit.

Even so, Comella writes, the retailers struggled to stay afloat: Feminist stores refused, as a matter of principle, to trade on customers’ anxiety — there were none of the “tightening creams,” “numbing creams,” penis enlargers or anal bleaches that boosted profits at typical sex stores. Employees were considered “educators,” and sales were secondary to providing information and support. What’s more, Good Vibrations in particular was noncompetitive; Blank freely shared her business model with any woman interested in spreading the love.

Consumer culture and feminism have always been strange bedfellows, with the former tending to overpower the latter. Just as Virginia Slims co-opted the message of ’70s liberation, as the Spice Girls cannibalized ’90s grrrl power, so feminist sex stores exerted their influence on the mainstream, yet were ultimately absorbed and diluted by it. In 2007, Good Vibrations was sold to GVA-TWN, the very type of sleazy mega-sex-store company it was founded to disrupt. Though no physical changes have been made in the store, Good Vibrations is no longer woman-owned. Although the aesthetics haven’t changed, Lieberman writes, the idea of feminist sex toys as a source of women’s liberation has faded, all but disappeared. An infamous episode of “Sex and the City” that made the Rabbit the hottest vibrator in the nation also portrayed female masturbation as addictive and isolating, potentially leading to permanent loneliness. The sex toys in “Fifty Shades of Grey” were wielded solely in service of traditional sex and gender roles: A man is in charge of Anastasia Steele’s sexual awakening, and climax is properly experienced through partnered intercourse. Meanwhile, the orgasm gap between genders has proved more stubborn than the pay gap. Women still experience one orgasm for every three experienced by men in partnered sex. And fewer than half of teenage girls between 14 and 17 have ever masturbated.

At the end of “Buzz,” Lieberman makes a provocative point: Viagra is covered by insurance but vibrators aren’t, presumably because while erections are seen as medically necessary for sexual functioning the same is not true of female orgasm. Like our feminist foremothers, she envisions a new utopia, one in which the F.D.A. regulates sex toys to ensure their safety, in which they are covered by insurance, where children are taught about them in sex education courses and they are seen and even subsidized worldwide as a way to promote women’s sexual health.

In other words: We’ve come a long way, baby, but as “Vibrator Nation” and “Buzz” make clear, we still may not be coming enough.

Complete Article HERE!

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Same-sex couples experience unique stressors

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Study by SF State professor finds that institutionalized discrimination has lasting effects

Professor of Sociology Allen LeBlanc

By Lisa Owens Viani

Stressors faced by lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) individuals have been well studied, but San Francisco State University Professor of Sociology Allen LeBlanc and his colleagues are among the first to examine the stressors that operate at the same-sex couple level in two new studies conducted with support from the National Institutes of Health. “People in same-sex relationships are at risk for unique forms of social stress associated with the stigma they face as sexual minority individuals and as partners in a stigmatized relationship form,” said LeBlanc.

In the first study, recently published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, LeBlanc and colleagues conducted in-depth interviews with 120 same-sex couples from two study sites, Atlanta and San Francisco, and identified 17 unique pressures that affect LGB couples. Those range from a lack of acceptance by families to discrimination or fears of discrimination at work, public scrutiny, worries about where to live and travel in order to feel safe, and experiences and fears of being rejected and devalued. The researchers also found that same-sex couple stressors can emerge when stress is contagious or shared between partners and when stress “discrepancies” — such as one partner being more “out” than the other — occur.

“We wanted to look beyond the individual, to look at how stress is shared and how people are affected by virtue of the relationships they’re in, the people they fall in love with and the new ways couples experience stress if they’re in a stigmatized relationship form,” said LeBlanc. “One of those is feeling that society doesn’t value your relationship equally.”

“Changing laws is one thing, but changing hearts and minds is another.”

That perception is the focus of a second study just published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. LeBlanc found that feelings of being in a “second-class” relationship are associated with mental health issues — such as greater depression and problematic drinking — even after taking into account the beneficial impact of gaining legal recognition through marriage. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, but the effects of long-term institutionalized discrimination can linger, according to LeBlanc.

“Our work is a stark reminder that legal changes will not quickly or fully address the longstanding mental health disparities faced by sexual minority populations,” said LeBlanc. “Changing laws is one thing, but changing hearts and minds is another.”

Even though people in same-sex relationships experience many unique challenges, research also shows that having a good primary intimate partnership is important for a person’s well-being, which is true for both heterosexual and LGB couples. “The unique challenges confronting same-sex couples emanate from the stigma and marginalization they face from society at large, not from anything that is unique about their relationships in and of themselves,” said LeBlanc. LeBlanc’s study builds on an emerging body of research suggesting that legal recognition of same-sex relationships is associated with better mental health among LGB populations — as has long been suggested in studies of legal marriage among heterosexual populations. “This new research suggests that legal marriage is a public health issue,” said LeBlanc. “When people are denied access in an institutionalized, discriminatory way, it appears to affect their mental health.”

LeBlanc said transgender individuals were not included in the studies because of other stressors unique to them; he noted that another study focused specifically on trans- and gender-nonconforming individuals is underway. He hopes his research will help people better understand and support not just same-sex couples but also other stigmatized relationships, including interracial/ethnic relationships or partnerships with age differences or different religious backgrounds. “It’s not just about civil rights for LGB persons,” he explained. “It’s about science and how society can be more supportive of a diversity of relationships that include people from all walks of life.”

Complete Article HERE!

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Japanese macaques grinding on deer can teach us to be more open-minded about sex

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So if macaques do it, dolphins do it, birds and probably even bees do it, why do humans still have so much difficulty talking about sexual pleasure?

by Lux Alptraum

If you grew up in America, there’s a good chance that you learned that sex is, first and foremost, a reproductive act. Sure, it feels good, but that’s just a way for our bodies to trick us into breeding. Many church doctrines will inform you that any sexual experience that doesn’t stand a chance of resulting in pregnancy is sinful, perverse, and unnatural.

But someone might want to tell that to nature.

A recently released study documented multiple instances of adolescent female macaques in Japan having “sexual interactions” with sika deer – or, not to put too fine a point on it, macaques humping the backs of deer like a pre-teen girl with a pillow. Researchers are still trying to figure out why the monkeys are doing this, as NPR explains: “It might be a way for a less-mature monkey to practice for future sex with other monkeys,” or an option for a monkey that doesn’t have any other sexual partners at the moment. It’s also possible that the monkeys, which hitch rides on deer for non-sexual reasons, too, simply discovered by accident that grinding on the deers’ backs felt good.

The discovery has prompted a lot of marveling from the media. But if you’re surprised to learn that animals like to pleasure themselves, you’re not paying attention. There are numerous documented instances of animal masturbation, a habit enjoyed by primates as well as creatures including dolphins, elephants, penguins, and bats. (Although the role of the sika deer adds a layer of complexity: Can a deer consent to interspecies frottage? “Most deer were nonchalant, continuing to eat or stand passively during the thrusting,” Quartz observes.)

It’s impossible for us to know exactly what the deer think about all this. That matter aside, there are a lot of animals out there who are, if you will, spanking the monkey. So if macaques do it, dolphins do it, birds and probably even bees do it, why do humans still have so much difficulty talking about sexual pleasure?

Even those of us who’ve gotten past the idea that sex outside the bonds of heterosexual marriage is a one-way ticket to hell still have difficulty talking about pleasure. Sex education curricula rarely venture beyond discussions of condoms, birth control, and puberty (if they even cover condoms and birth control); for many of us, the idea of discussing masturbation seems particularly prurient and unseemly. It’s been twenty-three years since Jocelyn Elders was forced to resign from the post of surgeon general in the US after daring to suggest that young people be taught to think of masturbation as a form of safer sex. And in spite of all the progress we’ve made since the early 1990s, it’s still hard to imagine a government official coming out in favor of masturbation. (Not that I necessarily want to hear a member of the Trump Administration talking about double-clicking the mouse.)

Our reticence on the subject of masturbation is particularly damaging for women. Copious amounts of ink have been spilled about the gender orgasm gap, with lots of hand-wringing about how straight men are letting their female partners down in bed. But it’s not just straight male selfishness that fuels the orgasm gap. One of the main reasons why women are less likely to find pleasure in bed is that we rarely discuss the tools to access our own pleasure, or even an understanding that pleasure can, and should, be a primary goal in our sex lives.

When sexual pleasure is discussed, it’s almost always from a straight male perspective, rationalized as an added bit of biological incentive intended to encourage men to spread their seed. As Peggy Orenstein writes in her recent book Girls & Sex, American culture teaches girls that men pursue sex and pleasure, while women passively provide it. “When girls go into puberty education classes, they learn that boys have erections and ejaculations and girls have periods and unwanted pregnancies,” Orenstein told Quartz in 2016. And when women do experience orgasms, it’s frequently positioned as the result of a partner’s skill, rather than something we’re naturally wired to actively pursue, all by ourselves, for our own selfish reasons.

These macaques throw all of these assumptions into disarray. Not only are they animals getting off just for fun, they’re female animals going to unusual lengths in pursuit of their own sexual pleasure. What we should take away from this is that sexual pleasure isn’t an also-ran to reproduction; it’s an essential part of many animals’ life experiences—regardless of our species, sex, or gender.

So instead of getting Puritanical on the macaques, let’s use them as a jumping-off point for discussions about just how natural it is to pursue sexual pleasure. Whether we’re monkeys or men—or women!—we’re all wired to seek out sensations that feel good.

Complete Article HERE!

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Our shame over sexual health makes us avoid the doctor. These apps might help.

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We’re taught to feel shame around our sexuality from a young age, as our bodies develop and start to function in ways we’re unfamiliar with, as we begin to realize our body’s potential for pleasure. Later on, women especially are taught to feel ashamed if we want “too much” sex, or if we want it “too early,” or if we’re intimate with “too many” people. Conversely, women and men are shamed if we don’t want nearly as much sex as our partner, or if we’re inexperienced in bed. We worry that we won’t orgasm, or that we’ll do so too soon. We’re afraid the things we want to do in bed will elicit disgust.

This shame can also keep people from getting the health care they need. For example, a 2016 study of college students found that, while women feel more embarrassed about buying condoms than men do, the whiff of mortification exists for both genders. Another 2016 study found many women hide their use of health-care services from family and friends so as to prevent speculation about their sexual activity and the possibility that they have a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

While doctors should be considered crucial, impartial resources for those struggling with their sexual health, many find the questions asked of them during checkups to be intrusive. Not only that but, in some cases, doctors themselves are uncomfortable talking about sexual health. They may carry conservative sexual beliefs, or have been raised with certain cultural biases around sexuality. It doesn’t help that gaps in medical school curriculums often leave general practitioners inadequately prepared for issues of sexual health.

So how do people who feel ashamed of their sexuality take care of their sexual health? In many cases, they don’t. In a study on women struggling with urinary incontinence, for example, many women avoided seeking out treatment — maintaining a grin-and-bear-it attitude — until the problem became “unbearable and distressing to their daily lives.”

Which may be why smartphone apps, at-home testing kits and other online resources have seen such growth in recent years. Now that we rely on our smartphones for just about everything — from choosing stock options to tracking daily steps to building a daily meditation practice — it makes sense people would turn to their phones, laptops and tablets to take care of their sexual health, too. Websites such as HealthTap, LiveHealth Online and JustDoc, for example, allow you to video chat with medical specialists from your computer. Companies such as L and Nurk allow you to order contraceptives from your cellphone, without ever going to the doctor for a prescription. And there are a slew of at-home STI testing kits from companies like Biem, MyLAB Box and uBiome that let you swab yourself at home, mail in your samples and receive the results on your phone.

Bryan Stacy, chief executive of Biem, says he created the company because of his own experience with avoiding the doctor. About five years ago, he was experiencing pain in his genital region. “I did what a lot of guys do, and did nothing,” he says, explaining that, while women visit their gynecologist regularly, men generally don’t see a doctor for their sexual health until something has gone wrong. “I tried to rationalize away the pain, but it didn’t go away.” Stacy says he didn’t want to talk to a doctor for fear of what he would learn, and didn’t know who he would go to anyway. He didn’t have a primary care physician or a urologist at the time. But after three months of pain, a friend of his — who happened to be a urologist — convinced him to see someone. He was diagnosed with chlamydia and testicular cancer. After that, he learned he wasn’t the only one who’d avoided the doctor only to end up with an upsetting diagnosis. “What I found is that I wasn’t strange,” Stacy says. “Everyone has this sense of sexual-health anxiety that can be avoided, but it’s that first step that’s so hard. People are willing to talk about their sexual health, but only if they feel like it’s a safe environment.”

So Stacy set out to create that environment. With Biem, users can video chat with a doctor online to describe what they’re experiencing, at which point the doctor can recommend tests. The user can then go to a lab for local testing, or Biem will send someone to their house. The patient will eventually receive their results right on their phone. Many of the above-mentioned resources work similarly.

Research shows there’s excitement for tools like these. One study built around a similar service that was still in development showed people 16 to 24 years old would get tested more often if the service was made available to them. They were intrigued by the ability to conceal STI testing from friends and family, and to avoid “embarrassing face-to-face consultations.”

But something can get lost when people avoid going in to the doctor’s office. Kristie Overstreet, a clinical sexologist and psychotherapist, worries these tools — no matter their good intentions — will end up being disempowering in the long run, especially for women. “Many women assume they will be viewed by their doctor as sexually promiscuous or ‘easy,’ so they avoid going in for an appointment,” she says. “They fear they will be seen as dirty or less than if they have an STI or symptoms of one. There is an endless cycle of negative self-talk, such as ‘What will they think about me?’ or ‘Will they think that I’m a slut because of this?’ If people can be tested in the privacy of their own home without having to see a doctor, they can keep their symptoms and diagnosis a secret,” Overstreet says, which only increases the shame.

As for the efficacy of these tools, Mark Payson, a physician and co-founder of CCRM Northern Virginia, emphasizes the importance of education and resources for those who do test positive. These screening tests can have limits, he says, noting that there can be false negatives or false positives, necessitating follow-up care. “This type of testing, if integrated into an existing physician relationship, would be a great resource,” Payson says. “But for patients with more complex medical histories, the interactions of other conditions and medications may not be taken into account.”

Michael Nochomovitz, a New York Presbyterian physician, shows a similar level of restrained excitement. “The doctor-patient interaction has taken a beating,” Nochomovitz says. “Physicians don’t have an opportunity to really engage with patients and look them in the eye and talk to them like you’d want to be spoken to. The idea is that tech should make that easier, but in many cases, it makes it more difficult and more impersonal.” Still, he sees the advantages in allowing patients to attend to their health care on their own terms, rather than having to visit a doctor’s office.

Those who have created these tools insist they’re not trying to replace that doctor-patient relationship, but are trying to build upon and strengthen it. “We want people to be partnering with their doctor,” says Sarah Gupta, the medical liaison for uBiome, which owns SmartJane, a service that allows women to monitor their vaginal health with at-home tests. “But the thing is, these topics are often so embarrassing or uncomfortable for people to bring up. Going in and having an exam can put people in a vulnerable position. [SmartJane] has the potential to help women feel they’re on a more equal footing when talking to their doctor about their sexual health.”

“If you come in with a positive test result,” says Jessica Richman, co-founder and chief executive of uBiome, “it’s not about sexual behavior anymore. It’s a matter of medical treatment. It’s a really good way for women to shift the conversation.”

This can be the case for men and women. While many will use these options as a means to replace those office visits entirely, their potential lies in the ability to improve the health care people receive.

Complete Article HERE!

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Raising Sex-Positive Kids

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My daughter is 12 years old, and she has already been groped. It happened at a local water park last summer in the wave pool, the kind of swimming pool where mechanically generated waves simulate the swell of the ocean. As one wave lifted her up, she felt the hand of a teenage boy grabbing her bikinied butt. How strange, she thought. It must have been a mistake; maybe the wave had carried him into her. Yet the same thing happened to her 11-year-old friend who was swimming nearby. Then they heard two more girls remarking loudly that the boy had touched them, too. Apparently, this young man was groping every female buttock in the pool like he was testing for ripe fruit at the farmers’ market. Soon, the two lifeguards on duty were frantically blowing their whistles. The waves stopped and the red-handed boy, standing by the lifeguard station with his father, was told to leave the water park immediately.

While the news that my young daughter had been groped horrified me, I couldn’t have imagined a better outcome. She was with a friend and her friend’s mother, able to share and process the experience and even laughed about it a little. More important, the teenage offender was caught, confronted, and suffered the consequences. He was publically shamed for his stupid and intrusive acts, as he deserved to be. And yet, my girl had been groped. She had been initiated into the world of women everywhere who are plagued by men behaving badly. Or in the words of a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit, “Welcome to Hell.”

The recent spate of news stories about women (and some men) being sexually harassed in the entertainment industry and in politics may be painful to witness, but it’s also liberating. The #metoo movement has broken the code of silence and unleashed a formidable backlash against many men who have unfairly wielded their power. Women and men are talking; mothers and fathers are talking. And many of us are wondering: How did we get here, and how can we stem the tide of sexual misconduct for the generations to come? How can we do things a little more mindfully so that we can raise girls who are empowered and expressive, and boys who are enlightened and empathetic?

A True Yes and a True No

Alicia Muñoz, a psychotherapist and couples’ counselor based in Falls Church, Virginia, sees one solution in the growing trend toward raising sex-positive kids. “Sex positive” is a relatively new buzz-phrase that’s gaining traction in the therapy world and beyond. “It’s about helping your children grow up with a sense of sexuality as a natural, normal, healthy, pleasurable part of being alive, of being a human being,” says Muñoz. “That’s easier said than done, especially in a culture that is so weighted toward sex negativity and gender biases and power differentials that are unfair. It’s a tall order, but an important thing.”

One essential message of sex positivity is that any sexual activity, and any touching of body parts, should be consensual. “Taking the shame out of sexuality is part of what provides a foundation for the awareness of consent,” says Muñoz. “It’s being able to grow up in an environment where you’re not ashamed of your own sexuality, or of sexuality in general. That’s part of what empowers you to have a voice, and having a voice means you’re connected to your right to give a true yes or a true no in different situations, including sexual ones. And on the other side of it, you’re primed to respect another’s true yes or true no when you view sex as a positive, integral, normal part of being human.”

Raising kids to be sex positive is a lifestyle that begins at the onset of parenthood. Many parents worry about when to have “the talk” with their children, but, in a sense, we’re already talking about sex to our kids before they have language. “From the moment they’re born, babies and kids are receiving data related to sex and sexuality and gender—through their senses, touch, longings, hunger, their relationship to their body, and their parents’ or caregiver’s relationships to their bodies,” says Muñoz. Yet the time will come when children want to put sex into words they can understand. And the sex-positive way for parents is to start talking about sex as soon as a child starts asking about it. “When a child asks a question, even if that child is just two and a half or three, you answer it in simple, true language,” says Muñoz. “You call a vulva a vulva, a penis a penis. You don’t call it a wee-wee or a pee-pee or another nickname. You show that, even in the naming of body parts, there’s no need to hide it.”

While the goal is to remove any negativity and evasiveness from sexuality, it’s important not to take the message too far and give your child more than he or she is ready to handle. Talk about sex should be age-appropriate, keeping in mind what young brains need. “Little kids need short-sentence explanations rather than long lectures,” says Muñoz. “For a four-year-old who asks where babies come from, a short answer might be that babies are created by a man and a woman giving each other a special kind of hug.” Yet with sex positivity, the aim is to always expand the lens of sexuality and give a sense of inclusiveness beyond limited cultural norms or biases. So, parents might want to add that some babies are created by a man’s seed that’s put with the help of a doctor into a woman, and then that baby might be raised by two men, or it might be raised by two women. Then no matter which path the child takes later in terms of sexual preference or gender identity, the stage is set for a sense of normalcy and acceptance from the outset.

Following Your Child’s Lead

With so much buzz about sexual harassment and assault in the news and popular culture, parents may wonder how to talk about such heavy issues with their children—and how to protect them from the bullying and power imbalances that start as early as elementary school. “Most kids don’t pay attention to what happens in the news, so in terms of discussing something disturbing with your child, it’s best to wait until the child raises up the issue themselves,” says Stanley Goldstein, PhD, a child clinical psychologist based in Middletown and the author of several books including Troubled Children/Troubled Parents: The Way Out 2nd edition (Wyston Books, 2011). The idea is to follow the child’s lead; equally important is to speak with them rather than to them, even when you’re laying down guidelines designed to keep them safe—such as explaining to your teenage daughter why you don’t want her to walk alone at night.

“It’s crucially important not to say to a child or teenager, ‘Do this because I say so.’ If you do that, then you repress the capacity for abstract thinking. Instead, say, ‘Do it because…’ and express your concerns. Explain that the world is generally a safe place, but you have to be cautious. If you feel that they’re not ready to do certain things, tell them no and tell them why.” While many parents believe that the major influence for teenagers is their peer group, Goldstein posits that the major influence for healthy teenagers remains the parents. “They might say, ‘Joey does this, so why can’t I do it?’ They might give you a hard time, but they’ll appreciate it. There’s nothing worse for a child than feeling like their parent doesn’t care.”

In the same spirit, parents are modeling behaviors to their children all the time, without speaking. Empathy is not something that you can inculcate into a child, but they’ll develop the capacity for it through osmosis, says Goldstein. “If the child sees a healthy interaction between the parents, sees them supporting each other and talking about their feelings, they’ll grow up with these kinds of capacities. Empathy is something that really derives from the family experience.” Yet some things do need to be put into words, and in a world where sexual misconduct is rampant, therapists tend to agree about one thing to tell your kids unequivocally: “The hard and fast rule is that you don’t have the right to put your hands on someone else, period. And no one should put their hands on you. Period.”

The Power of Speaking Out

Parents are not the only influencers; cultural messaging is very powerful as well. Terrence Real, a psychotherapist who wrote I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression (Scribner, 1998) and other books, says that boys lose their hearts when they’re five or six, and girls lose their voices when they’re 11 or 12. “Five or six is when the socialization process starts to really impact boys as they get shamed for doing things they were allowed to do when they were younger,” says Muñoz. “They might be called weak or girly. So, when you have a boy, how do you keep him connected to his heart yet still have him belong in his circle of peers? How do you keep your girls raising their hands in class rather than becoming wallflowers? How do you keep them speaking up when the society says that if you speak up you’re a bitch, or you’re not as attractive?”

Expressiveness in girls is crucial to encourage for two main purposes: their ability to share difficult experiences, and their empowerment in speaking out and defending themselves. “Letting your child lead the conversation, or lead the play when they are younger, creates a space where your child trusts you to share things such as, ‘Oh, one of the boys grabs my behind at school’ or ‘I saw a video with naked people on the internet.'” Parents can practice not reacting in fear or letting their anxiety show, but opening a space to calmly help and guide them. In turn, some self-defense teachers have girls practice yelling on the top of their lungs and using their voice, so if they are assaulted or groped in the subway or on the street, they can call attention to the perpetrator and get help if help is needed.

To raise sex-positive kids requires some work from the parents, and not all of it is easy. If a parent has any sexual trauma or abuse in their own past, it’s essential for them to be willing to face and work through it, not only for their own sake but for their children’s sake. Otherwise, says Muñoz, “In your well-intentioned desire to protect your children, you’re going to be communicating a lot of sex-negative messages to them.” Another challenge for parents is resisting the impulse to impose their power as adults over their children in everyday interactions. “What they learn there is, ‘Oh, I have to obey somebody more powerful than me even if it doesn’t feel good,'” says Muñoz. “Not telling your child they have to obey isn’t the same thing as having the inmates run the asylum. Instead it’s telling them, ‘I’m with you. We work as a team.'”

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