These women are pulling back the sheets on sex-positive parenting. And facing harsh judgment because of it.
Mothers are not allowed to discuss their sex lives publicly. Judging from the kinds of comments women with children get when they write about their sexual lives, you’d think they were committing murder. Jillian Lauren recounts in her new memoir Everything You Ever Wanted, that after publishing her first book, Some Girls, about her living as part of Prince Jefri of Brunei’s harem, she received comments online such as: “Social services should come and take away that child, you fat, middle-aged skank.” It didn’t matter that her harem days were over; the gall of publicly sharing her sex life instantly marked her as an unfit mother.
Kendra Holliday, a St. Louis–based sex and relationship consultant who blogs at The Beautiful Kind, learned just how taboo the topic was first-hand when she was fired from her nonprofit office job after her real name was linked to her blog, which detailed everything from her involvement with sex work to multiple partners. To top that off, after an article about her was published in The Riverfront Times, she was kicked out of her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. She received a letter that read: “I’m sure you’ll understand that in light of recent events you will not be invited to participate in Girl Scout programming, and somebody else will assume the role of Cookie Captain.”
The fallout had consequences not only for Holliday, but for her now-14-year-old daughter, as well. “My daughter was expelled from her school,” Holliday recalled. “It was devastating for her. We had to enroll her in a new school. She knows why it all went down, and she does not blame me. She blames the people bowing to peer pressure. A child suffered because grownups couldn’t handle open discussion about one of the most pleasurable and natural things on Earth. I don’t get why our society is so crazy about babies and loves them so much, but the act of making the babies is too freaky for some people to handle. If that’s the case, as far as I’m concerned, walking into a Babies-R-Us should mortify people just as much as walking into an adult toy store.”
In both Lauren and Holliday’s cases, I’m sure their involvement in sex work was enough to damn them in the eyes of many; the concept that former or current sex workers can also be excellent moms flies in the face of our culture’s ideas of “proper” parenting. But even openly talking about one’s own sex life—not to one’s children, but to the larger world—can also brand a woman as selfish at best, a questionable parent at worst. How dare she pay attention to herself for a little while? When sex blogger Crista Anne appeared on Dr. Drew on Call in January about her OrgasmQuest campaign to combat the effects of a new antidepressant, a panelist on the show asked her, “Don’t you think about your children?” The answer that I hope I don’t even need to say: Yes, she does (read on for more about her parenting style).
One part of being a sex-positive parent involves how you approach your own sex life. In the above cases, these women clearly don’t view their own sexuality as something shameful they have to pretend isn’t an important part of their lives. The other side of sex-positive parenting is figuring out how to raise children who also recognize their right to make their own best choices for their bodies. In our culture, teaching your kids about sex is usually framed around the “the talk,” as if it’s something that should happen only once (no pressure!).
Airial Clark, a mother of two sons whose site The Sex Positive Parent serves as a resource, started discussing sex with them when they were 3, which she calls “an on the spot decision.” Since they were old enough to ask her questions, she wanted to provide quality answers. “I realized that the more conventional approach of shaming kids into silence if they brought up anything that had to do with sexuality was not what I wanted to do. I had to push through my own discomfort so that I could be a trusted resource for them.” Her first topics? Anatomy and consent.
Clark has talked to her children about porn (that it’s “not what real sex is like” and is not appropriate for children), taught them that “people can have whatever gender they want” and taken her then-10- and 11-year-old sons to a SlutWalk. Much of this hasn’t always gone over well with other parents who haven’t had similar conversations or “are really attached to the gender binary,” said Clark. She advises parents not to simply pass the buck to the school system when it comes to teaching sex education, but play an active role. “Parents need to know that the comprehensive sex ed they may have received in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s is not the same sex ed their kids are learning,” advised Clark. “You have to be proactive and ask for the curriculum.”
The results, as Alice Dreger recently found out when sitting in on her son’s fear-based sex ed class, which taught that condoms fail 18 percent of the time, may be shocking. As Dreger wrote in The Stranger, “I’m kicking myself now for not having gone to all those school-board meetings where they talked about the sex-ed curriculum … If people like me—people who want to see sex ed include teaching about masturbation, the pleasure urge, the existence of LGBT people—don’t show up and push our side, the ‘middle ground’ turns out to be damned near the right.”
For Holliday, going through the experience of coming out about her various sexual roles seems to have made her all the more committed to being a positive role model regarding sex for her daughter, especially in contrast with her own upbringing, which amounted to sex being “shrouded in shame, secrets and confusion,” she said.
No question is TMI for Holliday as a parent. The result? She and her daughter are able to talk about sex as a fact of life, rather than a mystery. “One time when she was 8, my partner was out of town,” Holiday recalled, “and I sighed to her, ‘I miss him.’ She responded with such sweet understanding: ‘I know Mommy, you can’t play sex with him.’ She knows how important sex is to me. She knows sex is a passion of mine, just like drawing is a passion of hers.”
Contrary to what the above may sound like, Holliday doesn’t foist unwanted information upon her child. “My daughter doesn’t Google me or read my website,” Holliday explained. “She doesn’t have to; she lives with me. She just asks what she is curious about and I give her honest and age-appropriate answers. She’s not interested in the explicit details. She’s fine with me being bisexual and polyamorous. She knows I help people and make a difference, and she is proud of me for that.”
Her now-teenage daughter is the one who asked to attend a talk earlier this year on sexual roleplay put on by the group Holliday co-founded, Sex Positive St. Louis. As Holliday wrote on her blog about the event, she was the one who asked her daughter, “If you go, do you agree that will let me know if you are uncomfortable at any time and would like to leave? And do you agree that we can talk openly about it afterward?” Her daughter agreed, and left the talk, which covered “elaborate roleplay scenes involving incest, rape, dolls, prison, military school [and] multiple people” enthused—not because she wants to participate herself, but because, in her words, “I used to think all those things were scary and bad, but now I know you can play with those things and they’re not so scary!”
Taking your child to hear about sexual roleplay may push the comfort level of many parents, but there are other ways of creating just as open a dialogue about sex so kids know they don’t have to look solely outside their families for guidance.
For Anne, who’s part of a blended family parenting four children ranging from toddler to pre-kindergarten, while there hasn’t been explicit talk about sex yet, there have been discussions about consent, meaning, “No forced hugs or kisses, and when they say ‘no’ or ‘stop’ when playing tickles or other games, we instantly stop until they say go again.”
Much of Anne’s approach involves setting the groundwork for future questions and creating a space where her kids have age-appropriate information and the space to ask questions. “They have as much control over their bodies and physical appearances as is possible,” she said. “They know the actual terms for their body parts, including genitalia. There is no shaming involved regarding their exploring their bodies, but that you need to touch your body with clean hands and in privacy. We’re not operating under the assumption that the kids will be straight, so as they begin to work out what their sexuality is my hope is that they’ll feel slightly less lost growing up knowing that sexuality is often fluid.”
For those who want to be open with their kids about sex but aren’t sure how, Holliday offers this advice. “When your kid asks you a sex question that catches you off guard and makes you flinch, take a deep breath and say, ‘That’s a really great question. Can I have a moment to think about that?’ Gather your thoughts, and answer your child as honest and positively as you can.”
Remember, too, that the parent can set the tone not just for an individual conversation, but their child’s long-term approach to thinking about sex. “We underestimate our kids,” Holliday said. “My daughter has been glad to know that grown-ups have toys and enjoy sexy playtime since she was about 7. They can handle more than you think, especially if you teach them from an early age that sex is natural and interesting.”
AN INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS HAS NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT.
Your financial support helps DAME continue to cover the critical policies, politics social changes impacting woman and their allies.