Conscious Sexual Self

Connection Requires Consciousness

Creating a Body-Positive Home For Your Kids

 

Every day we are teaching kids what to think about their bodies and how to treat them. Some might say our society is a hostile environment for bodies with so many encouragements to view our body from the outside, rather than to experience and listen to it from the inside. Here are a few tips for helping kids have a more body-positive time at home.

 

* Teach attention to and identification of body sensations, such as tired, hungry, etc.  Help your children to identify what they are experiencing in their bodies. It is so easy for us to just think, “Man, you are cranky today” or “He is whiny because he is tired”. It can be really helpful for kids to focus on what their body is telling them. Have a conversation with your child – How do you feel when you are getting sleepy? Maybe give them some ideas. For example, “When I get sleepy, things that are normally easy for me can start to seem hard and sometimes my body feels really slow and heavy”. Once your child learns that their body gives them important information, they can also learn that they can take action to take care of it. What helps you when you are feeling sleepy? Have these kinds of little conversations about feeling hungry, needing attention or love, being scared, all kinds of experiences that we can feel in our bodies. Here’s the tough part, parents – In teaching your children to take care of their own bodies sensations and needs, you need to model taking care of your own. So, are you feeling tired? What could you do to help you to recover a little bit?

 

* Encourage exploration of individual strengths, rather than pushing a mold   The family sport may be baseball, but if your child’s hand eye coordination isn’t where it may need to be for them to enjoy and feel successful at baseball, allow them to explore other sports or activities that might help them find a sense of accomplishment. Encourage all your children, but especially those under 10 years old, to experiment with different activities and have fun discovering all the varied ways to be active. Invite family play that includes touch, stretching, silly non-choreographed movement or dancing, or exploration of their senses, all ways for your children to discover their own bodies and what it can do and feel. Think of movement at fun, not work, and you may be amazed at what changes.

 

* Focus on eating for energy and pleasure  Food tastes good and food fuels us to live our lives, but so often we talk about food and the way we eat it as though it says something about our value or ethics as a person. How often have you said, in front of your kids, “Oh I shouldn’t eat that” or “I was so bad for eating that ice cream”. Help your children focus on food choices with as little shaming as possible. And the best way to do this is to model that attitude with yourself and your choices. For example, saying “Cookies sound good, but I know I have a busy afternoon ahead of me so I am going to have something that will give me more energy” or “I would love one of your brownies and I am going to sit here and really enjoy it”. These responses are not shame based and they show food as an ally to support you in feeling good and functioning the way you want to.

 

* Do not allow teasing about bodies in your house  Very often I hear dads say that they used to bond with their kids through playful teasing and then when puberty hit their kids suddenly starting taking it so seriously. Yes, part of teen development is to be very worried about being “normal” and living up to external standards. For several years it becomes very hard for teens to joke about themselves. This does not mean that they have permanently lost their sense of humor, although it may feel like that. However, teasing through this time in their lives or any other can be very painful and can shut down lines of communication between you. I also hear teens, and adults, say that teasing from siblings was an incredibly painful part of growing up and often still stings. So have family ground rules set in place that no one (including parents) gets teased about how their body looks or works. Find other ways to joke and be playful that are non-critical.

 

* Teach children to look at media and fads with a critical eye  Here’s the thing about this one – I say with a critical eye, not with your critical eye. You cannot force your children to see things your way, although many have tried. What you can teach them is to ask questions about what they see, to think about unseen consequences or motivations, to know that they have the right to disagree even with things that are hugely popular. Watch TV or listen to the radio with your children, and invite conversation about what is happening. Ask your children what they think about something at least as often as you share what you think. Have a night when TV watching is a game and you have to yell out every time someone talks about being on a diet or every time you see a woman in underwear (this happens often even during children’s’ programming hours). Have fun, be loud, and then talk about what they think about seeing those things on TV so often. Nominate other things to look for in TV that you want to start a conversation about.

 

* Walk Your Talk Do you want to raise kids who are proud and comfortable in their bodies? How are you doing with that for yourself? Kids hear the way you talk. They notice when you delete every photo of yourself. Heck, they notice when you grimace at the mirror. Take care of yourself. Model being kind and treating your body with respect. Its not too late to create a body-positive place for yourself.

 

Mommy Will You Marry Me?

  I love you SOOOO much.

 

Our first attachments are to our caregivers. This is a unique form of love, with need and safety and deep power differentials, that will impact us our entire life. It is also one of the first relationships were we begin to “practice” with a child’s mind the idea of romance, and its connection to love. Children learn by playing, enacting scenarios and seeing how it feels. This can be empowering even though the play is “not real” as the child imagines that they could handle themselves in that scenario.

 

It is very common for children around age 4 to 6 to develop crushes on adults in their life, more commonly a parent. This can be an icky and awkward phase for the parent who is the focus of their attention since it feels very inappropriate. Children in this stage may profess their love, get jealous of the parent’s partner, ask for extra attention, and even try to kiss the parent the way they saw in cartoons. For the child’s development though it is entirely appropriate to imagine and pretend and to get information from adult’s responses. It makes sense for a child to try these new possibilities out with someone they love, look up to and feel safe with, so they are actually making a good choice in play partner. It is helpful if adults are calm and kind about this phase (remember it will pass soon enough). Gently saying something like, “I love you too, so much. You are my beautiful little boy. But romantic love, when people get married or kiss passionately or XYZ, happens between two people who are close in age. So I will be with an adult, like me. And you will eventually find someone your age to be with. And you and I get to love each other as mommy and son and that is a really special love”.

 

What can happen, in large part because most adults have a healthy internal taboo against sex with children, is that adults overreact to a child’s natural style of learning – experimentation and play practice. Children may get shamed or unintentionally scared by an adult’s negative reaction. It is important to set firm boundaries as the adult about how you do and don’t want to be touched and also about the limits of your relationship (as true with children as with other adults, right?). There is no need to scold or punish a child for having their version of a crush, in fact this could cause them to feel uncomfortable or to doubt those feelings when they arise later in life. There is also no need to encourage the feelings and adults should be careful that they are not using the child’s affection to manipulate the child’s behavior or to create triangles or alliances in the family. Just remember that the child is trying on adult roles, not having adult feelings.

 

This is the same age that many kids will play house, acting out family dynamics, patterns, and habits in ways that can be dismaying or adorable to those being mimicked. Adults are role models, even when we are not aware of it, and children look to us for guidance on how to do this thing called life. They are taught early on, in fairytales and stories, TV shows, and magazine covers in the checkout line, that romantic love is something to be desired. One of the crucial things they seek to learn from us is how to love and be loved. Let’s strive to show them love can be kind, understanding, and unconditional but also with clear boundaries. Not a bad thing to  remind ourselves of too.

 

Discarded : Information About Foreskin

 Welcome to the world, little one

One of the first sexual interventions a parent makes for a child is the decision to circumcise or not. And, as with many future sexual interventions, the parents may not have the best or most accurate information. We have been seriously misinformed about the foreskin. Many of us grew up thinking it was an unimportant, inconsequential flap of skin. But, generally speaking, our bodies don’t work that way, right? Think about it – how many other body parts do we just figure we can do without?

The foreskin actually has several purposes. First it represents 25-50% of the skin of the penis and is full of nerve endings. The most sensitive nerve endings of the penis are in a ring on the inner foreskin which are stimulated by stretch and movement. The foreskin is a double layer skin system with the inner layer containing glands that produce fluid to keep the penis protected and slippery. The soft internal layer also provides some immune protection with plasma cells, which secrete antibodies, and pathogen-killing enzymes. The foreskin protects the sensitive head of the penis when it is unerect. Without the foreskin the skin of the penis toughens up a bit as it is exposed to more friction through daily life. The foreskin also maintains lubrication and decreases friction during penetrative intercourse by bunching at the opening of the vagina. This could also provide more stimulation of the vulva.

This may be unwelcome information to you, either because you have chosen to circumcise a child or because you yourself were circumcised. But I think it is important to have accurate information about our bodies, including all body parts. There has been confusing information about health risks associated with keeping the foreskin but even in the face of those questions not one world health association actually recommends routine circumcision. In America we are more familiar with the look of a circumcised penis, although that will be changing as our circumcision rates are dropping. The CDC reports that in 2009 68% of US baby boys were not circumcised. Globally the rate of boys left intact is 70 -80%. Religious considerations are a family’s to consider and weigh, but weight them with complete information in mind.

If you are a man who has been circumcised you may feel some grief or anger about this decision that was made for you before you could choose for yourself. You may feel sadness about the unknowns, what might have been with your foreskin intact. It is difficult to compare the experience of a man uncircumcised since birth with a man who was circumcised. The best response is to grieve as you need to and to love your body as it is today. Remember there is much joy and pleasure to be had as you explore what works for you and your body.

 Welcome to the World, little one

 

Is masturbation instinctual?

 I never had this sign fully explained to me.

 

The classroom in Uganda had cement walls and all the doors and windows open because it was hot. This let some chickens into the classroom which I had gotten used to. My highly intelligent and driven students were there getting their Master’s degrees in Psychology. We were having a tense morning, having conversations about cultural sexual norms and myths about masturbation. One of my students said, almost in passing, “America brought masturbation to Africa”. Now I admit, part of me, the hot, tired, kind of punchy with culture shock part, felt a bit delighted by this statement and wanted to make some jokes like, “wow, an export that we can be proud of” or some such. But I knew we were talking about something deeper - what we believe is natural sexual behavior.

Now the thing that was funny about this for me was that my perspective on masturbation was so different. I see it as a natural part of human behavior, not invented or exported or even necessarily taught. I believe that with this highly sensitive body that we are born with, it is natural to explore it. It is normal to find those super sensitive, nerve rich places and it is normal to want to touch them sometimes. Sex researcher Kinsey described masturbation as instinctual human behavior. Young kids touch themselves without being taught to do so. Adults with evolving sexual desire will find that masturbation can relieve internal and physical pressure. All over the world in all kinds of cultural settings people masturbate, though they may not tell anyone about it. I believe that without any cultural influence one way or another people will find masturbation for themselves. They may not get creative about it but they will do it. (And as far as creativity goes, there is a rich history of sex toys that goes way back.)

For all the concerns about masturbation, and they have been intense, research has been unable to document any health or psychological damage from common masturbation habits. (Like all other behaviors, masturbation can be done compulsively but this is not a common outcome of masturbating). In fact, many studies have found benefits associated with orgasms, which for many people may be most easily reached through masturbation at least at some periods in their life.  In our class in Uganda, we were able to reach some agreement and what I might call respect for the possible benefits of masturbation, even in a cultural model that only wants to acknowledge heterosexual partnered procreative sex as “normal” sex. Together we honored the gifts of masturbation such as, a release of sexual tension that may allow someone to make other sexual choices more clearly, a way to learn how your own body works so you can take more pleasure in sex with a partner, a strategy to re-learn arousal patterns and help to relieve sexual pain patterns.

I doubt any of my students in Uganda are going to endorse masturbation and that is ok. But I think they were able to see that it doesn’t need to be feared and that the instinct to masturbate may come from some healthy internal drives, rather than of from external perverting influences. Masturbation, like other sexual behaviors, is a choice we have, a personal choice. Nothing to be afraid of.

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How Do We Teach Sexual Respect?

 

Research released this year has shown that instances of sexual coercion among teens are disturbingly high. What was ground-breaking about this study is that it focused on self reports of perpetration. It asked questions about sexual coercion- verbally intimidating, pressuring, using guilt, getting someone drunk, or harassing behaviors- as well as forced sexual contact. Teenagers were asked if they “had tried to make someone have sex with me when I knew they didn’t want to”, or “made someone have sex with me when I knew they didn’t want to”. And based on their own responses – nearly 10% of teens have been sexually coercive.  Also disturbing are patterns around personal responsibility. Fully 50% of the perpetrators said that the victim was completely responsible for what happened. And by the way, by the age of 18 perpetrators were equally boys and girls.

 

A 2008 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy looked at teens’ behaviors around sharing sexual content online. They found that 25% of girl and 33% of boys reported that they had been shown naked pictures intended to have been sent privately to someone else.  Add this to what we have seen in the news about patterns of sexual harassment and bullying among teens and children.

 

I have believed for a long time that we should to be providing better and more comprehensive sexual education. Now it is clear to me that not only do we need to talk about sexual health and safety, but we need to be talking about sexual respect. It is time to define polite sexual conduct. And to erase once and for all the insidious idea that if someone is behaving sexually, they no longer deserve respect.

 

If kids are learning just by observing what is going on around them, then I can understand how they would be confused about how to treat others respectfully. In this era of decreased privacy and people’s personal lives as public entertainment, it is critical to teach about personal privacy and choice. Maybe the ever- intensifying ramp up from afternoon talks shows featuring humiliations, have numbed us to other people’s shame and turned us into virtual perpetrators, invited to laugh at someone falling down drunk and flashing their underwear. Humiliation has become entertainment. In this environment, how do we talk to kids about vulnerability? How do we help them to separate how we relate to the “real lives” on TV from how we relate to real people in our lives? How, in a world of selfies and sex tapes, do we talk about the fact that many people want their sex life to be private and that beginning a sexual relationship with someone can be a tender, trusting act? We need to explain why it is ok to laugh at the sexual behavior of “Carlos Danger” but not at the girl in your class who sent a topless pic to the person she has a crush on. And while we are at it, we need to talk about handling frustration and that you will not get to satisfy every desire you have the moment you have it, regardless of what the constant availability of nearly everything else may imply.

 

 Maybe we can tell ourselves that as adults we that we are clear on where to draw the line between harmless amusement at other’s expense and actual harm, or who has abdicated their right to sexual choice or privacy. But it is time to admit that kids aren’t clear about that.

 

A Lifetime of Sexy?

You all know I am pro-sex. Pro-sexuality, pro expressing your sexuality, pro feeling sexy. But I am getting more and more disgusted with the pressure that is now being put on young girls to fit into an adult model of sexy – which is hardly adult, but rather to try to look as much like a 20 year old as possible, but that is another post.

What am I talking about, in case you have missed this trend. Most recently Walmart has begun advertising for their make-up line for tweens (8-12 year olds). Now playing with make-up is one thing. I have memories of glittery blue eyeshadow and borrowing grandma’s lipstick and all that. But this line is clearly more for everyday makeup and – it includes anti-aging ingredients!!! What?! That line is not overtly sexualized, just your average invitation to not feel good enough about yourself. But it comes on the heels of several companies controversial panty lines for tweens.  And let’s not forget Abercrombie & Fitch’s 2011 line of push-up, padded bikini tops for girls age 7- 12. Yuck. So now girls can feel bad about their breast size before they are even growing breasts.

Doing just a tiny bit of internet searching I have now discovered the booming business of marketing bikini waxes to teens & pre-teens. I found a few waxing professionals that were quoted as saying that in the past few years 20% of their waxing was for tween or younger. If this is accurate, it boggles my mind. One well known spa catering to teen and younger waxing’s advertising line is “If a teenager has never been waxed before, hair growth can be stopped in just 2 to 6 sessions. Save your teenager a lifetime of waxing... and put the money in the bank for her college education instead!”  Ugh, or maybe teach her that waxing isn’t compulsory and she can choose how to spend her money? The owner of this salon also apparently told the New York Post that children should begin waxing at age 6. Am I missing something? Does this make sense? Again, I am not opposed to waxing. If you want the no hair look, wax away. I am opposed to us all pretending that waxing is a necessity in life – and selling this idea to kids.

There is more madness out there of course, such as Tesco’s Peek-a-Boo Pole Dancing kit, advertised  as “suitable for participants of 11 years old and upwards”. It included fake money and a garter belt to put it in. Not a Saturday Night Live skit, real life, sorry to say. http://www.cracked.com/article_19288_8-weirdly-sexual-products-you-wont-believe-are-kids.html#ixzz2arCsWjFJ) But this is so over the top ridiculous it actually worries me less than the more subtle everyday pressures that are building for kids and the way it shapes their future sexuality and self esteem.

I think it is natural and healthy for kids to play at being adults. They will dress-up, play house, play with make-up, even stuff their tops or bellies to match grown women’s bodies. This kind of self-motivated exploration is one thing. Moving into marketing that manufactures desire and, even worse, fear that you need these things to be “normal” is something entirely different.

When I get past my initial gut disgust response, I see that this is really about creating dedicated consumers early. The sooner we can market to young children to get them to feel that they have to be thinner, less hairy, more tan, etc, the more money they will spend on products in a lifetime. It is not news that the marketing mechanisms will happily ask us to sacrifice our self confidence, sexual comfort, and dignity so that we buy more. Why would their approach to children be different? I don’t believe that the intent behind these products and marketing schemes is really to sexualize children, although that is a side-effect, the intention is to turn them into insecure, desperate consumers.

My rage comes from the fact that we are supporting campaigns that tell children they are not beautiful unless they conform to a Victoria’s Secret Model look. I am sad that we are becoming jaded to the natural beauty that children are born with. I am angry that we continue to infringe upon children’s natural sexual development, either by stifling and shaming or now by defining it so narrowly as a product to buy to keep up with others. After all, if we feel good about who we are, at any point in our lives, what do we need to buy?

 

Happy Distractions

Recently there was a tiny article in the news about a middle school principal banning girls from wearing strapless dresses to the school dance because they “distract boys”. Parents at the school are protesting and I think they should, for several reasons. I also think this story says a lot about the ways we as a society go wrong in addressing adolescent sexuality.

First question of course is – what are the boys supposed to be focusing on at a school dance? I mean truly, what are they distracted from that is so important? Should they be finely honing their dance moves? Memorizing song lyrics? Part of what is maddening about this story, is that the principal seems to have missed the point of a school dance in the first place. We are supposed to be distracted by our fellow students, we are supposed to learn to dance and flirt and get flustered by mutual and not so mutual attractions. This is not about troublesome distractions, this is about pretending that adolescents are not going to actually be interested in each other’s bodies or sex.

The next piece of this that disturbs me is this: if boys are not supposed to be distracted in this way, how will they ever learn to handle the sexual  distractions that are around them all the time? I believe that one of the important tasks we (all of us, boy and girls) are to learn in adolescence is how to handle our own sexual energy and desires, while respecting others boundaries and appropriate social settings. Even if adults could manage to create an environment in which teenage boys were not distracted by people they were attracted to, who would this serve? Certainly not their future partners. Not the boys themselves. We need to learn that our sexual energy and desire is not an overwhelming force over which we have no control. We have to learn to be distracted and still function. And we have to learn to not blame our distraction on the externals, other people, cute girls, etc, but to own that we have choices in the way we behave and to some extent in where we focus our mind and thoughts.

And then there is the piece that many parents at this school complained about, which is the implication that girls, by the way they dress, behave, look, should mediate the boys’ sexuality. This is a dangerous implication that has shown its ugly head in rape cases and sexual harassment cases for years. If only women can carry the burden of repressing our sexual natures, then we would be safe from the consequences, and perhaps the freedoms, of sexuality. This outdated sexist model has got to go. Now.

We are all responsible for our own sexual behaviors. It can be a challenge sometimes, no doubt. We are surrounded by a big juicy, sexy world with lots of distractions. Learning how to navigate in that world is valuable and we need to support kids, and adults, in how to do that with grace, respect, and also excitement and passion. Invite sexual distraction – without it the world would be a much less alive place.

 

Growing Out of Two Options

The other day I was sitting at a food stand waiting for my lunch, when a little boy came up to show me his superhero outfit. It was quite nice and so I appreciated it, watched him run up and down a ramp superhero fast. He let me know right away however that he was not a superhero, he was just a boy. Followed by, “I am a boy, not a girl”. His mom seemed a bit embarrassed about this and she said, almost apologetically, that she wasn’t sure why but he had been stating this lately – that he is a boy and not a girl.

As someone who has studied developmental psychology, I knew right away why he has been saying this lately and it is not necessarily that he had been getting any external pressure or flack about gender roles. He was probably about 4 or 5, exactly the age when our minds are rapidly figuring out how to be safe and competent in the world around us. One of the first ways it does this is to categorize. Our minds ability to put things into categories quickly is a critical survival mechanism, and one we share with animals although our categories go much wider. We need to remember quickly how to assess edible/not edible, friend/foe, safe/dangerous.  As this little guy showed, we also assess for other categories, adult/child, superhero/regular human, girl/boy. So a focus on binary categories at pre-school age is very common. It is not a sign of future discrimination or rigid thinking. It is a way this little human is trying to protect himself, where do I fit in? What is expected of me? What can and can’t I do?

What is not normal or necessary is to expect ourselves to stay in this categorizing mindset. As we grow and develop we are able to expand containers of categories, add new and more complex options, and even to see and think outside these boxes all together. Even at 5 years old, children are able to grasp diversity within people and things. They can understand that the categories don’t always fit neatly, just as they can understand and are actively learning that the rules are different in different settings. They get exposed to people and things that contradict what they learned before and their definitions and options expand. The human mind is able to contain vast diversity, almost unlimited options – just as humanity does. So why are we so often relying on old containers that we could have outgrown in elementary school? Why are we still talking about people as though there are only two options for gender? Why is our language for the way we represent who we are still limited to “I am a boy, I am not a girl”? Why don’t we use the full limits of our minds more often?

 So I appreciate the developmental place this little boy (self identified) was in. I see how we need to think this way for a period of time as we grow. But I also look forward to the time when he is able and encouraged to think outside those boxes. When he realizes he can define himself in any number of ways - maybe he needs to make up a new word to fully represent a gender or other aspects of who he is.  I look forward to the time we all can do this. Who knows, maybe he will also figure out soon the ways in which he can be a superhero while also just a boy.