10 Years of Tears: Sexual Healing - Removing Shame from Sex Education

Illustration by Priscilla Yu

Illustration by Priscilla Yu

10 YEARS OF TEARS

It's our 10th anniversary this year and we're feeling a little weepy‒that’s why we’ve dusted off the archives to bring you highlights from our back issues over the last 10 years. Join us as we take a look back at 10 years of SAD Magazine, revisiting the memories and the people that made SAD what it is today. We're not crying, you’re crying.

Everyone on TV gets “the talk.” Usually it’s a stumbling, awkward, five-minute well of comedy that has been returned to so many times, it’s drier than the bird vagina in the metaphor the fictional parents use when talking to their fictional kids about sex. I’m not a fictional person, and neither is my dad, but the only “talk” Iever received was him telling me to keep it in my pants––a pithy lesson that surely would’ve netted a few laughs from a studio audience. Unfortunately, my family’s—and whole generation of family’s and classroom’s—Al Bundy–like aversion to open, honest discussions about sex has led to a lot of confusion and frustration. Kristen Gilbert, director of education at Opt—a sexual health clinic in Vancouver—teaches people of all ages about human sexuality. She talks to students across British Columbia about puberty changes, conception, sexual decision-making, birth control, identity, values, and consent, and teaches parents and adults how to talk about these subjects with children and among themselves. She is providing the in-depth lessons I wish I’d received.

I had a parent ask me once, ‘Since many people have a powerful shame reaction to talking about sex, don’t you think that means we shouldn’t talk about it?’” Gilbert says. “I think he was suggesting that we have some type of instinctual or natural urge to avoid discussing all things sexual. But I disagree: shame is learned.” She argues that we start kids on this path when they’re young, even with childish song lyrics like, “Heads and shoulders, knees and toes,” which essentially refuses to acknowledge that there is anything between the shoulders and knees. “If we do name those parts, we call them a silly or vague name (like the private parts, or ‘down there’),” she says. “‘Genitals’ is a perfectly fine word—not a swear word, and no child has ever been injured by learning to say it. You would never teach a kid to call their nose a ‘sniffer’, or their elbow an ‘arm-bender’. Teaching kids that their genitals need a code word just teaches them that those are bad or shameful places.”

That, unfortunately, made a lot of sense. We essentially grow up following asexuality-shaming lesson plan. But is it possible to unlearn? If the lead detectives on Bones have a primetime make-out scene while my Dad and I are in the same room, we both still cringe (for me, mostly because I’m watching Bones). But Gilbert believes we can get past the shame; besides going from school to school, she is also working on other ways to cut it off at the root. “We offer a great workshop at Opt called the Askable Adult,” says Gilbert. “The parents and caregivers who attend learn about how to connect with the kids they love, and open up the conversation about bodies, and choices, and sex, and pleasure, and all the things you want to talk to your kid about but don’t know where to begin.”

Instead of waiting for the perfect moment (which, realistically, does not exist), Gilbert suggests mentioning “sexuality regularly and conversationally; model that healthy relationships include discussions about bodies and pleasure and choices. And practice what we call the ‘neutral mask’—that facial expression that says, ‘Sure, we can talk about this—I’m interested and engaged,’ instead of the face that says, ‘This is going to be awful.’” Though it might be acting at first, it will eventually build a strong and tight knit relationship between parent and child—making the latter far more likely to listen to the former’s values and lessons when it comes to sex.

Getting that connection is key, because as Gilbert explains, “if we teach people that they can’t talk about sex, they will also learn that they can’t ask for information or help when they need it. For children this can mean that they are unable to identify when they’re being touched inappropriately, and they will not know how to ask for help or know who to talk to.

I am still jaded by the state of the sexual education I received as a kid, and wouldn’t wish my subsequently awful, awkward, and overall uninformed sexual experiences on anyone. Thankfully, Gilbert sees a positive shift coming for the future.“ This is may be a grand pronouncement to make, but I think that the current generation of school-aged kids are going to be completely different kinds of adults than you or me,” she says. “Because they are growing up in a cohort where sex education is the norm, there will be fewer gaps in their knowledge, and they will be more prepared and skilled to engage in discussions about sex with their own kids, and with their clients, students, or patients.” And while she certainly likes her work, she has a dream: “Wouldn’t it be great if I could retire early because no one needed me to come draw a penis on the board for them anymore?”