Sex & Relationships

Can America's Attitude Towards Sex Get Any Worse? (Or, What Happened When My Son Said 'Breast' in Pre-School)

Since we are mostly batty when it comes to teaching kids about sex, many youth are exposed, out of neglect or deliberate misdirection, to information that is harmful or false.

Few topics generate as much terror in America as sex, unless it is sex+children+education. Perhaps that is why sometimes even the most caring parents prefer to let schools (or as the case may be, porn) to provide the instructions. Quite simply, we are accustomed to allowing our children to view violence early on, but teaching them about the science or pleasure of our bodies dampens confidence quicker than a cold shower on a freezing day. We squirm, we deny, we laugh nervously and freak out frequently.

I am the mother of two and a relationship writer, so it is no surprise that I’m often approached to answer questions or offer advice. Equally likely are the more disquieting moments when someone hears just how ‘open’ I’ve been with my own children (by open I mean answering their questions directly, simply and truthfully). More than once I’ve been on the receiving end of an indignant stare, the kind that with one raised eyebrow says, oh-no-you-didn’t-just-tell-your-kid-that.

When my son was three years old, he used the word ‘breast’ in preschool to describe where a baby was nursing on its mother. No one questioned the appropriateness of the comment. No touching was involved, no asking to see or showing took place, but another parent ranted to the headmistress that her offspring was now the victim of premature exposure to the anatomically correct term for a woman’s form.

Called into the office like a wayward adolescent, I said to the principal that if we weren’t allowed to use proper words, could she suggest alternatives that were more suitable.

As it turned out, nothing really. Boobies, teats, ta-tas, rack or bubbles (my proffered snarky list) were a total No-No. Her request: avoid discussions involving anything overtly sexual (in this case, we were only teaching the correct names for body parts) with my son, lest he repeat what he learned in preschool. Furthermore, she expected me to ask my toddler to not use ‘breast’ again in preschool. Seriously. (Score one for the prudes, zero for the children.)

Culture of Prudes

Since we are mostly batty when it comes to teaching kids about sex, the resultant vacuum is that many youth are exposed, out of neglect or deliberate misdirection, to information that is either harmful or false, particularly for girls (though I will discuss why I believe one solution lies in rethinking sex-education for boys).

Blame for these trends gets placed upon parents, schools, public policy, marketing and advertisements, and a pornified media, with parents often being on the defense for failing to censor what their children see while the conglomerates hide behind freedom of speech.

What we face today is a perfect storm: puritanical overtones color many sex education programs; parents are overwhelmed; and policy makers face a deluge of sociopolitical pressures. At the same time rampant and repeated exposure to images, content and depictions of sexuality, particularly female sexuality, is narrow, sleazy or distorted.

Sexual Crossroads

Kids today are often, “indirect witnesses to early sexualization,” through fashion and advertising, says Ruth Neustifter, PhD, a specialist in child and family development and professional sexuality educator. The problem rarely is kids' reactions, so much as our own. Neustifter is an adjunct graduate professor, author of The Nice Girl's Guide to Talking Dirty: Ignite Your Sex Life with Naughty Whispers, Hot Desires, and Screams of Passion (June 2011), and founder of She’s joined by a virtual army of advocates who know we can’t changed the media, but we can change how we view it.

The American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls was formed in 2007 in response to public concern on the matter.
The report outlined a working definition of sexualization vs. healthy sexuality, gave an overview of evidence (as if we can’t see for ourselves just how widespread the problem is) and provided positive alternatives for research, practice, education and training, policy and public awareness. It was comprehensive, geared towards professionals and policy makers, with minimal specifics for parents and caregivers.

In conjunction with its publication, an astounding number of articles, blogs, books, organizations and community-based efforts are also chipping away at the problem: resources such as So Sexy So Soon by Diane Levin (Random House, 2009),,, or, to name a few. Most of the information is geared towards girls (who are overwhelmingly the ones most likely to be objectified), leaving parents of boys to somehow figure out best to not do the objectifying. After all, the screwed up messages about sex hurt us all.

The Naked Truth

A few weeks ago, my boy opened a popular culture magazine (surprise number 1) and then exclaimed, “Mommy. She’s not wearing clothes.” (Surprise number 2).

Sure enough, on the page was a picture of Sean Lennon and his girlfriend/business partner, Charlotte Kemp Muhl. Lennon was dressed in a striped suit, sitting on a piano bench, casually leaning against the keys, the perfect image of studied irony.

Muhl on the other hand, was naked (“except for a ring, mommy”), prone on top of the piano, her long hair covering her breasts, with an expression on her face suggesting she was ready for more than music lessons (This in not meant to pass judgment or be taken as assumptive, and is relevant to the story). In a split second, I realized that this was one of those Talk moments, and I had better get it right. My first impulse was to slam the magazine shut. I went with plan B and put my angst aside (not easy!) to give him a chance to process. Those instincts paid off, said Neustifter.

“One thing that trips adults up is that our brains our developed biologically and socially speaking so we can process [sexualized content] as adults. We forget that children’s brain are processing it as a fact based, not erotic based,” she explained.

“As adults, we have a lot of baggage about sexuality, and freak out” when our children see something they shouldn’t. Whether or not the photo in question was too risqué for my son to see is just one consideration, according to Neustifter, who emphasizes that we must be there to help them analyze what they’ve seen.

“A child doesn’t have a social story in the background. They just want the answer to their immediate question.” Instead, what happens is that grown-ups complicate the situation by allowing their own emotional reactions to get in the way.

Turns out, because I was able to do a gut check and not panic (outwardly at least), my second grader now has a better understanding of the body wars against females.

Meanwhile, what I learned from him is that not only must we engage boys as much as girls in my opinion, but also that the antidote for harmful, too early sexualization is within reach.

Not All Sex Talk is Sexualized

Like many of her sex education advocates, Neustifter acknowledges that we are at a crossroads rooted in a misdirected desire to protect our children.

“We want to put our kids in a beautiful wonderful box and we delude ourselves with that goal, but it’s not accurate to our world. It’s based on love and does a disservice.”

No one would stop teaching their child to read because they might read something horrible, she points out. We also fear we will make mistakes as adults, or we may have sexual history we are ashamed of. “We want our kids to get it right, and we worry we won’t be up for the job.”

Neustifter is adamant that “it’s better to do a half-assed job than provide no sex education at all. If we don’t do it, the forces we are worried about will.”

Make Love, Not Porn

Those pressures include the world wide web of porn, with far reaching consequences that include, among other things, an explosion of ‘designer vagina’ surgeries. Not everyone agrees to the degree of blame, nevertheless, other related worries include a hook-up culture, reports of declining rates of orgasm among younger women, and erectile dysfunction in young men.

The sexualized world our children are growing up with is a legacy few imagined, and while the debate rages, children watch.

The point is simple: When females are repeatedly portrayed as sexualized objects, we’ve got to guide our boys and girls most vigilantly through this mind-field.

Making Sense Out of Sex

“We have the wonderful opportunity, slowly, gradually, and in an age appropriate manner to teach children,” Neustifter said to me. Doing so won’t encourage early sex experimentation. On the contrary, she insists that discussing intimacy and the portrayal of sex in our culture is the best way to prevent coercive or abusive sexual experiences.

“When we ask our children questions about what they’ve learned or seen, and we find out where they are, we are doing a great protective service to children.” Giving children the right language and an adult to talk to means we can, when necessary, intervene if something untoward is happening.

“It’s counter intuitive to many, but the younger we start these discussions, the better,” insists Neustifter. Furthermore, in her informed opinion, that’s an essential component to preparing the next generation of critical thinkers instead of brainless consumers of sexed-up marketing.

“It’s natural and normal for children to be exploring their sexuality all the time as they grow up. Playing doctor, exploring kissing, etc. are all part of childhood.”

After all, children don’t suddenly develop sexually at 18. It’s a slow progression, and if we try to freeze their sexuality until they are at the right age, we do them a huge disservice, especially in a world as raunchy as the one in which we live.