My 7-year-old daughter asked me a question yesterday that sparked a conversation about sex, pleasure, consent, rape, marriage, sexual fantasies, communication and respect.
I want to share it with you for a couple of reasons.
1. Because I think that many people could benefit from the discussion.
2. Because I’d like to share how I talk to my kids about these issues for other people who are wondering how they can start.
I realize not everyone is comfortable having conversations quite this blunt with their kids. We talk a lot about age appropriateness, but no one really knows what that means.
My husband and I long ago agreed that if our children were old enough to ask the question, they were old enough to hear the answer. We also agreed that we wanted to try to the throw the ball a little high, to make them reach for understanding, to give them something to think about and come back to us with.
By always being willing to answer any of our children’s questions to the best of our abilities – admitting when we didn’t know something, doing research together to get the answers – we have created a safe space in our home that allows them to get the information they need to be safe, to be prepared and to make healthy choices.
So yes, my daughter is only 7. But she’s old enough, and mature enough, to handle this conversation. Other parents will need to judge their own children’s maturity as well as their own comfort level around these topics.
When in doubt – be honest, and trust your children. (You can also try role playing with your spouse or partner.)
The Kid: “Mom, can you have sex with someone while they’re sleeping without that person feeling it or waking up?”
Me: “It’s physically possible. Depending on how hard that person is sleeping. If they’ve been drinking a lot, or doing certain drugs that can make them pass out so that they won’t wake up. But, if you do that – it’s rape.”
Me: “Yeah. If they’re asleep, they couldn’t give consent, could they? They couldn’t give you permission to have sex with them, right? That’s what rape is – having sex with someone without their permission.”
Kid: “But what if you’re married?”
Me: “I’m married to daddy, but that doesn’t mean he can have sex with me any time he wants, he still has to ask. And I still have to ask him. Marriage doesn’t mean having to have sex whenever your partner wants it. Sometimes you’re sick, or tired, or you just want to read a book. If I’m asleep and daddy wants sex, he has to wake me up and ask. And I can say no and then he has to leave me alone and let me go back to sleep.”
Kid: “Well, what if you love someone and so you tell them that you’ll have sex with them anytime they want?”
Me: “There’s no such thing as forever consent. If you really love someone, you’ll ask them every time. Remember, sex is supposed to feel good, so if one person doesn’t want it, it’s not going to feel good for them. And just because you want it one day, or one minute, doesn’t mean you’ll want it the next day. If someone is asleep and you want to have sex with them, you have to wake them up first and ask. And if they say no, you have to respect that.”
Kid: “What if you want someone to have sex with you when you’re asleep?”
Me: “Ah. So, if you want someone to try something like that, then you have to talk to them about it first. You have to tell them, ‘I have this fantasy where someone has sex with me while I’m sleeping’ and you have to tell them how the fantasy goes, and how it feels, and what’s exciting about it. Then you can ask them if they’d like to try it with you – and you give them permission before you fall asleep. You tell them it’s okay for them to wake you up that way.
“But listen, it’s really important that you both understand that the fantasies that are exciting in our heads don’t always feel the same in real life. In your fantasy it might be really exciting and feel really good, but then when your partner wakes you up, it might not feel as good, or it might seem scary, or you might realize you like it, but you want something a little different – and so even though you gave them permission to wake you up that way and try this fantasy, you both have to understand that you can say ‘stop’ at any point. You can always change your mind – and the other person has to stop, or it becomes rape.”
Kid: “Really? Even though you said it was okay?”
Me: “Well, you said it was okay at first, but then if it stops being okay, you need to speak up and say that. Your partner needs to respect it. When you’re with someone you want to feel safe exploring and trying new things, but for that to work, you have to trust that if it stops feeling good or isn’t as fun as you thought, that you can stop. If one person isn’t enjoying themselves, you both have to stop and take a break. Then you can talk about what didn’t feel good or what wasn’t working. Afterwards, sometimes you can start again and it’ll be great, or you realize that for whatever reason sex isn’t going to happen so you do other things like kiss or hug or just talk.”
Kid: “So you can always say no?”
Me: “You can always say no.”
Kid: “But you can say yes too?”
Me: “Exactly. It’s your body and you get to decide when you want to share it with someone else, who you want to share it with and what ways you want to share it. Like you have friends that you like playing chase and tag with, and other friends who you like to play hair stylist with, and some friends you hug and other friends you high five. And sometimes even when your playing tag friend is over, you just want to be alone in your room with your music and not play tag for a minute, right? But then after you fill up on a good song, maybe you change your mind and you decide you want to play tag after all – you can still do that.”
Kid: “You just have to tell them what you want.”
Me: “Yup. And then you have to listen to what they want too. Maybe now they just want to listen to music, so you need to let them pick the next song before you’re both ready to go outside and play tag together.”
Kid: “It’s cool how you can make up the rules together.”
Me: Not sure if we’re still talking about sex, or if we’re talking about tag now. Pretty sure it doesn’t matter – I think she’s got the message. Either way, it’s all about communication and trust and respect. Using your words to get what you want, and respecting other people’s words to not take something they don’t want to give.
“Yup. It’s pretty cool. You’re pretty cool too, you know that?”
Kid: “I know.”