It took a global pandemic to finally speak to my son about puberty, procreation, and how to put private things in their proper place. When his middle school closed last spring amid stay-at-home orders, my wife and I struggled to fill his days while trying to hold full-time jobs. Distance learning at that stage was mostly a euphemism for go-figure-it-out-yourself. His schedule was so full of holes it was practically perforated, which perhaps justifies how we ended up seeking instruction from a talking vagina on TV. “This is the urethra,” she explained, “that’s where the pee comes out.”
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Like many fathers, I was hesitant to have The Talk. I felt perpetually unprepared. Not just for the female physiology and fallopian schematics, but the broader discussion of sexual development and healthy, ethical, compassionate relationships. Peggy Orenstein spent two years interviewing boys aged 16 to 22, asking them about issues of gender and intimacy, an experience she recounts in Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity. She concluded: “I already knew that Americans talk precious little to their daughters about sex, but I’d soon learn they talk even less to their sons.”
By that measure, my experience growing up was almost normal. My father and I had our first, and only, conversation about sex after he found an unopened condom in the couch cushions during my senior year of high school. It wasn’t mine. My girlfriend had a proactive mother who’d put her on the pill and yet after months of serious dating we had never slept together. The hold-up was me – my cluelessness, my insecurities. When cornered by my father, I struggled to package this information into some kind of exculpatory statement. He wasn’t buying it. He cut me off.
“Most girls are fine,” he said. “But some try to trap you.”
“What? She’s not trying to trap me,” I said.
“I’m not talking about your girlfriend. I’m talking about, in general. Women get ideas they never tell you about until it’s too late.”
“It’s going to rain soon,” I told him. “I need to mow the lawn.”
Never before had I disappeared so willingly, and so furiously, into an afternoon of yard work.
Today, in my forties, I have two sons, aged eight and twelve. When it came time to talk about sex with my older boy, I wanted to do him a genuine favor, give him a helpful hand-up into manhood, the kind of assist most boys never receive. At first, I scoured Amazon for a how-to guide without creepy illustrations, 1970s centerfolds or knotted ropes on the cover. What I ended up with was S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties. It’s a terrific book, but after I handed it to my son, it sat on a shelf in a closet, unread for several months. What I realized later, after a few pointed questions, is the day-to-day difficulties of puberty – like managing an erection in the middle of math class – are more pressing at his age than mastering the abstract geometry of actual intercourse. The rudiments of relationships, and making real connections, are also high on the list.
So instead of a lecture, or a book group on the birds and the bees, we turned on the TV. To be clear: Netflix did not develop Big Mouth for kids. The animated series is rated for mature audiences and is bursting with explicit bits and bad language. There are several petitions online – just begging for your signature – from organizations like the National Decency Coalition, demanding the show be taken down to protect the innocence (and ignorance) of children. Sexual orientation, menstruation, masturbation, pornography: those bases are covered in the opening episodes. Also, yes, a helpful vagina voiced by Kristin Wiig.
The show – which recently entered its fourth season with a more inclusive commitment to characters who aren’t white and straight – chronicles the lives of seventh graders Andrew, Nick, Jessi, Missy and friends as they navigate the pitfalls of middle school. Much of their advice is awful, their facts are absurdly wrong, but their sincerity and enthusiasm are seldom misplaced. Here’s Nick and Andrew on kissing: “You really want to get your tongue underneath hers, too. Yeah, you want to get in there like a Claritin to just dissolve.” Watching the show, my son and I found ourselves talking about what it takes to survive puberty – and those early fumbling forays of intimacy – without surrendering your empathy, dignity, or sense of humor.
My son’s school opened for just three weeks of in-person classes this fall, then closed again after Thanksgiving when much of the teaching staff was forced to quarantine. In this endless season of isolation, first kisses and hormonal urges might seem like laughable abstractions, a fantasy from the old world we left behind. For people of all ages, the idea of building new relationships is almost inconceivable. We have been taught to choreograph our interactions, calibrating the risks of getting too close, contorting our bodies and masked faces in a theater of threat mitigation. Yet growing up is not a contactless transaction.
Boys in the U.S. now typically enter puberty by age 10, and nearly a third of them are fully sexually mature by age 13, according to data that suggests this process occurs much earlier for both boys and girls today than it did decades ago. Having an adult body doesn’t mean they are emotionally or mentally prepared to make adult decisions. Imagine what their world will feel like after the pandemic, when teenagers throw away their masks and finally escape the police state of their homebound parents. In the meantime, they must contend with loneliness, frustration, and hormone-heightened mood swings – the whole emotional muddle from middle school onward – amplified by the dynamics of social distancing.
It’s a good time to talk. As a parent, it’s also a great time to listen. And to get comfortable with open-ended questions. Who knows what this horrible year is doing to kids caught at a vulnerable age, and how it’s going to affect their desire and ability to get close to anyone else?
Some people recommend staging these conversations with your child during a 10-minute car trip to minimize your mutual embarrassment. Confining the action to an enclosed area, eliminating routes of escape, avoiding direct eye contact: those also happen to be horse-breaking tactics, and possibly create the impression that this will be a once-and-done affair, with the Q&A session ending as soon as the garage door slams shut. But, honestly, whatever approach works – just get it rolling. The trick is to start talking. Don’t wait for that incriminating scrap of foil wrapper stashed between the seat cushions.
John Powers is a writer and investigator in New York. His essays have appeared in Salon, Wired and The New York Times Magazine.