I am writing my way in to my body. This is difficult, but not counterintuitive. In the last ten years or so, I’ve discovered that what I used to think was counterintuitive was simply fear. Instead of doing what I was told to do (don’t poke at that, don’t examine the pain, pretend it isn’t there or deny it or minimize it) for most of my life, I have learned that opening up, asking questions, and leading with curiosity is actually the most intuitive thing I can do.

So, while it has been a while since I sat down to write, I am agitated and hyped, uncomfortable and tense, and too far in my head. It is time to write my way in to my body.

The word agitated conjures up the washing machine of my youth – the golden colored 1970s top loading contraption that swirled clothes to clean them by violently twisting them back and forth. The one I had to stand on my tiptoes or levitate off the ground in order to reach that last sock or pair of underwear caught on one of the fins of the center agitator before tossing it all in to the dryer. Is this agitation getting things clean? Is it separating the dirt from the substance?

I am an extreme empath, especially when it comes to my daughters. When they are overwhelmed or upset, joyful or incredibly excited, I am too. I feel it in my core – like that washing machine agitator of old. I think sometimes I need that twisting motion, that constant shifting and moving inside me in order to parse out what is mine and what is theirs. Especially when the intensity is driven by fear.

It is my job as Mom and holder of space, purveyor of radical acceptance and unconditional love to operate from a place of calm and curiosity and centeredness. In order to do so, I have to filter out the fear.

It is Spring and I am eager to burst forth in to new growth and projects. Last fall I went to a plant sale and bought two tiny dogwoods and a lilac. They were in 1-gallon pots and at the time, they were simply sticks standing upright – not even impressive enough to be called a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I was skeptical that they would grow at all, but even after the 15 inches of snow we got this winter (unheard of in Seattle), a week ago, they each sported one tiny leaf. Today, they are all decked out in green, leaves growing by the minute thanks to the rain and sun breaks we have had. I like to imagine that all winter they lay resting, knowing that the time would come for them to busily push forth new leaves, maybe even agitating deep inside as the Earth rotated and the days got longer, readying themselves for the burst of energy it takes to produce new growth.

I think I’m a few weeks behind, but I’m going to get there.

I have felt nauseous for two days, a feeling that’s pretty unusual for me since I stopped eating gluten over ten years ago. It’s pretty rare that I have any stomach issues, to be honest, and when I first started feeling off, i instantly began running through what I’d eaten in the last 24 hours in an effort to figure it out.

Since a week ago, I’ve been careful about what I look at on social media. I needed to step back from the Kavanaugh hearings because of some difficulties in my life that were closer, more personal. And frankly, I had noticed that even seeing the ubiquitous photos of his angry, red, yelling face in every other Facebook post made my chest constrict uncomfortably.

Angry men are frightening


I don’t know if that’s something they know and use as a tool, but for most women and girls, male anger is tremendously upsetting. Men in our culture are taught to translate their anger and frustration in to physical outlets – hitting, throwing, slamming, shooting.

And yesterday, Lola and I got on a plane to fly across the country to visit Eve who is in her first year of college. I couldn’t afford to be angry or rage-filled or incapacitated by grief. I was filled with joy at the thought of being in her presence again, the presence of both of these young women who love each other and make each other laugh. We travel together well, easing in to activities and rest with comfort, somehow managing each others’ desires without fighting.

I woke up nauseous again, desperately pleading with the Universe to help me be 100%, to feel ok, to be able to enjoy my girls this weekend. Before my feet touched the floor, I took a deep breath and tried to pinpoint the feeling of unease and when it became clear that it wasn’t inside me, but surrounding me, I finally acknowledged it. I am receiving the energy of others outside me – the overwhelming despair and rage and fury of women everywhere who know they can’t stop this confirmation despite all our efforts.

Lola and Eve politely waited until I’d hugged Eve to fall in to each others’ arms and stay there for a minute. Little do they know that while I loved hugging Eve myself, witnessing the two of them resting together, holding each other up, was the biggest gift. My heart is full.

Not far in to the day, things turned. The ride to breakfast was a bumpy one and Lola felt carsick. Eve wanted to know what the plan was after breakfast. The weather forecast was horrid – humid and thunderstorms. The wait for breakfast seemed interminable. They exchanged (quiet) sarcastic words and there were tears. As we sat at the table, the girls ignoring each other on their phones, I remembered family trips where our parents were angry with us for being  “spoiled brats.”

We are spending money to bring you to this place and have a vacation, an adventure, and you repay us by bickering and complaining? Knock it off right now or you can forget about us taking you on any more trips.


I nearly laughed out loud, knowing that I could never say something like that to my girls. Not only would they think I’d been inhabited by some alien life form, but I know better. The very air is tainted right now, with anger and frustration and despair. And we are all entitled to feel overwhelmed, sad, confused, upset.

We soldiered on. And many hours later, as we sat eating lunch, our phones all pinged with the notification that Kavanaugh had been confirmed by the Senate. And I was reminded that what we are learning is valuable. We are learning, over and over again, that the solutions we can come up with within the paradigm of the current system are limited.

Had I threatened the girls, made them feel small and embarrassed, it might have made them less likely to express their frustrations outwardly, behave slightly better in public, but it wouldn’t have addressed the root of the issues. Had I dug in to the “root” of the issues, things would likely have gotten a lot worse in the short term (and they probably would have both turned on me instead of being angry with each other).  Those were tactics my parents used. My tactic shifted – I created a new system. I decided that since I’m the grownup here, I would trust my girls to let me know if they needed my help sorting out their emotions, and in the meantime, I would forge ahead, doing what I thought would make me happy. We headed to a burgeoning neighborhood and wandered through bookstores, thrift shops, stationery stores. I stopped to pet an adorable puppy, mused about birthday gifts for my nieces, begged Lola to try on an outrageously gorgeous, outrageously tiny pantsuit that she looked phenomenal wearing. By lunch time, we were doing ok. Good, even. And when I suggested we head back to the hotel so Eve could have a hot bath (there’s no tub in her dorm, so it’s been a long time since she had a therapeutic soak), Lola could chill by herself and watch TV, and I would head to the lobby and write, there were huge smiles all around.

Protesting, signing petitions, calling our representatives, those are all things we do to address the problems within the system. And I’m certainly not saying that those efforts are useless. But it’s the system itself that allows for these things to happen. The system that was created by white men for white men will always benefit white men. We need to get rid of that system. We need to dismantle (smash? burn?) the set of rules and mores that keep us small and compliant. We need to get a lot more comfortable imagining what a different paradigm would look like – one that is created for all of us – and work vigorously toward that end. Especially those of us who have benefited a great deal from this system, by playing by the rules and excusing the white men who make those rules.

It won’t be easy. And it won’t be comfortable. But we can’t make substantive changes within this system that will end up benefitting all of us. While I am still furiously angry that Kavanaugh was confirmed, there is a tiny sense of relief in that now I know that this fire will forge steel. Should we still work our asses off to get out the vote in November? Absolutely! When we take back the House, should we start impeachment proceedings on Kavanaugh and Drumpf? First. Fucking. Order. Of. Business.

And then, we should not rest. We should not think we’ve won. Small victories within this broken, broken system are not enough. We have to burn this SOB down.

Image: Low row of bricks alongside a sidewalk

On the sidewalk in North Chicago, just outside a large, upscale grocery store, Lola and I walked past a woman about my age building this brick wall. She was likely homeless, had a disposable plastic shopping bag filled with her own homemade mortar – newspaper bits, water, mud and other things only she knows – and was bent over stacking bricks and patting the mortar. Nobody challenged her, and she spoke to no one.

The next day as I walked to the El station, she was nowhere to be found, but I noted her progress and wondered whether she’d be back or if she ran out of materials or energy or drive to do more. I wondered whether she was trying to wall someone out or someone in, or if she was making herself a place to sit up off of the ground, or if she was simply creating, making something with her hands that made her feel productive.

I like to think it is the latter.

Even after all the therapy and reading and journaling and work I’ve done to counteract the cultural and familial narratives I’ve ingested for the last 47 years, it takes effort to remember that not everything I do has to make sense to anyone else. It doesn’t have to garner a paycheck or be in service to some bigger societal machine. It can simply be me using the materials I have available to me to create, to follow my heart and instincts and do what I do best and love most.

Lola, Eve and I spent the last week in Chicago, exploring, walking, shopping, and moving Eve in to her freshman dorm room. It was, by turns, uplifting, gut-wrenching, exhausting, and hilarious. These two sisters have their own secret language such that they can read each other’s emotions and rush in like a bubbling spring of water to fill in the holes, buoy the other, amplify the laughter. They know when to be quiet, when to lighten the mood with a carefully placed insult, when to link arms and raise an eyebrow to show support. It is an absolute pleasure to witness. So many times in the last week, I sat across a table from them or followed a few steps behind on the sidewalk and felt my heart swell at my good fortune. I get to be part of this.

We complained about the humidity (it was really gross – Pacific Northwesterners aren’t built for that much warm moisture), people-watched, got makeovers at Bloomingdale’s on a whim. We sat on a beach at Lake Michigan and marveled as a swarm of dragonflies swooped around in a cluster, creating their own mini-hurricane near the shore. We laughed and ate and filled an entire shopping cart at Target with hangers and laundry soap and bedding and school supplies.

I had one on one time with each of them; watching Glee with Eve late in to the night, sprawled on the couch, talking about nothing and everything. Lola and I hit five thrift stores in one day and ate tacos in the sunshine, simultaneously wishing we were home and dreading saying goodbye to her sister.

By the time the two of us settled in to our seats on the plane for the trip home, we linked arms, tipped our heads onto each others’ shoulders, and sobbed. One of the three legs of our stool wasn’t coming home with us.

Upon our return home from Chicago, I was a little lost. To be honest, I still am. I know there are essays to be written and sold. I need to continue sending out my memoir manuscript if it is ever going to be published. I have an agent interested in seeing a book proposal for a manuscript I wrote years ago, so I could work on that. None of those things pay much, if anything. Neither does mothering. I’m a bit paralyzed – do I look for a job that does pay? What can I do that’s valuable and useful? What do I enjoy doing? What can I stand doing that pays?

There’s something in me that says to wait. Just give myself time to roll with this new phase – settle in to having one less chick in the nest and use my energy to support both my girls through this transition. I don’t often think about modern technology – even as much as I use it – but I am tremendously grateful for the ability to text my girls. It means that I can offer advice and insight no matter where I am, so that when Eve feels a tiny bit homesick or has a question about returning textbooks she purchased for a class she dropped, I’m ‘there.’ Because what I know is that I am a good mom, and relying on my strengths in that area feels good to all of us. The fact that the girls know they can ask me anything, anytime, and I’ll want to answer, jump at the chance to engage with them – that is immeasurably important to me. It is a constant for all of us, a reminder that we are a team and while the characteristics of our connections might change over time, the fact that there’s a connection there is a given. I don’t support them because I have to. There is no sense of duty there. I am truly overjoyed to be their travel companion, sounding board, keeper of memories. I am using the bricks and mortar I have at my disposal to create something, and it may not look like much, but it is strong.

When I get caught up in the “but you’re not making any money” narrative in my head, I have to remember that I’m ok right now, that I do my best work when the work I’m doing is something I love and something I’m good at. And right now, the things I love most of all are mothering and writing. In that order. Today, that’s good enough. Better than good enough. It’s great. Amazing. Phenomenal.

and for the parents. 


If you were raised in the 1970s and early 1980s, you might be familiar with the “tough love” approach. It was my dad’s go-to method of parenting. Figure out how to treat your kid like they’d be treated in “the adult world” and apply that. And tell them it was “for your own good – you’ll thank me someday.” 


I didn’t. Ever. Thank him. 


I have, on occasion, been sorely tempted to employ the Tough Love method of parenting – telling my kids to suck it up, stop sniveling. Urban Dictionary defines it as “being cruel to be kind;” Dictionary.com says it’s “promotion of a person’s welfare, especially that of an addict, child, or criminal, by enforcing certain constraints on them, or requiring them to take responsibility for their actions.” I call bullshit. 


Tough love is about the parents, it’s not about the kids. When parents use these tactics, it’s because they’re uncomfortable with their own kids’ pain. Every time my dad told me to stop crying it was because he couldn’t stand to see me cry. (I didn’t know that at the time – I thought there was something really wrong with me that I cried so easily.) Every time my dad told me that I had created the mess so I’d have to figure out how to fix it, it was because he didn’t have the bandwidth to sit with me, listen to me, soothe my feelings, and help me talk through how I got here and how to move forward. 


I’m not saying he was a monster. He was a product of his time, and that was the prevailing parenting wisdom in those days. But I am saying that it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with him, his discomfort with strong emotions, and his insecurity with parenting overall. If he convinced himself that he was doing what was in my best interest, “promoting my welfare,” he could wipe his hands of the affair altogether. It was mine to figure out. I’d be fine. I’d pull myself up from my bootstraps and learn (or I wouldn’t, and he still wouldn’t be accountable or have to jump to action).


How do I know this? Because the other day when I was supremely frustrated with my kid, worried about a choice she was tasked with making, and so overwhelmed with emotion about the entire situation, I considered taking the Tough Love approach. Not because she’s nearly 16. Not because I thought it was in her best interest. Because I. Was. Tired. Because I couldn’t stand to see her struggle anymore and if I just told her to figure it out on her own, then I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. 


It was about me and my pain, not hers. It was because hanging in there, holding space for her angst and confusion and really empathizing with the fact that there was no easy answer felt too hard. I’m happy to say that instead of channeling my dad, I took the dogs for a walk and gave myself some space to breathe and remember that I know how to do hard things, especially when I’m doing them with people that I love fiercely. I was reminded that walking beside her, being exactly who she needed me to be in the moment of her biggest challenge, and not throwing her to the wolves is my job as her mother and her champion. I can model for her that sticking by the people you love when things are hard is what we do. I can remind her that she can lean on me when she’s tired and it all feels too much. And I can remember that, no matter how difficult this all feels to me, she’s the one living it, and the least I can do is let her know that I won’t go anywhere. 


Screw tough. Just love. 

photo from www.newromantimes.com

We had snow in Seattle last Wednesday. It rarely happens, and when it does, it’s a novelty and generally doesn’t last for long – just the way I like it. Thursday, the sun came out and melted most of the inch or so that had accumulated, except in the spots that remained shady. As I walked the dogs through the neighborhood, I could see some icy patches of sidewalk and a few places with snow tucked beneath branches. We rounded one corner and there stood a tilted snowman about three feet high, just beginning to melt and sag at the top. The dogs cowered behind me, tugging at the leashes to get as far away from it as they could.

It wasn’t moving or making noise. It was just sitting there, melting in the sun. And they were petrified because never before on our walk had they seen this thing in this place. It freaked them out.

I considered encouraging them to go closer and investigate – to see that it wasn’t a threat – but they would have none of it. I wish I knew what was happening in their heads – what did they think it was? What were they worried it was going to do? All they knew was that it was foreign, unexpected, and scary.

Sometimes it’s hard to argue with your instincts. Sometimes, you have to just hope that the thing you just saw that freaked you out won’t be there the next time you round that corner and try to put it out of your mind.

And sometimes, you have to creep up to it, slowly and cautiously, to check it out. You have to walk around it to see from all angles, sniff it, maybe even poke at it and try to determine what the significance is. It’s also important, while you’re doing this, to acknowledge that this takes energy – a lot more energy than walking away does. It’s frankly exhausting to stay alert and run through the mental calculations and be ready to bolt at a second’s notice.

Parenting teenagers is a lot like happening on an unexpected snowman in your neighborhood. Sometimes I just rear back and walk away from that thing that just happened, hoping it was a one-off. Other times, I steel myself and tiptoe up to assess the situation, ever-vigilant and truly hoping it’s not as frightening as I thought it was when I first saw it.

It was a week filled with snowmen. I’m tired, but also relieved that the ones I saw weren’t as bad as my nervous system said they were. And I’m also happy that I’ve spent time training myself over the years to breathe deeply and creep forward. I’ve learned that if I simply describe what I see in front of me I am suddenly less fearful.

There is this thing here that I didn’t expect and I’m not sure what to do with it. To be honest, with teenagers, it happens more than I’d like. I can’t possibly anticipate most of the things they’ll do even though I try, and sometimes I’m altogether floored.

But, as the mom, it’s my job to remember that I set the standard, and that maybe we’re all a little freaked out by this thing that happened (even if it happened as a consequence of some teenager’s poor choices). So I take a minute to let the initial adrenaline rush subside and I start talking. And usually, that snowman starts to melt in front of our eyes and become more manageable.

My latest for parents and teachers who work with teens is here. Once you know how to spot anxiety, the next trick is to figure out what’s triggering it.

One of our house rules* is that we all agree not to do something for someone else that will make us angry. It seems obvious, but it’s amazing how many times I’ve done things as I’m knee-deep in resentment and fury because it feels like there’s no other way or because I simply can’t think straight in the midst of all that strong emotion.

What I know is that when I do things like that, often somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m keeping score. There is a part of me that is saying, “ok, now this person owes me one” or “I get to bring this up the next time they claim I never do anything for them.”

What I also know is that the longer I hold on to that chit, the heavier it gets. And as I’m doing the “selfless” act for someone else, I am enraged, and neither of those things makes me feel good about myself.

It’s tempting to blame the object of my actions for even having the audacity to ask for such a thing, or (as in the incident that occurred this morning) lash out at them for emotionally blackmailing me. And I’m sad to say that I have done both of those things far more often than I wish I had, but ultimately, I made that one of the house rules for a reason: because it is powerfully easy for me to slip in to a space where I do these kinds of things more and more and it becomes easier in the moment to just capitulate than it does to explain myself or assert my reasons for declining. And then I get resentful and feel like a victim and it affects my relationships with the people I love the most.

So here’s to self-awareness and posting house rules in a conspicuous place as a reminder to act in accordance with what I know is good for me and those whom I love.

*These rules are not my creation. I heard about them from a friend a few years ago and adopted them because I think they’re so fabulous.

 
It seems that every new milestone my kids hit offers me an opportunity to examine why I do the things I do. I often fall into the trap of thinking that everyone does things the way I do, simply because I’ve always done it that way. Fortunately (?), my kids challenge me on that every once in a while.

In the past year, Lola has begun commenting on the way I drive. I don’t know if it’s because she is watching her sister learn to drive or because she is old enough to sit shotgun or if it has something to do with her drinking coffee and wearing makeup these days. All I know is that she gets annoyed with me for not stopping on a dime.  In the morning, the route to her school is pretty bumpy with potholes and lots of construction between here and there. She often brings a cup of coffee with her to drink on the way, but because of the condition of the road, it’s a dangerous proposition to try and drink it unless the car is fully stopped.  Putting lipstick on is pretty treacherous, too, if you only want to apply it to your lips. And therein lies the rub.

I never really paid attention to it, but there is this game I play with myself when I drive that started back when I was a teenager driving a stick-shift. This game got more compelling when I started driving a hybrid car. The goal is to never come to a complete, full stop and avoid using the brakes if at all possible.  When I was driving a manual, I would try to slow the car by anticipating the traffic in front of me and simply downshifting, and I considered it a win if I could successfully slow down enough for a red light to stay in second gear and come up on the car in front of me (or the light itself) just as the light turned green, so I could begin to accelerate without ever hitting the brakes. I got really good at it.

Don’t judge me.

When I got my hybrid, I was fascinated by the display screen that indicates whether the car is using gasoline or the electric battery. When you’re coasting or apply the brakes, it shows you that you’re recharging the battery, and when you accelerate, you can see that you’re using gas or gas plus the electric battery.  In the first few weeks I had the car, I watched (probably WAY too) closely and loved the idea that I could coast to a stop – or nearly a stop – without using any gas at all. The game intensified.  I have nearly perfected my technique on the routes I normally drive, unless there is a huge traffic jam. I watch for pedestrians, cyclists, and cars ahead of me and gauge when to take my foot off the gas and begin coasting so that I can merely slow down and then speed up at the next opportunity, depending on whether it’s a red light or a person crossing the street.

While it isn’t necessarily forefront in my mind (I’ve been driving for nearly 30 years, so it’s pretty second-nature at this point), there are times when I’m aware of it and I mentally congratulate myself for a particularly tricky maneuver. But it’s all in my head and, until recently, I was the only one who knew what I was doing. Unfortunately, while I’m busy patting myself on the back, Lola is in the passenger seat, thermos or lipstick at the ready, anticipating her next opportunity to pounce and get a little satisfaction. She doesn’t dare put anything to her lips unless I’m totally stopped for fear of wearing hot coffee or smearing makeup across her cheek as I accelerate.

Eve asked me to take her out for a practice drive yesterday and I was laughing as I told her how Lola yells at me every morning, saying, “Mom! Seriously! Just stop already, would you? Quit slowing down!”

I explained the game I play and Eve’s hands squeezed the steering wheel hard, her knuckles turning white. She slowly turned her head toward me.

“That’s why you always freak out when I stop at the last minute behind another car, isn’t it?”

“Hmmm. Oops….  Sorry.”

“Geez, Mom. Not everyone drives like you. Maybe nobody.”

She might have a point there. When I think about it (which, frankly, I never really did before now), it’s pretty obsessive and more than a little weird.

I wonder what other things I do without realizing that they are odd.
I suspect I’ll figure them out as the girls get older.
Crap.

This is a response to Elizabeth’s comment on the previous post about sex as a commodity, and I will preface it by saying I wish I had a definitive answer. She asked how I would educate my sons about sex and rape culture if I had sons, and I think it is a particularly salient question. I thought about it in the context of my brothers and my dad, but my teenage years were a different time. Not that there wasn’t a hearty dose of misogyny and male entitlement, but it wasn’t talked about at all, and rarely was it ever challenged.

After puzzling on it for a bit, I went to a source I trust: Lola. As a 13-year old girl who is proficient in social media, steeped in girls’ empowerment, and has a strong, vocal opinion on social justice, I was interested in her ideas about how to talk to teenage boys about rape culture.  She started out by encouraging parents to watch this YouTube video about consent with their kids. All of them, boys and girls, starting at a pretty young age. It’s a pretty powerful analogy and points out just how absurd our ideas about sexual consent are.

I love this video because it doesn’t avoid the idea that a person’s consent status can change at any point. Yes, it is possible for someone to say “yes” and then change their mind, two or five or twenty-five minutes later. And no matter when it happens, it’s valid. I’ve talked to my kids about the concept of the Least Common Denominator (don’t let your eyes glaze over – this has nothing to do with math). That means that the person who is the least comfortable gets to make the rules. The lowest threshold for sexual intimacy is the trump card. So if I really want to have full sexual intercourse but my partner just really wants to make out on the couch, we stop there. Period.

The second point Lola said was important to share with teenage boys is that, even though they may not have personally done anything to make a girl feel uncomfortable, rape culture means that in many situations, we just are.  Even I, in my mid-40s and fairly fit, am always nervous when I get into an elevator with just one other person who is male. Always. That is rape culture. Rape culture is me not feeling comfortable getting into an Uber or a Lyft by myself with a male driver. Chances are, he is a nice guy who will pick me up and take me to the destination I requested without any detours, but rape culture means that I am acutely aware at all times that I lack power – and therefore physical autonomy – until I get out of the car.  And rape culture also means that I often suffer through comments on my physical appearance and speculation about what I might be going out to do (often with lewd body language) and don’t speak up because it might anger the driver and then I’m screwed. Lola said she would want boys to know that these kind of experiences happen daily to girls and women, even if they themselves aren’t perpetuating it. She wondered if they might be willing to imagine what it would be like to be constantly on guard, wondering if the next guy who spoke to you would try to do more than speak.

We ended up having a conversation about street harassment and she cracked me up when she said, “They should know that girls and women don’t get dressed in the morning so that they can go out and get comments on their appearance from total strangers. Ever. That’s not a thing.” Even if guys think it’s totally innocent or a compliment to tell someone how they look, it ultimately makes women and girls feel unsafe simply walking down the street.  This video is a powerful one because it is a small sampling of what many women experience on a daily basis as they go about their business. And the irony is, no matter how she was dressed, if she had been accompanied by a man her age or older, none of that would have happened.  Nobody would have commented on her appearance – some out of fear of the other man, and some out of respect for him. But none of them out of respect for her. And that is rape culture.

The fact is, as I wrote in my last post, in our culture sex is often about power, and those who are born with more power are the ones who often make the rules about sex. Frankly, the most impactful thing I’ve been able to do when I’m having a conversation about sex with my girls is to listen. I like to think that I’m fairly plugged in to pop culture, but I know that there is a lot that goes on that I don’t see. And I’ve discovered that if I listen without judgment, my kids actually first love to shock me with the tales of goings-on in their world, and then feel like they can dig a little deeper and think about how all of it makes them feel.  I have also discovered that talking about sex and sexuality in lots of different ways – commenting when we’re watching a TV show together or when I hear a story on NPR with them in the car, showing them a video like the ones in this post and watching for their reactions, or slipping this letter under someone’s bedroom door – gives us opportunities to continually explore and challenge the ideas we have about sex.

Elizabeth is right. Talking to our kids about sex is incredibly hard. Sometimes they get annoyed and don’t want to talk (or listen). Sometimes I’m not the best at explaining something or helping them understand where I’m coming from. Sometimes I’m not good at listening without judgment. But the most important thing I ever did for my girls was to let them know that I’m willing to keep trying. That they can come talk to me about hard things whenever they want to and that I will bring tough subjects up from time to time and ask them to indulge me. Because if we as parents don’t work to counter the basic themes about sex that our kids get from school and the mass media, nobody will.

Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
The New England Prep School rape case
Peggy Orenstein’s latest book, Girls & Sex
Sex trafficking rates skyrocketing
The advertising phrase (and perhaps its most bedrock belief) “sex sells”

I could go on, but I think you’ll get the point. I’ve written here many times about rape culture and Sex Ed and I have very, very strong opinions, both as a sex assault survivor and as the mother of two daughters. But more than that, I am concerned for the way our entire culture treats the topic of sex because I think that from a very young age we are taught that sex is, first and foremost, a commodity, and secondly (sadly, a distant second for many, many people), an act of affection and/or love between individuals.

Long before most parents even consider broaching the subject of sex and sexuality with their children, they are bombarded by slick magazine ads, television shows, movies, and books that depict sex as a commodity, as something that we all ought to want and that we can buy our way into. There are many young people who are taught by older children or adults that their sexuality is something that can “buy” affection or special favors. Parents who prostitute their children are not only profiting financially, but they are teaching their children that sex has power and if you want money – or if you have it – you need only sell yourself. Many teenagers, both girls and boys, have a deep understanding of sexual favors – there are those who purchase social capital by giving blow jobs or hand jobs to others and those already in power who cement their status by receiving those favors.

Even if these kids do get “Sex Ed” in school, it is largely mechanical in scope, outlining anatomical features and talking about how pregnancy happens and how to avoid STDs. By the time they are adults, very few of them have an understanding of sex as something that is theirs to define – that they have every right to engage in it with an expectation of pleasure as opposed to some “reward.” Our American notion of “sex” is a very transactional one that is often one-sided. By the time we have the courage to really talk to our kids about sex (if we ever do), there is so much damage to undo that it feels overwhelming. And for children who learn early on, through abuse or sex trafficking, that sex is a tool, it is possible that their fundamental understanding of this act that is supposed to make their lives more whole has been forever damaged. How do you undo the notion that the person with more (power, control, money, status) has the right to obtain sex from the one with less when that is what you are shown in so many different ways over and over, nearly from the time you were born?

When girls are raised with the idea that their power lies in their ability to grant or withhold sex (the most egregious example of this I’ve heard of recently was Spike Lee’s latest movie Chi-Raq), it is damaging to their ability to see sex as something that is more intrinsically rewarding. When they are surrounded by images of women who are sexually provocative and who are praised for it (Kim Kardashian’s nude Instagram photos, anyone?), they are taught that sex is a tool, and that it ought to only look one way or it isn’t right.

When boys are raised with the notion that the more sex they have, the more masculine they are, it is equally damaging. Because, in our culture, they are born with more power at the outset, when they are presented with the idea that sex is a commodity, it isn’t much of a mental leap to imagine taking sex when they want it, simply because they can. When we set sex up to be about power, we can expect rape to follow along shortly. When business lunches are conducted in strip clubs and sex trafficking rates rise sharply during the Super Bowl, you can be sure that we have embraced sex as a commodity.

The question is, are we willing to live with the consequences of that or can we start talking to our young people about what else sex might be, instead?