My daughter looked down between her legs during her bath time and pointed, “dis?” (translation: what’s this?), to which I replied, “that’s your vagina.” A big smile broke out on her face and she waved wildly. “Hiiiii!” That’s what I call a win for sex-positivity.
My partner and I raise our daughter with a sex-positive approach. To us, this means
we promote a healthy sense of body and sexuality, safe and consensual physical behaviors, and an openness to sexual diversity.
This might sound silly, since our daughter can’t even tie her shoes yet. However, from my studies and experience, the foundations are laid early. I find it helpful to receive practical advice with example stories, so I’ll just tackle the first part today—a healthy sense of body and sexuality. Here’s how we try to promote it:
1. Using Anatomical Terms
When teaching body parts, we taught our daughter that she has a vagina just like she has a nose, two eyes, and hands. There are many theories behind why to use this approach, and one is the reduction of shame. Using infantilized nicknames like “wee-wee” or secretive names like “private parts” is often a sign of an adult’s own discomfort with the fact that their children have a sexual aspect. Children can sense and internalize this, which can lead to their own discomfort as they get older. Using the anatomical terms can promote positive acceptance.
A practical reason is that being able to identify their own body parts helps to keep children safe. It’s important that they can name their genitals in order to communicate where they may be experiencing pain or discomfort. (Tragically, I know of a case where the sexual abuse of a child went unnoticed for far too long because she had been taught to call her vagina her “body,” and no one understood what she was saying when she complained of her “body” hurting.)
2. Creating Positive Associations with the Body
In general, we try to promote that bodies are good, pleasurable parts of life, not something full of shame or embarrassment. I know every family handles this differently within the confines of their own home, but we are open about the fact that our bodies need to poop, toot, and belch. We simply name these moments and go on.
And we treat nudity with the same sort of casualness. Our daughter loves to be without clothes, and who can blame her? I can’t imagine how it feels to waddle around with a diaper between your legs all day. So we’ve made “naked time” a normal, joyful part of our day. We may have gone too positive on this one, as my daughter can’t stop talking about it. Now, she thinks when anyone has skin showing, they are “naked,” which has produced some interesting proclamations of passer-byers with the warming weather. But at least she doesn’t discriminate—she also thinks her strawberries are “naked” after we take off their green, leafy “hat.”
3. Avoiding Shame for What Comes Natural
Having probably changed a few thousand diapers in my daughter’s lifetime, I spend an awful lot of time wiping between her legs. Because children internalize our associations, every diaper change is an opportunity to connect a value to that area of the body. We want this association to be a positive one. We have been intentionally conscious to not open a diaper and say, “PU! You smell!” or “Groooosss!” but matter-of-factly just explain what we are doing. (As an added bonus, several things I’ve read have linked positive association with bowel movements to an easier time potty-training. Here’s hoping!)
I don’t have a son, but I know this subject can be trickier with boys because they can get “mini-erections” while they are being changed. I know many mothers whose tendency is to be embarrassed or rejecting of this behavior, but I would encourage positivity here as well. This is just an example of bodies having a natural response to stimuli, not a response of sexual desire. It’s no different than when a woman might have a physical reaction of arousal while breast-feeding. Or the few lucky women who have orgasms during labor. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about; it’s just natural.
4. Encouraging curiosity
Another way we encourage acceptance of the body is by letting our daughter be curious about it. If our daughter touches herself, we don’t discourage it. If it’s in public, we tell her that’s something we do at home.
Even when she expresses curiosity regarding other bodies, we simply explain what she’s seeing or what’s happening. She has seen mommy and daddy “potty” and “poop” (this also helps with potty-training!). She’s seen us both take showers and change clothes. And she has learned that, like her, mommy has a “gina,” but daddy has a “penis.” We just present this as a normal part of life. Because, well, it is.
We are learning as we go and we’ve certainly had many bloopers along the way. Even though we don’t tell our daughter her poop stinks, she loves for us to smell her feet and say “stinky!!!” So instead of associating shame with her genitals, we may have just created a child who will be self-conscious about her feet. (But based on the amount of time her mother spends bare-foot, I’m going to guess not).