If you were born after 1980 then you may have a hard time believing what I’m about to tell you; but I wouldn’t lie to you, especially not about this:
Once upon a time, in my lifetime, it was taboo to talk about breasts. There were no self-exam posters on gym locker room walls; there were no “Save the Ta-Tas” t-shirts. Boobs were off limits, whether called by their formal or informal name. Breasts were considered private parts, requiring cover and secrecy, unless you were one of those bad girls who nice boys weren’t allowed to go out with even though those same boys had different kinds of bad girl breast self-examination posters in their bedrooms.
You may take issue with the Komen Foundation for missteps in recent years, but you have to give credit where credit’s due. Because of Komen’s long public advocacy, we’re now able to talk about breasts, breast care and breast cancer without blushing or feeling shame, which is good news for everyone, especially women.
The bad news is that there are still plenty of other taboos that cut off what could otherwise be helpful dialogue. We’ll scarcely say even their common names, much less their formal ones. Seriously, would you be reading this right now if the title had been “Intercourse, Feces and Menstruation?” Of course not, and that’s just fine. Rose by any other name, blah blah blah. Whatever we call them, we need to acknowledge that some things in life are no less real, important or worthy of discussion just because they’re awkward.
Today we’ll talk about three of life’s realities that need unshackling from the shame shed. You already know what they are; I’ll be quick about the first two so maybe you guys (and I literally mean the guys) will stick around for the part about sex, which I’m saving for last.
Every four weeks (or so) healthy girls and women between the ages of puberty and menopause have periods, unless their uterine linings are supporting fertilized eggs (a reminder that we’re working toward a discussion about sex). The end.
If a woman speaks sharply to you, it’s more likely because you were an idiot than that she’s having her period. Yes, fluctuating hormone levels can increase irritability; but dismissing a comment you don’t like by saying “she must be having her period” is just insulting. And don’t for a second think only men make comments like that. Gals, you know you do it too, and you know it’s insulting, and you know it’s just not right, so quit it.
If you are a parent of a girl age 10-14, please do everyone a favor and watch the Camp Gyno video with her. Laugh about it, put the word “period” in the bank of normal words, agree that periods are part of life, and move on. Your daughter has important things to do with her life, and being ashamed about the period no one wants to talk about is just going to get in her way. If you’re the parent of boys, they also need to know that girls have periods and that periods are as basic a part of life as balancing the checkbook at the end of the month. Capiche?
See, that wasn’t so bad. This won’t be either.
As much as you fellas don’t like talking about periods, you seem to love talking about poop. It’s all fine and dandy for you guys (and again, I literally mean the guys) to joke about the bounty of your daily output, but the ladies? Forget it. We’re far too dainty and polite to discuss solid waste elimination, its frequency or composition. And we all still snicker and blush at the words anus and rectum.
Here’s a true story: my mother, a very ladylike and educated Southern woman with access to good healthcare, was too embarrassed to discuss her bottom and what came out of it with her own doctor. For five or six years she talked very obliquely about her symptoms but shied away from ever describing in detail what was happening with her body because the parts that were having trouble were too impolite to mention, even to her primary care physician. Her gynecologist was finally the one who identified that she had colon cancer, that’s how long things went unattended.
Everybody poops; there’s even a book about it. Those of us with intact colons all do it the same way, hopefully every day (but please, if you can wait, not in the shared bathroom at work). If you start noticing something out of the ordinary with your poop or your pooping parts, please talk to your doctor about it – directly, specifically and in detail. If you have trouble working up the courage just think about how much I wish I could laugh at the Camp Gyno video with my mother if only she hadn’t been so shy and ladylike.
Still with me? Ok, let’s talk about the other thing that we all do, I suppose some even daily, although surely you people must be tired.
Last week my friend Dan Conaway posted this great rant about the Tennessee General Assembly’s House vote, 69-17, to condemn University of Tennessee students who organized Sex Week, a week of events intended to bring the issues surrounding sex, its implications and consequences into open dialogue. The debacle even made the Huff Post.
As Dan is quick to remind us, it’s not news that humans have been having sex since the dawn of civilization. All those Begats in the Old Testament? Sex. Every last one of them.
In the last several years we publicly chaste book-buying readers somehow made E.L. James the bestselling author in British history, but we still can’t say S-E-X by name outright without feeling we’ve said a bad word. (For those of you living under a rock, E.L. James is the author of 50 Shades of Grey, “an unreadable soft core pornographic novel written as a fan fiction tribute to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, which, by comparison, reads like Dostoevsky,” according to my beloved Daily Pessimist.)
We’ll whisper the letters S-E-X when we don’t want the children to know what’s in the movie they can’t watch, even though those same children can very well see the multitude of public billboards displaying every enticement and consequence related to S-E-X, from adoption and abortion to gentlemen’s clubs and syphilis.
Not sure you want to include sex as a regular dinner table topic? No worries. But there are at least three crucial conversations that you must be willing to have, openly and without delay when the time comes.
1. If you are a parent, you must talk to your pre-adolescent/adolescent/teenage children about sex. At the risk of offending all the earnest parenting blog world parents, I’ll go on a limb and suggest that it doesn’t really matter whether you talk about the penis and vagina or the ding-dong and the hoo-ha as long as you are having an honest and respectful dialogue with your child that takes the word sex out of the forbidden zone and into safe conversation.
You must talk about what you want your children to know as they grow into people who will actually have sex, too. No, leaving a book on their bedside tables doesn’t count. Yes, you can outsource the actual content delivery to your neighbor who’s raised four healthy and well-adjusted children; but you’ll have to make it a threesome because you need to be right there with your own child while your neighbor shares the good news. Yes, you did sign up for this, precisely at the moment you were having sex mid-ovulation cycle. Now be the grown up, name it, and have the talk.
2. If you are having sex and don’t like what’s happening, then you must speak up. Your body is yours, and sex should be a partnership built on trust and respect. Words are essential if your partner is taking you outside your comfort zone without your agreement. If what you don’t like requires just a minor adjustment, however, I might suggest looking for words other than “no, you idiot, not there,” as those particular words are unlikely to have the desired effect.
3. If you are having sex and it hurts, make an appointment with your doctor. Trust me, he or she has had more conversations about sex than you could ever imagine, so there’s no need to be embarrassed. (S)he won’t even snicker when you say ding-dong and hoo-ha because you still struggle with the proper names. If you are hurting, you may have an issue that requires medical attention – might not be any big deal, but it might. (Wo)man up and talk to the doc.
Why lies beyond these three sex basics? Well, there are probably another hundred worthy conversations any of us (all of us) could have related to sex, sexual politics, sexual health, and cultural norms. Start by getting comfortable with the word, and see where that leads you. Who knows, once you’re able to name it out loud, you might find it’s not nearly as big a deal as you thought. Just like poop and periods. And breasts.
This post was written in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge: Power of Names. For tips on writing and blogging, visit wordpress.com.