I once read that the ambulance siren screech was developed at the same vibration as a baby’s cry because it was the most instinctual way to signal that something, somewhere had gone horribly wrong. And to get the fuck out of the way. Like many, a crying baby drives me up the wall. Still, I’ve had two of them.
Parenthood is a challenge. An adventure. For some, it is even a calling. For others, as sad as I feel about it, it is little more than a job–and a hard one you can’t resign from. Yet even the most prepared, loving and competent parents will be forced to admit that life irrevocably changes when they have a baby. The sudden loss of freedom means that many might resent this small stubborn and demanding bundle which compels them to drop everything at the sound of its cries and prioritise it over anything else, or risk going mad.
I listened to my daughter’s cries hour after hour and, yes, it drove me up the wall. I shoved my nipples in her mouth until they bled. Her father and I took turns in dancing around the kitchen—Alexandra Burke with the two step shuffle seemed to work particularly well as she dozed off in the baby carrier only to wake if we faltered on our 6-hour dance marathons (I still have the Spotify playlist).
Yet it is now my belief that this incessant crying and our continual attempts to squash it (in order to maintain some semblance of sanity and to live up to society’s expectations of what it means to be a good parent) also sets us up to attempt to minimise our children’s pain. We cannot bear it. It’s one of the reasons why we say… innocence must be protected.
The way in which we —all to some extent— try to achieve this ‘minimisation’ of our children’s crying may potentially impact our children’s ability to ‘feel’ because one cannot selectively repress emotion. If a parent reacts in such a way as to teach their daughters that anger is ‘bad’ or displeasing she may choose to repress her emotions in order to please them. Likewise, boys who are taught that anger is ok as ‘boys will be boys’ but that grief is not in keeping with how boys ‘should’ act and they will most likely conform. After all, you – the parents – are necessary for their survival. In the extreme case, they must please you or risk their own survival.
What has this to do with sex-positivity? Everything.
Sex-Positivity, what it is and what it isn’t
When I was fifteen, my biology teacher blew up a condom in class to the size of a balloon. She had one of those deep, masculine voices which struck terror into our hearts as she prowled the long wooden corridors of my girls’ only school, in an attempt to stop our subversive activities (which was reading a ‘Just Seventeen Magazine’ instead of something worthy. Like a leather bound common prayer book).
“Never let him tell you it isn’t big enough!!” she shouted above our teenage tittering.
That and a book about the facts of life was more or less the sum total of my sex-and-relationship education. Not everyone grows up in the same repressive environment I did, but mainstream attitudes to non-monogamy which tend to focus the ‘scandal’ of multiple sexual partners–as if sex between consenting adults was akin to molesting children–are a chilling reminder of the shame, stigma and secrecy still so pervasive in our sex-negative western culture.
Just as the word ‘polyamory’ is conflated with ‘indiscriminate promiscuity’, so many interpret sex-positivity similarly. It’s not. But beware. Attaching negative moral judgement to indiscriminate promiscuity and/or so-called ‘nymphomania’ is a legacy behaviour of sex-negativity because it stigmatises those who enjoy or want to experience a lot of sex. Whilst indiscriminate promiscuity may or may not be healthy, as long as it’s consensual for all parties it is certainly not shameful.
So if it’s not indiscriminate promiscuity, what is it? Sex positivity is the belief that sex is inherently enjoyable and a healthy activity to be enjoyed solo or partnered, without shame. Such an attitude means that we are able to communicate with one another honestly about our desires and our bodies. How often and in what context consensual (to be redundant) sex is experienced is a matter of preference. Beyond privacy and personal boundaries, sex positivity is also the acceptance and support of every individual in the expression of their sexual identity.
As a polyamorist, one of the first challenges I encounter is a backlash from our sex-negative society on my choice to be open to loving many. There is only one reason for this. People take issue with my view that sex with potentially more than one person can be a great thing and sometimes even believe that cheating is preferable to being honest and open about it. If I were to be sexually exclusive but love many emotionally, no one would turn a hair. Yet even though many polyamorists have faced this discrimination head on, a large proportion of us remain in old sex-negative patterns towards our children. Why? Because well, innocence must be protected.
We operate within a context of inherited shame and believe that sex-positivity starts far later than it actually does. A sex-positive upbringing starts when our children are babies.
Sex-positivity and babies
From an admirable desire to protect our children and our desire to minimise their pain–as if it is our own because all too often it is–they may subconsciously learn early on that they cannot be loved just as they are. Crying is not pleasing to their caregivers. Crying risks anger, rejection and abandonment. And that spreads to everything, for their tiny minds are building mental models about how best they can survive their environment. They need love, what can they do to get it? What prevents it from coming their way?
Bear in mind that this has nothing to do with how much we parents love our children. It is not enough. They must feel it. Verbal reassurances towards young children are useless, since they cannot speak. Gifts are worthless. Parental presence is, of course all important, but it’s what you do in that presence which is crucial. Because by the time they are old enough to understand words and their meanings, they will have already have formed their own mental models about whether they and their bodies are loved, and loveable or not. They will have the first ingredients which are the seeds of self-esteem. They may have already learned shame.
Because it is your actions and reactions which count when they are too young to understand verbal communication.
The mother often reacted with surprise and horror, aversion and disgust, shock and indignation or fear and panic to the child’s most natural impulses—his autoerotic behaviour, investigation and discovery of his own body, urination and defecation, or his curiosity or rage in response to betrayal and injustice. Later all these experiences remain closely linked with the mother’s horrified eyes.
Alice Miller – The Drama of the Gifted child
Here’s where it starts. And it is often compounded by further action.
In Nancy Friday’s My Mother, Myself she refers to an anecdote where her mother consistently and repeatedly removed her [Nancy’s] hand from exploring her genitals. My upbringing was similar and was accompanied by my mother’s stock phrase — ‘don’t touch, it’s dirty’. Whilst no doubt she was referring to the poo caked in my nappy covered crevices, I absorbed the subconscious notion that my genitals were dirty and not to be touched. It’s something I carried with me well into my adult life. By extension, dirt itself is considered bad, and was especially so in my family because ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’. Yes, religious sanctaminity was in there too.
It wasn’t until I had my own children that I realised the extent of my difficulties with dirt. As a paranoid new mother, I was scared silly about the harm dirt would do my children. Chemicals were expunged from our house, I steam-cleaned and sterilised the shit out of everything.
Then my son arrived. And I was too exhausted to continue the incessant cleaning. Bleach replaced soapnuts I had gamely tried to use for a year to eliminate washing powder. But that didn’t eliminate my fears. When my children started day care in Sweden, a country where children spend the majority of time outside with their hands plunged in mud (and also snow) they came home as if they’d bathed in the stuff. My horror at three sets of dirty clothes a day compounded my anxiety as I nearly killed myself to clean them and everything they’d worn. Sometimes I truly felt that not only could I not cope with motherhood, but also I couldn’t even cope with the laundry basket. They saw my terrified face. And in those moments, when I said ‘Oh my God you’re so dirty!!!’ their Swedish father caught my eye, grasped my hand and finished the sentence by saying ‘and that means you must have been having sooo much fun!!!’ I am constantly grateful for his sex-positive, rather mucky, Swedish upbringing. One where his mother handed him condoms at the age of fifteen and sat enviously dreamy on his bed saying ‘Ah I remember my first sexual experiences.’
For all we want to help our children to be hygienic, in the long term at least making the ‘dirt can be fun’ narrative accessible to them, will later greatly help their appreciation of the often messy and beautifully ‘dirty’ activity that is sex. If you too recognise yourself in my words, take heart.
Self-examination is never easy. But it is rewarding and it gets easier. We are human. Riddled with our own insecurities often exacerbated by new parenthood. Embrace your own difficulties, assume responsibility for them because only then can you change them. In those early years, there is often much work to be done on ourselves.
Parenthood shines an often unforgiving light on our own responses and unresolved childhood issues. Those issues we don’t realise still reside in our adult behaviours. The most effective path to being a sex-positive parent, is to go back and revisit your own childhood. I know, I know. Who has time (and often money) for therapy when a baby arrives? Who has the energy required to do the emotional work to undo the patterning after years of sleepless nights? Forgive yourself, none of it is easy. But beware complacency… because it is just another word for denial (even if denial is a protection mechanism and can also be temporarily useful!).
If you didn’t read before, start reading (or in the case of those who prefer audio books, listening) now. Reframe your internal conditioning, because even if you think you are sex-positive, growing up in a sex-negative society is likely to have affected you far more than you believe. If it didn’t you simply lived in your own private world not reading literature, listening to your teachers or indeed your society.
Sex-negativity is pervasive. Built into the fabric of how we interact with one another. It is in you. And it will show in everything you do, even if your words are carefully thought out.