When Elizabeth Banks sat down to have the sex talk with her older son Max, 10, she was inspired by a screensaver. You know the one, a bucolic depiction of a mama whale frolicking with her calf. And she used that as a jumping off point to matter of factly explain the basics of reproduction to her nonplussed kid.
“I put a picture in his mind that was not me and his dad having sex. Very much whales having sex. And then I sort of let him extrapolate from there what that meant. He got there on his own: So the penis has to go in the vagina,” says the gloriously candid actress.
Her kid (and his younger brother Magnus, 8) inspired her podcast, My Body, My Podcast. It’s about — Masturbation. The clitoris. Periods. Sex. Shame. Sperm. Boob jobs. Body image. Weight. And that’s just the first few episodes. It’s the kind of thing that those of us who learned about the birds and the bees during an excruciatingly cringeworthy exercise in self-flagellation that passed for sex-ed wished we had access to way back when.
“Isn’t it true that we all just write and make and do the things that we wish our younger selves had?” muses Banks, who starred in the Hunger Games films and directed the Pitch Perfect movies.
Elizabeth, this podcast is truly required listening. What inspired it?
Well, you know, I have a 10 year old son and two things happened. One, I thought about when I got my period when I was not quite 12. So my birthday is February. As you hear in the podcast, I got my period on Thanksgiving. Somebody told me that a lot of girls in fifth grade get their period and my son is going into fifth grade. This is going to come at me so quick. And I had a great boyfriend in high school who, I don’t know why, he just knew a lot about girl stuff. He was very empathetic and he was interested and he was just so caring and giving.
And I thought, I need to figure out how to make my sons into those kind of young men who help out their partners. I’m assuming they’re going to have female partners, but I honestly don’t know the answer to that either.
Broadly, the podcast is about sexuality and our relationship to it — shame, fear, excitement, what have you.
Sex and our bodies for women are very complicated and they seem very uncomplicated for men. They still have issues about body image, especially nowadays with social media, but Peggy Orenstein’s book Girls & Sex really opened my eyes to just how little fun sex was for women and girls. And that sex was essentially about three things: It was for making babies, it’s for male pleasure, or it’s transactional. And I just thought, where’s the good part of it? Where’s the part that’s beautiful and intimate, and an integral part of your overall health.
When we have those talks with young people about sex and we make it all about making babies and we separate girls and boys, and we have these separate conversations, which immediately creates shame and stigma around the thing you didn’t hear — and then all of that information carries through your entire life, because by the way, there’s no adult sex ed, nobody talks about it ever again.
I just thought, this can’t be the right way to do it. This is what leads to women’s bodies being government-regulated worldwide. I tend to try and make my artistic endeavors entertaining and lighthearted and humorous, which was for sure part of the tone of the podcast.
But of course, what I’m hoping to do is secretly undermine the patriarchal notions of what sex is for women.
Wait, I have a 10 year old and I’m a single mom. How did you talk to your son about sex? Help me! Help me! Help other moms!
I use animals. My son very specifically, when he was eight years old, asked me in the car. He said, ‘Mommy, I understand that I’m part daddy and that’s called sperm and I’m part mommy, and that’s called egg, but how does the sperm get to the egg?’ He’s asking me to explain it. And we were on Cape Cod and we were talking about going on a whale watch. I knew I was going to use animals. He already knew about the penis and he already knew about the vagina because he’s seen me and he’s seen my husband.
I literally talked about how the whales, when they have to have a baby, the whale with the penis has to get with the whale with the vagina. And the penis has to go in the vagina, in order to push the sperm into near the egg. They have to get very, very close together and they have to dance in the water.
I love your episode about periods. We don’t talk about periods. Enough. Or pretty much at all.
I’m comfortable with my period now. I just can’t believe how many women still don’t talk about their period. Especially older women —it’s just wild to me and talking to my mom was the most cathartic and emotional. I loved talking to my mom. I loved it. We both loved it. We got much closer after having that conversation, but we were very close obviously in order to have that conversation, but it really was great to just be, do something creative with my mom. That was really special to me.
The reason I’m able to be very open with my children about sex and the sex talk is because my mother was very open with us about it every single step along the way. And she did not want us to go through life without that information. She believes information is power.
How has your own relationship with your body shifted as you’ve gotten older and wiser?
Look, it’s much easier to have these conversations as a woman who frankly knows that she’s quote past her prime. I know that the most valuable thing about myself and I’ve always known this, but this is the struggle — I’ve always known that my power never came from my body. It came from my heart and my mind and my ideas and my ambition. Not only did I grow up in a society that prized my physical appearance more than most anything else, but then I entered an industry that did the same and reinforced it.
So I’ve spent 20 years having to constantly dissect that dichotomy in my life. I still care a lot. Believe me, I want to look hot and I want to be my best version of myself. But I feel that I have a counterweight in the world, which is the sum of my work.
It’s amazing to me how much time we spend with our girlfriends just criticizing ourselves. Does that ever stop?
I stopped doing that a long, long time ago. I don’t even go in for that. I honestly don’t do that. I really try not to do that. Do I want to be in a bathing suit with my girlfriends around the pool? I’m afraid of judgment. Even from people that I love that love that I know love me. Judgment’s really powerful.
Bringing it back to your earlier point about raising empathetic, kind, smart men. How are you going about it?
I’m in the middle of it. I really try not to give a ton of parenting advice. You gotta check in with me when they’re 25 and they’re well-adjusted and they’re not addicted and they’re not in jail. Then let me know if I did a good job.
I do not lie to my kids about anything. I think we have come to a place where we are too protective of what they know. So the minute I say something that isn’t true and they go check it on the internet, they will never trust me again. So I do not ever lie to my kids. It’s important to put young American kids in perspective in the rest of the world too. I don’t need them to go through life thinking everything’s peaches and roses. There’s some bad people in the world and this thing can happen. I do it at night when I tuck them into bed. We always ask leading questions. Did anything make you laugh today? Did anything make you feel funny? Did anybody bother you today?