My 9-year-old daughter’s voice casually wafts over to me across the park. “Hey Mom, is this a bike handle?”
She is standing next to a huge pine tree, the designated safe zone from our game of tag a moment before. I instantly catch sight of the black, rubber object lying on a bed of needles and realize that “safe” may no longer apply. The size of a flashlight, it sends an invisible beam right into my eyeballs.
“Uh,” I stutter, scanning my brain for an appropriate response. “I don’t know.”
But I do know. It is not a bike handle nor is it a flashlight. It is a dildo. Or perhaps, a butt-plug. I inch closer, careful to keep our dog on a tight leash.
“Did you touch it?” My voice sounds high and tight. I’m trying to stay steady, but the surprise of a dildo in our neighborhood park has caught me off-guard.
“Yes?” she says, her eyes wide. “But only for a second.”
My six-year-old daughter bounds over, eager to involve herself in the drama. “Don’t touch it!” I say.
“OK!” she says, then gleefully kicks it. “What? I didn’t touch it!”
I dig into my purse for hand sanitizer and come up empty. The ever-present baby wipes from our diaper days are a thing of the past.
“We’re leaving!” I declare. “And don’t touch your face!”
Ask any friend of mine from high school or college and they would tell you I’m no stranger to what goes on in public parks. I lived in the East Village in the late ’90s. I’m sure I left joints, beer bottles, and pheromones all over public places throughout my adolescence. In fact, I used to make out with my high school boyfriend in the very park where my daughters found the dildo. Part of me is cool with people having sex in public places. But as I fled the park and was forced to consider the life span of STDs on a sex toy, I lost my cool.
Like many mothers, I want to protect my young children from the vulgarities of urban life (and of course, infectious disease). Yet, I am also a feminist. The truth matters to me. I want my daughters to learn about their bodies without shame and encourage confidence that underscores my overall message: You are allowed to take up space in this world. Even more ambitiously, I want to be their go-to person for this knowledge.
Which is why, as we marched away from the interloping dildo, I couldn’t get my moderately hysterical reaction out of my head. After all, my husband and I have always answered questions about sex honestly and directly. We use the correct names for body parts with our girls, explaining that babies grow in a uterus, rather than a tummy, and reminding them at bath time to wash their labia and clitoris. At the age of four, my older daughter asked how a baby was made; we explained that sperm and an egg came together to make a fetus.
When a year later, that question was followed by “How does the sperm get to the egg?” my answer was straightforward: “It comes from the penis.” Despite her classic “Eww!” response, for me, that explanation felt natural. I myself had been raised by a mother who had no qualms spelling out the body and all its reproductive functions. A Lamaze teacher and nurse, my mother parked her posters of the birth canal next to our TV. Later she became a lactation consultant, and we learned all about mammary glands, areolas, and nipples. In the early months of dating, my husband would attend family dinners and sit in stunned silence as we discussed hindmilk, engorgement, and nipple shape. Thanks to this frank upbringing, I have always felt comfortable about my body.
Yet now, as I confronted my own squeamishness over the dildo, I had the gnawing feeling that something else was conspicuously absent from those conversations about human anatomy and sex and women’s bodies: an honest discussion about pleasure.
For boys approaching adolescence, pleasure comes de facto with discussions of their human anatomy. In public school sex ed, “nocturnal emissions” and “ejaculation” may not be openly described as orgasms, but pleasure is an intrinsic part of those physiological functions. As a result, the discussion of their existence empowers boys more than girls to own this part of their physical identity. I suddenly realized the inherent sexism in this. And yet back at the pine tree, I had squandered a moment when I—a feminist and the mother of girls—could have modeled sexual empowerment by giving my girls information about pleasure they certainly wouldn’t be learning from their fourth-grade common core. Why?
Likely, it came from the very upbringing I admired. Open as my mother was about anatomy, she was less forthcoming when I first became curious about masturbation and asked her (while she was ironing, no less) if she ever masturbated. I was 10.
“No, but you can,” she responded.
I had the gnawing feeling that something else was conspicuously absent from those conversations about human anatomy and sex and women’s bodies: an honest discussion about pleasure.
There was no shame in her answer, but she certainly didn’t reinforce the idea that women should celebrate the pleasure their bodies can provide. I went on to have what I thought was a healthy sex life in high school and in my later relationships, but in retrospect, I wonder if I actually did; after all, I was comparing myself to a nonexistent norm. How many orgasms were left unexplored? As Girls & Sex author Peggy Orenstein author pointed out in her now-viral TED talk, “We’ve performed a psychological clitoridectomy on American girls.” We don’t teach pleasure; only the responsibility and consequence of sex.
I wish this were all of what held me back from telling the truth to my daughters. But there was more. Along with my personal history of an incomplete sexual education, I couldn’t ignore the part of me that wondered if a discussion of pleasure would plant a seed that would grow like a weed. What if I emboldened their id, sending them down a path of sexual obsession?
This was the dildo-fraught rabbit hole in which I found myself as we walked the half-mile back to our house. “What was that?” my nine-year-old pressed.
I started to mumble something about the urgency of hand washing. “Something you put inside your body,” I offered.
“Oh, like a fake kidney,” she said confidently.
“More like toilet paper,” I said.
My six-year-old looked at me incredulously. “Toilet paper? That doesn’t go inside your body!” It was clear that telling the truth outweighed the risk of raising sexual maniacs.
“OK.” I stopped walking and turned to my girls as our dog pulled on the leash. “That was something people put up their anuses and vaginas.”
You know when your kid is pretending to listen to you, or only partially listening to you? This was the exact opposite of that.
“Because it feels good.”
We kept walking as they mulled it over. After a few more questions about the logistics of dildos and a cautioning about how pencils are a bad choice to insert into any orifice, the topic moved to what was for lunch. We arrived home (and washed hands immediately), but it wasn’t frenzied or urgent. Lunch came and went, and the girls played with their American Girl Dolls until they squabbled and then cried. They were remarkably unchanged. No one asked to see pictures of dildos.
Any fear I had about opening a Pandora’s box of perversion was revealed as just that: My own fear that there was something wrong and scary about discussing sexual pleasure with kids. Today, I’m grateful for overcoming my squeamish reaction to a surprise dildo-in-the-park. Without it, I might have unconsciously shied away from giving my girls an empowering message that more mothers should impart to their daughters: that sex is largely about the pursuit of their own physical pleasure.
Then, maybe, when they’re older, they won’t feel the need to hide in a park to experience it.