I have always strongly encouraged my children to explore and inhabit their own bodies without any shame whatsoever. Since birth, I have used a variety of words to name their precious body parts. I simply don’t understand the dilemma of what to call a vulva or penis when talking to a young child. In my view, it’s incredibly simple – you teach them lots of words all at the same time! Children are intelligent and capable of learning two or three different languages from babyhood onwards. Why stress about whether to use ‘fanny’ (British slang for vulva) or vulva and vagina? Teach them it all, including the labia and clitoris to boot – children are clever little sponges and can soak up a massive lexicon.
Language gives them power and we rob them of this sovereignty if we teach them they have only a ‘flower’, ‘tuppence’ or ‘winkle’ without also giving them the correct biological terms for their body parts. I remember having a heated discussion with a mother of an 11 year old who felt that telling her daughter she had a vagina would “rob her of her innocence”. This mother told me that she was home-educating her daughter primarily so that she could control what her child learnt about sex. I felt so sorry for this girl who could start her periods at any moment and would have no idea what was happening. A few years earlier, a friend’s daughter said sadly to me “I haven’t got a willy. I’ve got a front bottom.” I was very shocked but didn’t challenge this. Now I wish had talked to my friend about it and tried to persuade her to give her daughter linguistic authority over her own body.
This all contrasts very strongly with the way I am bringing up my own three children. One of my proudest memories as a feminist and a mother, is of my four-year old in her bedroom chanting “inner labia, outer labia, inner labia, outer labia”. I felt so proud that she was committing the words to memory and taking ownership of her body. How utterly natural, without any external taboos laid upon her. We have given both of our daughters’ mirrors so they can look at their little yonis privately whenever the mood takes them.
Words are a solid starting point in empowering children to grow into healthy adults who enjoy their sexuality. From a practical point of view, children cannot tell you exactly where on their genitals it hurts or if someone is abusing them without having the correct language. Sooner or later they will learn many terms to do with sex. It’s so much more progressive to start this learning journey around the dinner table (or bath tub) age 2, or younger rather than round the back of the bike-sheds at 13.
Betty Dodson in her wonderful book ‘Sex for One ~ the Joy of Selfloving’ points out that the first person we have sex with is usually our self. If we cannot pleasure ourselves then how can we ever expect to enjoy making love with another? With the topic out in the open, our three children feel free to explore and enjoy their genitals when they are on their own in bed at night. I have explained that doing this will feel nice and may even help them get to sleep. My son knows that semen will come out of his penis when he self-pleasures in his teens and that this is normal and good. We have also followed NSPCC guidelines to protect all of them from sexual abuse which include knowing that their privates are for them alone to touch (with the occasional exception of a doctor) and that secrets that make them feel sad or worried need to be shared with us.
One of our children seems to particularly enjoy self-pleasuring and I think s/he probably reaches orgasm. I don’t feel a great need to pry in order to try and find this out. Occasionally s/he will start to masturbate when in public. I gently ask if s/he wants to go to her/his room and issue a reminder that it is something we enjoy privately on our own.
Personally I am a massive fan of the joys of self-pleasuring. My parents never told me about it. As far as I was concerned I had discovered an amazing hobby which I wanted to share with the world. I didn’t have a name for it and didn’t really know what it was but planned to write a book about it when I was older! I discovered it young and loved the will I had over my body, that I could give myself such intense pleasure with ease and speed! I didn’t tell any adults as I sensed it was probably best kept a secret, but did discuss it with friends as I entered my teens. There are so many pluses to it – we don’t need to rely on another person for sexual gratification and there is no risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. If masturbation is practiced over the years, then women can develop strong pelvic floor muscles, protecting us from urinary incontinence later in life. It helps us get to sleep and eases menstrual cramps too. It can be a wonderful part of sharing pleasure with another person too – we can either get ourselves going on our own and then enjoy sexual activity with our partner or start together and then finish ourselves off individually. Self-pleasuring can even be used as a method of birth control when used around ovulation. It’s also massively handy during late pregnancy when intercourse can be a challenge or even an impossibility if your bump is ginormous!
I’ll close this with the wise words of pro-sex feminist Betty Dodson ~ “masturbation is the on-going love affair that each of us has with ourselves throughout our lifetime”. Self-pleasuring is an important part of loving ourselves physically and this is a potent legacy to pass onto our daughters and sons.
Picture ~ Venus of Urbino by Titian