My eyes are red and teary, and my dad’s arm is around me as we sit together on our white, wooden back porch swing. Even though I don’t remember this moment in many details, the photo taken by my mom brings back a variety of emotions. The backyard of my family home is staring at me in this image: the swing set, bikes, and clubhouse we had erected are all tucked into the fence along a wide open field. I long to be in its safe familiarity again.
I recall this particular afternoon because it was very ceremonial; all four of us children were taken to the back porch individually to have a conversation about the “facts of life” with my parents. I was only five years old at the time, and I was excited to be a part of the grown-up talks that my parents usually had with my older siblings. There was a reason I had been included in this round of conversations: a family friend had been forcing some of the neighborhood kids to let him touch their genitals, and my parents had found out about it.
I waited patiently for my older sister and brother to return from their time with my parents, and then I was instructed to go outside for my big talk. My parents began the conversation by talking about my body and how no one should ever touch me or ask me to touch them in private areas. That’s mostly all I can remember, other than the tears that poured down my young cheeks. I am not sure whether they were tears of shame or sadness, but there were hot, tender, crocodile-size tears. It was one of the moments in life when growing up is accompanied by a loss of innocence. My mom snapped a picture of my dad and me praying after the conversation, and it was over just like that.
That is how the facts of life were introduced to me: as an important conversation about vulnerable body parts and dangerous neighborhood kids. I must say, I am glad my parents had a talk with me at all, but I wish it had been a more regular and frequent topic of conversation. This one-time event made sexuality seem not only vague, but intimidating to broach. Silence gave sexuality more space to be secretive, potentially abusive, and shame-filled.
My children are currently in the same age range I was when I first heard about sex, but our dialogue around it is not limited to one talk on the back porch swing. Following the advice of Christian sex-therapist Dr. Tina Sellers, it looks like 100 one-minute conversations.
The first invitations from my kids were in innocent observations at bath time, such as “Look at how cool my penis looks” or “What is this button inside my vagina?”—all of which are invitations to conversations of blessing and protection. Too often we make them conversations of shame. My responses range from blessing to curiosity. “Wasn’t God so good to give you a body part that makes you feel good?” or “Why do you think God gave you your penis?”
When children feel safe to ask, the conversations become endless.
The other night before bed, my son and daughter were laughing about the idea of them each having the opposite genitalia. I engaged their imagination as I tucked them into their bunk beds. The playful conversation was light, hilarious at times, and absolutely fascinating to engage. Because I spend most of my work hours as a therapist listening to stories of sexual abuse, I found myself nervous, not sure of what was too much, but I calmed my body and allowed my kids to be theologians.
My daughter explained that her good body button (i.e. her clitoris) was God’s way of making her laugh. I laughed out loud, and we talked about the responsibility of our body parts and how to help them live a safe and healthy life with our bodies that God created. This is how we engage the facts of life in our household because these simple facts are filled with complexity and the desperate need for curiosity.
We ended the conversation, shared stories about the day, read, sang, prayed, and I said goodnight. My daughter’s words haunted me about her clitoris; she had more trust in God’s delight about her sexual body than I did. I began to research the clitoris, a female organ with 7,000 nerve endings and no other physiological function than pleasure. Why am I so puzzled that God gave me a body part that is only there to give me pleasure? The clitoris has more nerve endings than the head of a penis, which has only 4,000 nerve endings. Why would God give women a sexual organ that doesn’t require a relationship to enjoy?
My mentor, Dr. Dan Allender’s words resound in my head. In class a student had asked whether it was Christian to masturbate or not, to which Dan replied, “Of course, as long as you masturbate to the glory of God.” These are the things Christian children can talk to God about when they feel safe, and I want to be a believer who can ask God questions like, “How does one masturbate to the glory of God?” or “Why give women a clitoris?”
May God become a safe parent in whom we can ask our questions about the facts of life.
Christy Bauman, LMHC is committed to helping women come into their true voice. She offers meaning-making and storywork consulting. She is the author and producer of three works: Theology of the Womb, A Brave Lament, and Documentary: A Brave Lament. She is a psychotherapist, supervisor, adjunct professor who focuses on the female body, sexuality and theology. Christy co-director of Christian Counseling Center for Sexual Health and Trauma with her husband Andrew – they live in Seattle with their three kids: Wilder, Selah and River.