My 11 year-old daughter has recently completed sex education classes at school, and she has since asked me and my husband some questions about sex. Most are straightforward, although one of them has been rather awkward to deal with.
She said that her teacher explained what erections were, and that one of the booklets showed a basic drawing of one. They were also shown educational pictures and videos of men and women. However, she said that in the pictures and videos none of the mens’ penises looked erect. Now she is curious to see what an erect penis looks like and has asked me if she can see a picture of one, rather than a drawing (which she didn’t find helpful). I have discussed this with my husband and we’re not sure how to respond to her. She is mature for her age, and we are therefore comfortable with her request in principle, but it is important to us that the materials must be educational in nature so we could sit down and talk her through them. If this is an appropriate way of improving her sex education, can you recommend some educational pictures or videos?
Or would we be missing the point, i.e. is she too young to see an erection? If so, how do we explain this maturely to her? A concern we have is that she might somehow find a way to satisfy her curiosity by looking on the internet, and come across wholly unsuitable information. Her school has told me that their materials they use are limited by the curriculum, and they can’t help. We could really use your guidance!
Well, I do hope I can help! Think for a moment on the message that she would be getting if you said she was too young to see an erection depicted; that certain parts of the body are – what? – disgusting, alarming, taboo, only for really old people? Would you wonder whether she was too young to see a breast, a toe, a backside? We tell our young people so many things when we hide and go silent; more, in fact, than when we show or discuss. And one reason teenagers rush into early experimentation is that that’s often the only way they can get some answers to the many questions they burst to ask.
Keep in mind that Dutch teenagers, who do get an explicit sex education from their schools, not only are far more likely that ours to talk to parents, not only have one SEVENTH the pregnancy rate of ours but leave their first sexual experience to a year later than ours. Oh – and only 7.6% are overweight and 6% are binge drinkers compared to 15.8% and 27% of ours. Which is relevant because it reveals levels of self esteem and connection with parents.
You are to be heartily congratulated on the relationship you have forged with your daughter. Sadly, many youngsters with her curiosity and dilemma would bite a lip and never ever talk to parent. I can vividly remember having exactly the same curiosity at her age, and not dreaming of taking the question to my mother! You are also modelling the most admirable response, which is to say “I don’t know – let me go find out.”
Sadly, I’m not sure if I can help you – not easily, at least. The justifiable concern over pornography and inappropriate material for young people has swung far too far the other way and virtually banned honest and clear depiction of such things. Which means, as you fear, young people are actually far more likely to end up seeing inappropriate literature because there seems to be no midway between the cutesy line drawing, and the disgusting porn.
When I read your letter I immediately thought, and found on my own bookshelf, an excellent book published by The Royal Society of Medicine in 1986, called “Growing Up” by Dr James Docherty. With an introduction aimed at parents, it went into careful and sensitive detail about growth, reproduction and sex. There is a page containing photos showing the range of sizes and shapes of uncut and circumcised penises, and another showing the same range of erect and flaccid penises. The pictures are very, very far from being pornographic and so matter of fact and clear that neither are they alarming. The book also contained a page of photos showing the range of sizes and shapes of breasts, and one of vulva – particularly reassuring to girls who are finding their bodies are changing shape and worrying about it.
But the book is out of print, alas, driven out by our fears of such honesty. A mistake, I think. I have found it available secondhand on Amazon.co.uk, at Amazon and on abebooks.com, at Abebooks at a premium. If you can search on either of these pages or elsewhere and are prepared to find £20 to £30, you can show her what she has requested.
Certainly, I would do so for my 11 year old and be reassured that I was doing no harm and some good. The key is that she is coming to you, and that you are respecting her questions and herself and trying to respond responsibly. But I would note that she may well tell her friends and they may want to see, and their parents may not have either your sense or your good relationship. Perhaps discuss this with her, too!