In the past few months, I’ve seen a sharp increase in personal correspondence from people who are asking me (often via email) for clarifications, expansions, or simply personal advice. I’m flattered that people are beginning to look to me for serious advice on what are often painful or difficult questions. At the same time, I’m very scared by it.

I’m not a traditionally recognized expert about anything. Sure, I have street cred in some cyber-neighborhoods, but I don’t have a single piece of institutionally-backed credibility to offer. I’m not a doctor, a lawyer, a counselor. Heck, since I quit my day job recently, I’m not even any kind of professional anymore.

Now, that doesn’t mean I can’t offer my own opinions or that you shouldn’t find them informed—I do a lot of thinking about the things I write and speak about. What it means is that you should never blindly take what I say to you or what anyone says to you (yes, including doctors and lawyers and counselors) as though it were The Truth™. Knowledge, especially knowledge about yourself, can never be given, it must be grown. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that your choices should be based on anything other than your own convictions. If you remain open to embracing your own mistakes as learning experiences, you will never find yourself disempowered.

Now, with that out of the way, I recently received a very thoughtful email asking for further discussion about my two most recent posts regarding youth sexuality (On Youth, Sexuality, Education, and Your Fears and Sexual Adultism). In fact, I’ve received more than one, but this latest email was beautifully representative of the whole lot, so I want to address its contents in general and its author (who shall remain unnamed unless they wish to be associated with it) in specific. In order to respond coherently, I’m going to respond to the email in chunks.

Hello Maymay:

I was wondering if you would mind discussing this issue a little further. I’ve read and reread both your posts regarding adultism and youth sexuality several times over in an attempt to understand your point of view and for the most part, feel like I am failing miserably. I get what you are saying about having a safe place for people to discuss sexuality, but struggle with the assertion that all sexual topics are appropriate for all ages.

Let me start by stating that I’m uncertain where I ever said “all sexual topics are appropriate for all ages.” While I vehemently disagree with much of so-called conventional wisdom about what age-appropriateness entails and how it’s enacted, I do believe the premise of age-appropriateness is, well, common sense. It is just as appropriate for a parent to hold a child’s hands when they cross the street as it is appropriate for a parent to purchase “Where the Wild Things Are” instead of “Girls Gone Wild” for their toddler. The premise of age-appropriateness isn’t what’s at issue here.

What’s at issue here is the idea that age-appropriateness gives people who are older than other people the right to actively create obstacles to that younger person’s growth. That, by the way, is also the definition of adultism, that adults are somehow entitled to act upon young people without their agreement. I find it infuriating that our educational system is founded on the idea you are forced to study as you age, and yet somehow that same system actively barricades organic, natural, healthy sexual learning and growth simply because older people deem such topics “inappropriate.”

To give just one illustration of this very problem and misapplication of age-appropriate thinking, we need merely look to the recent news story of the Menifee County School Board, which banned the Merriam-Webster Dictionary from schools after a parent complained that it contained a reference to the term ‘oral sex,’ as I discussed on last week’s Kink On Tap. The parent’s complaint, that a collegiate dictionary isn’t appropriate for elementary school children, is logical but also damagingly overbearing. This parent who’s surely trying to protect their child, and who I would presume also doesn’t keep a bible in their house because it, too, is arguably rife with far more sexually explicit references than the dictionary, is actually stunting their child’s growth by paternalistically cutting off avenues of natural experience. And, for fuck’s sake, I was in elementary school when then-President Bill Clinton got impeached after getting a blowjob from Monica Lewinksy. It was all over the news, and so I’d like to hear what that Menifee County parent’s response to that would be for their kid.

Regardless of whether you believe that finding a reference to ‘oral sex’ in the dictionary is somehow going to harm an elementary school kid, the problem here is that you take away the child’s ability to practice having any kind of experience at all, good or bad, helped or harmed. I’m sure my parents wanted to protect me from ills, as all loving parents do, but they also thankfully (usually) realized that segregating me from the reality in which we all live would do more harm than good.

That’s the thing at the core of what age-appropriate misapplication is about, and that’s why I strongly disagree with the typical way it is practiced.

My two eldest children are 11 and 9 respectively and while I would be comfortable discussing a wide variety of sexual topics with them (IE homosexuality, transgender issues, polyamorism), the thought of discussing kink/bdsm with them at this point in time stops me dead in my tracks. My honest thought is that they aren’t yet mature enough to handle the majority of the topics contained under the bdsm umbrella. Hell, alot of adults struggle just to understand that bdsm is about consent and not about abuse. If my two eldest are struggling to internalize the concept of “you can’t slug your sister/brother just because she/he annoyed the shit out of you” and struggle to exercise impulse control when temptation rears it’s ugly head, then how in the world would they have the cognitive skills to understand more complex topics/concepts, IE humiliation, knife or needle play just to give a few examples?

I find myself confused by this. If your contention is that it’s due to the fact that “a lot of adults struggle just to understand that BDSM is about consent and not abuse,” why do you distinguish between BDSM and the many other sexuality issues you mention (transsexuality, polyamory, homosexuality, and so on) that billions of adults also struggle to understand in the most basic of terms? Honest question, I’m not just asking you, I’m asking everyone who’s ever made that distinction, because I just don’t get where it comes from.

Now, one distinction I think you should make that I don’t see you making is between sexual activity and sexual identity or desire. When you talk to your children about homosexuality, I presume you’re not telling them which brands of lube you think they should buy for the best anal sex experience. Similarly, why jump to conclusions that discussing BDSM has to be about sterilizing body parts for needle play?

Extrapolating for a moment, if I had a child and they came to me with a question about gay people, I’d probably discuss it in terms of gender attraction. I’d take the opportunity to explain that different people find different bodies attractive. Maybe something like, “Lots of people love people with different bodies than they have, but a lot of other people love people with very similar bodies.”

Similarly, if I was approached by this hypothetical child of mine with a question about BDSM, I’d probably discuss it in terms of power dynamics. Since power is the fundamental property of BDSM sexuality, it also strikes me as a particularly good segue into a discussion of self-empowerment. Perhaps, “Just as different people love people with different bodies, different people love others with different wants. Sometimes, as part of specific kinds of games, people find it fun to play by rules where one person gets to make decisions and the other person, only if they agree to it, will follow the rules.”

The point I’m making here is that talking to very young kids about sexuality—any kind of sexuality—rightfully starts by discussing the fundamentals, the 101s, if you will. Since these are fundamentals, they are widely applicable, and even if they include some explicit references, they never need to be eroticized (because yes, there is a difference between “explicit” and “eroticized”). It frustrates the living daylights out of me that so many people seem to forget this basic principle of growth and learning and start freaking out over whole subjects, rather than specific details, that they project would be “age inappropriate.”

While I’m on the topic about talking to young people about BDSM, I think this excerpt from Laura Goodwin’s short essay is appropriate:

Children kiss dogs, torture bugs, turn kitchen implements and power tools into toys, climb on furniture, mark their skins with ink or self-inflicted hickeys, and invent the most ingenious, nasty, kinky little games to play with each other (as we have seen), but for them that’s considered normal. Adults are supposed to know better.

There is no such thing as a vanilla child, but somehow we should mysteriously emerge from the teen years like a butterfly from a chrysalis, utterly transformed. A person is supposed to outgrow that stuff, not go and make a career out of it. Nobody told us that, though, because “we don’t talk about those things”. Sex is instinct: you are supposed to ~just know~ what to do.

Sugar Gak Cereal can sponsor “children’s television entertainment” that features bondage, funny costumes, and dominance themes, and that’s OK. Kids can play games that feature bondage, funny costumes, and dominance themes, and that’s OK, but if Mommy and Daddy play games that feature bondage, funny costumes, and dominance themes, that’s not OK. Excuse me?

Another prudent point to make right about now is this: I don’t think you have to, and arguably I would go so far as to say you shouldn’t bring up any specific sexual topic with your children out of the blue. If your child never asks about BDSM, or transgender issues, you don’t have to talk about it! But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t remain open to being approached about the subject, and prepared for the eventuality should it come to pass. The objective is to avoid cutting off avenues of learning just because you decided ahead of time that they’re damaging your kid instead of giving them an opportunity to grow healthily.

Back to the email:

This is where I believe the parents have to step in and based upon their knowledge of both the topic AND their children, provide some guidance and ultimately make the final decision as to what topics are age appropriate. Touchy subject, I know. […] Ultimately, someone has to make the difficult and often unpopular decisions and given that we have so much more life experience to draw upon than my children, I feel that my spouse and I should be the final authority because I believe we are better qualified to realize all the possible ramifications of some of the decisions they might want to make. This is not to say that our kids aren’t allowed to voice their opinions or their disagreement with the decisions we make, and we DO listen to them, try to take their feelings into account and try to explain to the best of our ability the reasons behind the decisions we make. But often they want to do what they want to do and no amount of reasoning seems to satisfy the answer as to why we won’t allow whatever it is they want to do.

Sure, your life experiences may be more quantitive, but can you in good conscious say they are more qualitative than your children’s are, especially when it comes to their experiences? I don’t disagree with the reasoning here, I just disagree with the framing. Specifically, I think it is a missed opportunity.

I would never presume to tell you how to be a parent, but since you asked for my opinions, I would offer the suggestion that each of these “putting your foot down” situations is an opportunity to explore an improved model of household governance. Parents often act like dictators in their own homes; the axiom “my way or the highway” will be familiar to anyone who experienced this as a young person. Instead, when there is a disagreement, why not use a collaborative decision-making model and reach decisions that way, so that you’re not only “listening” to your children but actually inviting them to offer their own solutions to your objections?

Such models of governance are, in fact, being experimented with for whole societies, so I imagine that some of their lessons could be applied here. For more about this topic, you might find the MetaGovernment project’s article about Synthesis interesting.

Anyway, I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts on the matter. Even though I’m finding it difficult to agree with you, your posts did make me pause and examine my parenting practices to see if there are areas where I can improve.

It’s really encouraging to hear that I got you thinking. I don’t have any solutions for parents—I’m not a parent, I don’t want to be a parent anytime soon, and I don’t have any experience with adolescents (and that includes when I was an adolescent, since I was a real loner). That said, we were all children at some point, and I so often hear laments about sad childhoods that I simply know in my gut that it’s gotta be possible to make a future where all childhoods are safe, healthy and happy ones.

I sincerely appreciate the thought that you, and the several others who have written to me about this topic, put into your correspondence. That tells me that you, like me, reject the falsehood that to keep children safe, they must be censored. On behalf of future children everywhere, we thank you for that.

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