Published on July 21st, 2016 | by Caitlin Millay Krapf3
ADVICE ABOUT “THE TALK” AFTER WATCHING 400 SEX EDUCATION FILMS (Or How to Talk to Your Kids about Fiery Horse Sex) by Caitlin Millay Krapf
When I was young, I considered myself precocious when it came to sex. I felt awash in sexual desire long before any of my friends started talking about boys or girls in that way. But since I wasn’t attracted to anyone at my middle school or high school, masturbation sufficed as a necessary salve until I could unleash my passion upon the world. I read J.G. Ballard’s Crash and James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime and dreamed of gorgeous men tortured by their desire for women. That was the big turn on—desire—my own and others’.
When I got to college, I finally found myself surrounded by men I found hopelessly alluring. I somehow had assumed that once I met someone I was interested in, they would immediately sense my unmitigated lust. But that was not the case. I had no idea how to be sexy and lacked the confidence to openly express my desires to someone else. Every boy I yearned for ended up becoming a good platonic friend. The defining moment of my college years was sitting in a car, hearing the song “Donna” from the musical Hair come on the radio, and bursting into tears. That’s the song that starts, “Oh, once upon a looking for Donna-time/There was a sixteen-year-old virgin.” I was twenty, and still a virgin, and so desperate to find a boy to sleep with me that I could barely function. I still blame that frenzy of longing for making me fail physics—a subject I always loved.
I never really figured out sex. I just eventually found a few equally awkward boys willing to work through the weirdness with me.
So when my mentor from film school, the brilliant Brenda Goodman, asked me to make a documentary with her about the history of sex education in the U.S., I jumped at the chance. I was fascinated to learn if there was a good way that educational institutions could teach children about sex—not just the biology of baby-making, but the full complexity of growing up as sexual beings.
After spending several years watching over 400 sex education films and listening to experts in the field as well as ordinary people describe how their sex-ed experiences affected their lives, I’ve concluded that there are actually a few good programs that deal with the topic of sex in a smart, sensitive way, but most kids will never get to experience them. Individual teachers with a real feel for the topic tend to work in high-priced private schools. The Unitarian Universalist’s Our Whole Lives program is one of the few great curriculums with wide distribution, but most people outside of that community have never heard of it.
Largely, it’s up to parents. Researching a topic like sex education, it’s impossible not to think about how you’ll talk about these issues with your own children. When I began working on the documentary that would become Sex(Ed): The Movie, I was newly married, years away from becoming a mother. I could only see the topic through the lens of growing up as a young woman. All my thoughts were addressed to my imaginary daughter-to-be.
I knew I didn’t want her to experience the anxiety I did growing up. I wanted her to know there was no shame is being sexually active, as some horrendous sex education films suggest—comparing young women who give up their virginity to already chewed gum. But I also wanted her to know there was no shame in waiting. After all those years feeling rejected by men, I’m actually pretty happy now that I lost my virginity when I did. I’m lucky to say that all the men I’ve been with have been people who I liked who liked me, who cared about whether I had a good time and thought about how I was feeling. I don’t know if that would have been true if I had become sexually active in my teens. All school curriculum and most parents shy away from the topic of pleasure, but I wanted her to know that she had a right to demand that her partner focus on her pleasure as well. And I would want her to know how important it is to masturbate so she could know what felt good to her and express that to someone else. Oh—and to pee after sex. Why oh why did no one ever tell me that? All the UTIs I could have avoided…
I actually think some of this practical information is the material most absent from school sex-ed curriculum—except maybe for practical information for LGBTQ students which is totally non-existent. Schools tend to focus solely on the biological or the puritanical. There’s an irrational fear of anything edging towards practical, which you can see in the outrage over condom demonstrations. But the VERY practical has a benefit on multiple levels. First, even if you want your children to wait until marriage to have sex, they will be having sex at some point. Things like UTIs don’t disappear once you leave puberty. Secondly, what scares me about young people having sex is them expecting the experience to be as seamlessly romantic as it’s presented in films and on TV or as performative and hairless as mainstream porn. Talking about concrete details like trimming pubic hair to make condoms more comfortable goes a long way toward making the point that real life is a little different.
When we were finally editing the film, I got pregnant and found out I was having a boy. My world spun. I would have to talk to a boy about sex? I’m a little ashamed to admit that the only thing that came to mind in that moment was what I wanted him to know about women. I wanted to make sure he knew how hard it was for girls growing up—that we feel pressure to be beautiful and sexy at a ridiculously young age, that teens girls might be embarrassed to express desires, that women’s bodies are complex and often require a lot more than the insertion of a penis to orgasm. I wanted him to be a caring young man to make things better for young women like me.
My son came with me to the first theatrical screening in Los Angeles. He made it through the first half hour and then I had to take him outside the theater when he started crying. As I rocked and danced him around the lobby, I thought again about how I wanted to talk to him one day about sex. What did I want to tell this fascinating little being?
There’s a basic message that’s inherent in a lot of sex-ed curriculum and culture at large: that a “normal” sexual transaction for teens is the horny boy trying to convince the innocent girl to have sex. In How Much Affection, made in 1958, a girl runs into her house weeping after succumbing to heavy petting with her boyfriend. Her mother tells her that behaving unwisely in such ways will “spoil the chance of your finding the very love that you’re looking for.” In Secret Keeper, a filmed abstinence presentation in 2011, the speaker tells girls, “You and I have a responsibility to save the deepest secrets of our beauty for just one man.” There is no equivalent message for young men. At most they are chastised for choosing a “dirty woman” who carried a disease or getting a girl pregnant. I already knew how that stereotypical image of a woman had nothing to do with my life growing up. But I thought about my young son who was already so much more complex than that stereotypical image of a “little man.”
Then I thought about all the important men in my life and how their experiences traced paths as strange and confused as my own. I thought about my good friend who was pressured into his first sexual experience by a girl. I thought about an ex-boyfriend who had had sex for the first time when he thought he was ready and with the right person, only to realize he wasn’t on either account and dealt with the feelings of regret and rejection for years after. And this doesn’t even touch on the issues faced by some of my gay friends, many of whom didn’t even come out until after college. Everyone’s desires are messy and complex. There are no easy transactions, no simple cat and mouse.
It’s this tendency to address sex as if it’s a chase that goes a long way to confuse young people about what consent means. If both young men and women approached sex with the understanding that either partner may be more or less ready, may have specific needs or desires, may be facing fears or worries—they might be more likely to start the process with conversation instead of coercion.
Now my son is two years old and I’m expecting my second child, another boy. I do want them to think about how our culture talks to young women, but I also want them to think about how it talks to young men, and LGBTQ kids. And what I’ll tell them about sex is almost exactly the same thing I’d say to a daughter.
“Sex is complex. It doesn’t happen as easily as you’ll see it in movies and porn. Bodies make funny noises. It’s not always clear how they fit together most enjoyably. I don’t know if there’s any right age to start having sex, but I think those first experiences will be better if you can wait until you can find someone you can talk with and laugh with through the awkward moments and hard decisions.”
I don’t expect that conversation to happen all at once. From what all the experts say, it’s much better to make these things continuing conversations than to try to cover them all in one fell swoop. I’m at a bit of an advantage because at some point I’ll be able to sit them down and make them watch the movie that Mom made. Maybe they’ll laugh at the 1922 film, The Science of Life, that warns, “The sex impulse is like a fiery horse. Uncontrolled, it may be destructive and dangerous.” But I hope they’re paying attention when Rick Prelinger; a writer, archivist, and expert in ephemeral films; talks about the films painting idealized images of teens conforming to gender stereotypes and waiting for marriage to engage in sexual activity. As he so thoughtfully states, “It’s a great little capsule of a world. I just don’t know if that world ever existed.” Sex(Ed) certainly doesn’t cover all the things I’ll want to say, but it’s funny and insightful and full of people willing to admit that none of this is easy.