The other night my pal stepc brought my attention to the following news item via Twitter. It’s a quick read but if you’re pressed for time, the gist is this:

Cathy Sanders, the mother of a 13-year-old Nanaimo boy objects to the distribution of an animated flip book in her son’s grade 8 class room. The book, produced by and distributed by AIDS Vancouver Island features an explicit demonstration of a woman putting a condom on her erect partner’s penis and having sex with him.  According to the article, Ms. Sanders is pissed about the graphic nature of the pamphlet and the fact that it apparently upset her kid quite a bit.

(If you’d like to see for yourself, check out Ian A Martin’s latest blog post.  He turned the flipbook in to a pretty nifty animated gif. As I said, it’s graphic, so exercise necessary discretion when clicking through.)

I have to admit that when I first read the article, my initial reaction was ‘Bah! It’s not that big a deal. Cathy Sanders is uptight, overprotective and blowing this thing WAY out of proportion!‘.  I even composed a tweet to that effect. But as I looked over my 140 characters snark, I thought, ‘Hold up there, Judgey!‘ . Sanders may be affronted by flip-book sex but I have my own set of biases…

  • I am building a career predicated on the belief that frank, open and explicit communication about sexual health and pleasure are a good thing. Not everyone shares that belief.
  • I’ve worked in the sexual health/pleasure field for several years. Graphic depictions of sexstuffs have become normal and commonplace for me. This isn’t the case for most people.
  • I’ve spent the last three years of my sex education career working with youth. I know that many teenagers are sexually aware. I’ve become extremely comfortable with the reality that teens may be sexually active and may have sexual partners. But sexual readiness comes at different times for different people. Just because many of the youth I’ve encountered have been interested in sex that doesn’t mean this woman’s son felt the same way.

I’m also biased because I’ve spent a lot of my career advocating in favour of sex education for youth that goes beyond the telling them how sex will get them pregnant or sick. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy defending against the type of inflammatory rhetoric that calls a museum exhibit pornographic or claims that comprehensive sex ed curriculum will “teach kids how to have anal sex”.

So I read the article and because of my biases, my first impulse was to get defensive. But then I thought a little more. I thought, ‘This woman probably loves her son and wants what she feels is best for him.‘ I thought about how it might feel to be confronted by your troubled child and a cartoon erection if you weren’t expecting either of those things. I thought about parents and the type of messages we’re given about the role we’re supposed to play in our children’s sexual education.

I don’t feel the pamphlet was pornographic nor would I say that it was categorically age-inappropriate for 13-year-olds. But it may have been age-inappropriate for this particular 13-year-old, or at least unsettling. And when I stop to consider his mother’s position I do feel some sympathy for her. ‘Cause in my experience, parents are primed on exactly three types of sex talks: The Birds, The Bees and The BasicsYour Body Is Going Through Some Changes; and finally Only Have Sex When You Are Ready (You Are NOT Ready!) Son, Let’s Talk About This Naked Flip Book And Why It’s Bothering You, isn’t in the parents’ sex talk playbook. For the most part, we’re told it’s our job to dissuade our kids from having sex. So while I disagree with Ms. Sanders’ characterization of the book, I can sympathize a bit too.

As I was discussing this article on Twitter and later with The MoMs, I realized that as much as I talk and teach about sex, I rarely talk about sex education as part of parenting. And I think I need to change that. Yes, I have a certain level of factual knowledge. But how to convey that information to my son? I know my role when I walk into a classroom or workshop. What is my role as a parent?

Like most parents, ultimately I want my son to grow into a healthy, happy, decent human being. I know that as an adult his sexuality will most likely affect that health and happiness. But what do I say? How do I impart my ethical belief that everyone has the right to make their own choices about their own bodies, when my parental instincts are already hollering at me to MAKE HIM WEAR A CONDOM!?

If he chooses to be sexuality active, long-term I want him to enjoy those experiences without shame or fear. But if it turns out he’s straight, there’s a reasonable chance I’m going to ruin is early dating life by screaming “DON’T GET ANYONE PREGNANT!” every time he’s with a girl.

I want to tell him that he should have sex when he feels ready? But if he asks me, “Mum, how do I know when I’m ready?”, I don’t know what to say. I don’t even know if that’s my question to answer.

All of this to say, that it’s hard. Parenting means flying blind most of the time, especially when it comes to sex. I guess this blog post is my way of sending out a signal. Tell me, fellow parents, how do you feel about sex-educating your kids? Do you have fears, issues you feel ill-equipped to deal with? Do your emotions and the instinct to protect your young ever clash with your general belief system?

It’s sobering to realize how quick to judgement I can be. It can be far too easy to position myself as the enlightened sex expert in these situations. But while our boundaries may differ, Cathy Sanders is probably a loving, well-intentioned parent who found herself in a situation she probably didn’t know how to handle. I can sympathize with that, because I’ve been there…and I will be again.


  1. Tammy MacKenzie says:

    1- I love your attitude and approach. I feel the same way: knowledge and openness is a far better way to help our children be aware and prepared, to protect themselves, and to be safe. Thinking that our children are “too young” for information is, IMO, naive and possibly harmful to our children. But yes, every child is different, and the influences of their family, friends, environment and upbringing mean each individual may be at vastly different stages of awareness, acceptance, and ability to take in information or experiences. This is why I personally think the education system should a) have standardized information that all schools present, and b) should make it available to parents before the kids get it, so parents can be prepared and/or prepare their children, or fill in the gaps, ask questions, etc.
    2- As the mother of a young teenaged girl, yes, my beliefs sometimes war with my role as parent, lol. It’s hard to be objective when it’s your own child. Being open about sex and sexuality doesn’t mean my child will be with me, and I know providing information doesn’t mean it will be heeded. I can hope…
    I feel fortunate that I am able to be very open and comfortable discussing sex and sexuality with my child, but she often is not. That too must be considered. I do think parents should have a primary role in this issue, but am aware many are not comfortable, and sadly, some are ill-informed or have prejudices and biases, or simply prefer to think that if it’s not discussed, it won’t happen.
    3- The hardest part of all this is incorporating the emotional and relationship aspects. The mechanics and whatnot are easy, but it is so difficult to share the impact our emotions can have, and our hormonal drive, especially for young people just experiencing them and learning about them. The instinct to guide and support wars with the instinct to protect and limit. It’s a fine line to walk…

    Keep up the good work Nadine! :)


  2. Our approach has been to teach our kids early, before they are at the point of finding naked bodies embarrassing or feeling shocked by these types of things. They’ve been to the exhibit about sex at the Museum of Science and Technology and we used this How Babies are Made in Germany book to teach them some of the things they need to know.

    The things that catch me off guard are the religious “truths” that sometimes come home. The sex stuff I’m okay with so far. :)

  3. Lynn says:

    My policy so far is to be as honest as possible with them when they ask questions. So my almost-10 and 8 year olds both know the sex basics already. Recently the 8 year old asked me why anyone would ever want to have sex, so we had a good talk about how it can be used to express love for someone, and how it actually feels physically good and does not hurt. I really hope I am doing the right thing – certainly my parents NEVER had talks like this with me, and my younger sister, who I told all about sex when I was in grade 6 and she in grade 2, feels it emotionally scarred her forever – she was terrified. But I still feel like openness is the best policy and I’m working on that.

    The scary parts for me are thinking about what might happen when they stop *asking* stuff, yet they still need to know stuff – how do you know when is the right time to talk to them? I’m hoping I’ll just know it when I see it – perhaps a book we are reading together or a movie we watch together will produce some good talking points, as they get older.

  4. Liz says:

    We’ve been open about the sexual functions since our kids were toddlers. Now that they are older, I am also looking for more opportunities to address sexuality, gender issues, cultural stereotype, etc as they come up – while watching tv, when we talk about love and relationships, or when ther are ads with sexual content. I love Deborah Roffman’s approach in her book Talk to Me First and highly recommend it for both the why’s and how’s of raising these topics in healthy ways.

  5. Kelly says:

    My kids are 6 and 2 years old. Both have full knowledge of how babies are conceived and born. The 6 yo was present at the 2yo birth (then a 4yo). We frequently refer to that, including referring to all the relevant body parts with ‘proper’ names. The thing I like about starting with this is that it is a natural point to start introducing age appropriate information and its not something scary. 6yo has seen cartoon books (NOT as described — a lot less graphic) and understands how the semen ends up meeting up with egg. At this stage, its not about her own feelings so much but more about how mum and dad made me.

    The other thing that comes in though with teenagers, is committment to the precepts of your faith. As a Christian woman, I do want to talk to my kids about my own committment to one partner for life, and that as a teenager I chose to make certain boundaries in my relationships. For many Christian men and women this includes rejecting pornography. Teenagers who also choose to make these boundaries in their own lives may feel like very graphic pictures, even in cartoon form, are bordering on pornography for them and may feel uncomfortable. I get that. I know my husband at that age would have felt uncomfortable with that. For example, what if the young man in question was turned on by this book, in class, and experienced an erection? If that was the case, he may have felt extremely embarassed around his classmates over the public display of what may be, for him (and many others Christian or not), quite a private thing.
    I think there are a lot of things to consider. I don’t think I would be angry enough to want to ban the book, but I would certainly think students should get some warning about content before shocking them with it. I agree that a lot of teenagers are interested in sex, but not ALL teenagers necessarily are. It also doesn’t follow that because many teenagers are interested in sex that they are necessarily actually wanting to have sex in the near future.

  6. Jenilee says:

    I think it’s best to be open and honest. But, I do think parents are or some parents are different with their daughters than sons.