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June 19, 2014

Sex Positive Parenting, or We Don't Touch Our Vulvas At The Table


It happened yet again. As I was sitting at the table for dinner with my children, I noticed my daughter's hand fishing around under her skirt.

"We don't play with our vulvas at the table. Go wash your hands and finish your food," I scolded. She nodded, ran off to wash her hands, and resumed picking at her dinner instead.

Small children, they touch themselves. A lot. It's fascinating to them. And when you're a small child, you have no sense of shame or disgust or fear of your body. Your body is what it is. It does what it does. And everything that it does is kind of amazing, because you're not old enough for lower back pain. It's not sexual, it's just... fact.

The first time I caught one of my kids playing with their genitals, I said absolutely nothing. I was momentarily paralyzed with indecision. One thing I knew for a fact I did not want to do was to shout, "No!" or "Stop!" What good could that possibly do? Sure, I would be spared the awkwardness of catching my child playing with her genitals on the living room floor, but what kind of lesson is that? To fear or ignore your own vagina?

I thought about it almost constantly for two days, and of course she gave me a second chance to react.

"Sweetie, we don't play with our vulvas in the living room," I said. Which sounded ridiculous and strange, but nonetheless true. Why is everything with little kids "we" statements? "It's okay to touch your vulva, but people are private, and it's a private thing. The only places where you should touch your vulva are in the bathroom or in your bedroom. If you want to play with your vulva, please go to the bedroom."

And she smiled and did, without question, because compartmentalizing where you do certain activities makes sense to little kids.

"We don't eat in the bathroom, and we don't touch our vulvas in the living room," became the new mantra. And yes, eventually it became, "We don't touch our vulvas at the table."

I'm what some people call "sex positive." That doesn't mean I talk with my four year olds about how great sex is and how good it feels. It means I don't pretend it's something other than it is.

As parents, we lie all the time. About the Easter Bunny or Santa or the Tooth Fairy, about how long ten minutes is, about whether or not we remembered they wanted to have grilled cheese for dinner again, we lie a lot. But one thing I never lie about is sex.

I don't want them to grow up ashamed of their bodies or confused about what they do. I don't tell them about cabbage patches or storks, I make an effort, always, to be honest about human reproduction. Every aspect of it.

I've had talks with lots of other moms about having "the talk." I don't think my kids and I will ever have that particular talk, because they already know. And we talk about it often- kids are obsessive creatures. We read "Where Did I Come From?" and "What Makes A Baby" which together cover every aspect of the subject. We can talk about IVF and c-sections, because both of those are part of the story of their births, and we can talk about the fact that yes, mommy and daddy still have sex regardless. And when they're older, we'll start talking about contraception.

Because lying to your kids about sex helps nobody. Telling them that sex is "only between mommies and daddies" is a lie that leads to confused, hormone charged teenagers. Telling them that sex is "only something that happens when two people love each other very much" is a lie that causes hormone charged teenagers to confuse "love" with "lust," or "obsession." It leads to leaps of logic like, "If I have sex with them, we must be in love." Or worse- "If I love them, I have to have sex with them." And how many teenage tragedies are based on that misconception?

The truth is that human beings, almost universally, like sex. It feels good. And it's supposed to feel good. If it didn't, the human race would die out. The truth is that sex isn't special and magical just because it's sex. The truth is that you can have spectacular sex with strangers who's names you don't even know. The truth is that just because you can, that doesn't necessarily mean you should.

And that's what sex positive parenting really is. Not telling my kids lies about sex to keep them from behaviors I don't think are healthy. It's telling them the truth, the whole truth, and letting it sink in so they can make their own good choices.

It's telling them that sex is good, but that it's dangerous if you're not careful. It's teaching them to require their partners to use condoms, to buy their own condoms if they're planning on having sex. It's teaching them that while sex feels good, they can feel good on their own too. (Just not at the table.) That while sex combined with love is often the best sex- transcendent sex- that grows the bond of love and builds a closeness that is almost impossible to find otherwise, sex isn't always like that- even with people you love. That sex can lead to pregnancy, even with protection, so engaging in it is a commitment to deal with any consequences.

It's telling them they're not wrong, or sinful, or bad, if they have sexual feelings. Or even if they have sex. It's teaching them that sex happens, whether people always make good choices or not. And it's giving them the tools to ensure that when they're ready, they're smart and cautious and conscientious.

There's a lot of black and white comparisons when it comes to sex education. Some people think that once kids hit puberty, if they don't have a strong fear of sex they'll have as much as they can, as often as they can. There's a lot of abstinence-only sex education, based on telling kids, "SEX IS SCARY! DON'T DO IT!" and it's about the least successful program anyone has ever invented. In states with abstinence-only sex ed, teen pregnancy rates only go up and up and up.

Telling children the truth about sex isn't giving permission for them to have it- and this is the most important part- because nobody has the right to deny them permission for sex but themselves.

And that's the thing I try to keep in mind when I say things like, "We don't touch our vulvas at the table." Sex is something that ONLY happens when both people WANT it to happen. And that means that the only people in the entire world with any kind of say over whether or not my daughters have sex is them.

I don't get to tell my daughters they have to have sex, but I also don't get to tell them they can't. They're in charge. Your body, your decision.

I never want to be responsible for setting the precedent that another person gets to tell them what to do with their bodies, and especially with their sexuality. I don't want to be the gateway for a manipulative, potentially abusive boyfriend.

So I teach boundaries. Appropriate places. Hygiene. I teach my children that nobody is allowed to touch their bodies without permission. When we get in tickle fights and they say, "Stop!" I stop.

And when we talk about pregnant friends, we talk about uteruses and sperm and eggs.

And most of the time, it's not uncomfortable. Most of the time, I'm verifying information and the conversation lasts fifteen seconds.

And someday the conversation is going to be a lot uglier. Someday, we'll have to actually talk about rape, and explicit and enthusiastic consent, and contraception. Someday we'll have to talk about healthy masturbation and pornography and realistic expectations of sex and sex partners and body image and a lack of shame for their bodies. And those conversations are not going to be as brief or straightforward.

But I'm ready. Whenever that day comes, I'm prepared. Because the groundwork is there.

"We don't touch our vulvas at the table." It's absurd, but it's got all the important pieces. It's a micro-lesson in safety and consent and social propriety. I don't think I'll be able to say, "We don't lose our virginity in the back seat of a car after a Prom party," with a straight face, but I will be able to say, "We don't have sex without thinking long and hard about it first, and we certainly don't do it without being careful, and being safe, and being totally confident in the maturity of our partner and our ability to handle the repercussions if we get a disease or get pregnant."

Because it's true. We don't.

But I like that when that time comes, I'm part of the "we." Because if I can tell my girls, "we" have to be careful, they'll know that no matter what happens, I'm still in their corner. I've still got their backs. Even if "we" make bad choices, I'll still be there to help make things right again.

53 comments:

  1. Terrific article! I have boys... and boy do they touch their penises all the time! We talk a lot about "private time" in our house.

    Jennifer @ The Jenny Evolution

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    1. Please let me know if I'm mistaken- I've been under the impression pretty much forever that people sort of expect little boys to play with their penises, but get all freaked out when little girls do it!

      I'm glad you guys have a way to talk about it without body shaming! Who knew being a parent was going to be so personal? ;)

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    2. As a mom of two girls (and one boy), I was not at all freaked out when my younger daughter started touching herself down there. It's comforting! I understand that other parents or adults may get freaked out because it's the old double standard that sex is okay for boys but not girls (and of course touching at this age isn't even about sex). If we keep being sex-positive, we can fight back the double standard!

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    3. "I understand that other parents or adults may get freaked out because it's the old double standard that sex is okay for boys but not girls (and of course touching at this age isn't even about sex). If we keep being sex-positive, we can fight back the double standard!"

      I feel SO encouraged to learn that there are parents out there who do not shame their daughters for being sexual. I thought I was the only person who was conscious of this double-standard in the parenting of little girls vs. little boys. I am so happy to come across this article and the many people agreeing with it! People need to stop being ashamed and "terrified" of talking with their daughters about sex. It wouldn't be an awkward or uncomfortable conversation if you simply removed the culture of shame and guilt surrounding it!

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  2. Ah, yes, we have had the old, that is for private, talk many a time at our house too! I have always been open and honest with my kids and the great thing is now that our oldest is 15 he does come to me with questions and concerns because he was never made to feel as if asking was a bad thing. I have always been amazed though that most blush inducing questions usually come at dinnertime while my mouth is full of ice tea or pasta. Or when I'm driving! Great piece!

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    1. Why do they always want to talk about this stuff in the car?!?

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    2. In the car - because they are alone with you, you can't get away, and you can't really look at them! Sometimes it is easier to discuss a difficult topic without having to look the other person in the eye. If my husband and I have something tough to discuss, we usually try to go for a walk together. Movement and lack of eye contact can make it easier to have tough conversations :)

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  3. I have this conversation with my younger daughter all the time. I consider myself a very sex-positive parent as well (I have posts very similar to this one). It will get more difficult, but we just have to keep talking, and continue to be honest. Good on you!

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  4. Slow f'n clap! Please teach us how to do the future talks, too!

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  5. While the sex-positivity in this piece is wonderful, I think we also need to focus on removing heteronormativity from our conversations with kids about sex. We can't know for sure that your daughter will have a boyfriend, and when we talk about safe sex, using the word "contraceptives" interchangeably with the word "protection" is problematic. If our discussions about safe sex only mention heterosexual scenarios and pregnancy prevention, this leads to queer teens (and adults) not realizing how important it is for them to practice safe sex also. And even if your child turns out to be heterosexual, demystifying how queer people have sex and how they practice safe sex couldn't hurt ;)

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  6. I liked your essay. I try to take a similar approach with my kids (a boy and a girl). I do want to mention though, it's also okay to not lie to our kids about other things too. I tell them the history of Santa (and the tooth fairy, etc, etc.) And they know there is much mystery and magic in the world. I also let them know that we won't have Mac and Cheese AGAIN tonight, but they can help me make a menu plan for the week so we can help everyone enjoy meals while also being healthy. I do not lie to my kids a lot, in fact I try not to lie to them at all. It has not been a problem so far :)

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    1. I feel totally trapped into a lot of the lies- Santa and whatnot. Being in an interfaith marriage, I feel like I would be disrespecting my husband and his beliefs by contradicting the Santa myth (or Easter Bunny, or lots of other things).

      Then, there's plenty of self preservation lies. "Sorry sweetie, we're all out of popsicles," often means, "There's only one and the three of you can't share it so it's mine!" Stuff like that.

      I've also told them that eating their vegetables will turn them into unicorns (don't know why it worked to get them to eat their veggies, but there you have it!), that NOBODY eats ring pops inside the house, that I mailed reams of hastily scribbled pictures to all their aunts and uncles and grandparents... it's dishonest, and I have a lot of guilt over it. But they're all under five years old. They're relationship with reality is tenuous enough that bending the truth or even outright breaking it in order to keep things running smoothly seems like the lesser of two evils. Most of the time.

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    2. I understand how you might feel trapped into a harmless lie, we all know how hard it is to keep things running smoothly. My concern is this; even the smallest lie can give your kids a reason to doubt your honesty. Will they be able to reason that you would never lie about something important, or will they take all this positive teaching as just something moms say?

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    3. I hope as they get older, the level of honesty in the house will continue to grow. Already I can be more direct with my preschoolers than I could when they were toddlers. Hopefully by the time they hit puberty, lying will be completely a thing of the past.

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    4. I agree completely. I think total honesty makes a parent more trustworthy.

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    5. In my world, Chuck E. Cheese is closed a LOT. ;) but I try not to lie very often

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    6. My husband started greatly distrusting his parents when he found out they were lying about Santa Claus. I on the other hand figured out my parents were lying but I pretended I didn't know better because I thought I wouldn't get any presents if they knew I knew. I think it depends on the personalities of your children.

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  7. I love how straightforward you are about this! I'm not a parent yet, but I hope I can be as candid and honest with my children when I am. When I taught preschool, small children would touch themselves all the time and I would say similar things ("If you'd like to do that, you need to go into the bathroom where it's private."). I'm not sure how their parents felt about it, but I promise that most little kids will do it whether you address it or not, and it can get really awkward when they're touching themselves in the middle of a classroom. Anyway, great article.

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    1. Thank you! And thank you for being an awesome preschool teacher! The world needs more. :)

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  8. This is how I raised my children. As adults they thanked me for never having made them feel ashamed about their bodies.

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  9. This is how I raised my children. As adults they thanked me for never having made them feel ashamed about their bodies.

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  10. Hats off to you, Mama. Too many parents are afraid of this conversation. How else are we going to instill a secure sense of sexuality in our children if we don't talk about it. And good for you for scolding the where of the vulva playing, and not the playing itself :) GREAT piece, Lea! ~Steph

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    1. Thanks, Steph! I agree- too many parents are afraid. There's nothing to be scared of! We all have bodies- exploring them is only natural. Boundaries- that's what we need to focus on. :)

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  11. This is so well thought out and written. Although my daughter is only 18 months old, I'm already thinking about the future and how we are going to deal with this. You've put into words what I've been searching for. Thank you for sharing your experience. (Stopping by from the Motivational Monday Link Party.)

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    1. Thank you so much for stopping by!! I'm glad this post helped! It's never too early to emotionally steel yourself for awkwardness. ;)

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  12. I needed to read this. I was raised with fear on top of being molested and later, date-raped. I still cringe when the topic of sex comes up with my kids, ages 8 and 4. I gotta get a handle on this shiz.

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    1. I'm so sorry. I worry a lot about what could happen to my children when it comes to sexual assault- nearly every woman has a story, and I want my daughters to be the exception. I know where you're coming from, and it's so painful. I hope this helps, and I hope talking with your kids about consent helps you heal, too.

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  13. OH I have been having this conversation with my toddler lately. The when and where. Although when I first noticed her doing it I thought she was itching so I asked her if it itched. Now she's sure to tell me that she's itching whenever I see her at it. Either she is relieved to have an "excuse" or she must think I thought she was doing something she shouldn't. I think next time I might try a more frank conversation about how it's not a bad thing, but it still needs to be done privately.
    Thank, Lea, for such a wonderfully thorough and honest POV.

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    1. It's also possible that maybe "itch" is a sensation she hasn't really put a word to? It's really hard to convey a name for the way things feel. Good luck with that conversation! It sounds like you've definitely got a handle on it. :)

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  14. Great article!! I shall bring comfort to my children's bodies to.

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  15. I have a 3 year old daughter and I knew eventually she is going to start being curious and it terrified me because I never had "the talk with my parents. I grew up learning everything on my own so years after sexual abuse I met my ex husband but because I didn't think about our relationship just being lust we got married and I got pregnant. But now because of your article I am in tears thinking that I might have a chance to save her from the pain and heartache that I went through until I learned what love really is. I can not even begin to thank you enough for opening my eyes to the honest truth. Thank Thank you so much.

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    1. You're welcome. And thank you for telling me your story. I'm so glad you're in a loving place now, and I hope this helps you with your daughter. <3

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    2. Its a very important thing for me to get her to understand what is ok so now that I have a concept that I can talk to her at this age is very comforting.

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  16. Standing ovation. I'm very, very much in agreement. We use anatomically correct terms (or nearly so, I do say bottom for butt, though I use anus when I mean anus). I never tell them not to fondle themselves, because, and I'm clear, it's their body to fondle as they wish. But, I also discourage my son and daughters from, say, touching their gentials while bathing together---privacy is a good thing.

    However, I have only recently been asked to explain how a the sperm gets into a woman's body, and it was in mixed company with my kids, ages 5, 6, 6, and 9. I was not ready to tackle the question in the mixed group. I told my oldest we could talk separately. Not because I don't want to tell her, but because I want them to have my attention so that I can answer the question each one might ask, which is not always the same for each of my kids.

    Beyond that, I needed to answer the question for myself. I haven't always had a healthy relationship with sex and intimacy, and I want to be sure that I can carry the same, as you say, "sex positive" approach I've encouraged so far. It's just as important to me that I comb out my own insecurities before passing on my thoughts about sex---the just-the-facts physical manifestation and it's emotional, social, and health responsibilities---as it is that I answer them honestly.

    Next time I speak with my kids, I'll remember this piece. You've written so well on this subject; I appreciate thinking that you're with, metaphorically, on this one.

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    1. Thank you so much for coming by and commenting! That's definitely the least comfortable part- how the sperm gets in. (Well, "comfortable" depends on the circumstances...) I wish you all the luck in the world! And I do recommend those books- "Where Did I Come From?" in particular. You might also want to check out its counterpart on puberty- "What's Happening To Me?" They're both so educational, so honest, and it's incredibly helpful to have an illustrated script for this sort of thing.

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  17. This is fabulous! Thank you! My mother raised me this way and I'm so thankful for it. When I had my daughter almost 13 years ago, I made the choice to be a sex positive parent as well. I've noticed over the years that my friends who were not raised this way have many issues with self image, their bodies, sex, orgasms, relationships, etc... It really does make a difference. Oh and thanks for the deep belly laughs while reading this. :-)

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  18. I have a friend who used the bedrooms-and-bathroom rule to great success in her house.

    I might suggest that you drop the idea of virginity entirely. The idea that people become different kinds of humans whether they've had sex or not adds a lot to anxiety and body shame and very little of value. And of course, there's no physical or biological phenomenon to back it up. All such attempts (like the hymen-as-virginity) have as many false positives as false negatives. Consider teaching them that whether they've had sex or not has no bearing at all on who they are or what they're worth, and any partner who disagrees is probably a jerk anyway. As you say, sex is a thing that happens--mommy isn't sullied or impure or grown-up for having sex, and they won't be either.

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    1. I agree- I don't hold any kind of premium to virginity. Never have, never will. I mostly included that line for humor's sake, but you're right. Jokes like that can teach unintentional lessons, and I'll try not to make them in the future. Thank you.

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  19. "I don't get to tell my daughters they have to have sex, but I also don't get to tell them they can't. They're in charge. Your body, your decision."

    And if you were to apply this standard to the rest of parenting, it would become clear it's totally unworkable and idiotic. Forget vaccines—your body, your decision. Forget parental control of eating—your body, your decision.

    Try parenting instead of going for lib cred...if your kids aren't a lost cause already.

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    1. I don't think she's telling them that they have complete control over their body right now....she's not saying they can choose to have sex or not NOW...she's giving them age appropriate control. As they get older they will understand the concept because she has laid the groundwork. Some things kids don't have control over, like getting shots, or taking medicine when they are sick, but there are lots of things they do have control over, it's our job as parents to teach them that. It's all about age appropriateness and making communication an important, ongoing, and comfortable experience between parents and their kids.

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  20. How is this an idiotic statement? I believe that this is a strong statement and a good value for her to teach her children. This knowledge will stimulate their minds in a positive way instead of a negative way. The way you raise your children does make a difference with how they progress in life, if you are negative about everything then your child will be afraid to do try anything out of the negative memory that you as a parent have created for them. She is being positive with sex, and I am sure she is being positive with all other aspects of parenting. Her children will be bound to make mistakes, but they will have positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement. I am glad they have her as mother and I would
    love to see how her children compare to children who were raised in a negative environment where every major and minor thing is bad. There will be a world of difference with their health, happiness, success, stability, security, etc.. I do believe that your comment was tactless but thank you for making it.

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  21. If you do tell kids about these things, how do you stop them from telling other kids -- or other adults -- "Daddy showed me about how penises work." or something else that could bring Child Protective Services to the door? Given that kids' appropriateness filters are still developing?

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  22. Sorry, one more anecdote for you. :)
    At the start of summer, my 13yo stepdaughter's mom bought her her very first bikini. Her dad and I were not ready to leave the tankini stage, but she was SO excited about this cute bikini that we decided to just support her wearing it instead. Well, a week later, two photos popped up on my instagram feed. It was my stepdaughter, in her bikini, posing and strutting... looking sexy. At first, I panicked. There were comments on these photos from boys and I was feeling freaked out! However, I didn't post anything or call her or react... I just held off till the following week when she came to my house. I found a moment when my husband was out of the house and I sat with my stepdaughter on the floor of her room and started the conversation with, "I know how much you love your bikini, hun, and while I might be uncomfortable with you showing that much skin, if you've made the decision to go bikini, then go bikini! However, with great power comes great responsibility. You know those photos you posted on instagram? Do you realize you look really sexy in them?" She pulled such a face! She was shocked! I told her if she was ready to be "sexy" and try and attract attention, then we needed to talk seriously about self defense and protection. Then she went from shocked to thoughtful. She said she wasn't ready to be sexy, she was just trying to be cute. I asked her how many of the 347 followers on instagram she actually knew and she said "maybe half?" We talked about how she was showing off her sexy side to over 100 strangers. In the end, we had a great conversation about the boys she liked, how she wasn't ready for sex, how I would prefer she have sex under my roof when down the road when she is ready and she finds a partner who is ready and committed too, etc, and you know what? There have been no other sexy pics on instagram or anywhere else since. She respected me through the whole process and I respect her SO much for being able to recognize the point I was making and make a good choice for herself.

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  23. Dear Becoming Supermommy,

    I just finished reading your story, and I’m in tears. I’ve laughed and smiled too; your text stirred so many emotions. I couldn’t agree more with what you wrote. It has everything I wish to be able to tell my son someday.

    I’m looking at my 4-months-old, lying next to me, sound asleep, so peaceful and quiet. He seems like a happy baby, so far, and I really, really want to keep doing my best in order to raise a happy, strong and confident human being.

    But you see, the sex part in particular is not going to be easy. My sweet, adorable little boy is the son of an ex-prostitute and of a pornography addict who used to see prostitutes. Quite a ‘parental history’ to overcome…

    Both my husband and I, together and separately, have worked on ourselves and on our respective behaviours A LOT since those days when we used to meet in hotel rooms. And this is not to blame all our bad choices on our parents, but I strongly believe the way we were raised did not help at all. On my end, I have been taught… well, as a child and teenager, I had not been taught much about sex actually; so I came to believe (don’t ask me why), that having sex with a man was the only way to become a ‘valuable’ person, and that having sex with as many men as possible was the best way to become more valuable. I even decided to attach a price-tag to it, just to make things real clear.

    I don’t want my son to treat women like I have been treated. And I don’t want him to feel bad just because he is a man too. I want him to be respectful, and kind, and open; and I wish for him to find a like-minded partner, who will love him and respect him.

    I don’t think he will ever know the true story of how his parents met, my story. I don’t think he should either. My husband and I are not there anymore. The only thing that matters now is that we’ve found each other, and we’re so lucky we did, because not everyone gets to find that kind of love in life.
    But most important, I don’t want my story to affect my son. I don’t want what I’ve lived to tint the way I raise him. It is not going to be easy. I am going to need to keep questioning myself, and get help, and tools. Your text is one of them. A very powerful one, to which I’ll keep referring to as years go by.
    Thank you.

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  24. How old is your daughter? Mine is almost 2, she has always played with herself and I've always let her. She also does it in the living room and she is only told to stop when we have people over. Due to the set up of my flat, it would not be safe for me to leave her alone in the bedroom. Should I start teaching her the privacy thing? And how would I do this without leaving her by herself? Thanks x

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