'Keep Your Skirt Down.' And Other Ways To Teach Your Kids About Sex

Recently, sitting around the dinner table with my extended family, the talk turned to sex. At one point, I leaned over to my mother and asked her something that’s bothered me for years.

“How come you and dad never sat me down to talk about the, you know, birds and the bees?”

Nonplussed, she said, “You would have gotten what I got. You would have been told, ‘Never mind, and keep your skirt down.’”

I was a teenager during the so-called sexual revolution, and without 'the talk,' I was being sent into battle unarmed.

Growing up, I had no skirt to pull up or down, but I understood. These things simply weren’t talked about. In retrospect, I wish they had been. After all, I was a teenager during the so-called sexual revolution, and without “the talk,” I was being sent into battle unarmed. The upshot was long years of groping in the dark, stumbling from one humiliation to the next.

If you’re a Baby Boomer or on the edge of that generation, my guess is that you were likewise left in the dark. To check my thesis, I rang up Dr. Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, renowned sexologist and author of several books on the subject. She told me I was only partially correct. “The parents who launched the first phases of the Baby Boom began the practice of the sex talk,” she said, “but it didn’t become a movement until later.”

According to Schwartz, parents fall into one of three categories when it comes to discussing sex with their children: Progressives get the appropriate books and actively seek the right time to discuss where babies come from. Next are parents who want their children to know about the birds and the bees but prefer that they learn the facts elsewhere, like at school. The third group consists of those who don’t want their children to know that sex exists at all, often because of religious beliefs.

Schwartz said that when I was coming of age in the 1970s, there were trailblazers. Parents who read Alfred Kinsey and Albert Ellis and didn’t get squeamish about sitting their children down for “the talk.” Schwartz’s own mother put a sex book in the linen closet and told her to have at it when she was ready.

“Suddenly, that linen closet became a very attractive place for me,” she said.

Later, when a school friend was condemned by her mother to hell for giving in to her curiosity about her own body, young Pepper told the girl, “You’re not going to hell, you’re going to the linen closet.”

Would that I’d had a linen closet.

Where was I to learn about sex? On the streets? In the barn? With the help of an older woman who looked like Susan Sarandon? (A boy can dream.) No, I learned about sex in gym class.

I remember that day like it was yesterday. We boys were told not to change into our shorts and T-shirts – it was movie day. Anxious, we clambered onto the bleachers and waited until, at last, the lights dimmed and the film started. We were treated to a scratchy black-and-white film from 1957, the classic Medical Arts Productions, "As Boys Grow." The acting was as flaccid as one of the film’s props, and the unintentionally hilarious dialogue reduced us to hysterics:

Bill: I had a wet dream last night.

Unsuspecting Friend: Wet dream? What’s that?

In spite of our gym teacher’s best efforts, I was still clueless when the lights went up.

Where was I to learn about sex? On the streets? In the barn? With the help of an older woman who looked like Susan Sarandon? (A boy can dream.)

A breakthrough, of sorts, came courtesy of a stallion. Literally. My family had just moved to a farm in Mansfield, Mass., when we awoke one morning to discover that a stallion and a mare had broken loose from the barn. We raced outside, cut through a pasture and spotted the escapees in the fallow cornfield next door. The farmer’s son, a few years older than I, was already on the scene. I arrived just in time to witness what that film in gym class alluded to but didn’t show. “Are they…?” I said to the farmer’s son.

His smile told me yes.

I’d like to tell you that, at that moment, dawn arrived and, with it, I Understood Everything. Sadly, no. But it was a start, and it would only take a decade or so of fumbling to figure things out. More or less.

It sure beat hiding in the linen closet.


Headshot of John J. Winters

John J. Winters Cognoscenti contributor
John J. Winters teaches at universities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and is the author of "Sam Shepard: A Life."



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