A few weeks ago, my 40-something neighbor paid me a visit. He knocked on the door and told me he had something very important to discuss. I let him in, expecting him to invite me to a block party or tell me about recent thievery in our suburb. Much to my surprise, he wanted to talk about his child.
He told me that his 9-year-old daughter heard me having sex and he insisted that I be quieter. Apparently, my noises had “forced him to explain sex to her.” He said she was too young for “the talk,” and when he tried to tell her that we were “just playing” she wouldn’t believe him. Basically, he said that it was my fault he had to talk to his daughter about sex.
Not wanting to cause confrontation in my new place of residence, I said I was sorry and that I would do my best to keep it down. Then he left.
Allow me to establish: I’m a child of the '90s. When I was 6 years old, I was watching the the Spice Girls sing the song "Naked" on stage in their birthday suits; when I turned 7, I had the dialogue of the sexually charged "Austin Powers" (1997) movie memorized; and when I was 8 years old, I would sneak peeks at the trashy romances my mom kept on her bookshelf and then act out the scenes with naked Barbie dolls.
Fourteen years have passed since the '90s, and American culture has only become more sexualized.
Little girls are listening to Rihanna sing about S&M, watching a myriad of sexual shows and movies, obsessing about the Twilight series (which is so sexually charged it’s maddening, even if the main characters don’t have sex until the fourth book), and they have access to the Internet, AKA porn central.
How can my neighbor think his daughter doesn’t know about sex? Of course she didn’t believe that I was “just playing" -- she’s almost a tween. How can parents still believe they can shelter their children from erotic situations? And how can they think waiting to discuss it until they’re older is a smart move?
On a flight to NYC recently, there was a 2-year-old sitting on his mother’s lap holding an iPad, and he was using his finger to shift from "Finding Nemo" to a game of Angry Birds with total ease. It was slightly shocking to me, his familiarity with the ins and outs of using an iPad, but apparently I'm behind on the times.
Tech-savvy 2-year-olds are becoming commonplace. According to a recent survey by San Francisco nonprofit Common Sense Media, 75 percent of American children under 8 now have access to a smartphone or tablet. Anyone who thinks these smartphone-savvy babies won’t figure out how to get around parental controls by the time they turn 5 is naive. And even if parents try to keep as much media and technology away from their children as possible, they can’t forget that kids interact with their peers — and those interactions aren’t always PG.
In September 2013, two kindergarteners admitted to having “sex” in their classroom's bathroom when their teacher came in and found them both naked. Could the 5-year-old boy have actually produced an erection capable of penetrating a little girl? Probably not. But those little kids obviously heard about sex somewhere, and their idea of sex involved whatever touching was going on in there.
Despite the fact that this sort of childhood interaction is commonplace, there still exist people who think children aren’t interested in sex before puberty (i.e., my neighbor), so parents don’t bring it up until later in life.
This is a bad idea — not only because children start masturbating from ages 0-4 and get into experimenting with each other during ages 5-9, according to the NSPCC, but because keeping silent could actually put kids in danger. Studies suggest that 1 in 4 girls and one in 8–10 boys are sexually abused by the age of 18, according to Tracy K. Cruise, PhD, Psychology Professor at Western Illinois University.
“[Sex offenders] seek out kids who don’t have the language or skills to communicate clearly,” says “sexplainer” Marnie Goldenberg. “Research tells us that when kids are equipped with words like ‘penis, testicles, vagina and vulva,’ they’re less likely to be victims of sexual abuse.”
If that’s not enough motivation to make parents talk to their kids about sex as soon as possible, I don’t know what is.
I acknowledge that I’m 24 years old and I've never had children. I also acknowledge that people say, “It’s different when you have kids,” and a person’s ideas on when to talk to children about sex can change once they become parents. I also understand that kids may not be able to handle certain topics and situations with ease, and ideally, parents would like to wait until their offspring are more mature to introduce sex into their lives.
But guess what: Rihanna does not care about your child’s sexual maturity, neither do pedophiles, neither do the writers of South Park, and neither does the Internet. And your kid probably doesn’t care about your idea of what’s appropriate either.
I can’t speak for the Baby Boomers and Generation X; I have no idea what they went through when they were kids. But I was 9 years old just 15 years ago, and I think it’s safe to say that I have a better idea of what modern children are going through than parents born before 1980.
There are a million ways your child can be exposed to sex, and it’s anybody’s guess of how the first encounter will go. Will it be a late-night phone sex commercial? A skanky Madonna song? Or will it be your neighbor’s screaming orgasm at 9 pm on a Wednesday?
You can’t control the universe and hide erotic stuff from your child, but you can talk to her about sex when she’s little, and thus become a trusted source of information. You can take comfort in the fact that your daughter understands the meaning of consent, understands her body, and knows her parents will be there when she has questions. And you can find solace in knowing that you’re not a misguided, middle-aged man who goes over to a millennial's house to yell at her for making you have a conversation you should have had years ago.