Thoughts on how to explain “sexually active” to my children

When I was 15, I was referred to a gynecologist for menstrual cramps. Ponstan, Anaprox, plain old Midol – nothing would touch them. I got sent to this doc to discuss hormonal contraceptive options as a way of reducing the bleeding and cramping.

I know, you’ve heard this story before: teen girl says, “Oh, my cramps are so bad, I think I need to go on the Pill,” because it’s so much easier to play the system for what you need than it is to be honest about your reproductive health care choices (especially as a teen). Not me. I didn’t engage in the activity that would necessitate contraception until a good three years after this appointment occurred.

Back to the appointment: the first thing the nurse asked was, “Are you sexually active?”

As I just stated, I hadn’t yet engaged in activity that might lead to pregnancy, yet I still had trouble answering the question. I’d figured out masturbation years earlier, and had had a couple of boyfriends at that point. I’d engaged in contact of a sexual nature, having touched other people’s genitals with my hands and mouth, and my own had been reciprocally touched. I’d shared orgasms with myself and with partners. Did it not count?

“No, sweetie. I just want to know if you’ve had sex.” Still not entirely clear on what she was asking. If my boyfriends had been girlfriends, what we’d done would have counted as sex, wouldn’t it? Or if I were a boy with my boyfriends? That would be sex too, yes? (oh, wait, maybe not, what with the whole ‘it’s not sex unless your butt’s involved’ misconception). What if my boyfriend didn’t have a penis, or my girlfriend did? How would that change the definition of what she was asking, if at all?

20 years later, I find myself having decided to opt out of penis-in-vagina sex for a while. My most regular current partner is a cis male, so it’s not an access issue. It’s just something I need to do for now to sort out my head a bit. Having removed that one activity from the sexual menu, though, by no means would I suddenly consider myself NOT sexually active. Yet, so many would.

Thankfully, in his column this week, Dan Savage doesn’t. He’s pretty clear that you don’t need to put a penis in a vagina to call what you’re doing sex. His piece has helped me figure out what some of the next steps need to be in the ongoing conversations I have with my kids about this subject.

The kids pretty much have the basic mechanics of reproductive biology down: To get a baby, most people who have vaginas get together with people who have penises, put them together, shake ’em around a little, and voila! Sperm meets egg. We’ve also had a conversation about condoms, and how they’re used to prevent sperm from reaching an egg, because not everyone wants to create a pregnancy every time a penis goes near a vagina. They also know that condoms can help prevent infections by keeping our germs to ourselves.

My kids being the kids they are, I’ve also had to answer questions about various forms of queer sex:

“But, if there’s no vagina, then …” “OH!!!! NOW I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU SUCK MEANS! Huh. Gross.” (he thinks all sex is gross, and would be equally horrified by a woman sucking cock as he would a man).

We need to talk more though: about how there are many ways to make yourself and your partner feel good, and about how the emotional and physical ramifications of stuff other people don’t count as sex can still happen.

I also need to prepare them for questions that will likely not make any sense to them at all, like whether they’re sexually active. Hopefully, when they’re in a position to be asked that question, the person doing the asking will have a more expansive definition of what that means.


1 Comment

  1. Ange said,

    September 30, 2010 at 7:31 am

    Too funny, as we just went through this chapter in ‘It’s Perfectly Normal’ last night! I’m with you, I’m glad to see more often people speaking out or presenting any sort of sexual activity with another person as being sexually active, because any other definition (to me) is a frank misrepresentation of the facts. Now if only we could have the world come to an agreement about a definition for virginity.

    I actually got into a heated argument about this ‘how do you define virginity/losing it’ with the husband the other day. It is amazing how different views can be for even people who I thought carried the same definition as I do!

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