“Dad, What’s a Condom?”
Children’s sexual subjectivity matters. Why are we so scared to talk about it?
Content Note: Childhood exploration of self-stimulation, masturbation, and sexual knowledge
“Dad, what’s a condom?” I walked into the small living room of our Scarborough apartment, nine years of nonchalance in my voice. Mom was leaning on the couch behind him. Both of them were watching TV, when they turned to look at me, dumbfounded that their daughter in grade 4 was asking them this.
“Where did you hear about this?” Mom asked, carefully.
“Oh some of the older kids were talking to each other about how they found one in the field,” I said, casually.
“What field?” Dad asked. In retrospect, their relative calm must have taken enormous inner strength.
“The fieeeeld,” I said, instantly exasperated. “Like, the soccer field — for recess? At school.”
After a short pause, Dad said, “It’s a type of apartment building — like a flat, like the one we had in Delhi, where it was ours because we bought it, instead of renting. You know how we’re moving to a house next year, right? So just like that — these kids must have been talking about a condominium near the school that their family is moving to.”
“Oh ok,” I said, returning to my room.
My little experiment had provided me with an answer and a feeling of prepubescent triumph in having uncovered that my parents were not always honest. My parents had just lied to my face to avoid a conversation about sex, condoms, protection, and intercourse. They were not infallible. I could catch them off guard, and indeed just had.
The next day at school, I told a classmate his parents had definitely had sex.
“No they didn’t!” He said, vehemently shaking his head.
“Yes they did. They so did. It’s how you make babies,” I said confidently, peering up from the Robert Cormier novel I was reading. Robert Cormier’s extremely realistic novels on young adult exploration of love, sex, disability, and abuse, had already framed much of my understanding of people’s capacity to hurt and to show compassion.
But before reading about intercourse, my introduction to sex, was through menstruation as depicted through Kit Pearson’s Guests of War Trilogy, which I had read on a dare many months prior to the conversation with the Muslim boy.
Somewhere in the second book, I saw the wildest description of menstruation (a concept I’d never heard of before). Kit, in all her wisdom, had not even named it as menstruation. It would be a while yet before I discovered the appropriate term. Kit described it as, “A little man comes by to sweep you out.” I remember reading and re-reading this over and over again, utterly horrified.
The next day I knew what I had to do. I had a sacred duty that is the cornerstone of every friendship between young girls: I had to inform my friend of this valuable, yet horrifying revelation. I walked to her desk during lunch the next day and said to her very seriously: “We’re going to bleed. From down there. Did your mom or dad tell you about this?”
“Ew what are you talking about?”
“I read it — look I’m on the second book in the trilogy, and look at what it says — ”
“Oh, that’s just a book,” she said dismissively. “You can’t believe everything you read!” She said, repeating what adults around us told us for years.
“No, it’s about the world war, and everything in it is, like, real. Really real!” I said hotly. “It’s like historical fiction, so why would they make this up — just read this!”
My friend’s eyes widened as she read the passage. “Wow,” she said. “This is, like, such a big deal.” She frowned. “It says it doesn’t hurt — how can that be true if you’re bleeding?”
“It does, sometimes, I think,” I said, hesitantly, a foggy childhood memory surfacing. “I think I’ve actually seen like — sometimes women having it. Like, in India they put you in a separate room when you have it, I think. They didn’t seem in pain but… sometimes they seemed really tired? And we’re not allowed to touch them which seemed super unfair. And anyway no one keeps people in rooms here, so.”
“So it’s like an illness? But it’s not contagious…” She asked, frowning. “It doesn’t sound like an illness — it just… sounds like… a thing that happens when we get boobs.” I blushed, crossing my arms. I had already started wearing a sports bra.
“Yeah like it’s part of ‘puberty’ or whatever,” I said.
“Do guys get this?” She asked.
“Nah,” I said confidently, comfortably immersed in a framework where only the gender binary existed.
“How do you know?” She asked.
“I just do,” I said, feigning more knowledge than I really had. “They have like, different parts, or whatever, right? Besides, I never saw any guys in the special room — only like aunties and older girl cousins.”
A few months later, I began my own intrepid research about sex. In the days of dial-up internet connection, the connection slow and unreliable. I was also savvy enough to understand that there was a search history, but not clever enough to know how to delete it. I knew I would have to be old fashioned in my search for sexual information: books, which were utterly untraceable. But which books? Young adult fiction was fine as an introduction, but they never really went into the details of the act. There was the boring Encyclopedia Britannica CD that my dad had insisted on getting for me for “educational purposes,” but I doubted that information on sex would exist there — and what if it held a search history too?
As I stood staring at my parents’ bookcase, I suddenly realized I had a wealth of information in front of me. Adult books that my parents read were right in front of me. I hesitated before grabbing one. I knew dad had mentioned some stuff was “adult content” in movies, TV shows, and books, and therefore, off-limits. (“What’s in them though?” I asked, frustrated. “Adult stuff,” he responded flippantly.) Rationalization complete, I began regularly reading snippets of fiction from this bookcase in the quiet afternoons after school while my parents were still at work.
Peeking into mom’s steamy Danielle Steele novels shocked me, but also didn’t. I felt I was reading something that made… some kind of logical sense around pleasure. Select passages also made me intensely curious about sex, and occasionally served as inspiration for my own personal sexual exploration of my own body. I never read the books in their entirety, but I did learn Danielle Steele has a particular pattern in all her books as to when a sex-related scene occurred, whether it was consensual, coercive, or rape.
One storyline that stayed with me was in the novel, Thurston House. In it, a subplot revolves around a young woman, Camille, who uses birth control (rings) without her husband’s knowledge and against his expressed desire to have a child. He finds the rings at one point, and crushes them in his hands to her dismay, and then forces her to have sex with him. Without any grounding in consent, or notions of what marital rape entails, I still felt immediately upset that he was forcing her to have a child with him when she didn’t want to. And yet I still felt some small strange sexual thrill from reading the passage. While I still touched myself and brought myself to orgasm over the scene, I also remember it was one of the first instances where I felt immediately ashamed afterwards.
As I grew older and eventually worked in the field of sexual health, I learned phrases that made more sense: rape is about power, not about sex. While this was partially true, I increasingly feel nowadays that we insist on this phrasing because of language’s limits in describing how exactly rape’s connection to sex is organized around an inequitable distribution of power. I agree of course that rape is about power, but I disagree that it is not about sex: rape occurs in a space without consent, and rape organizes sex as an act of power rather than an act of respect.
As a child reading these stories, I realised there were words I did not understand, so I did what I did with any word I did not understand: I turned to my trusty, ancient Oxford pocketbook dictionary. In the dictionary, I found neutral, non-moralistic definitions for basic terms related to sex, gender, genitalia, pleasure, rape, blowjobs, foreplay, you name it. I still didn’t understand literary terms fully, and it took me some time to understand phrases such as, “he entered her.” Initially, I frowned. How could a person enter another person? What did that mean? I followed the sexual fantasy of the make-out part. Breasts, check. Other parts, check. But enter? What could that possibly mean? Despite everything I had gleaned through the other novels, this one thing didn’t make very much sense to me. And the dictionary was of no help here: enter was still just enter.
One day, after many books I thought I had figured it out, but I had to be sure. If girls used their bits during sex, then it made sense that boys did too. So enter meant… oh my god. I got a hand mirror from mom’s dresser and laid down on the bathroom floor, leaning against the tub as I let the water run.
“Hurry up in there,” mom called.
“I’m taking a bath!” I shouted back, and busied myself with holding up the mirror between my legs. Huh. I kind of liked my — vulva, that was the word. Carefully, I tried to see if there was a hole anywhere but it looked just like layers of flesh. I frowned, and tried to push a finger between my vaginal lips. So far, all my masturbatory acts had centered on my clitoris. But what I was doing now was almost clinical. I needed to know what the hell “enter” meant, and this was not an exercise in pleasure: this was an information quest.
It was also suddenly and extremely painful. It was sharp and immediate, and it felt like the universe was punishing me for thinking about these things. I instantly withdrew my hand, feeling intensely guilty about trying to learn more. But I was also confused. How could anything enter there? How could a penis enter there? How big were they? The dictionary offered no help, but the hole felt super tiny. Ok, I vowed to myself. No more touching myself until… marriage? I guess? Ok. I don’t think this promise, which I made to myself over the years until I was about 15, ever lasted more than two days.
As an adult, I hesitate writing about this now. I was a child exploring my body as a child, and children exploring their own sexuality is not something we typically discuss as adults.
I have never seen, for example, anyone write candidly that the best orgasms they experienced were around the age of twelve, reading erotica off the internet. The closest I came to an understanding of childhood sexuality was Judy Blume’s novel, Summer Sisters, which described a homoerotic relationship between two teenage girls. They called it something like “rubbing their Power.”
Power, I mused, frowning. In my world, I just called it “dirty place” or its proper scientific name, or the words used in the fiction I was consuming. It was powerful to me to see not just women’s sexuality, but girlhood sexuality as powerful. Yet, it’s often easier for adults to pretend that a child’s introduction to sexual understanding is through a class at school, or a conversation at home.
The sexual subjectivity of children matters.
It matters because they are people and I was a little person once who was learning about her body’s capacity to please herself. What an amazing learning opportunity: the sexual subjectivity of children matters in being able to approach the topic of sexual parts from a context of pleasure, and not just “privacy,” “boundaries,” or “bikini areas.”
Yet, as I learned to masturbate as a child, I somehow understood that this was never something I could ask my parents about. Simultaneously, I was often asked to give relatives I barely knew a hug, or worse, let them pinch my cheeks. It didn’t make sense to me: why couldn’t I touch my own body, but people I barely knew could physically hurt me?
One time, in defensive, tearful, howling rage, I pinched back. I twisted the offending aunty’s fleshy forearm hard and didn’t let go when she tried to shake me off. I twisted and pinched and screamed to give her a taste of her own medicine. Finally my grandma pulled me off, soothing my cheeks. The aunty tried admonishing me: “You shouldn’t do that!”
I wailed harder, the childhood version of “Fuck off.” The aunty turned to my steely-eyed grandma to support her. My grandma’s lips twitched. “Now you know what it feels like,” she said, nonchalantly. “Not that bad, right?” The aunty’s cheeks turned as red as mine.
Respecting the bodily autonomy of children cannot be limited to somatic sensation alone; respecting the sexual subjectivities of children is crucial to designing courses, educational material, and a relational context between adults and children where adults can act as guides for children to understand their own bodies.
The idea that “if we ignore sex, they will not explore until they get older” is extremely naive in the age of the internet. Children have no context for their own sexual pleasure outside of google searches, and in my case, adult novels and dictionaries. They helped me learn about the nature of consent or respect, the importance of boundaries, and that children can be a source of pleasure for themselves. Furthermore, the belief that talking about it would somehow make children vulnerable to sexual predators is again strange: wouldn’t talking about it help children avoid situations that place them at more risk? I don’t think children would actually be opposed to these conversations. I think adult discomfort around children’s sexual urges frames, in part, sexual norms and taboos for children to follow.
In my case, I had explored masturbation when I was much, much younger, without any real knowledge of what sex entailed. At the age of 6, without any referents or sexual imaginings, I just knew touching myself in a particular way made me indescribably happy if I just kept going.
Reflecting on what I thought about at that young age, I know a lot of my “fantasies” were voyeuristic in nature and never explicitly sexual. (How could they be? At the age of 6, I had no understanding of what sex entailed.) As a young woman, my fantasies remain voyeuristic and largely rooted in what other people are experiencing, and a lot of these were conveyed through intricate plots and stories I would text partners. This insistence on storytelling let me actively maintain my safety and that of my partner through communication by negotiating robust hard and soft boundaries, and checking in if anything went the slightest bit astray. These concepts taught me a lot about the balance of asserting my needs, meeting someone else’s needs, and leaving room for errors and growth.
At the age of 6, however, I knew I could never tell my parents about touching myself because it felt taboo. In fact, I knew my mother would flip out. Once, she asked me if I ever touched myself there with a pencil. I remember my blood running cold. Pencil? Did she know of other kids who touched themselves? Where was this coming from? How to answer a question like this: “You’re not using a pencil…there, are you?” The best lies are really the simplest truths: “No,” I said, my eyes wide. Nope, never a pencil, just my magical little fingers.
My only option was to maintain innocence. As an adult, I muse about the simplest explanation for my mother’s question about pencils: maybe she used one at my age and got caught by her mom.
These days, I wonder about how we instil shame and disgust into children about sexual organs, genitals, and sexual pleasure. My mother always referred to genitals and surrounding regions as “dirty places” in Hindi, but never with any malice.
And, as a child, it made sense to me: this is the place where pee and poop came out and they were pretty gross substances. I accepted that I had this “dirty place” and so did other people. When I was younger and learning to bathe on my own, she would ask me afterwards, “did you clean your dirty place?” in a low, hushed voice, but with an embarrassed smile that signalled “Hey, I gotta ask this. I’m your mom. I trust that you did!”
But the introduction of these parts of myself as dirty was difficult to disentangle from the reality of sexual pleasure: if this area of my body was dirty, I reasoned, that probably meant those other feelings were dirty too on some level. So why did I feel happy touching myself there? I knew I was feeling on some level, a sexual response to shame, vulnerability, and acceptance of “dirty placed” that turned me on immensely. In retrospect as an adult, I think I wanted what any adult wants through human connection: complete acceptance of my complete self.
So when I finally told my Muslim friend about sex and babies in grade 4, I knew what was up. “No, Muslims don’t do that! It’s disgusting!” He said, horrified. He even paused in his careful process of cutting construction paper.
I giggled. “Yeah everyone does it though — it’s how you make babies!” I positioned the ruler carefully to measure out little bricks for each layer of pyramid we were building.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Allah gives babies to married people.”
“Ok genius,” I said, “how do non-Muslims have babies, then?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you people need to…to do it to have babies because it’s disgusting and not halal and no Muslim person does it!” He sneered.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I sniffed. “You’re just upset your dad and mom did it,” I said. And then, suspiciously: “Anyway, where did you learn about…you know…doing it anyway?”
He blushed bright red. “They uh… have a version of Arabian Knights in their room. It said ‘unabridged.’ And I read some.”
My jaw fell open. I had, of course, already read Arabian Knights. My dad had selected it for me from the library. We even had a copy at home, but that copy was much bigger and dad had explicitly said it was for adults. “Arabian Knights. Like Aladdin?” I asked. Now I was determined to find out if the adult copy at home said “unabridged” on the front cover or not. Did “unabridged” mean “with sex”?
“Like Aladdin but with… you know: it,” he said stiffly.
“People having sex,” I clarified. There were a lot of animals in Arabian Knights. And this was too important of a conversation to leave any room for confusion.
“Did your book also have periods?” I asked hopefully. No other book I’d read at that time had mentioned them other than Kit Pearson’s Guests of War trilogy. It would be a few months or so before I came across Judy Blume.
“What’s periods?” he asked, confused.
“Oh, girls bleed out from down there like once a month,” I said nonchalantly.
“That’s impossible,” he said matter-of-factly. “And way too disgusting. And also harmful — people need blood, duh. Besides girls are too scared of blood to be able to handle that. Stop making up stuff.”
I frowned and zeroed in on the most important part of what he had said: “No, they’re not. I’m not scared of blood,” I said. “And I’m not making it up.”
“Prove it. Prove it, then.” He said.
“I can’t, I mean, I don’t have it yet.” I said, helplessly. Automatically, I added “Besides, that’s like private parts, you can’t ask to see that.”
But this was, in truth, the most confusing part about reading about sex and talking about sex at a young age. Mom had drilled into me that bikini areas were private but… wasn’t sharing it with someone the most fun and exciting sounding thing ever? So how did people have sex anyway, if we could never ask about bikini parts? When was the right time to ask? In books, it always happened naturally almost without conversation. Danielle Steele always wrote something like “they looked at each other wordlessly and removed their clothes” or something. Did it get easier to read people and what they wanted as we got older? Would boys get less stupid?
(Years later, in high school, I would tell my father “Dad, I think I have a crush on this kid. What do I do about it?”
“If you’re having those feelings, you should know what to do about it,” he would say stiffly.)
“What if we asked Mrs. Hassan about it?” I asked. “It’s just a question about bodies.” And if she tells our parents, I’ll say you asked, not me, I thought quietly.
“No!” He said, looking panicked. “I don’t want to talk to grown-ups about this. They don’t get this stuff. They’ll get really, really mad at us.” at you, I thought. He continued, “And ew, gross I don’t want to see your — I don’t want to see that!”
There are many things that unite South Asian children; for one, we learned how to compartmentalize early. Regardless of what we could handle, we learned what our parents could handle and what they would not be able to support us with. We learned too that our sexual explorations and understandings were often journeys we would make alone, or through conversations with one another rather than with parents. We stumbled through conversations, unsure of what we should feel ashamed about. There was even a fear that if we did not approach these topics with the appropriate level of shame and horror, then that meant we were somehow different, grosser, stranger, and morally deficient.
These days, as an adult, I think about the fear, and invisibilization, of discussing sex candidly with youth in my communities. I debate challenging my parents about what they had said to me years ago when they had pretended I had said condominium, instead of condom. But the truth is, I already suspect I know what they will say: “That never happened. What are you even talking about? Stop this.” I wonder sometimes about the switching of roles: my immigrant parents constructed a make-believe world to protect themselves, while I was relentless in my search for the truths that they could not handle talking to me about.
But even that description of our parents isn’t always fair, and as a writer, I create my own imagining of who they are too. My father did have a talk with me about puberty with my mom standing beside him — a talk so real I actually darted away. “You’re going to get breasts,” he said matter-of-factly, a few days after I had asked him about condoms.
“Oh my god, Dad, I know,” I said furiously embarrassed that he was talking to me about this.
“And you’re going to get your period,” he said, with the look of a man who had rehearsed this many times and was going to get through this speech come hell or high water.
“Dad, I knowwww, oh my god, can I please go now?” I was absolutely mortified, but in retrospect, they had, to the best of their abilities, tried to prepare me for the changes in my body I would experience.
They might not have been able to talk to me about masturbation, sexual pleasure, or consent, but they took the step to talk to me about my body changing in a neutral, non-shameful way. Maybe that was a step they took that their parents hadn’t been able to take with them.
This article discusses childhood masturbation/autoeroticism/ self-exploration which has been repeatedly shown to be a part of human development occurring at different stages for different children: