My note yesterday about Nick’s investigation of his penis got me mulling about sexism and modesty. It’s common for moms of little boys to share news about their male spawns’ unsavory penis antics — doing things to or with their penises as they explore their bodies, having silly conversations with or about their penises. I haven’t noticed the same lively chatter about little girls, but if my Jesse is any indicator, free-minded little princesses can get down and dirty with their ‘nads just as well as any little boy. So why do I feel a social compulsion to avoid sharing Jesse’s tales?
I’ll give it a go. My fingers hesitate as I prepare to type this: when Jesse was a toddler, she was fond of exploring her crotch. While naked of course, and, well… She masturbated. One night she got out of the bath and assumed a porn queen position on our bed, got busy with herself and started yelling gleefully, “Mommy! Daddy! Watch this watch this!” Anthony took one look and ran out of the room, yelling back in an earnest state of fright and horror, “Jesse, stop doing that! You’ll hurt yourself!!” I turned away from Jesse so she wouldn’t see me laughing as I yelled back, “that wasn’t PAIN you saw on her face, Anthony.”
Jesse was all of two or three when it happened, and it was extremely funny to me – exactly the kind of thing I’ve talked openly about when it was Nick and his boy body. Both were equally naive and innocent in their behaviors; both were really normal toddlers openly exploring their bodies. So why does it feel eye-rolling and funny to talk about Nick and this stuff, but skin-crawling and kind of vulgar and dirty with Jesse?
We don’t really do “modesty” at home, nor are we body shy. Our bathrooms are open-door; we dress and undress in front of the kids and vice versa. My philosophy is that little kids learn a lot about the adult human body in a safe way by seeing their parents nude, and they observe the naked body going about the practical business of life — hygiene mainly — with no sexual under- or over-tones. In the sexed-up gestalt of 21st-century America, that’s important to me.
We teach “privacy” of course, the usual yadda yadda: go ahead and get to know your bodies with your eyes and hands, whatever you want, but please don’t put dangerous things into ANY of your body holes and please explore your genitalia in private, because JEEZ mommy and daddy don’t need to see you do that.
There’s a lot that’s funny about the cringe-inducing dissonance between our grown-up need for this sort of privacy and a small child’s indifference to anyone’s discomfort as she whacks her privates around in the living room. So why do I have an instinct to cloister Jesse, but not Nick?
I could argue that it’s because I’ve been fully immersed in our cultural sexism my whole life, and this is just another example of ways I carry on those biases without even realizing it until it’s too late. I’m sure this is a big part of it, though I hate to admit it.
I could argue that there’s an anatomical basis for the more modest instinct I have with my daughter. A man’s gonads sit front and center, on full display, while the woman’s are less obvious to the eye. I’m not convinced.
Maybe it’s just language. “Penis and balls” about covers it on a boy human, and that’s easy to work with in sharing notes. It’s so much harder for a girl. There’s a lot of equipment and holes down there. I’ve gone over the words and parts with Jesse, and her eyes glaze over like I’m chanting the periodic table of elements to her. Vagina, pee-hole (honest, I don’t know the formal name, except maybe urethra), clitoris, vulva, labia, etc. Ew. I mean, what do you call all that stuff in coffee chat? I used to call it Jesse’s “girly parts,” but that started to feel prudish and wrong. I hear moms telling their kids that a boy has a penis, a girl has a vagina. That strikes me as pretty wrong too, because they’re not quite equivalents.
My nurse neighbor Jill came over to a house party one night and, after a couple drinks, started talking passionately about how we mis-use words about this stuff. She was irate about women teaching their girls to call their entire crotch area the “vagina,” and equally irate about the euphemisms we use to describe all the business down there. She pointed out that the medically correct term for the the region that includes our genitalia is “perineum,” and there’s no reason NOT to use that word with kids. It’s accurate, it’s gender-neutral, and there are no weird cultural/sexual connotations associated with it.
She made a compelling point, but until now I haven’t made a concerted effort to change my speech patterns. I’ve taught my kids the word, but maybe I need to use it more consistently. Perineum isn’t a dirty word. Maybe it’ll free my mind a bit and help me think of Jesse and Nick in the same light. I’ll practice.
Pull your pants up NOW, Jesse, no one in this restaurant wants to see your perineum!
Nicholas Lee, don’t even think of touching that sandwich, you just had your hands in your pants and were playing with your perineum!
Stop being such a perineum head!
Get your head out of your perineum!
It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but maybe it’s worth a try.