I saw my first naked woman when I was 9, thanks to a kid named Jimmy, whose father had a collection of Playboy magazines under the bed. While his parents were at the grocery store, Jimmy yanked out a copy and with practiced ease flipped to the centerfold.
“Your mom has one of these,” he said, pointing between the legs of Miss August.
“No WAY!” I said, unwilling to accept that my mother could possibly have anything on her body that, in my mind anyway, looked like a piece of our cafeteria meatloaf. I left soon after, convinced that Jimmy had shown me a magazine of female freaks. When our class began studying the human reproductive system later that spring, Jimmy turned to me and winked when Mrs. Flunkem used her ruler to point out the vagina being projected onto the chalk board.
“Your momma,” he mouthed.
Years later, that feeling of embarrassment was something I was determined to spare my own sons. The truth is, women are much more aware of their bodies and sexuality, and at a much younger age, then men. The male culture communicates about sexuality in much the same way it does about sports: through stats and stories. Anything deeper than that, and the shoulder punching begins. However, it was important to me that my sons not only understand the physicality of reproduction and, unlike me, never find themselves shocked by a vagina, it was just as important that they understand sexuality is not a statistic or story to be told — it’s how we communicate love beyond our words.
The process of helping my boys understand this began early, and by example. My wife and I are both affectionate people. We hold hands, hug each other, lay together on the couch and always kiss each other goodbye when we leave, and hello when we get home. Our boys see me expressing my love physically and verbally every day. They also see me do dishes, cook, fix the car and stack wood. I do everything I can to send the message that being affectionate takes many forms and isn’t a sign of weakness — unlike the primary message they get from movies, music and much of social media. I want them to understand that their sexuality isn’t just about sex. It’s about communication, and having the confidence to express themselves through their words, their actions and intimacy. Culturally, the idea that manliness means being in control is something that is constantly being reinforced.
Men are the decision makers. The action takers. The aggressors.
While I certainly want my sons to be capable of all of these things when necessary, I also want them to recognize when it’s not. That applies to everyday life as much as it does their sexuality and, ultimately, their relationships. The more they can step away from defining themselves and their sexuality in a stereotypical way, the more of their true selves they will be able to share with someone else.
I’m a volunteer firefighter and consider myself capable of handling most situations. At the same time, I recognize when my wife might have a better perspective. Especially when it’s a situation involving my sons and a new dent in the family car. On the surface, this dynamic might not seem to have much to do with the subject of developing a healthy sexuality. However, being able to recognize and accept your own faults and limitations is part of that willingness to share your true self — and ultimately true intimacy. Both are important ingredients to a healthy sense of self and sexuality.
My boys are now 16 and 17. As any parent will tell you, understanding what goes on in the minds of teenagers is sometimes like learning a foreign language. And by “foreign” I mean Martian. But whenever I see one of my sons walk ahead to open a door for their mom, or confide in us about something personal, I know that at least some of what I hope to instill in them has sunk in.
As fathers today, we have to compete with a lot more than Jimmy and his Playboy magazine when it comes to making sure our sons develop a healthy sense of their sexuality.
The best way to do that?
Be an example.
(I recently began following The Good Men Project, which is a site devoted to sharing information, stories and insights into what it takes to be a good man in today’s world. This column was prompted by a call to men regarding what they’re doing to instill a healthy sense of sexuality in their sons.)