Earlier today, my 8-year-old and I were walking in the heart of downtown Seattle, right in the busy hub of tourist attractions and souvenir shops — and the *one* strip club/unabashed sex shop in the downtown core.
Ordinarily, its front window is incredibly … saucy, but never anything I’ve been too concerned about: think red lacy bras with nipple-sized cutouts on mannequins without nipples; pirate-themed lingerie surrounding the latest pirate-themed porn DVD. Nothing that an 8-year-old boy needs anything to do with — but nothing particularly troublesome, either. He still thinks kissing is icky and that breasts are for nursing babies, so the shop window means little to him other than being just another sign that grown-ups are weird and have questionable taste.
Today, the shop window was depicting S&M play, and it was graphic in its brutality: A female figure was positioned on her knees, with a male figure holding a leash chained to her neck. The female’s head was turned to one side, with another male figure posed in front of her as if he had just slapped her.
Her head was turned far, the gesture of his arm wide — this was not a gentle slap.
The facelessness of the mannequins, which usually serves to make the window’s scenes feel less like something real people might do, today only made it worse: impersonal males beating a dehumanized female.
I couldn’t help it: I made The Mistake you’re supposed to learn not to make in Parenting 101:
“Don’t look,” I say.
Of course, this makes him look. I rush us quickly along, and we continue on with our errands. We leave downtown and catch a bus home — he only saw it for a split second, right?
We head for the park on our way home, treading familiar ground we’ve walked a thousand times.
As we approach the fountains, my son turns to me.
“That window? ... It was scary.”
And there I was — with a tiny needle to be threaded.
I have visions of receiving *that* call from Child Protective Services — the one where they ask me how my 8-year-old knows what a flogger is; and eventually I lose my child, go to jail, become shunned by society ... You know, *that* call.
My son is telling me that there is something that scares or confuses him, which means I can’t turn him aside or not answer. If I don’t answer, I’m not protecting him from anything — I’m just guaranteeing he’ll look to other sources for answers, sources I perhaps can’t control, predict or contradict. Not answering is not an option.
And I don’t want to demonize what we saw, either. Healthy human sexuality takes a million forms, and while not everyone will like the same things, that doesn’t make one person’s preferences or proclivities right or wrong; just different. I don’t want to teach him to think of others’ behaviors as weird or wrong.
What’s more, I don’t want to make him think *his* preferences, whatever they might manifest as, are weird or wrong, either. As parents, we (hopefully) try not to make too many assumptions about our children and what or who they will grow up to be, and I can’t control or predict whether, in 20 years or 10 years or (gulp) less, what is depicted in that shop window might look awfully tempting to him. If I show him that I think that’s “wrong,” I may unwittingly teach him to hide parts of himself away. From me, from others. That’s not what I want.
And yet — I also can’t stand here and talk frankly to an 8-year-old about BDSM, either. First of all, it’s not even going to make much sense — before you attempt calculus, you must know some basic geometry, or things are gonna get a bit too weird. We’ve already talked about the basics of sex: He knows where babies come from, but all the many variations of human sexuality are light years from his current understanding. Plus, I have visions of receiving *that* call from Child Protective Services — the one where they ask me how my 8-year-old knows what a flogger is; and eventually I lose my child, go to jail, become shunned by society ... You know, *that* call.
And also (whew!) ... I have been trying to incorporate the notion of consent into my parenting, weaving an understanding of the concept into his life so that, by the time he’s a teenager and an adult, ensuring consent is completely ingrained — it’s just what you DO, it’s not optional or extra. When we’re tickling each other, “No!” and “Stop!” are hard stops. I’m aware that I’m raising a white male child — the demographic most susceptible to toxic entitlement. I *cannot* let him out into the world without him knowing when to stop — and when not to start. But how do I mesh all of this ... with that window?
All, all of this is swirling in my head as I stand in the park with my son, who is looking up at me for answers:
- Don’t not answer.
- Don’t make it too weird.
- Don’t tell him things he’s not ready to hear or can’t yet understand.
- Don’t undo consent.
I am literally yelling aloud in my head, “HOW DO I THREAD THIS NEEDLE!?”
I start talking (and, boy, am I anxious to hear what I have to say, because I have NO conscious idea …):
“So, you like playing tag, right?”
“Yeah!” (Tag is one of my son’s favorite games.)
“And do you sometimes act all scary? Like, maybe, pretending you’re a monster chasing your friends? Even saying stuff like, ‘I’m gonna get you!’ or ‘I’m gonna eat you!?’”
“Okay, but *are* you a monster, or *are* you gonna eat them?”
“Right. And when you’re playing tag, do your friends act scared? Do they say stuff like ‘Oh no, here comes the monster!’ or ‘Oh no, he’s going to eat us!?’”
“Okay. But are they *really* scared? Do they *really* think you’re going to eat them?”
“Right. And can your friends quit playing if it stops being fun? Can they call ‘time out’ when they get hurt or tired or just need a pause?”
“Of course! You just call ‘T’ and we stop.”
“Right. And you switch who’s ‘It,’ right? So, sometimes you’re the monster, and sometimes there’s a monster chasing you. Right?”
“Buddy — what you saw in that window was just a grown-up version of Monster Tag. Sometimes, some adults like to pretend they’re scared — and sometimes, some adults like to pretend they’re scary. But really, it’s just like Monster Tag. They work out the rules beforehand. And they can pause at any time, if someone gets hurt or tired or needs a break. And they can switch who’s ‘It,’ so someone who was acting scary one time gets to act scared the next time. And just like Monster Tag, no one *really* gets hurt. And just like Monster Tag, no one’s *really* scared. It’s a game. And like Monster Tag, if you’re looking at it from the outside, it can *look* like people are really scared. But they’re not. They’re just — playing.”
My son nods his head.
“And one more thing: That kind of play? It’s absolutely fine. It doesn’t matter if it looks scary to someone on the outside, as long as everyone in the game is having fun, feels safe, and knows they can stop any time and change roles and talk to each other if they need to change the rules or switch the game. Then it doesn’t matter how it looks to anyone else. Because they’re just playing. It’s just an adult version of Monster Tag. Do you understand?”
My son pauses. Then nods.
I continue: “And just like tag, not everyone likes to play that game. Maybe they like other games, or maybe they’d rather read, or whatever. But there’s nothing wrong with liking that game — or with not liking it. It’s just something some people do. And no matter how weird something might seem — well, there are so many people in the world, all into a lot of different things. So, no matter what you like, there’s always going to be some other people who like it, too; you’ll always find some people who want to play that game with you. And as long as everyone wants to play, and no one gets hurt, it’s all okay. Got it?”
My son thinks for a minute.
“Yes, babe?” I steel myself. I don’t know if I can answer anything else. I don’t even know where that came from.
“Can we go to the swings now?”
“YES!” I am relieved. And off the hook — for now. And as we walk over to the swings — well, he runs, I walk — I think to myself, “Holy shit – did I just thread that needle?” I think I actually just threaded that needle.
Wow. Monster Tag.