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Penises and Vulvae 101

Human sexuality, explained (kind of), Ottawa, June 2018

“I wish I was a girl.”

“Why?”

“Huh… so that I can have a baby.”

“But you’re a boy.”

“What’s the difference between a boy, a man, a girl and a woman? And what’s a human?”

“What do you think are the differences between a man and a woman?”

“Huh… Women have hair like you?”

Not that kind of hair, I’m properly waxed and it’s nobody’s business, thank you. Mark is referring to my two ponytails—I  have to get a haircut sometime.

“No, men can have long hair too. Women have different genitals—no penis.”

“What? But…”

Mark saw me naked many times, but I guess you don’t really look at your mom like that.

“Okay, Mark, I think you have questions. I can answer them. Just… let me finish cooking the eggs and we can go to my room.”

Mark has been beating around the bush for a few weeks now. “How did you make me?” he asked once, quickly changing the topic when I attempted to reply. The wheels are turning in his head, even though he probably doesn’t know how to ask the question.

Thanks to me French upbringing, I’ve been blessed with the ability to say “penis,” “vulva” and “vagina” without giggling or blushing. I can answer any question. The key is to find the right balance between providing answers he wants and overwhelming him with information he doesn’t need for now.

I spend the next fifteen minutes Googling around for an appropriate illustration of the male and female anatomy. It’s harder than it seems—the online world is full of dicks but there are remarkably very few vulvas, even though, arguably, it’s at least as pretty and useful.

Mark comes upstairs carrying his encyclopedia. I checked—no reproductive organs in there. If you ask me, it defeats the purpose of an encyclopedia. I was a kid too and I clearly remember that the human body section was the most popular ones at school, along with the definition of “penis” and “vagina” in the dictionary (no Google in the 1980s!).

“So, which one is a woman and which one is a man?”

“But the woman doesn’t have a pee-pee!”

“We do. It’s just different.”

I ask Mark to draw a penis then I draw a vulva.

“Huh?”

“Yep.”

I show Mark an old picture of my parents and me to show that hair length has nothing to do with gender—yes, grand-papa had long hair.

Then we move on to the topic of interest—babies in the womb.

Do you remember the moment when you learned how babies are made and how babies come out? I don’t—or rather, I don’t remember not knowing. I don’t remember being shocked to learn that some men like men and some women like women either, and come to think of it, I don’t remember finding human sexuality confusing or weird. I just absorbed information and figured it out little by little.

At least I think I figured it out. Who knows, after all…!

“Can you read that, Mark?”

“Week 1 to week 40.”

“Yes, because it takes 40 weeks for the baby to grow.”

“40 WEEKS? THAT’S CRAZY!”

Tell me about it.

“Wait, wait, wait… go back. I saw something. What’s that?”

“That” is a fairly non-gory illustration of a c-section I didn’t want Mark to see. Obviously, he zeroed on it.

“Babies usually don’t come out like that. Only in case of a problem,” I said, fully prepared to explain the regular birth canal.

“Uh-uh. Alright, cool, I don’t want to have a baby anymore. No way I’d want to have my belly cut. No way. And I can’t have a baby anyway because I’m a boy.”

“You cannot carry a baby because only women get pregnant. However, it takes a man and a woman to make a baby—the man provides a seed.”

Mark pauses. I think we won’t go any further, for now. He doesn’t seem to want to.

“Can a woman have two babies at the same time?”

The topic of twins keeps us busy for a few minutes.

Mark noticed an ultrasound picture. “Like mine!” There’s one framed in his room, that one rare ultrasound picture where you can kind of see the shape of a baby.

Then he asks to see pictures of him as a baby. The blog is surprisingly useful for that and Mark likes to read the articles I posted about him.

“Mommy, you said ‘fuck’!”

“Absolutely not. I wrote it. It’s different.”

Shit. His reading comprehension is getting good.

In popular culture, the “birds and bees” talk is a one-time fifteen-minute complete overview of human sexuality, as if parents were unveiling a big secret (and those parents always have an appropriate book handy!). But for me as a kid and probably with Mark, I think it’s more about piecing information together little by little.

My message is simple. It’s okay to say “penis”. It’s normal to be curious. Don’t be shy, ask!

There will be other interesting talks in the future.

I’ll be there, no matter what.

Human sexuality, explained (kind of), Ottawa, June 2018

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