Penises and Vulvae 101

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

“I wish I was a girl.”


“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.



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.”


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


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. This article made me go back down memory lane and reflect on how I ended up figuring these topics. Mostly on my own. I remember us having a set of medical encyclopedias (one for men, another for women, and a third for children) which of course had sections for urology, gynaecology, reproductive health, and puberty. I never had the talk from my parents. I just somehow figured it out by reading, as well as by porn, which was accessible through friends at school. Not the most ideal way, but when you have conservative parents, then that’s what happens…

    • This is one thing I can’t understand as a parent. Even if you have conservative beliefs, even if you’re not comfortable at all talking about sexuality… gee, it’s RIGHT THERE! You see your own private parts several times a day! How can you NOT talk to your kids about it? Or at the very least provide resources or send them to someone more comfortable with the topic? Like, were your parents hoping you’d never realize you had a penis??

      Do you remember when you figured out sexual preferences? I don’t remember where you were in the world around that age (5 to 10). In some places, it’s easy to be exposed to different way to live your sexuality but in others, it’s like it doesn’t exist.

      • Hmm, good question. Porn I discovered when I was in 4th grade (9 years old). It was straight porn, of course, but I remember being slightly more interested in the guys rather than in the girls depicted in the magazines. But I really didn’t explore this issue until way later.

        The thing is, as someone who was being raised within the Jehovah’s Witness community, sooner or later you’ll learn that homosexuality is considered a serious sin. So for the longest time I thought I was bisexual, and I could simply focus on the girls more and focus harder and everything would be okay. I did have crushes on several girls, but of course, since sex was taboo before marriage, I didn’t explore this either. Only when I fully exited the cult (when I was 26) did I start exploring my sexual preferences and making sure that I preferred guys more than girls.

        • I just can’t imagine how confusing it must be to be told by authority figures that homosexuality is a sin. This is completely fucked up, for both gay and straight people–the former probably feel guilty and the latter think it’s okay to look down upon LGBT folks. Gee. Way to make the world a backward place.

          I’m even more happy you were able to get married with the love of your life. Shit, you deserve it!

  2. Martin Penwald on

    Hey, I’m still trying to figure how it works.

    So, technically, it is envisionable to get a man pregnant, with implantation of a uterus, but indeed, birth would have to be done by C-section.

    • In the draft of the article (yes, I draft them… and edit them), there was a paragraph on the difficult exercise to keep things simple yet leave the door open for a flexible view of genders and sexuality. I can tell Mark that two men or two women can be parents, for instance. But it would get super confusing at this stage to introduce him to transgenderism, IVF, etc. unless the topic comes up.

      • Martin Penwald on

        I agree, it would probably be confusing at this age, especially if he hasn’t any question about the subject. For all these sometimes difficult subject, early introduction to bodily autonomy is a good start.

  3. Je ne me rappelle pas non plus ne pas avoir su. Mais j’ai eu un livre sur la sexualité assez tôt, genre vers 6 ans. C’etait Bien tout expliqué lol.

    • Tu te souviens de quel livre il s’agissait, par chance?

      Je n’en avais pas, mais j’ai souvent regardé un vieux livre de ma mère, un truc des années 1970 période libération de la femme avec des photos en noir et blanc sur l’accouchement (que je trouvais un peu gore, mais bon…)

  4. Yup, definitely remember that awkward conversation with my mom around age 7. Luckily they covered it again later in school. Please god don’t let them scrap the sex ed curriculum!!

    Sounds like you did a nice job of covering the basics with Mark!

    Also, I’m back! Coffee soon? Email me 🙂

    P.S. Jeruen – loved reading your comments above. I’m so happy you got out (on many levels)!

    • I’ll email you tonight!

      I don’t remember having sex ed at school until biology classes, much later, in high school. Weird. You’d think French have this covered…?

  5. You did a great job!! 🙂
    Many more questions to Come obviously…
    I’ve also had sex ed conversation with m’y teenager nephew lately, and he wasn’t even ill at ease !

    • It doesn’t make me uncomfortable either. I think the key is to *answer* questions rather than to try to lead and give too much information. Nothing is taboo, of course, but laying all the cards on the table is just… I don’t know, too much.

  6. Love this – I am hugely in favour of open and honest answering of questions right from a young age. We have a few books around here that are specifically on this topic that we used – It’s So Amazing! is a good one with illustrative, age-appropriate pictures and info.

    When our youngest daughter was born, my nephew was over and saw me changing her diaper. He was about 10 at the time and asked me why she didn’t have a penis. I explained that it was because she was a girl, and that was the difference between boys and girls. Later I overheard him asking his own mother if this was true, and she actually said NO, that the only way to tell boy from girl was to “ask the doctor when the baby was born.” I did not interfere with her parenting choice but it would not have been mine!!

    • Ouch, that’s a strange way to answer the question… I mean, sometimes it’s tempting to avoid a few questions (I could do without the ones about death!) but I always think it’s going to backfire at some point because kids aren’t stupid and sooner or later, they learn the truth. I’d rather he hears it from me!

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