The Americanization of Edward Bok is a remarkable book. It is the autobiography of a man who immigrated to the United States as a boy from the Netherlands and worked hard to educate and improve himself. Edward Bok eventually became editor of the Ladies' Home Journal from 1889-1919. Under his management, in 1903, it became the first American magazine to reach 1 million subscribers. At that time the country only had about 17 million households.
After Bok used the magazine to expose fraudulent and dangerous patent medicines, a doctor suggested to Edward Bok that he should use his position of influence to encourage parents to give their children better sex education, to help prevent the spread of venereal diseases. Though initially reluctant to address such a topic in his magazine, Bok researched the topic and realized (he wrote his book in the third person):
His friends and fellow editors at the magazine were shocked at the idea of addressing sex education publicly. They opposed introducing such an "unsavory subject" into the magazine.
The owner of the magazine encouraged Bok to pursue his plan, even if it cost the magazine subscribers. In 1906, Ladies' Home Journal began to address monthly the subject of sex education and venereal disease. Thousands of protest letters poured in. Tens of thousands of people cancelled their subscriptions. But Bok persisted and eventually, with prominent people such as Jane Addams writing supportive articles in the magazine, public response began to change.
Instead of a flood of protest letters, more parents began writing the magazine asking for help in teaching their children. Bok "employed two experts, one man and one woman, to answer the inquiries." He also arranged for the publication of a series of little books, written by different authors. Tens of thousands of copies of the books sold for 25 cents each. (One of them, How Shall I Tell My Child?, is available as a free download on Google Books.)
On one hand, I am amazed that after 100 years and a huge sexual revolution, many American parents still have a hard time talking to their children about sex. On the other hand, people are people, and modern parents have a lot in common with parents throughout history.
The public debate in the U.S. about sex education focuses on whether children should hear an abstinence-only message or get "comprehensive" education (i.e., learn about condoms and the pill). Both of these approaches miss the mark, especially if a teenager just goes through a class at school and does not have any other support from parents or other adults.
I don't know exactly how I will teach my sons about sex. I don't know what questions they will ask or when they will start asking them. But thinking about my own experience growing up and situations I have seen around me, here are a few principles I want to keep in mind.
1. Talk Early and Often
Sex education should not consist merely of "the talk" when puberty starts. Parents talk to their children about eating and sleeping, schoolwork and entertainment, politics and religion. Why can't we talk about sex? Not just the physical act of sexual intercourse, but the emotions that make people want to get married, the relationship between a husband and wife, the process of conception and birth. And unfortunately we also need to talk about pornography and sexual abuse.
Parents must use their judgement in how and when to introduce certain topics to their children, but not talking at all is not a valid option. Attentive, caring parents are in the best position to talk to their own children about sex, and they should take advantage of the opportunity.
As young children become teenagers, parents need to keep the lines of communication open. No question should be ignored, no topic should be off limits. Teens may wonder about their parents' sexual experiences--before or during marriage. They may need to talk about self-stimulation or same-sex attraction or all sorts of things that may be uncomfortable. But talking early and often is the best way to lay the foundation for healthy communication that contributes to healthy sexual choices.
2. Use Real Words
Many years ago I was teaching a Bible class to a group of teenage boys. We came across circumcision, and they wanted to know exactly what that meant. I held up my finger and demonstrated cutting off a foreskin. Since I didn't want to say "penis," one of the boys thought circumcision meant cutting a piece of skin off one's finger. I had to be more clear.
If saying "penis" or "vagina" makes you squirm, then I encourage you to expand your vocabulary. These are not bad words. They are body parts. If you can say "pinky," you can say "penis". And if you can say "vein," you can say "vagina."
Those are the easy ones. What about orgasm? Masturbation? Gonorrhea, herpes, and syphilis? You don't want to leave your kids wondering what you are really talking about it. If they have seen or heard certain words, you might as well give them a definition.
Words help us describe and make sense of the world, and children (even teenagers) are capable of understanding a lot more than we often give them credit for. Use real words appropriate for the situation, not euphemisms that may confuse or frustrate your child.
3. Make It Positive
Human sexuality is a gift, a blessing. It is not dirty or shameful. It's not wrong for a teenager to notice that another human being is physically attractive. It's not wrong to have a crush on that person. It's not wrong even to want to have sex with that person.
These are all natural feelings. How we choose to act on those feelings is important, and our choices have consequences. It's easy to put the emphasis on behaviors to avoid. Instead, let's focus on respect and the beauty of healthy sexual expression.
Children need to learn to respect themselves, their own bodies and choices and boundaries. And they need to learn to respect other people, their bodies and choices and boundaries. Sexual activity is not something that should ever be forced on another person. And the best sex happens in a permanent, committed relationship.
My wife and I waited until marriage to enjoy sex. I'm glad we did. The mechanics of sex are pretty easy to learn, but the deepest enjoyment comes from really knowing and pleasing the other person. You don't get that from a one-night stand. And you can't build a truly intimate relationship with someone when you're afraid the relationship isn't going to last.
At the conclusion of the first of the Edward Bok Books of Self-Knowledge, How Shall I Tell My Child?, author Rose Chapman wrote in the charming style of 1912:
What is your experience talking to (or not talking to) your parents or children about sex?