Like many people, I’ve been watching Channel 4’s new series, It’s a Sin. And…wow, does it pack a punch. And there’s an added layer of reflection for parents, I feel.
If you haven’t seen it or heard of it, it’s the new series from writer Russell T Davies following the lives of a group of friends in London from 1981 to 1991 as they navigate the torrential waters of the early HIV/AIDS epidemic.
So yeah, if you know anything about that era and the generation that bore the brunt of stigma, discrimination, and misinformation during a public health crisis, you know it will be an emotional viewing.
But watching it, I couldn’t help but see each character not just as myself, as a dear friend, as a brother, but also as a child of mine. And it was so. bloody. hard to see these young people going off into the world set up like lambs for the slaughter, when all they wanted was to be happy.
There were young gay people who had never come out to anyone before leaving their parents’ home, finally free for the first time to be themselves openly, but without having had the support, experience, or information to do so in ways that looked after their mental and physical wellbeing.
There were gay men whose only sex talk was about ‘getting girls into trouble’ – so hardly helpful or relevant to them. And certainly not holistic, even if they had been straight.
Where do we get these issues with sex?
I like to think I am sex positive and have a healthy relationship with sex, though like many people, not without having worked through my own hang-ups. I can’t pinpoint my early issues with sex to a single cause or a moment or a person; my parents were actually quite progressive when it came to sex (especially considering their other political stances). Whilst we attended church half-heartedly as a family, it was a mild version and I don’t recall sex coming up ever in sermons or Sunday schools as a child.
But by an early age, I had picked up some Victorian notions about sex, that I unpacked through my teens and early twenties. I came through this process relatively unscathed. I was ‘lucky’ to have just one #MeToo situation at the age of 13 at the hands of a friend’s older brother, and whilst I was vulnerable to this happening in large part because of my hang-ups, I was able to work through it by the time I left my parents’ house at 17, with most of my sexual life being healthy and fulfilling.
As I say, I feel I am lucky. Many people carry shame and baggage with them through much of their adult lives. Sometimes this shame can impact their decisions, make them more vulnerable to abuse or coercion, or simply rob them of joy and intimacy.
It all got me thinking – how can I as a parent support the people I have brought into the world?
How can I raise them in such a way that they go into the world prepared to live, love, and enjoy sex and relationships? How can I give them foundations to a healthy relationship with sex, others, and their own bodies? How can I help them have the best chance of a life free from shame?
The spoiler is I don’t know all the answers to these questions. (The whole point of this blog is that I don’t know the answers, but I share my questions and my research and thinking – I’m learning by asking.) But I have some thoughts.
More than ‘safe’
When I started looking at resources for parents, I found a lot geared towards schools. This makes sense, with Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) now mandatory in schools.
This is great, in many ways. As a lot of people talking about It’s A Sin have already noted, we shouldn’t have to rely solely on films and television to tell the story of HIV/AIDS.
And of course I want my kids to learn how to keep safe. But I also don’t want them to associate sex with danger. As a parent, I want to combat and do whatever possible to prevent shame and stigma – for my kids and for all people. Looking through resources, I feel more than ever that this is something I need to do from home.
I’ve tried to be intentional about certain things with my kids. We have talked about consent, and how you have to have consent to touch someone, and they have to have consent to touch you. The touching in this context of preschool-age conversations is not sexual, but often about playing or tickling, but I hope this plants the idea so when touching starts to mean sexual touch, they already respect their own bodies and the autonomy of other bodies.
I have the good fortune to have many gay and lesbian friends, so my sons have been able to meet their Uncle Brian and his boyfriend at the time, their Aunt Mae and her wife. My seven-year-old thinks nothing of men marrying other men, women marrying other women, people choosing not to marry, and everything in between.
And more recently, we talked about how some people might be born with boy bodies but are really girls, and vice versa, and how we should listen to these people when they say who they really are. He gets that, too.
This is important a) if either of my kids is queer, so they know I will accept them for who they are; and b) if my kids are cishet white males, I want them to centre and appreciate those who are not. Marginalised folks are so much more at risk of shame, and all that comes with it. Either way, it’s a win.
All too often, we use veiled or vague language, which hints at a discomfort or embarrassment. I’ve tried to address this by answering questions frankly and honestly, and using accurate language. My kids have penises. I have a vagina.
When my eldest was six, we somehow started talking about genes. I explained that the male provides sperm and the female provides an egg, and they combine to create cells that turn into a human being. I didn’t explain how the sperm and egg meet (that wasn’t what he was asking), but I tried to use the correct scientific language. When the time comes, we can talk about how the sperm and egg can meet, without embarrassment.
Accept them where they are and see them as they are
Right now, sex is not on their little minds. And that’s great, there’s plenty of time for that.
What is big in their worlds are megalodons, Hot Wheels racing, schoolwork, Minecraft, and making up jokes.
So I listen. I engage with them. I react with excitement when a particular Hot Wheels car wins a tournament. I listen to their jokes (and they are TERRIBLE, which makes them almost funny in their own way). I listen to my 7-year-old talk about his friends and what happened at recess.
If we are there for are children and they know they can come to us with the big stuff in their lives when they are small, we lay the groundwork for them to share the big stuff with us when they get bigger.
I hope my children always feel seen and loved for who they are.
There’s a place for them
Of course, It’s A Sin is named after a (particular personal favourite) Pet Shop Boys song. It’s a great song, but so depressing.
So I have picked out another Pet Shop Boys song I like, to bring us from 1991 to now, to my children’s futures. It’s their cover of the West Side Story song ‘Somewhere’.
Some day, somewhere
We’ll find a new way of living
We’ll find a way of forgiving
There’s a place for us
A time and place for us
Hold my hand and we’re halfway there
Hold my hand and I’ll take you there
Somehow, some day