08/25/2014 05:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I Believe in Talking to My Kids About Sex -- But This Pushed Me Over the Edge

Laurence Mouton via Getty Images

This year I learned something brand new from my fifth-grade daughter. It wasn't an obscure fact about Alaska, which they studied in depth. It wasn't a new method to multiply fractions. It wasn't about cutting-edge technology or social media. No: what I learned was a new hand gesture. You hold one hand out, palm up, and brush the other against it and out, like dealing cards if you lacked opposable thumbs. My daughter showed it to me and asked what it meant, and I told her I'd never seen it before. "Well, the boys at school do it," she said. Not believing there could be a gesture I didn't know, I replied that they must have made it up. Not so, she assured me: "They said it's what men do in stripper clubs." The profound silence that followed was only broken when my 8-year-old piped up: "Mommy, what is a stripper club?"

I've always advocated teaching age-appropriate information about sexuality and related subjects to my children. I want to be the parent who's ahead of the game, not playing catch-up with what my child hears at school or from the media. I discussed sex with them a couple of years ago in as matter-of-fact a way as I could manage, although my younger child was still utterly appalled ("age-appropriate" is tricky when you have more than one age to address). Because I have daughters, we've talked about periods and safe sex and teenage pregnancies -- the latter prompted in part by the PSA posters on the subway, as well as my younger daughter's question, "If you don't want to have a baby, do you have to?" I answered that question, lickety-split.

As my kids' cohort approached the age when the "birds and bees" talk seemed necessary -- and this age is no longer 13, by the way -- most of my friends and I embraced the principle of answering the questions we were asked. The idea is that what isn't being asked isn't yet what they need to hear. So when a kid asks where a baby came from, you can answer, "Mommy's belly," and leave it at that, until they ask, "Well, how did it get into (or out of) the mommy's belly," and so forth. Of course, since both of mine were born by C-section, they found the concept of a vaginal birth pretty gross. Nevertheless, it was all pretty simple, and I found we were all happily more or less on the same page.

Middle school changed all that.

Here are the things my daughter has learned about in the last nine months: "69," condoms, strip clubs, and numerous hand gestures ranging from the old-school ones (e.g. hand job) to the exciting new example above. After some consultation with expert sources (Facebook), I learned this gesture is called "making it rain," and mimics what men do with a fat stack of cash over a stripper's gyrating body. My first question: How on earth does a 10- or 11-year-old boy know this? I then discovered it's a fairly common reference in rap music, though the boys in my daughter's class seem to know it mostly from a game they have on their smartphones called, yes, "Make it Rain." After some more research (Google) I discovered that the game has nothing to do with strippers, beyond its name and the gesture it employs. So again: how do the fifth-grade boys know it's associated with strippers?

"Making it rain" pushed me over the edge. Until now, I've been striving to maintain a boys-will-be-boys attitude up to a point: I mean, what do I know about middle school boys? Twelve years of girls' school, no brothers, no sons, drama school for God's sake; I'm fully aware I'm in the dark on a lot of this (hetero) boy stuff. Also, some things that were upsetting to my daughter were coming from other girls, like the friend who helpfully looked up "dick" and "sex" in on her smartphone. The definition of "dick" includes a phrase that disturbed my daughter enough to keep her awake one night. And there's absolutely a natural, burgeoning curiosity about sexuality at this age that needs to be channeled and managed rather than stamped out or denied. So why was "making it rain" the final straw for me?

I've decided it has to do with the power dynamic being established in this first year of middle school, and how sexuality and carnal knowledge are being used in service of that dynamic. In particular, I am disturbed by the way that (mostly) boys are using extreme sex talk to dominate, shock and even frighten (mostly) girls. The boy who made a hand-job gesture at my daughter and then smirked, "You don't know what this is, do you?" was trying, in a pathetic 11-year-old way, to prove he was superior to her. The boy who drew a cartoon of himself and his friends with giant testicles and another boy with a vagina was making a similar point about boys versus girls. Mimicked strip-club gestures simply crystallized what I already suspected: could there be a clearer example of men lording it over women by means of a sexual power imbalance? I don't object to sexual knowledge, but I draw the line at the use of sexuality as a blunt object to establish dominance.

Our school has recently updated its policies on bullying, sexual and other forms of harassment and sexual abuse. One change is the explicit labeling of unwanted sexual language, jokes and gestures as a form of harassment. These kinds of changes, I believe, are welcome, necessary, and beneficial to the community as a whole. Every week, it seems, people across the country (and the world) come forward with allegations of sexual abuse and harassment in schools and other presumably protected settings. The flood of such charges, many about events that took place decades ago, speaks both to how prevailing attitudes about sexuality and minors have changed and to the increasing understanding of the need for transparency and repercussions in abuse cases.

Yet despite increasing acceptance that children can never be willing participants in sexual contact, and even in the face of growing media coverage and legal pursuit of offenders, it seems we are still too often failing to observe the direct line that exists between "inappropriate" behaviors and the life-shattering actions that can follow. As many of the allegations at schools have demonstrated, a culture of permissiveness can lead to a staggering breadth of sexually abusive behavior. It's not always a lone pedophile at fault. Furthermore, there's a growing understanding of how misogyny is linked to violence against women on a societal scale, as the recent mass shooting in Isla Vista, CA and subsequent #YesAllWomen response demonstrated.

I can't accept any longer that crude sexual language, gestures and jokes are merely a harmless manifestation of pubescent development. We can and must educate and empower girls -- and boys -- to stand up to the language and behavior they will inevitably encounter. Especially because so much of this is clearly about setting up a hierarchy that places bullies on top, parents and schools need to increase their vigilance about identifying and punishing such actions. My daughters are still at an age when girls and boys feel like equals, and I refuse to bow down to a fatal inevitability that this equality must end.

I'm not a prude. I don't hate boys or men. I'm not even really angry with the kids who've exposed my daughter to all these things: I can accept that they also are still children, without a true understanding of their actions. And as a child of the 1980s, who lived through the rise and fall of political correctness, I'm well aware how stands such as this can lead to neo-Puritan witch-hunts. Furthermore, I am not a school administrator; I have no experience of handling such situations on an institutional level, and I'm happy with how my school handled this when I brought it to their attention.

Yet I do think my response to "making it rain" goes beyond an instinctive desire to protective my own daughters. My wish as a parent is that we -- parents, teachers, students and schools -- can work together, first to understand how even seemingly small gestures, jokes and comments can be harmful, and then to discourage and perhaps, one day, even eliminate these sexist attitudes in the next generation. It turns out that fifth grade really has been an education for me the second time around.

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