Julia Sweeney on Why She Openly Discusses Sex With Her Daughter
Julia Sweeney made audiences laugh with her androgynous character "Pat" on "Saturday Night Live" in the early 1990s and as the author of books such as "God Said, Ha!" In her latest book, "If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother," she recounts the story that eventually became a popular TED talk, in which she explains sex to her daughter for the very first time. Here, Sweeney expands on that discussion and reveals to Bookish how she used a moment from NBC's "Smash" to continue the dialogue.
I told a story at the TED conference about explaining sex to my daughter, Mulan, for the first time. It became quite popular. But when it came to educating her about sex, that wasn't the beginning and end of the discussion. There was so much more.
For example: We watch TV together, the three of us. We like it. It's a great family activity. I don't think we do it too much, maybe an hour each night. But TV has a lot of sex. When my daughter was in 3rd, 4th or even 5th grade she was oblivious when there was sexual action on screen. It seemed to just wash over her. I had a vague censorship policy, much more liberal than many other parents. My feeling was this: I didn't care if she saw sex, even explicit sex. As long as it was affectionate sex. That's a broad range, I know, but in general it meant I didn't want her to see rape, degrading sex, or kinky sex before she could first form her own first sexual feelings and identity, all on her own.
For the record, I was much more vigilant about violence. I really didn't like (or allow) her to see graphic violence. To me, violence is much more disturbing than sex. I mean, duh.
So we watched TV and I didn't turn it off if people were doing the nasty. Ahem… I mean, making love.
When Mulan was ten or eleven she began to be more aware of what she was watching and wanted questions answered.
What were those people doing?
I didn't even ask my parents about sex on television. I don't think I saw that much of it. When Ginger flirted with the Professor on "Gilligan's Island" it seemed so harmless, like she was teasing him in this goofy way she had. I watched "Love American Style" and picked up on what they were indicating was happening behind closed doors little by little over time.
But now we watch shows like "Smash" and people are giving other people oral sex. Not on camera, of course, just off camera. Just. Barely.
"What is she doing?" Mulan asked Michael and I, as we watched. I would probably have said something like, "You'll understand when you're older." I would have said that if I weren't married to Michael, a person – a scientist – who takes every question quite seriously.
"She is going to instigate a sexual act with him." Michael replies flatly to Mulan.
Instigate. Sexual. Act. All those words make my head spin.
There's an uncomfortable moment. "Oh." Mulan answers solemnly.
However, Mulan's curiosity gets the better of her. She asks, "But, why is she doing that to him? He's not her boyfriend."
Michael gives me a look, as in, "Take it away, Mom."
I say, "In show business, in fact in lots of types of businesses - but famously in show business - young actresses will do things sexually with directors in order to get a part in something."
"Why would he give her a part in the play just because she did that? I mean, it's not showing she can act." Mulan says.
God love her.
"Well, yes and no." I say. (Michael is laughing to himself at this point.)
"Many television and film and literary plot lines include women who use sex to further their ambitions. This is true for men too, but it's less common as a story line. And secondly, you could argue that she is showing she can act. She may not be attracted to this man at all, but she's willing to act like she's attracted to him because he has power over her."
I suddenly wonder if I'm justifying this character's behavior. Maybe I am. A little. I hate that even today--in our modern and feminist-infused world, girls are painted with a "bad girl" versus a "good girl" brush, playing into tedious and timeworn expectations.
Michael interrupts, "I don't think the show is trying to represent her move as a demonstrating good acting."
I say, "Yes. That is true. But you could argue that. The people who make this show probably want us to think poorly of her for doing this. Generally, in life, this is not something people are proud of doing. It's usually in the story as a sign of desperation. Or to indicate that show business is lurid."
"What does lurid mean?"
Now the TV has been paused.
Michael is reading off his iPhone, "Lurid means something that is presented in a vividly shocking way, giving explicit details of crimes or sex."
"Got it. " Mulan barks. "Start the show again." Michael pushes Play on the remote control.
Sometimes I worry that our clinical and fact driven approach to sex with Mulan is going to ruin sex for her. After all, my first kiss, which happened when I was around her age, was intoxicatingly visceral. How much of that excitement was because it was naughty? Forbidden? I'm not sure. It felt good, good and wrong and right, in all the ways that a powerful kiss is made powerful.
But my worry about sex becoming too clinical and sterile to Mulan, because of how we talk about it, is teeny compared with my happiness that we're arming her with information. If my parents had spoken to me like this, I don't think I would've done half the experimenting that I did. The facts seem to bare this out too--in the Netherlands, which has the most open and seriously informative sex education which starts when kids are under ten years old, they also have correspondingly low rates of teenage pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases.
So when it comes to doing things differently than how my parents did things, talking openly and pragmatically about sex has got to be near the top of the list. I'm glad I'm doing it this way.
Even though, secretly, I wish for some embarrassing giggles.
Wait. Mulan is telling us to shut up and just watch the show. And she just giggled.
See? Sex is still awkward.