“Daddy?” she asked, her voice bouncing innocently over the seats, “What’s a virgin?”
“What’s a virgin?” she repeated.
We were on the way home from another day of school, our car jostling around the wet, gray streets. Rain drops smashed on the windshield, spread out and formed streaks on the glass. Puddles the color of grimy milk pooled in every gutter.
There was no escape, in other words. I couldn’t just pull the car over, hop out and change the subject, “How about a cookie instead? I’m almost positive those don’t have hymens.”
I turned the radio volume down and for a long moment, I listened to the rain drops thudding on the roof, my mouth opening and closing wordlessly in the kind of stupefied, silent astonishment you’d expect from a dummy missing the aid of a ventriloquist’s hand up its ass. (And speaking of virgins.)
That’s it, I wanted to say, we’re pulling you out of preschool.
It seems every day Emmeline comes home with some new schoolyard gem. I ask her what the “letter of the week” is and she gives me a blank stare, offering instead that one student picks her nose and eats it. I ask if she read any new books and she tells me that one boy called another boy a “poopy.” It takes her five whole minutes to stop cackling. I roll my eyes, smiling at the idea that if she thinks that’s hilarious, she’s really going to crack up when some future peer breaks out with “no talent ass clown.”
But these are innocent explorations with age, with growing up, with finding the boundaries of social norms and discovering humor in that ancient punch line of humanity: bodily functions.
The sex thing, however, bothers me to no end.
I hate lectures in sexuality that begin with “I’m no Puritanical prude,” but … I’m no Puritanical prude — I just wonder who teaches their 3-year-old about things like virginity? Don’t they know the world has changed since we were kids? I was reading an article the other day about all the crazy things young teenagers were doing to each other, thanks to all the helpful instructional aids found on the Internet. When I was growing up, if we were lucky enough to find some lost piece of porn, we kept it buried under our mattresses like some treasured remnant of Golconda — a goldmine of erotica running with rich veins of nakedness. I once found a tattered scrap of a Penthouse Letter near a local creek and read the same crinkled page something in the neighborhood of 5 billion times. From an early age, I could recite by heart two things: “A Noiseless, Patient Spider” and a yarn about lesbian doctors ignoring their ethical code of conduct. But now, any kid with enough brain power to turn on an iPhone is just a few clicks away from instant puberty, and this has powered a sexual revolution that makes bra burning and LSD-fueled orgies of the ’60s seem somehow quaint and my tattered Penthouse Letter sound like literature. Even Oprah’s famous segment on “rainbow parties” from just a few years ago seems tame in comparison to what Sasha Grey does when her director isn’t Steven Soderbergh.
Why, I sometimes wonder, wasn’t I born later?
In the quiet moments after she asked the question, I struggled to reconcile a seemingly conflicting philosophy when it comes to lessons in sex. Growing up, my family never discussed sex in any form. It wasn’t until the night before a sex education class was to begin in fifth grade that my mom pulled me into the living room and nervously filled me in on birds and their vaginas, or something like that — I was too mortified to listen. So things are a little different in our household. We don’t think twice of walking around naked after a shower or other activities that require one to shed his clothes, such as Mario Kart. From time to time, we both take baths or showers with Emme. Our bodies are open books — books that are riddled with hair and rolls of fat, but still, open. Although we haven’t yet, I actually don’t have a problem with teaching young kids the basics in reproduction — the mechanics that are just as much a part of life as peeing and that other punch line.
But the question on virginity made me mad for some reason. It scares me to think of what might be available online and in school when my daughter grows older, and what impact it might have on an already over-sexualized generation. So I couldn’t believe that some parent would start chatting up more than the basics. Don’t they know that kids listen? And talk? And later, tease? One day, it’s “What’s a virgin?” and then next it’s “You’re still a virgin?” I don’t want Emme and kids her age to become hothouse flowers, stored away in some glass-walled shrine to innocence, but I do fear for a childhood lost too soon, stripped away by an electric storm of information that becomes anything but virtual all too quickly.
What kind of horrible parent only serves to hasten this?
I nervously tapped the steering wheel and tilted my head so I could see into the rearview mirror.
“Where’d you learn that?” I asked, tossing my voice back over the seats.
“What?” Emme asked.
“Virgin?” I continued, “Did you learn that in school today?”
Emme shook her head.
“No, daddy,” she said, “You were singing.”
Rain thrummed on the roof. A car honked at the crowded intersection. I had turned the radio down but could still hear it, the bubblegum pop swirling around us in static whispers, and suddenly it all made sense. I groaned and shuddered at the image of myself just moments before: stuck in traffic, rocking out, singing aloud and tapping the steering wheel like a drum.
“Touched for the very first time …”
It brought to mind one of those Mormon commercials from the ’80s, the one where a dad finds a stash of pot in his kid’s room and demands to know where the kid picked up such a horrible habit. Under pressure, the kid finally breaks, crying out, “You alright! I learned it by watching you!” And the dad offers the kind of horrified look of shame that lets you know he’s going to immediately dig out his own stash of pot and find a much better hiding place.
I imagine the same horrified look of shame washed across my own face, as I closed my eyes and shook my head, nearly crashing into the car ahead of us and wondering all the while whether it was still necessary to pull her out of preschool.
For the sake of the other children.