A child's most confronting question
Sometimes it takes a three year old to show you that you're not as sexually liberated as you'd like to think you are.
Last week, my daughter Violet rushed out of her bedroom and hollered in amazement, "Mummy, guess what I just found."
"What did you find?" I asked.
"This!" she said dropping her underwear and pointing.
"That's your clitoris, darling," I said as matter-of-factly as I could muster.
To my surprise, I wasn't feeling calm and matter-of-fact at all. In that moment, I wasn't even a mature woman anymore.
I was my 11-year-old self again. The one who was so ignorant of her anatomy that she thought she only had one hole "down there". Having already associated my "special lady parts" - as some online parenting forums refer to female genitalia - with shame and embarrassment, I was even too afraid to look to confirm this assumption.
Determined not to raise Violet wrapped in the same shroud of ignorance and fear, I have always made the point of calling her vagina a vagina. I want her to feel as comfortable about possessing a vagina as she does about any other body part.
No matter how relaxed you think you are with the subject of genitalia, if you can't even bring yourself to use the correct terms then surely kids will see straight through it.
As a result, Violet knows that she has three holes - a urethra for wee, a vagina for babies (she's only three so the mechanics of baby-making can come later), and an anus for poo.
Given this, I probably should have anticipated her next question.
"Can I see your vagina, please mummy?"
At that moment, as all my rational thoughts deserted me and my sexual anxieties rose to the surface, I understood why my mother never showed me her vagina. Sexual embarrassment and discomfort is handed down through the generations in my family.
But mine isn't the only family who has bought into these sexual taboos. As Nancy Friday wrote in My Mother/My Self, "Sexual self-discovery is the only self-discovery that is not celebrated in infancy and childhood. The day the child learns to eat with a spoon, everyone says, 'Isn't it wonderful? Isn't that great? Someone get the Polaroid!' But the day she discovers her vagina, nobody says, 'It's six months earlier than it should have been, isn't she a precious darling!'"
Friday's book was first published 36 years ago, but gauging from some playground conversations I've overheard, her book is as groundbreaking today as it was in 1977.
One woman explained to a group of mothers at the park that she "caught" her preschooler "touching herself".
"So I told her," the mother continued, "that her bottom is dirty and she should never ever touch it."
A quick search of online mothering discussion forums also shows that while some people agree that childhood self-exploration and masturbation are normal and healthy, there are still many who don't.
"My daughter is five and has recently began exploring herself," writes a concerned mother. "I've caught her doing the same thing to her clitoris in the bath and I've also caught her putting her blankey between her legs and rocking... I told her ... that we must remember that our bodies are special and what she is doing isn't in the best interest of her body because she could hurt herself."
Another mother adds, "I just say 'Your bottom isn't a toy. It's special and you need to stop playing with it.'"
This is followed up from another mother with, "I don't allow masturbation in my home."
Aside from the self-delusion in believing that you can simply outlaw masturbation, this approach is damaging to more than just girls' future sex lives.
It reinforces the pervasive notion that girls are not entitled to pleasure for pleasure's sake. And it perpetuates the gender stereotype of women being passive - that they are not in charge of meeting their own needs and must therefore rely on somebody else - a man - to take care of them.
Because I want Violet to experience her body without guilt and passivity, and to be proud of her sexual self, it's my responsibility to break the cycle of sexual silence and shame in my family.
So, casting off my self-consciousness and shedding my 11-year old self's inhibitions, I dropped my undies and showed her my vagina.
She'll probably look back on this day in ten years time and cringe at my forthrightness. But I hope, at the very least, I'm giving her one piece of armour for the fight against a culture that often tries to deny women control and enjoyment of their own bodies.
Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of four books: 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child.
- Daily Life