“Male cats have… what?” or “How I learned about ‘Sex and all that stuff’”

This is the story of how I learned where babies come from. I find this story highly entertaining, but that could just be my slightly eccentric sense of humour.

I learned – or at least, I began to have strong suspicions about the process – at the hairdresser. Not from the hairdresser, you understand, but in the actual salon.

I was six years old, and I was waiting for a haircut. I was sitting with my mum in the little waiting area, surrounded by the clip of scissors and the smell of conditioner, and I was bored, drumming my feet against the benches. “Read a magazine,” my mother suggested, being well aware by this time that handing me reading material was the easiest way to keep me occupied. I don’t remember if she chose the magazine or if I simply rifled through the pile myself, but to those concerned about handing a small girl a women’s magazine, don’t worry; my mother was well aware that I had no interest in reading about anything she would find objectionable (at six, anyway).

There were two pet magazines. One was something like “Catmopolitan” and the other one was “Dogue”. Obviously they were set up as joke spoofs of popular fashion mags, but they were about pet health. Given that we had a dog, I found dogs boring at the time, and was fascinated by cats (which we didn’t have and were never allowed to have, due to the quite reasonable concern that Baron might eat any cats that turned up on our property), so I picked up Catmopolitan (or whatever it was) and turned to where I always began any magazine reading: the letters page.

I was six. I liked the letters page because the letters are short, and often tell stories.

In the pet magazines, the letters were written from the perspective of the pet, and one was about why female cats scream during sex.

What’s this sex business? I wondered, a bit concerned about how the girl kitties were obviously scared or in pain. So I read further.

“Male cats have barbs on their penis…” the reply to the letter began.

They have what on their what!? I frowned briefly. I knew what penises were. I’d seen my brother’s in the bath. They looked pretty smooth. Alright, cats were different. That was reasonable.

“…withdrawn from the vagina…”

Wait, what? Withdraw? From? What was it doing in the vagina in the first place?! WHAT THE HELL ARE THE KITTIES DOING?

And a light dawned.

Wait a minute. I have a vagina (it’s true, it’s all true). Human girls have them. Human boys have penises. If this works for cats – since they also have those parts – then it probably also applies to humans.

Is that what sex is?

I think anyone watching would have seen the little girl with the long red pigtails blink a few times, close the magazine, and stare at the wall for a few seconds. At that point I was called for my haircut, and I set the matter aside for a while, returning to it later when my small child brain was otherwise undistracted.

So. Sex. Why would people do that?

I’m actually not sure when I made the connection between sex and babies, but the notion filled a reasonable gap before “Babies grow in a mummy’s tummy”. It wasn’t confirmed, I just strongly suspected that there was a connection there. Maybe if I’d kept reading the cat magazine, it would have talked about kittens.

A few months later, I stayed over at a friend’s house, and, giggling, she pulled out “Where Did I Come From?”, the book with pictures of happy cartoon naked parents that has enlightened and, most likely, horrified, millions of puzzled children.

When, about four or five years later, friends would pull this book out in the library and declare how gross it was when the penis went into the vagina, I couldn’t help but think they’d obviously been surprised by this piece of information. I hadn’t been. I’d been smug. When I leafed through the book at age six (possibly seven by then, I’m a bit vague on the details), and I got to the part that would later be declared gross by ten- and eleven-year olds, I thought Aha! I knew it! I KNEW IT! PEOPLE ARE JUST LIKE CATS.

The rest was merely detail.

I should at this point state that zero information on this issue was provided by my parents. I think my mother had this vague notion that I’d ask, eventually (discounting my general preference to finding everything out for myself and being a bratty little know-it-all), or that she’d tell me before I started having periods and thinking that I was haemorrhaging.

In fact, my brother was my best source of information, since he had precisely zero hang ups about what kids were and were not supposed to know (being only three years older than me) and he seemed to have access to a great deal more knowledge about these things (being a whole three years older than me).

I still remember when he tried to explain the circumcision joke, when I was ten. Around a table with another family, all of whose children were older than me, someone – I don’t recall who – told the joke about the Irish circumciser (apologies to any Irish people who might read this and want to indulge in a brief facepalm).

He slipped and got the sac.

A few glasses of wine having been consumed at this point by the adults in the party, everyone burst out laughing. The sixteen year old girl, the thirteen year old boy, my fourteen year old brother, all four parents, laughing.

I sat there looking cross. “I don’t get it,” I announced.

This just made them laugh harder. Heads were rested on hands, and on the table. Sides were clutched. I was surrounded by highly entertained individuals, and I still had no idea what a circumciser was or what was so funny about him losing his job.

The subject was eventually changed (I suspect, based on later evidence, by my mother).

In the car as we were leaving the restaurant, I refused to let it go. Like a dog with a bone (see what I did there? Oh yes), I said, “I still don’t get that joke.”

My brother, sitting next to me, snickered, turned to me and began to explain. “You see, a man’s penis-“

“Ben.” My mother’s voice had a distinct warning tone.

“-isn’t just a tube-“

Ben.”

“It’s got-“

BEN. STOP IT.”

At age fourteen, he was, like myself, still subject to the dastardly changes of parental tyranny and censorship; I didn’t get any answers that night. I can’t remember when I did find out what various words meant (it wasn’t long – months, perhaps), and then reflected triumphantly on the joke, concluded that it was pretty funny, and moved on. I’m not sure why my mother thought I’d find this traumatising.

This all came to a head (heh) when I was twelve and, some time in the middle of a sunny Saturday, my mother called me into the bedroom. I remember it was sunny because she had the curtains drawn in her room and the sun was slanting through the skylight behind me in the main atrium of the house which made her room look all the more dark and foreboding.

I was now just old enough to be properly embarrassed by discussing anything of this nature with my mother – if she’d brought it up two or three years earlier, it might have been acceptable – so when she said, “It’s time you learned about sex,” I immediately was horrified at how awful this conversation was going to be for everyone involved.

I immediately cut her off. “It’s okay. I already know.”

There was silence for a moment. “Know… what?”

“About sex. Babies. That stuff. I know it.”

Her lips thinned. “How do you know?”

With appropriate just-barely-pre-adolescent condescension, I said impatiently, “I read a book.”

“What book?” she demanded.

I wasn’t about to tell her it was “Where Did I Come From?” That didn’t sound very cool. “Just a book,” I said, waving it off. I nearly added, “And a magazine about cats” but decided that explaining the details would just prolong this hellish experience and it was best to keep the story simple.

“When did you read this? Where did you get it?”

“At [friend]’s house. When I was seven. Or six. I can’t remember.”

“At [friend’s] house,” she repeated heavily, as though she’d been given some horribly difficult news, much in the same way she might have said “A cancerous lesion.”

I wasn’t quite sure how I was expected to respond. After some careful thought I tried what I thought was a safe option.

“Yes?”

“That’s it then,” she said flatly.

Oh, thank God. “Yes.” We’re just… ace here. This can stop now. I’m going to leave.

“I’ve failed as a mother.” This was delivered in a shaky voice, in martyred tones. To properly understand how it appeared to me, imagine a teenage girl with the back of her hand held to her forehead. It’s hard to be a drama queen in a darkened room at the age of forty over avoiding an awkward conversation because your daughter reads everything that turns up in a twenty foot radius, but she managed.

“Um. No? I’m… going to go now…” I think I was supposed to be comforting her? Or something? This was never my strong suit as a kid.

I’m aware that this story does not paint my mother in a positive light. To be fair to her, she did come around to the idea that I liked to know things in my own time (as soon as possible) and in my own way (reading). About an hour later, after she had calmed down from this terrible shock, she came to my room and said, “Would you like me to buy you a book?”

Yes,” I said fervently.

When she purchased What’s Happening To Me?, I tried to look grateful (I’d already read it on the same night I’d read Where Did I Come From?) but she was not fooled. She came back later on with an actual novel-length book that entirely lacked cartoons, which was far more what I was willing to read (It was Everygirl, if anyone’s curious).

This gave me the power to answer most of my own questions on these topics, and I have to admit that if I’d had the internet when any of these issues had been raised, I would have got my answers that much sooner.

There’s no real moral to these stories. The only take-home message I would offer would be that, if you’re determined that you want to be the one to tell your kids about the birds, the bees, and inappropriate circumcision jokes – if you think that being the source of this information is really quite crucial to your parenting-fu –  you need to get in early. Your kid may be precocious. Alternatively, they may not be precocious – they might just know a precocious kid who shares information freely. When one figures it out, they’ll tell the others (and they may actually have the wrong information. I know a kid who thought pregnancy happened after anal sex).

Also, try to get it sorted before they’re old enough to be direly embarrassed by the whole thing. It’s alright, you’ll get heaps of chances to embarrass them when the condom conversation comes up.

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