It has come to my attention that my 11 year old son is starting to change. Much in the style of a horror film, his limbs are lengthening, his skin is starting to get blemishes, and he assures me he has hair on his upper lip, although this is as yet invisible to the naked eye despite his attempts to will it into existence by referring to it as his moustache. His voice lurches from pitches so high only dogs can hear him, to a Tom Waits-esque growl; I can no longer ignore the tragic reality – that he is succumbing to manhood.
When I was his age, I had to figure it all out for myself; all the body horror of puberty, the confusion of not knowing what was normal and what was a sign that your body was possessed by some ectoplasm spitting demon. My parents did their best to help, and gave me a church approved book about reproduction that asked more questions than it answered, and which also advocated writing poetry as a way of managing the urges.
I decided that things would be different for my son, and if I didn’t get in there first with a frank and open discussion about sex, he would end up looking for answers himself. This is what I did when I was young, and even though we didn’t have the internet and really had to work hard to get our hands on filth, many of my friends dads had porno stashes that we would raid. It was the perfect crime – the dads could never confront the thief because then they would have to admit they had a pile of jazz mags with titles like Rubber Domination (the dad who owned that particular publication was the owner of a haulage firm). I was adamant that my son wouldn’t have to turn to the internet for answers, and instead would get a whistle-stop tour of human sexuality from his incredibly awkward dad.
My Catholic upbringing probably has a lot to do with the location for our chat about the birds and the bees, so it was that I found myself sitting with him at 9am on a Sunday morning at Knockakeo holy well. If it seems an odd location for a talk about sex and sexuality, but clearly I wasn’t the only one taken by its beauty and solitude, as there was a condom wrapper on the ground next to the well. Perhaps this was a sign, I mused, for what else straddles the worlds of the profane and the divine if not sex, where we, as gods, can create life? Deep, stupid thoughts like that weren’t going to help my son though, so I gritted my teeth, stared at the horizon, and started talking about sex at him. We started with the basic physical stuff, and I soon realised that use of terms like engorged were not helping, so I simplified, eventually using a series of hand gestures to explain the most basic parts. I could tell he wanted to run and hide, and I did too, but it was two miles back to the car so we didn’t really have a choice. We were going to have The Chat, and no amount of him asking if we could go home was going to stop this.
It is a strange thing to talk about sex with anyone, but to explain it to a child is the most bizarre thing of all. You try not to get too deep into the metaphysical stuff about emotions and desire, but without those, there is not much to talk about – the mechanics are important, but you can’t just explain those and not have to drag yourself through relationships, family, pornography, consent, all the various expressions of human desire. I kept saying, stop me if I’m going too fast or if you have any questions, but he just sat there praying for it all to end. The holy well must have heard him, because I soon ran out of things to say, and we headed back. On the drive home I told him to ask me anything, at any time, and that really, beyond the biology and the emotional stuff, the best advice I could give him for life would be the one commandment – don’t be a dick. Don’t treat other people with anything less than the respect they deserve, and don’t indulge in those ugly, performative aspects of masculinity that bring nothing but harm to this world. In other words, don’t be like I was, because if I can teach him how to be better than me, then I will have achieved some degree of absolution.