“Mom, what’s the right age to start having sex?”
That was exactly the question I wasn’t expecting, sitting with my 13-year-old son and my husband in a restaurant overlooking the Hudson, sipping a cocktail, waiting for our food to arrive. I didn’t have a statement prepared. But the boy wanted an answer, and he wanted it in numerical form. Immediately.
The lapsed Catholic deep within me yelled, “When you’re married!”
The Jewish mother closer to the surface had a more practical idea. “When you finish medical school!”
“What do you think?” I asked him.
He said his girlfriend thought 17 was the right age, but that one of the neighborhood boys had done it at 14. I cringed. “That’s too young!” I said. He agreed.
“But why is it too young? And what is the right age?”
I looked to my husband for help, but he was as caught off guard as I was.
A response was expected. Now.
“There is no right age,” I told him. “It’s not a question of age. It’s about being ready.”
Did I really think I was going to get away with that? Maybe for three seconds.
“So how are you supposed to know when you’re ready?”
“I have no idea” was honest, but unsatisfying. “Let me think about it” would have sounded suspicious in this case, as if I needed time to invent some arbitrary, adult reasons why fourteen-year-olds were too young for sex. I took a long drink and a deep breath, and by the grace of God, or maybe the cocktail, the answer came to me fully formed, in three parts, all at once.
“You’re ready to have sex when you can do the three following things,” I pronounced.
Three? Did I have three? Was three enough? Maybe I could only think of two? Never say no in an improv. Go with three.
“One. You’re ready to have sex when you can look your girlfriend straight in the eye and have an honest conversation about birth control. Ummm…you know what that is right?”
Eyeroll. Yes, he knew.
“Two,” I continued. “You’re ready to have sex when you understand that consent doesn’t mean your girlfriend saying, ‘Well, I guess so…’ or ‘If you really want to…’ or ‘I don’t care…’ or ‘Whatever.’ Consent means you’re not having sex until your girlfriend says, ‘Oh, HELL yes!’” Here, I banged both fists on the table. My husband cringed and glanced apologetically at nearby diners.
“Mom!” the boy whispered. “Keep it down!”
(To the best of my knowledge, no one asked to have what I was having.)
“Three,” I concluded, when Item #3 sauntered into my brain at the last possible second. “You’re ready to have sex when you’re willing to learn everything you can to make the experience as good for her as it for you.” The horrified lapsed Catholic began tabulating the number of mortal sins contained in this one impromptu speech. “And that’s why fourteen is too young and why you’ll still be too young for many years. Because most teenage boys are so interested in their own pleasure that they don’t even consider the pleasure of the girl. They have no idea how to make it good for her. All they want is to get off. And as long as that’s why someone wants to have sex, he’s still too young.”
I finished my drink, spent and terrified. What had I said? Was I right? Was he too young for all that? What had I forgotten? Too late, I realized that I had said nothing about love or commitment. Those are fuzzy terms for a 13-year-old, and if I wasn’t going to give him an age, I had to be as concrete as possible. Still, how could I have failed to mention love?
By the time dinner arrived, I was unsure whether I had just won “Most Embarrassing Parent in History,” “Least Appropriate Hudson Valley Restaurant Guest, Spring of 2014,” or just, and not for the first time, “Worst Mother Ever.”
But I’ve had a few months to think about it, and now I believe I said, miraculously, all the right things. When I told this story to a few friends at work, a long-married father of two said, “Damn! Does that mean I’m still not ready for sex?” That made me wonder, and not just about his wife. Maybe a lot of men hadn’t heard the right messages when they were young.
What made me sure, though, is thinking about my daughter. If I knew that every boy and man she will ever date had an embarrassing parent who taught him that responsibility for birth control is not just for girls, that consent must be enthusiastic or it isn’t consent, and that mutual pleasure, not just his, is the aim of any intimate encounter, then I would worry a lot less about her and her friends than I do.
It was rough question. I hope I’m ready for the next one.