Impolite Conversations: On Race, Politics, Sex, Money, and Religion

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9781476739120: Impolite Conversations: On Race, Politics, Sex, Money, and Religion

When was the last time you said everything on your mind without holding back? In this no-holds-barred discussion of America’s top hot-button issues, a journalist and a cultural anthropologist express opinions that are widely held in private—but rarely heard in public.

Everyone edits what they say. It’s a part of growing up. But what if we applied tell-it-like-it-is honesty to grown-up issues? In Impolite Conversations, two respected thinkers and writers openly discuss five “third-rail” topics—from multi-racial identities to celebrity worship to hyper-masculinity among black boys—and open the stage for honest discussions about important and timely concerns.

Organized around five subjects—Race, Politics, Sex, Money, Religion—the dialogue between Cora Daniels and John L. Jackson Jr. may surprise, provoke, affirm, or challenge you. In alternating essays, the writers use reporting, interviews, facts, and figures to back up their arguments, always staying firmly rooted in the real world. Sometimes they agree, sometimes they don’t, but they always reach their conclusions with respect for the different backgrounds they come from and the reasons they disagree.

Whether you oppose or sympathize with these two impassioned voices, you’ll end up knowing more than you did before and appreciating the candid, savvy, and often humorous ways in which they each take a stand.

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About the Author:

Cora Daniels is an award-winning journalist and the author of two books, Black Power Inc. and Ghettonation. She was a staff writer for Fortune magazine for almost a decade and currently is a contributing writer for Essence. Her work has also been published in The New York Times Magazine, Fast Company magazine, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Men’s Fitness, among others.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Impolite Conversations

CORA

Let’s pray for sexually active daughters.

“I want a freak in the morning, freak in the evening, just like me . . .”

—ADINA HOWARD, FREAK LIKE ME

A few years ago there was this Subaru commercial that was perfectly engineered to touch any parent’s heart. In the spot a father is giving his teenage daughter the keys to the car for the first time, but when he looks in the driver’s seat while giving his safety speech he is still seeing his daughter as the toddler she once was. I experience the opposite effect daily. From the moment my daughter was born I’ve been thinking about the woman she will grow up to be. Part of this future focus is that I am an obsessive planner. I surround myself with to-do lists, buy tickets months in advance, and register for things the first day possible, always. By December 1 this past year, I had already planned out my kids’ entire summer vacation, including finding and registering them for seven different weekly summer camps between the two of them. My husband thinks I’m crazy. What he doesn’t know is the constant planning I do that he can’t see. Since before my daughter could talk I have been thinking about the Talk, as in how will I talk to my daughter about sex. She’s barely started elementary school, so our sex talks have been relatively limited so far. But that hasn’t stopped me thinking. And that’s mostly not because of my obsessive planning but because I’m a woman raising a future woman.

I enjoy sex.

It is amazing to me how few women can say those three words proudly, unapologetically, void of embarrassment, or even without cushioning the admission with a little humor. Perhaps the only thing I envy about men is that it is assumed that they like to get their freak on, when for women it is still something that we are supposed to whisper. Here I am a grown woman, mother of two, still married to the boy I met in college, and writing a book dedicated to candor, and of all the personal, honest, tasteless, and impolite things I’ve written, it is those three words—I enjoy sex—that make me pause at the thought of my mom reading. And if we are keeping it real, honestly, I am not sure I would be able to write those three words so loud and proud if my father were still alive.

For the record, I think about sex, I fantasize about sex, I enjoy sex. At the playground whenever I see fellow parents sporting mommy/daddy gear and exhaustion, I think about how they have also had sex. I actually find one of the best unexpected aphrodisiacs in life is to spot a family from an ultraconservative religious sect, like Hasidic Jews or the Amish, with all their children upon children in tow. Seeing all the sex that couple is obviously having immediately shames any too-tired thoughts from my mind. In fact the only good thing that came from having to endure a presidential election race with the insufferable Mitt Romney was the bombardment of family photos of his five children and his brood of grandchildren (twenty at last count), which put my sex life into overdrive. The Romney clan is clearly doin’ it, and doin’ it, and doin’ it well.

Of course, the major flaw in my thinking is the assumption that just because you are having lots of sex doesn’t mean you are enjoying it. Most people think by enjoying it, it means the sex has to be good. I come from the school where all sex, even bad sex, at some level can offer some enjoyment if you let it. I’d rather be having bad sex than, say, go to work, ditto for cleaning my house, shuttling my kids to their endless list of playdates, soccer games, or ballet lessons. Bad sex is better than the morning commute or trying to do errands with my four-year-old in tow. Where bad sex starts to lose its appeal is when it is up against other forms of enjoyment—dinner and a movie, a girls’ night out, sleep. That’s when our minds start to wander through all the things we could be doing that would be more fun as we wait for the bad sex to end. Still, bad sex doesn’t really become bad until you’ve had great sex. In fact, that moment of great sex is the turning point. Before that moment of great sex, if given the choice—a year filled with lots of sex that’s just okay versus a year of hardly any sex, but the sex is mind-blowingly great—I’d surely have picked lots of sex. But after that great sex moment in life it is hard to go back to okay sex no matter how much you’re doin’ it.

What I have realized is that, unlike some parents, I don’t dread the day my daughter will have sex. That’s partly why dads, like the one in the Subaru commercial, constantly infantilize their daughters because they can’t bear to acknowledge their daughters’ sexuality. Instead, what I worry more about is whether my daughter will enjoy sex.

That worry doesn’t make me too popular at the playground. Much of the conversation in parenting circles is about how to prevent our kids from having sex, period. Whether the concern comes from our values and belief system or from a health and pregnancy standpoint or some combination, often the discussions focus on dangers and fears. Recently, I went to a meeting at my children’s elementary school that dealt with talking to your kids about sex, and the speaker opened the session with: “If you have children in kindergarten they are five years away from puberty.” I saw two dads bolt from the room immediately. The next forty-five minutes we were showered with various depressing statistics of the teenage pregnancy–sexual abuse–HIV/AIDS variety. Amid the fear by flurry, we learned that these days the golden rule among youth sex educators is that age ten is the new sixteen. At that I almost bolted from the room.

All those dangers and fears have merit and should not be dismissed. If you really want the lowdown on fearful statistics check out the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveys (YRBS), which have become the most reliable youth sex data. The annual surveys actually monitor all risky health behavior among the nation’s young people, which means you will find data documenting bike helmet use next to driving while drinking next to whether or not teenagers carried a weapon on school property in the last thirty days (this is actually a survey question that the government asks) next to questions of virginity or how many young people have had sexual intercourse for the first time before age thirteen. The data is gathered nationally, by state, and in some cases at the city level in chart upon chart for comparison. The prying eyes of the government aside, I don’t want to dismiss the health risks that come when young people have sex. My problem, though, is that too often that negativity is ­directed at our daughters. In a recent controversial anti-teen pregnancy campaign New York’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg went as far as plastering oversized posters of crying curly headed toddlers across the city to chastise teenage (black) girls to keep their legs shut. “Honestly Mom . . . chances are he WON’T stay with you. What happens to me?” The words of one ad lashed out on the side of a bus alongside a picture of a little black baby girl as I crossed the street with my own little black girl.

Of course, as parents we need to be teaching our girls and boys respect, responsibility, and values, all of which if we teach it right should shape their decisions of when to engage in a sexual relationship. Not educating our children about protection against STDs and pregnancy is downright irresponsible, much like driving without a license.

But as mothers we should also be teaching our daughters to enjoy sex.

It took me a long time to admit that I enjoy sex. My household was strict, and my family lived by a code of silence. It meant that uncomfortable topics just didn’t get discussed. That silence ran so deep that when I got my period for the first time I didn’t tell my mother. It meant that the next month when it returned I was shocked. I am embarrassed to say that in the pre–Internet era of my youth, my sex education was so lacking I had been under the misimpression that this period thing only happened once a year instead of every month. Only then did I tell my mother, not because I thought it was something she should know, but because I didn’t want to have to pay for the overpriced box of maxi pads each month. Even without discussion, some things were just understood that good girls didn’t do, sex being at the top of the list.

When I went off to college the one thing my dad gave me was a Bible. My husband, who unlike me was actually raised going to church every Sunday, was sent off to college with a box of condoms. We met the second day of school and finished the box by the end of the week. I enjoyed every minute of it.

To be fair to my parents, my household was not the only one—this is how we raise our daughters. When my own daughter was in the second grade a teacher cornered me one day after school to talk. It was a bit startling because my little girl is the type of student teachers typically love: smart and well-behaved. So when this teacher pulled me aside and in a hushed voice wanted to “inform” me that she thought my daughter was perhaps hanging around with the “wrong kids,” I was shocked. Apparently what alarmed this teacher was that she heard my daughter utter the word “penis” during a conversation with a boy after class. The teacher had no further information for me, no idea what the conversation was about, and wanted to stress that nothing disruptive happened during class, but . . . she still “thought I should know.” The parents of the boy also involved in the penis conversation never got pulled over for a hushed-tone talk. The thing is, I am sure this teacher thought she was doing good by pulling me aside because my child is smart and well-behaved, and, let’s face it, a girl. But we aren’t talking about when I went off to college, when good girls are sent off with Bibles and good boys are loaded up with condoms. That even today the disconnect we feel that a girl is doing something wrong by, in this case, merely uttering the word “penis,” and a boy who does the same is not, illustrates how much further most of us have to go to empowering our girls when it comes to their sexual life.

I can feel the shaking heads and hear the tsk-tsks from those who think I have gone too far in my overreacting. “Your seven-year-old was caught talking about penises in school!” Here, again, my husband too thinks I’m crazy. And I must admit, my overly reflective rational self here on the page was absent that day in the schoolyard. Instead, my daughter got the stern lecture about appropriate talk and behavior in school and how I didn’t want her ever to do anything in school that would cause her mother to be pulled aside by a teacher again. I might have also uttered, not too softly and definitely not at all rationally, something to the effect of “you will not play with that boy again!”

I still regret it.

What would Dr. Laura Berman do? I am not the daytime talk show type. I don’t really have a good reason, just that I find the whole studio audience discussion on the boring side even if there are chairs being thrown. So Oprah was never one of my habits. People would drop names in Oprah’s BFF circle like Oz or Phil or Laura, and I would have no idea who these folks were or the extent of their following. And I was fine with that. But a few years ago I was home on maternity leave with my son, getting reacquainted with daytime TV, when I caught sexpert Laura Berman on Oprah. She was spouting ­advice about talking to kids about sex that made me freeze in my ­remote control surfing tracks. The moment was when Berman ­advised the crowd to educate their teenage daughters about vibrators. Shock and awe and “oh no she didn’t” squeals spread across the ­audience. Gayle King looked so mortified that I thought her body was going to meltify, like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark, right there on my screen. Berman touted a sex survey conducted by Seventeen and O magazines that found that in our discussions with our children about sex, only 35 percent of mothers talk about pleasure. She was aghast, emphasizing the only—as in only 35 percent. Judging from the ­audience’s reaction I was surprised to hear that it was that much.

“You’re teaching [your daughters] about their own body and pleasuring themselves and taking the reins of their own sexuality so that they don’t ever have to depend on any other teenage boy to do it for them,” says Berman as she encouraged the female audience to start exploring their own routes to sexual pleasure. I haven’t heard Berman speak again since that very brief moment I had with daytime talk, but what made her stick in my mind was this: “When you are comfortable, that’s when you can really raise a sexually empowered daughter.”1

Unfortunately most of us are not really that comfortable.

Consider that about 75 percent of all women never reach orgasm from intercourse alone and as many as 10 percent of sexually active women have never climaxed under any circumstances (alone or with their partner).2 How we are raised affects the quality of our sex lives. As parents we spend our lives teaching our children. Why, then, of all the important life lessons we try to teach, do we not do more to teach our children how to love their sexual side? After all, our children will always be our children but they won’t always be children.

Of course Berman is not the first to bring up masturbation. Back in 1994 Dr. Jocelyn Elders made the mistake of saying what was on her mind. As the first black U.S. surgeon general, what was on her mind was children dying. So on the eve of the United Nations AIDS conference she argued that schoolchildren should be taught to masturbate to ward off STDs. The minute she uttered the m of masturbate she was a goner. Barely out of my parents’ house of silence, in an age before reality TV when private lives were truly private, I still remember the lightning bolt of shock from hearing a person in the public eye utter the word. Obviously I wasn’t alone. Elders was discarded by the Clinton administration so swiftly, it became a stunning example of just how fast government can actually move. Since then Elders still says the word “masturbate” a lot but doesn’t utter the word “AIDS” so much as an excuse to do it. Protection from STDs is still one of her reasons for advocating masturbation, but pleasure is also enough. More important, she hasn’t budged on the important role masturbation should play in the sexual education of our young people.

“Back then, everybody was acting like this was a word they’d never heard,” Elders told The Root in 2011—the word being, of course, masturbation. “Everybody does it, but nobody admits to it. If everybody in Congress who’d ever masturbated in their life would turn green, then we would have a green Congress. That’s true for the whole country, and other countries, too.”3

Some fifteen years after Elders made her masturbation remark in passing (it was in response to a question), the British government started dishing out her masturbation advice to teenagers. In a sexual health pamphlet created by the National Health Service in the UK titled “Pleasure,” teenagers are encouraged to exercise their right to “an orgasm a day.” The “Pleasure” pamphlet was embraced by a city in northern England and circulated by local officials to teens, parents, and youth advocates. In its words: “Health promotion experts advocate five portions of fruit and veg a day and 30 minutes’ physical activity three times a week. What about sex or masturbation twice a week?”

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