One day my eleven-year-old son came home from school and asked if I heard this question one of his classmates had asked him: “Are you a ‘0,’ a ‘1,’ an ‘8,’ a “10,’ or an‘11’?” Totally confused, I asked, “What does that mean?”
He explained, “A ‘0’ is a vagina, a ‘1’ is a penis, an ‘8’ is two women doing ‘you know what’ together, a ‘10’ is a man having sex with a woman, and an ‘11’ is two men…”
Kids have a knack for coming up with new ways to talk about sex, and it’s very helpful for them if they can share with you, as they test the waters of their budding sexual development. While you’ll probably need them to decode some of their configurations and jargon, figuring out how to respond and the implications of their humor is where your guidance is especially needed. By establishing a relationship that assures your kids that there are no unacceptable questions they’ll be more than likely to invite you inside their ever-changing world of sexual signals and signs. Once we are familiar with the vocabulary, we can start to connect these snippets of conversation to our larger, ongoing conversation of our values and sexuality.
Don’t freak out if your child comes home with a question like this one. Instead, you can encourage and deepen conversation by gently asking, “What do you think this means?” or “How would you feel if you were stumped by this joke?” Such open-ended questions allow your children to get comfortable with sexuality and express how they feel about their own “sex joke,” and they will more likely allow you to help them make sense of their stance.
Kids find everything related to sex to be either funny or gross. Middle school kids and even those younger giggle with their friends in the schoolyard about “doing It,” whatever the mysterious “It” may be; and don’t even get them started with the words “penis” and “vagina”—those are beyond hilarious. We would be fooling ourselves if we thought that people grow out of finding sex humorous: many media, from television sitcoms to humor columns in the newspaper depend on sexual material as a reliable source to make people laugh. Whether it’s a reference to strange animal sexual behaviors or a quip about a celebrity’s sexual escapades, we all seem to be fascinated and anxiously titillated by sex.
Is it wrong or immature to find sex humorous? Yes and no. Sigmund Freud viewed humor as a mature defense, one employed to alleviate tension and to deal effectively with this important and uncomfortable topic. Yet humor about sex can also be used to denigrate or dismiss a person and their beliefs and/or behavior, or to cover up ignorance and discomfort. It’s important to help kids recognize when humor is a legitimate way of communicating about sex and to be sensitive that what they may find humorous may be offensive or abusive to others.
The distinction of transactional analysis—distinguishing between your “intention” and your “impact” is a valuable device to help your kids distinguish appropriate sexual humor. They need to learn that if their intention is to be funny, the impact should be positive humor and not hurtful or disturbing. Being able to use humor as a tool to help your child feel comfortable talking with you is a vital skill to learn and can also be an entre to defuse awkwardness and anxiety.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.com and www.sexualproblems.com.