Coffee and Conversation: Zucchinis + Condoms = Sexual Empowerment

Grab a cuppa and a comfy seat, and let’s chat a while. It’s time for Coffee and Conversation.

When I was six, my family was driving on a highway late at night. Streaks of headlights and taillights painted the dark. For the first time, I realized that each car held people living lives as important to them as mine was to me.

I wanted to know what those lives were, and to share my own..

How did you learn about sex? If you’re a parent, how did you approach it with your own children?

One day last summer, one of my kids asked a question about how condoms work. They were 9 and almost 12.

We’ve never had “the sex talk” with either of our children. We’ve always talked about sex in the same way we do other aspects of life, like eating, toilet learning, and safety in various situations. They’ve known the proper names for their sexual organs since they could understand language, and known “how babies are made” for almost that long. My copy of Conception, Pregnancy, and Childbirth lived on the same shelves with their own books, from the point where they were no longer likely to try to eat it or tear the pages.

When the “condom question” arose, they knew both how the mechanics of sex work, and that condoms are intended to prevent both pregnancy and disease.

When I was 13, my best friend slept over, and, during our late-night conversation, the topic of condoms, and whether our parents had any, arose.

I had very little idea what a condom was – I’d never seen one. I was all but clueless about sexuality – I had many questions, but my parents were not open about sexuality, and I didn’t dare ask them, for fear of the consequences. The double standard was a part of my life, and always had been. I was taught that “good girls” didn’t “do it” until they were married.”Protecting my virtue” was the objective, so that I would be the ultimate “good girl”, one day – a virginal bride “entitled” to wear white.

Seeing to it that I was prepared to conduct my sexual life safely and from a place of personal empowerment was not a part of the equation.

Photo by Glenn, shared with a Creative Commons license, via Flickr.


When my own children were curious about how condoms worked, decades later, my response was colored by the condom incident from my own childhood. Rather than ignore or set aside the question, we looked in the refrigerator, and found three zucchini. I brought out a package of condoms, and opened one so that they could see what it looked and smelled like, while it was still in the package.

I showed them how to apply the condom to the zucchini, and then they experimented with their own for about ten minutes. Here’s a brief list of what we talked about:

  • The purpose of condoms in pregnancy and disease prevention, and other methods of birth control.
  • The purpose of spermicides, quantity of sperm in an ejaculation, and the possibility of sperm in the pre-ejaculate, and how long sperm can live, and how only one sperm to fertilize an egg.
  • How to use the reservoir, make certain the condom is applied and removed properly, and using a fresh condom each time.
  • One of the condoms broke at the retention ring. We talked about what to do if a condom broke, and that they can fail, and that some substances or time can degrade them.
German condom ad. Photo by Jeramey Jannene, shared with Creative Commons license, via Flickr.


Once they were done exploring with the zucchini, they asked if they could use the rest of the condoms as water balloons (because they were 9 and 11!), and experimented with how much water they could get into them before they ruptured.

The experience was worth far more than the time spent in exploration, or the price of a few condoms and three zucchini. A question was asked, and, rather than brushing it aside, I answered in a way that they could understand. My daughter knows, now, what a condom looks and smells like; she’ll be harder to fool should any guy in her future attempt it. My son has some idea of how condoms work, so, when he is ready to be sexually active, he won’t need to feel clueless and fumbling on the condom front.

But it goes deeper than that.

My own mother overheard that condom late-night chat between my friend and I – and she responded by humiliating and punishing me in front of my friend. She told me that I should be ashamed of myself for even wondering about such a thing, and that I had a “dirty mind”.

After that, I knew I couldn’t come to her with questions about sexuality.

My children received a different message. They know that they can come to me with questions about sex, the same way they can come to me for help with spelling a tricky word, or ask me to take them somewhere they want to go. It goes far beyond sex- into trust, into all the different issues they’re going to face as they journey from their childhood into adulthood.

Sexual empowerment, being able to come to their parents and receive honest, open feedback, stretches beyond sex itself. It says that they can come to us, that we will give them information they need in order to make their own judgments, in many areas. It’s a matter of trust, between us.

And that is a healthy thing indeed.

This post, which was read and approved by both of my children, is my entry into the World Sexual Health Day 2014 Writing Contest. How about you? Have something to say about sexuality, or how to approach the topic with children? Condoms? Zucchini?  Learn more about the contest here!

Make yourself comfortable, and I’ll provide the refreshments – zucchini bread, anyone? ;D

Refreshments, anyone? Photo by Austroneslan Expeditions, shared with a Creative Commons license, via Flickr.


  1. It always struck me how so very similar and yet so very different our parents were when it came to sex discussions. Mine told me ALL the technical details. Mom took me to Planned Parenthood when I was old enough to ask “what should I do?”, she made sure I stepped out with a whole handful of the sample condoms (in case one kind didn’t feel right I’d have a few different kinds to fall back on… that was before I realized I had a latex allergy)…

    And yet.. when it came right down to it, I was left terrified to try sex. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with a condom (put it on? HOW?). What I knew about sex was … it made my mother cry and beg my father to stop doing…”something” to her. That it trapped women into marriages where they were beaten because they’d gotten pregnant. That it was dirty (that was mostly commentary from the grandparents), and that polite people don’t talk about it where others might hear…

    It’s sad, and it’s strange, and… well, I so hope I can talk to the Boodle about it without passing along those memories. We’ve talked about our bodies and we’ve broached the topics of intercourse (having JuJuBee going for her spaying this week certain renewed discussions about sexuality), but so far he’s not incredibly concerned with the topic. I just would like him to know he can talk with me when he wants to.

    • Do you remember the condom talk, that night when we were 13 (if not, yup, you were the friend in question). I thought you were so worldly, and then, when my mother came out and interrogated me in front of you – one of many times I wanted to be small enough to just disappear.

      The same, and so very different….

      I never saw sex as something my mother and father didn’t enjoy. You’ve seen them together enough to know why I wouldn’t think that, I’m guessing. About some things, surface things, they were open. One of us asked what a hickey was, so my dad gave my mom one to demonstrate, right by the stove in the kitchen, before we went to school one morning. But they never said why someone would want to do that to someone else…

      I remember that you had that fascinating book of Wiccan erotic massage. You brought it to school (daring girl, you were!) and we looked at it in the cafeteria. I think it’s responsible for a scene rolling around in my head the last few weeks.

      Openness and honesty seem to be the key here. Life brings opportunities for talk. Both kids here like the anonymity of long car rides in the dark; not looking directly at one another seems to allow them more freedom.

      At his age, it’s not surprising that it’s a ho-hum topic, and that many others are more interesting. Even with my older kids, it’s not a topic that comes up daily, or sometimes even weekly. I’ve just learned to be paying attention when it does, and add in a little more groundwork, against the day they’ll need more than the most basic information. At this point, we’ve covered basic mechanics, and talk more about possible consequences, consent, double standards, and are starting to explore the emotional side of readiness.

      • I do remember the talk (though mostly I remember how horrified I felt that I was there when you were being yelled at…).

        Now, reading about your parents and the affection thing… You’ve seen my parents. Outwardly affectionate they are not. Anytime Dad tried to hug Mom or kiss her it was “not now” or “stop that” or… Well, I’ve gotten more hugs from my mother since I turned 40 than I had for the four decades preceding,

        As for sex… the same very vocal (and they were quite vocal) mood ensured. Despite Mom’s words to questions asked, what seemed to happen behind the door involved force, coercion, tears and hard feelings.

        I really liked that book too. It was the first time that I could really imagine sex being happy between two people. And yes, I used the idea for a story too. And used that idea…. it works, even without all the prayers to Diana. 😉

        I’m not worried about the timing. Questions happen here and there and … well, they’ll get there.

        • I was mortified at the way she reacted. I felt so dirty and awful, and you were right there….I was used to being yelled at and humiliated, but not like that, and not when I really didn’t understand what I was talking about, and just wanted to…

          Wonder if your parents still have that book…

          • Actually, I think I still have that book. Mom went on a binge of “rebirth” in faith and got rid of a lot of her pagan and occult stuff. And I rescued a few pieces. They’re in my bedroom at my parents’ house though….

          • It would be so cool to see that book again… think we could find a cafeteria to giggle in?! =D

            Also, I think it’s inspired a scene that, at the moment, exists only in my head….

  2. My parents were chicken about direct talks, I guess. But they did leave a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves out where we could find it. Never having grown up with brothers, I left talking to our sons to my husband, and I think everyone was more comfortable that way. I don’t think any zucchini were involved, though. 🙂

    • I would have loved a well-placed book! So far, my son has been more comfortable talking with me – I’m more of a constant in his life; and he likes deep talks at hours when my husband tends to be asleep…

      But that could change, anytime.

      Hey, sometimes a zucchini or two can help, and sometimes not so much… =D

  3. I love this post! The zucchini story is SO precious, and such a beautiful way to shift to positivity after your own unfortunate, heart-wrenching experience.

    Kudos for empowering yourself and your little ones when no one was around to do so for you. The world needs more parents like you! There’s not a thing “dirty” about that brilliant mind.

    • I do better with a positive mindset…I’ve always tended to look for that silver lining (I like silver better than gold, anyway!).

      I don’t want my children to suffer because I imposed my morals on them. I don’t want them to be obedient. I want them to continue to develop their own judgement, so that they can decide what to do whether I’m with them or not. I want them to decide based on knowledge, and consideration, and intuition. I want them to know they’ll make some mistakes, as all humans do along the way, and that we will be there if the consequences are too big for them to handle on their own.

      When they hear my voice in their heads for the rest of their lives, I want it to be a supportive voice, and not a shaming or manipulative voice. I want it to make them smile and remember that they are capable of figuring things out.

      It took me a long time to understand that my sexuality wasn’t dirty, but a precious part of being born human, a part not to be wasted or belittled. I want my kids to grow into their own sexuality without the need to deal with the obstacle of shame. I want them to have the wonder, and the information they need to go into it from a place of personal strength and awareness that they aren’t the only one involved (unless their adventure is a solitary one).

      With my oldest only weeks from being a teenager, I am more and more glad that we’ve taken this approach, and that I have a spouse willing to go along with my more “radical” parenting views.

      Thanks for your lovely words, August -here, and in your spaces. You inspire me!

  4. What a great way to handle the situation. And what a great post to enter into the contest. It’s too bad we were part of a generation in which such discussions weren’t the norm. So much healthier to just get the information as part of the normal course of events, rather than have it as something portrayed as shameful.

    • I would definitely have benefited from open communication, or even free access to information. What I could have done with the internet, back then…

      By starting off with sexuality a part of life, we’ve avoided really ever needing to “introduce” it. As the kids get older, we come to natural places where their understanding increases, in much the same way they learned to walk, talk, feed themselves, read, write, count, skip, whistle, or blow bubbles.

      So far, they are both well-informed, and the lines of non-judgmental communication are open. I don’t feel a great panic as my oldest stands on the threshold of adolescence; I feel that he’s well-equipped for the decisions that lie ahead. And that he knows he’s got backup, if he needs it.

      I’ll know better how it went a few years down the road, but it definitely feels healthier right now to be able to talk about issues as they arise rather than worrying how to open and wrangle an enormous can of worms I’ve been struggling to keep closed…

      • I totally agree with you. I had to do most of my learning from books when I started “feeling something” around a guy. haha Quite a learning curve. Worse than “no information” is the cryptic stuff. “Don’t expect bells and fireworks when you get married.”

        • Oh, yes. The one that really got me was, “Let’s just say the baby gets in the same way it gets out.” Since that wasn’t really clearly explained to me, either…well, it didn’t do much to inform me of – well, anything! And there was absolutely no mention made of a penis and how it factored into the “getting there” equation.

          I remember that my sister and I looked up “puberty” in the dictionary once, in our room with the door closed, so our brothers wouldn’t hear (or, worse, our parents!). The definition included age ranges for the onset of male and female puberty. We knew what was going to happen to us, but we couldn’t begin to imagine what male puberty was!

          • I often thought it was a little odd that my sister and I (I was two years older) shared a room until I was 18 and went away to school, and we never explored that kind of thing. I guess those stupid movies in school with separate rooms for the girls and the boys didn’t make us curious enough. lol

          • The boys in our school didn’t get a movie. And our mothers were invited to sit behind us in the gym so they could see us but we had to turn around to see them.

            When your mother had the attitude mine had, that’s pretty oppressive.

            I wonder if schools still do that?!

  5. My mum was (still is) very awkward about those topics, so while she probably would have tried to answer any questions, I just generally didn’t go to her about it and instead relied on more knowledgeable friends (and in later times, Google). My partner and I don’t plan on housing kids, but we’ve always said that if we changed our minds about that for whatever reason, we’d try to be as open with them as possible.

    • My parents had strict ideas that they enforced, sometimes physically, and often in ways that induced shame. Sadly, shame was a huge tool in their parenting toolboxes, placed their by their own parents..

      I needed that cycle to end in my family, with the way I interacted with my children.

      Another thing we don’t limit (if you’re getting the idea that we don’t limit very much, around here, you’d be right!) is their access to the internet. Both have go-to sites where they feel comfortable seeking information; that might make a good future blogpost.

      I love that you and your partner have discussed elements of how you would parent, even though you don’t plan on becoming parents yourselves. In my opinion, it would be a better world if more people, parents or not, considered what effect their actions had on the children in their lives.

      And openness? From what I’ve seen, having known many children raised in many ways, it trumps secrecy and shame on just about every conceivable level, so long as the information shared is offered in a way the child can understand and is comfortable with.

  6. I had a similar experience growing up. I have tried openness and honesty with my own children but I’ll admit it hasn’t been perfect. I just try and answer their questions as honestly as I can. Well done, Mom! 🙂

    • I’m not sure that there is a perfect parent out there. Me? Nope.

      I think it’s a matter of trying, and honesty. Kids don’t expect us to be perfect. They appreciate effort.

      Sounds like you’re doing fine, too. =)

    • I would have benefited so much from that type of openness. I’m very happy we have provided that, and will, for our children. I really do think it’s vitally important to have those open lines of communication already in place by the time the children are of an age to consider becoming sexually active.

      They’re now 10 and nearly 13, I’m glad we have those lines in place.

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