Among other lovely holiday treats, I started reading again. Oh yes, I’ve been reading all along of course, but I had tilted my reading far too much towards blogs and it had been some time since I’d picked up a good book. So, in typical style, I picked up one good book and remembered how delightful they are and picked up another three…or eight…
I’ll be talking more about these delights over time, but for today I want to dive into a discussion started by the first chapter in Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe by John Boswell which is called “The Vocabulary of Love and Marriage.”
Now, while the majority of this chapter is a relatively arcane conversation about the difficulties inherent in translating words referring to human relationships between cultures, the first page includes this fabulous nugget:
“Most English speakers will feel the can recognize, intuitively, distinctions among feelings that might be characterized loosely as “erotic,” “friendly,” “fraternal,” or “paternal.” In actual fact, however, such feelings are often confused both by the subject who experiences them and the person to whom they are directed, resulting in not only romantic disappointment and misunderstandings between friends but also guilty feelings about incestuous desire or a failure to recognize abusive relationships between parents and children.
Most such feelings – although profound, urgent, and ubiquitous – are difficult to specify, not only because language is a frail medium for powerful and overwhelming emotions but also because the feelings themselves are often jumbled, shifting, and imprecise, to such an extent that many languages fail to make distinctions that English speakers consider essential…”
There are two points here that I consider really essential to the conversation. First, the acknowledgement that there are different kinds of love. Second, that these different kinds of love can be so difficult to tell apart that other languages, particularly historical in Boswell’s conversation anyway, decline to distinguish between them clearly or at all.
These two points raise the bar and point out the urgency of truly high quality sexuality education as far as I’m concerned. Leaving young people to muddle through the emotional and linguistic mess that human loving, romantic, and sexual relationships create is a vast unfairness to them and indicates a distinctly purposeful ignorance on our part. As adults who have (often) muddled through much of these hurdles with either only our friends or (God forbid!) only ourselves to consult, we know it is a hard row to how. Nevertheless, even very good sexuality education programs and very good, very open parents sometimes fail to include a conversation on how to figure out what kind of relationship you or another person is interested in pursuing.
But this is the essential nugget that sexuality education (and parents who do it themselves!) MUST include! Yes, everyone needs to know how and when to use condoms. Yes, everyone should know how pregnancies happen and where and when to get tested for STDs. These are the very basic facts of sexuality education. But guidance, apprenticeship, and lessons in social skills and learning to understand other people’s confusing and non-verbal signals are also basic parts of sexuality education. Learning to look inward and examine one’s own actions and words and choices and how to change them when need be are basic parts of sexuality education.
All of this is hard to know how to do, especially when it was never done properly for you! As a parent, it can be scary to to step up to the personal emotional work that this kind of education for your own children requires of you, because then they will be more skilled at pointing out your communication inadequacies and internal inconsistencies. As a teacher, it’s scary to work with your students in this way because the reaction of their parents can be unexpected – either highly positive or highly negative – and your attachment to the students often becomes deeper and ties you closer than you might feel comfortable being with an ever-changing population of young people.
This kind of deep inter-personal education also takes time. It takes more time than I often feel like I have with students in a one-semester chunk of time. In fact, it generally takes a lifetime.
I provide what support and apprenticeship in understanding relationships that I can in the short periods of time that I have with my students, and I am beginning to more explicitly do this work with my children as they reach into appropriate ages. So I know the difficulties of this explicit education on love and friendship well, both from the perspective of a teacher and of a parent. But I am absolutely certain of the need for it from the parents, because as a teacher I can easily separate the students whose parents took the time and energy to talk about the difference between love and marriage, how to acknowledge the subtlety of desire, and how to begin to navigate those deep paths.
This is actually the root of why my favorite work is with parents rather than children, teenagers, or young adults. It is the parents who have the time (over many years!) to give their children the education they need, while when I have a paltry 32 hours over 16 weeks, I worry I have only a fighting chance of making a difference 16 months, much less 16 years, in the future.