So we were in the drugstore in Centraal Station in Amsterdam, hunting down a decongestant for my mother. (She picked up a cold on the flight here*.) My father was discussing over the counter chemistry with a shop assistant whose English was more than adequate, so I went looking for the third member of our party: my daughter, not yet seven.
I found her standing in front of a wall full of sex toys, all brightly colored and substantially anatomical in design†. She regarded the display with anthropological interest.
“What are these, Mom?”
“They’re called vibrators.‡”
“What are they for?”
“They’re a grownup thing. It’s about sex. Do you want to know more?”
“OK. Ask me when you do and I’ll explain further.”
We moved on; there was Christmas shopping to do. Later, over hot chocolate in a café, I mentioned the conversation to my father, and she piped up to say that now she did want to know more. What were they? Had I ever used one? How were they used, and why?
I talked a little about how vibrators made people’s bodies feel good, and how people used them as part of sex sometimes. That led onto a little bit about how sex made people’s bodies feel good. And then we fell to talking about how her body wasn’t yet at the stage to get into sex, and how it would change sometime in the future. I listed the external changes, and said that as that went on there would be internal changes too. After that, I said, things like sex and kissing would be more interesting to her.
“But I like kissing!” she objected. “I like kissing you, and I like it when you kiss me!” “I know, and I like kissing you,” I responded, “but later you’ll find out that there are more kinds of kissing than just between a mom and her kid.”
I think I managed the whole exchange fairly well, on balance. I wasn’t embarrassed or awkward, not past the first moment of vertigo when I realized what she was looking at. She’s not actually interested in sex right now; she’s interested in why everyone else is interested in it.
“Welcome to Holland!” tweeted a Dutch friend when I talked about the drugstore display on Twitter. But, sex toys aside, this is not far off how I was raised myself. The difference is primarily that my upbringing was countercultural where I was. Here, it’s one form of normal.
* and lost her luggage in the snowpocalypse. Not a good trade.
† This is a drugstore in a train station, the sort of place one gets bandages and hair accessories. The more creative items are sold in specialty shops.
‡ An over-generalization, I confess; I did not check if they all vibrated.