I was six, my brother Hunter was five. I walked up to my mom in the kitchen one Saturday morning and said, "How do babies get into the mommy's tummy?". Mom looked at me thoughtfully and said, "let's go to the library". There, we checked out a video and book set explaining the birds and the bees.
Before writing this, I couldn't have guessed why we call the iconic "sex talk" or the answer to "where do babies come from?", "the birds and the bees". Wikipedia says it's a metaphor for female and male reproductive organs. Birds lay eggs, female humans have eggs, bees pollinate flowers, male humans produce sperm that fertilize eggs. I feel like this analogy would have only further confused me as a child but, there you have the origin. It seems we've always been a little skittish when talking candidly about sex.
Birds lay eggs, female humans have eggs, bees pollinate flowers, male humans produce sperm that fertilize eggs.
Recently I watched some videos on YouTube of parents revealing and explaining the mystery of human reproduction to their kids. The kids varied in ages and prior knowledge on the topic. Some of the parents were cool and confident and some were cringe worthy. Seeing kids react to the idea of being close enough to a cootie-ridden member of the opposite sex in order to create a baby is just hilarious. Maybe this is where our squeamishness over sex really begins. We learn about it at a time when the mere mention of the opposite sex makes us rake our faces and say "yucky!". I've never personally had to explain this to a kid but I can tell from the videos that the less mortified the parent is, the more comfortable and curious the child becomes.
That Saturday, mom, Hunter and I watched the video and read the book from the library together. I remember a cute, round, cartoon, anatomically correct 'mommy' and 'daddy' who got under the covers, moved around and.... made a baby. Then all the sperm started the race for the egg, one sperm wins, the egg and the sperm merge into a little blob and then the blob grows inside the mommy until it's a baby and then the mommy goes to the hospital where the doctors take it out. My mom closed the book and said.... "Any questions?". To which Hunter and I replied, with wide eyes and pale cheeks, "nope". Mom told me then (and tons of times after) that I could always ask her any question I wanted no matter how gross or "off limits" it seemed. She promised she'd always tell me the whole truth.
I was probably nine or ten when we had a real "sex" talk and I realized that the penis actually went into the vagina during that whole "under the covers" part of the story. Mom revealed that people generally like sex and they do it for fun, not just babies. That's also when I learned the baby is supposed to come out of the vagina which TOTALLY freaked me out and most likely contributed to my teenage celibacy.
My mom was very calm, sincere and ready to answer my questions. She never acted embarrassed or annoyed and she kept her promise, because she never told me an easy lie about sex. I didn't know it at the time, but her attitude greatly contributed to my feelings about myself as a sexual human being. I felt confident and informed. I never felt like my friends who were having sex in middle school knew any more than I did. I felt like I could know about it, learn about it, talk about it without needing to do it.
My mom was very calm, sincere and ready to answer my questions. She never acted embarrassed or annoyed and she kept her promise, because she never told me an easy lie about sex.
We can't guess what we don't know so I decided this week to look up the science of human reproduction and get the whole adult story. I realized most of us only learn this stuff once or twice and at an age where words like "zygote" and "chromosome" would just fog up the essential bullet points. So, let's start from the beginning and ask the question "how does a baby get in there?".
The first thing our imaginary future parents need is an erection. When the man is aroused, the brain sends a signal in the form of dopamine all the way down the spine, through some nervous passageways and into the penis. The penis gets the signal and begins to pump blood into the shaft, causing it to stiffen. There is a cute cartoon illustrating this process.
A similar process happens in the woman's body sending increased blood flow to the vaginal walls, causing fluid to pass through them. This fluid, along with some pre-seminal fluid from the penis serves as natural lubrication in anticipation of intercourse. The fluid from the penis is different in chemical composition than semen, but there have been multiple studies claiming it's possible for it to contain sperm. Typically, it's just a clear fluid produced in the Cowper's gland (far from the testicles) and it's main function is to neutralize acid in the vagina and create a more favorable environment for reproduction. The studies suggest that if this fluid does contain sperm in certain men, wearing a condom for the entirety of your sexual encounter is the safest bet when trying to prevent pregnancy. This fluid will certainly carry HIV or any other form of STD.
Each woman is born with her full quota of follicles that contain immature eggs, some of which will mature and be released into the fallopian tubes during monthly ovulation. The fallopian tube is four inches long and is lined with tiny fronds that push the egg toward the uterus. The Journey from ovary to uterus takes approximately five or six days. If the egg is not fertilized during this time it will be flushed out during the woman's period.
So, let's say our couple has had a lovely time under the covers and the lady has reached an orgasm (because its a nice thing to do) and now our man has released a seminal fluid made up of sperm, enzymes and fructose into the woman's vagina. Up to 250 million sperm swim, with their long tales propelling them, towards the fallopian tubes. This journey takes a few hours but sperm can live inside the woman's body for 3-5 days. Most sperm don't make it to the egg, in fact, only about 200 survive the trip and only one will burrow into and fertilize the egg. At this moment, the egg and sperm form a zygote. The rest of the sperm die and are flushed out naturally while the zygote makes its way to the uterus. It grows into a cluster of cells sometimes called a "conceptus" or "blastocyst" because at this early stage its more than a fertilized egg but not quite an embryo. About three weeks after fertilization, the cluster of cells attaches itself snugly beneath the lining in the uterus and becomes an Embryo. If all goes according to plan, this embryo becomes a baby.
There are a lot of old wives tales concerning reproduction, many of which can be debunked by science. Sperm are not affected by gravity therefore all intravaginal sexual positions are equally likely to result in pregnancy. You can certainly get pregnant the first time you have sex, you are just as likely to get pregnant from having lots of sex as very little and showering after sex will not prevent pregnancy. If you have sex during your period you can still get pregnant because the sperm might still be alive inside the fallopian tube at ovulation. Bottom line, if you have sex without a form of birth control you can get pregnant.
Maybe you knew all of this already, but I certainly learned a lot this week researching the birds and the bees. If you were introduced to sex and baby making in a less comfortable way than my five year old self, please don't feel bad. If you told your kids that the stork brought them to your home, I won't judge you. I think there is wisdom in easing children and young adults into these topics. I think a lot of harm can be done when teenagers have to "figure it out" on their own, either through misinformed friends, unpleasant sexual experiences or ugly, unrealistic pornography. None of that can reveal the incredible beauty of reproduction. Our bodies are fascinating, complex, and surprising organisms that can accomplish outrageous feats. I hope that every young person I speak to about sex will chiefly know that they are wonderfully made.
Join the conversation on Facebook and share how you were told about the birds and the bees, or how you think it should be introduced to little humans and join me next time for more sex ed fails.