Oh God, Mom's Talking About Sex Again
Updated: Feb 15, 2022
Elle Stanger’s approach to parenting, sex work, and sex education
(This article was originally written in 12/09/2021)
Elle was waiting at the bus stop with her little sister and their friend from school when she first learned there was something wrong with sex. Her friend wanted to know what the word masturbation meant so Elle told her. She really wasn’t sure what masturbating was, but she liked to think of herself as the group’s main expert on these things, so she just sort of guessed, “It’s kind of like having sex… with yourself,” which she later learned was a very lucky guess. She’s had a knack for openly explaining things about sex… since before she really knew what she was talking about. “I didn't know because nobody had ever explained it to me,” she says, “I just knew that I myself had been masturbating and self pleasuring since I was really little.”
“Ew!” Elle’s sister said.
Her friend said, “Ew that’s so gross!”
So Elle agreed, that yes, of course, it was SO gross.
Elle says she’s sure they were probably all masturbating at that point, but, “that’s what shame’ll do to you.” When she looks back on this moment now, though, her shame seems to be around going along with the others, and not being a fierce 10 year old advocate of confidence and liberation. Maybe her own daughter will be such a child. Elle thinks a lot of people become shameful around sex because of the messages they get from their parents, and they don’t necessarily grow out of this as adults. She keeps her own messaging in mind, whether she’s interacting with her kid, or with a customer at the stripclub she works at. If her kid has her hand in her pants in the grocery store, she doesn’t want to shame her for not knowing the rules. She’ll tell her, “Oh, that’s actually not what we do in here. That is for private time, another time. Now, let’s go wash our hands.” If a customer pulls their dick out in the lap dance room, she says, her reaction is not much different.
Lucinda Holt is the Director of Communications and Development at Answer, a national sex ed organization run out of Rutgers University. Lucinda says that many adults don’t realize that they’re always sending young people messages about sex, whether they know it or not.“When you choose clothes for your children, when you decorate their room, when you buy them toys, when they touch themselves and you say don’t do that [and] you kind of freak out, you’re sending such a clear message.” When people shy away from conversations and use weird or cutesy names for genitals, like “peepee,” she says, the message it sends is that this topic is so unspeakable, we won’t even talk about it.
Part of why Lucinda was excited to start working for Answer was because of her own experience growing up in Texas, where she had no sex ed, and the culture she experienced was “on the shame-y side.” She doesn’t want her daughter or anyone else growing up feeling shame around their bodies or afraid to ask questions, so she wants to make sure adults are ready to answer those questions when they come up. She hears from some people whose parents waited to talk to them about sex until they were 16 or until they were heading off to college. At that point, she says, kids feel like, “Why are you talking to me about that? You said it wasn’t something we could talk about.”
It was kind of like that for Elle when her parents found out she was having sex as a teenager. Her boyfriend was older than she was—she was 14 and he was 17—but they’d been dating for several years, and Elle says it was her own decision to start having sex. Her parents were so focused on what they saw as her being taken advantage of, that they never got around to talking about the real problems she was facing—the kids at school grabbing at her, harassing her, and writing awful things about her on bathroom walls. “I was living in fear in some other ways,” she says, “and that was the stuff I couldn’t talk to them about.”
Elle’s parents did try their best to educate her about sex, though. For one thing, they got her that book. You might’ve gotten something like it, yourself. Lucinda did. Lucinda says hers was a little, pink book from Planned Parenthood called something like You and Puberty. She got it along with a Tampax brochure about getting your period that she estimates was from around 1965, “I was like, ‘How old is this thing??’” Her mom wasn’t great at having the conversations, so she gave her books and brochures instead. Lucinda wasn’t particularly enamored with them. Elle, on the other hand, loved the book her parents gave her. She read it cover to cover. She was fascinated with sex.
When she grew up and started working at porn shops, she basically did the same thing. She investigated every corner of the shops she worked at, reading all the books, checking out the toys, and looking through the DVDs. But she noticed that the people coming into the shop weren’t always as comfortable. She had countless very awkward interactions with people who had made it into the sex shop, but were unable to talk to her about what they had come in looking for. She remembers helping out one customer who needed to buy underwear for his girlfriend. When Elle asked about her measurements, he started to get very uncomfortable, and it quickly became apparent that he was looking for underwear for himself. He just couldn’t tell her that.
Even in the stripclubs she’s worked at, the stigma around sex can be strong. Strippers sometimes look down on other sex workers for doing “full service” (having sex with clients). One of the dancers Elle looked up to and learned a lot from when she was new was especially “whore-phobic.” She’d play this joke on customers when they asked her if she did full service, and send them to the bouncer, saying, “He’ll arrange it for you.” Then she could watch the bouncer kick them out. After seeing that happen a few times, Elle started feeling uncomfortable. She was new to this world and she wasn’t sure what was normal, but it didn’t feel good to inflict that sort of punishment on people.
Elle says there are lots of strippers who do full service, but they won’t admit it when other strippers are putting it down. Again, that’s just what shame will do to you. But nowadays Elle intervenes. She’s done full service herself, she says it’s hard work and the people doing it deserve respect. Sex workers are on the front lines of dealing with people’s sexual shame and/or entitlement, as well as their ignorance around consent and boundaries; this is especially true for full service and other in-person, high contact sex workers. Sex workers also have a unique perspective on what people still need to learn.
Juliana Piccolo, a former sex worker who created Red Umbrella Babies, a sex work & parenting anthology, says she learned a lot about consent and setting her own boundaries from doing sex work as a teenager. She started working for a massage parlor when she was in high school in the late 70s. She was desperate for a job but no place seemed to be hiring—until she found a newspaper listing for a health club that was looking for masseuses. You had to be 18 to work there, so she lied about her age and applied. Right away, at her interview they told her that if she wanted to make tips, she could “do extras” like handjobs. She didn’t know what they were talking about—she remembers picturing some sort of manicure—but pretended she did and said she could do that. Later some of the other women explained it to her. Everyone made it clear from the start that it was entirely up to her whether she did the “extras,” she didn’t have to do it, she’d just make more money if she did.
The other women working at the parlor ranged in age from their mid 20s to around 40. A lot of them had a big sister kind of vibe or were even sort of maternal to Juliana. Many of them actually were parents. They understood the work and they were good about giving her hints to make the work easier and finesse difficult situations, and reminding her that she could have boundaries. Juliana says people who’ve never done sex work before tend to have the assumption that a sex worker has to do whatever a client wants. Starting out like that in a community of sex workers, one of the first things her mentors told her was that she could say no. They told her to go ahead and say no if he smelled, or if she didn’t like him. “You can say yes, then no two minutes later,” they told her, “Don’t sweat it. If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it.”
Growing up in a strict Italian family, Juliana was used to the idea that she wasn’t supposed to say no to anyone. She liked the idea of being able to say no without someone getting mad at her, or being in trouble. “The consent piece was something I wouldn’t have been aware of without older women beside me,” she says. Being a sex worker helped her to really examine and take apart what she felt was expected of her as a woman, and in turn it was easier for her to not dump those expectations on her kids, who are grown up now and know about her past sex work.
Elle’s been doing all kinds of different erotic work, since before she became a parent 8 years ago. A big part of that work has been stripping at the Lucky Devil Lounge and at various other clubs around Portland for the past 11 years. During the pandemic, Elle’s been doing more webcam, sexting, and phone sex work from home on the days she doesn’t have her daughter. Elle has two kinds of days in her life right now. A mama day and a work day. On a mama day she tries not to even answer work emails or texts if she can help it. Mama days are for playing, going for walks, baking, building obstacle courses for the dog—just mom stuff.
One day, though, Elle’s daughter came in while she was working in her home office, trying to calculate how much money she needed to pay another performer for the webcam shows they’d done. She had to look through some of their clips that were being hosted on a website plastered with porn—lots of pictures everywhere. So she told her daughter to wait on the other side of the table from her. “Just so you can’t see what I’m looking at, because it wouldn’t make sense to you, and it would probably be confusing.” Of course her daughter wanted to know what it was she was looking at, so Elle told her. “It's naked people doing sex related things.” Her daughter cocked her head, rolled her eyes, and walked around to the other side of the table. Elle imagines she was thinking, Oh God, mom’s talking about sex again.
On a work day, when her daughter is at her dad’s, Elle is multitasking like hell. If she can, she’ll try to film up to 10 short videos of things like requests of her pole dancing to different songs, which means she’s moving furniture for staging, doing her makeup, hair, and costuming, and setting up the camera for filming, and then tearing all that down. While she sets up, she’ll have her cell phone set up to be sexting, or it might ring when she’s done and she’ll grab a headset and do a phone sex call while she puts the furniture away. She also writes. She writes about being a sex worker and parenting, and she writes openly about sexuality, teaching people how to understand themselves and others with more consent and less shame. Becoming a parent has given her new perspective on these things.
If people were more educated about sex: about consent, honest communication, even about the nuts and bolts (if you will) of things like STI screening, Elle knows she would experience less violence in her work. She’d also feel more comfortable as a parent. She doesn’t worry much about her adult work having any negative impact on her kid. Her daughter doesn’t see any of that because Elle is generally able to keep her parenting and her work very separate. If her daughter did ever catch a glimpse, she says it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Plenty of kids have walked in on their parents having sex—herself included—and they turned out fine. What she does worry about is other people treating her daughter badly, because of how they have or haven’t been raised.
Lucinda says it’s important for kids to have access to information about sex that is affirming and normalizing, but this isn’t happening nearly enough—mostly because so many adults didn’t have this experience in their own childhood and now they don't have a good idea of how to talk to the kids in their lives—but without getting rid of the shame around sex, young people won’t have as much opportunity to learn the importance of safety, consent, and pleasure. That’s part of the reason why Elle recently became a certified as a sex educator by the Institute for Sexuality Education and Enlightenment, and why she writes about her work, parenting, and sexuality, and hosts a podcast with other sex workers. Not everyone is able to be as open as she is about these things, and she says a lot of that comes down to whether they have the safety and privilege to talk about it at all. Elle shares her experiences and knowledge around sex work and sex in general to make more space for everyone to have these conversations and to reduce the harm we do to ourselves and others when we’re too uncomfortable to talk about it. She doesn’t want to reflect back on her own life and feel regret over the things she was too ashamed to do or talk about, and she doesn’t want that for her daughter or anyone else.
Less shame around sex might mean people who communicate more easily and honestly, and treat each other better. The ultimate goal, says Elle, is more ethical interactions. She says the more comfortable we get communicating openly about sex, the more easily we can apply the same tools in other situations, too: purchasing something a little embarrassing at the store, dealing with someone acting weird in line at the credit union, or getting into a conflict in a bar. Besides, sex is a pretty tough subject to avoid, and not just for sex workers. In everyday moments as a parent, Elle says, sex is just going to come up. She keeps sex ed books out all around their home, which her daughter isn’t too interested in. But I’m still, they watch nature shows. They go to the dog park and see dogs humping each other. She says, “Sex is really just quite a part of the natural world.”