Let's talk about sex: Sam Roddick on why families must brave this tricky topic
Sam Roddick couldn't discuss sexuality with her mother, the Body Shop founder, Anita. But, she tells Lena Corner, families must brave this tricky topic
Thursday 03 June 2010
Sam Roddick picks up a Double Pleasure dildo and strokes it affectionately. "It's absolutely brilliant for finding the g-spot," she says. She is giving me a little tour of her shop, the up-market sex emporium Coco de Mer in London's Monmouth Street.
With a few deft flicks of her wrist she expertly demonstrates how to use a tickling stick, and then leads me to the changing room where she shows me a secret peek-a-boo camera for customers inclined towards taking saucy snaps. "The pictures get uploaded straight to the Coco de Mer website," she says. "You should see some of the stuff people get up to in here."
Roddick, 38, has had the shop for 10 years now and talks with absolute ease on her subject – endlessly dropping highly sexual terms and graphic descriptions into her conversation. Recently, however, she was shocked to find there is one issue that leaves her completely tongue-tied. When it comes to talking about sex with her 11-year-old daughter, Roddick is totally clueless. "As a woman, I am completely at ease with the subject of sex, sexuality and pleasure," she says. "However, as a mother I feel unprepared. I am almost at a loss; I am nervous and feel like I need guidance on how to assist my little girl through the murky waters of her discovery."
Perhaps that's not so surprising: Roddick describes her own sex education as a "travesty". At school, she says, she was shown a video of some girls meeting some boys in a playground. "It totally skirted round the issues, and it also came too late," she says. "We were 14, and most of us had sexually interacted by then." The class ended with a ritual humiliation of the poor teacher who had been elected to show it to them – no doubt a familiar tale in schools up and down the country.
It's surprising also to hear that the sex education Roddick got at home was no better. Her mother, Anita, the Body Shop founder, environmental activist and all-round women's rights campaigner, never once sat her own daughter down to talk about sex. I ask Roddick if she thought this was strange. "It was the 1980s," she says, as if by way of an excuse. Then adds, "My mum was big on HIV campaigning, she was heavily involved in a big Mates condom project. She roped me in from a very early age to debates on HIV and contraception. So in a way I was forced into the dialogue about sex, but from a completely different angle." Which is not the same thing at all.
Finally, she admits, "My mum was very salacious and naughty in conversation, but no, she didn't ever have an honest talk with me. She never sat me down and said, 'What do you know?' And I couldn't sit down with her and say, 'I've got an issue.'"
Roddick says her late grandmother, Anita's mother, never talked about sex either. "She was brought up in rural Italy and had an arranged marriage when she was 19," says Roddick. "He turned out to be a really abusive, violent man. She was actually in love with her husband's cousin, Henry, and ended up having an affair with him, the result of which was a love child – my mother." After 11 years of a deeply unhappy marriage, her grandmother managed to get a divorce and marry the love of her life.
"My grandmother may have been a huge flirt," says Roddick, "but sex to her was a complete nightmare. Her first husband used to essentially rape her, and that was why she loved Henry so much, because he never pressurised her into having sex." Tragically, Henry died of a brain haemorrhage a year into their marriage. "Same death as my mum," says Roddick.
It is perhaps partly because of her grandmother's experience that Roddick is a firm believer that the sexual path you set out on is highly formative and likely to shape you for the rest of your life. "If you start sex off bad, it's a harder road to start to try and enjoy it," she says. "If your first interaction is difficult, then you either have to learn how to rediscover pleasure or that pleasure is lost."
Which is why she believes a good sex education is so important. In search of some answers for herself and her daughter, Roddick teamed up with Brook (formerly Brook Advisory Service) a sexual health charity for the under-25s. Together they started working with groups of young people to design a course to help parents talk comfortably about sex with their children.
"We went round England interviewing lots of young people, and I was like, 'Holy Moly! Their issues aren't much different from those of half of the adults I have in my shop,'" she says. "I started to realise that actually there's only a few places where kids learn about their sexuality, and that's their friends, formal sex education and their parents. After that it's down to magazines, film and pornography. None of these seem really adequate places to learn about the truth, right?"
Roddick also discovered that most of the myths that were around when she was growing up are still going strong. Myths about penis size, she says, are still very common, and, worryingly, so too is the belief that you can't get pregnant if you sleep with someone from a different religion. There is also, she says, probably more pressure than ever before. "Pressure to lose your virginity – because keeping it for too long isn't a good look." And pressure, particularly among boys, to be seen to be having lots of sex. "Getting the right information over is a lot more complex than we give it credence," says Roddick. "We think it's enough to tell them how to put a condom on, scare them about a few diseases, and then they're off. Either they'll sink or swim."
The way she would like to see sex education done would be to have a frank and open discussion. She would widen the debate. "I would raise questions about empowerment, pleasure and all the other facets you need to be aware to make responsible, happy choices for yourself," she says. "And first and foremost they have to understand what consent is. To me that is the most important starting point."
Roddick herself was 27 when she found she was pregnant. It was an accident, she admits, but a happy accident. "Mum was great about it. She was brilliant with babies."
Shortly after her daughter was born, Roddick opened Coco de Mer. The balance between her and her mother shifted.
"By then the tables had turned. I was like, 'Mum why don't you get yourself a vibrator?' She loved Coco de Mer – really, really loved it because it's done in a completely different way and is so message-driven. Ninety-nine per cent of the sex industry doesn't talk about anything. It's not offering education, or a platform to discuss or reveal yourself. It's just pushing you to consume." In her early twenties, Roddick was an ardent prostitutes' rights activist, and she tells me how she took her mother to the annual Hooker's Ball in San Francisco. "She thought it was utterly hilarious," says Roddick. "There were prostitutes and their customers, all there together, so it was quite open, quite incredible. I think that's when we started having a more open discussion about sex, although I still never really talked to her about my own sex life."
Despite being a self-professed libertarian, there are lines Roddick believes need to be drawn. She was mortified, for example when she discovered that her daughter had been taught about paedophilia when she was just seven years old. "It just seemed so young to be teaching her about that kind of concept. Also who is governing these kind of talks, and who are the people delivering them?"
When she does think the time is right to talk to her daughter about sex, you get the sense that Roddick is going to have it all worked out. After all, the reason she embarked on the project with Brook was because she recognised that she herself needed help. And let's face it, if someone like Roddick needs help, there'll be plenty more like her.
"I think loads of parents are at a loss," she concludes. "It's interesting to think what makes this subject so uncomfortable, and I think it comes down to the fact that we've bigged it up too much. We've taken sex and made it disproportionate to the rest of our lives. We all think we're not doing it right, doing it enough, or doing it good enough. And that has left so many of us totally crippled in terms of our sexual knowledge."
Coco De Mer, 23 Monmouth St, London, WC2 Coco-de-mer.com
Sex talk: Sam's family-friendly tips
Make everyone feel comfortable about expressing themselves. Be sincere and don't laugh at misconceptions or be judgemental – that will just shut children down. Create a space where it's easy to drop in information. Introducing age-appropriate dinner-table debates, perhaps from topics in the news or on television, which can provide opportunities. That way it's not personal.
Be positive while discussing responsibility – rather than only focusing on contraception and safety. Conversations should cover the importance of feeling good about the body, self-exploration, and emotions and relationships. Sex is a function, just like eating, but what makes it feel good is pleasure – which is only felt when you feel good emotionally in yourself.
On the topic of pressure try starting conversations away from the subject of sex, discussing pressure to do well at school and to be good or responsible, or the pressure of having or not having boyfriend or girlfriend. This could lead to a conversation about sexual boundaries and reinforce that it is good "just to be you".
Rather than pushing children into completely unwanted conversations, just check in regularly with them. Most important is to create a space where you are there to listen: ultimately the aim is getting them to talk, not talking to them. If they are uncomfortable make sure, at the very least, that they know what Brook is: a reliable source where they can find information on various subjects around sex. They can access it online, through leaflets or in person at a centre.
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