Sexing Up Your Dictionary

I recently confessed to a bunch of people that I'm a total nerd.

"Pray tell, Los Angelista, how nerdy?" you ask.

Weell... I once read the entire dictionary cover-to-cover.

That kind of nerd.

Dictionary reading began because I had a tiff with a middle school teacher and she sentenced me to detention - the only detention I ever had in my entire academic career. My punishment during detention was copying a page out of the dictionary.

I wanted to copy the page with the word "bitch" on it in the hopes that my teacher would get the message that that's what I thought she was, but this was Catholic school in the early '80s. The dictionary didn't include such words. It didn't even define anatomically correct words like penis and vagina. I know because I checked. That's the sort of stuff you try to look up when you're in 7th or 8th grade and you've never seen either word in print.

These days finding the word "bitch" in a school dictionary would be considered tame. A school district out in Riverside County, CA has pulled all the copies of the Merriam Webster Collegiate dictionary off the shelves because they include LOTS of bleepable words... and, ahem, the term "oral sex".

Just think... your fourth or fifth grade kid sees "oral sex" in the dictionary and then reads the definition in the above image - that's a screenshot of the online Merriam Webster dictionary. That's what's in the dictionaries that were in the elementary classrooms.

Would you be upset about that phrase and definition being in the dictionary? Would you ask the school district to pull all the dictionaries? Or would you just be happy your kid knows how to actually use a dictionary?

Pretty much everyone I've asked about this today says they think the parent is dumb and overreacting. I don't know about that. Maybe she just doesn't want her 10 year-old reading what cunnilingus is - and if you look that up in the dictionary... well, even my adult self was blushing a little at that definition.

What strikes me in this case about the dictionary -other than it seeming a little strange to buy a college level dictionary for an elementary classroom - is that on a deeper level it's not just about what words are or are not defined in the dictionary. It seems like it's more about who or what educates our kids about sexuality, and who decides at what point certain terms or sexual concepts become age appropriate.

I've read some of the comments on other blogs and sites, and the mom who found the term and asked for the dictionaries to be pulled has been called everything from a prude to an overbearing parent. She's been accused of promoting a right wing agenda and thinking her kids are never going to have oral sex, ever. She's sheltering her kids and not keeping an open mind about things. The school officials are being accused of censorship and misplaced priorities.

I'm under no allusions about the sorts of euphemisms for oral sex that come out of some fifth grader's mouths these days, so there's a part of me that says, yep, I'd rather my kid read an appropriate definition instead of the usual slang that gets tossed around. However, it seems like this parent is simply trying to protect her kid's sexual innocence in a culture that's constantly trying to strip it away. Does a fourth or fifth grader need to know what oral sex is? Is it because we assume they're all doing it at that age? And if they are, doesn't that seem wrong that children are engaging in mature adult sexual behavior?

The reality is I have to have the conversation with my sons about stuff like oral sex sooner rather than later because I don't want the first time they hear the term to be on the playground with some boy describing how awesome it was. Yet something inside me recoils at the idea of talking to a 10 or 11 year-old about it.

I didn't know what oral sex was till I was in high school. It was quite the revelation to realize what certain teenagers were doing in their cars at lunch or in the back row of the bus. Oh, and of course there was the lovely conversation where I had to have it spelled out to me in graphic detail exactly how a girl I knew got gonorrhea of the throat.

Of course, it's not 1984 anymore. Nowadays 11 year-old fifth graders get pregnant and have babies.

What will I tell my son about oral sex when the time comes? I'll tell him it's something he might start to hear kids in school talking about or he might hear boys bragging that they're doing it. There may be girls (or boys) that offer it to him - and those kids might not think it's sex, but it is. We'll talk about emotions and controlling your impulses and that the point isn't to act like either a wild animal or a prude but to instead learn that there's a time and a place for everything.

We'll talk about sex being a good thing if it's done in the right context. We'll talk about how sex is essentially a physical manifestation of a spiritual connection between two people. And because I'm super practical, I'll tell him not to do it because I don't want him getting accused of statutory rape. I'll tell him not to do it because I don't want him getting incurable diseases like herpes or HIV.

In the meantime I kinda doubt the teacher even knew oral sex was in the dictionary. The last thing any teacher wants is for kids to be stumble across "oral sex" whole looking up something like "ormolu".

I can hear some snarky fifth grade boys now. "Mrs. Los Angelista? What's this word in my dictionary? Can you explain the definition?"

Yeah, I hope the school district officials put their critical thinking caps on before buying elementary age children replacement dictionaries. Maybe next time they should skip the college level reference materials and get something more age appropriate.


Rosita said…
Great insight. I am in agreement, college level dictionaries are not appropriate for elementary school classrooms. I think it was brave of the mother to speak up. If her child was in high school, I might question it, but in elementary...I think she did the right thing.

I too am feeling a bit uncomfortable about how soon I will have to start talking to my boys about sex and all that goes with it. I will do it, because like you I would rather they hear it from me first.
Liz Dwyer said…
My gut is that she did the right thing, too. I always worry that my kids are going to hear these kinds of terms way before I think they're going to... and by the time I bring it up it'll be too late.
Sandra said…
I think the child knew about the term oral sex and wanted to look it up in the dictionary.
Liz Dwyer said…
I think I read that the parent was volunteering and came across the term while leafing thru the dictionary... so maybe SHE was the one who wanted to learn about oral sex! ;)

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