What is “Sexy”?

The other day, my daughter Cindy (7) used the word “sexy”.  Initially I laughed because of how she was using it.  Then I realized I have never defined this word for her and yet here she was deriving a definition somehow.  I asked her,

Me: “Baby, what does sexy mean?”

Cindy: “Sexy is when two people kiss three times without taking their lips apart.”

Me: *giggle* “That’s pretty good…”

Cindy, interrupting to offer more: “It’s also when a woman walks like this” and then she demonstrated a smooth, cat-like, slow strut with her eyes looking downward, her hands and arms plastered to her sides but her shoulders and hips swaying forward and back as she walked.  It was exaggerated and comical to see a 7-year old do it but the impression was dead on – She was Jessica Rabbit from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (btw, Cindy has never seen this movie or Jessica Rabbit, in fact when she saw this blog and picture on my computer screen she asked “Who is that?”)

This interaction illustrates the simple fact that kids come up with their own definitions and meanings to words based on what they see/hear/experience – even if you don’t help them. It’s something I’ve known for a while now: Kids know more about lots of things than we are willing to admit to ourselves.  A friend of mine had a similar conversation recently with her daughter about the word sexy.  The daughter asked mom, “what does sexy mean” and the mom was caught a bit off guard and unsure of what to say.  Her definition was corrected by her son (!) and mom had to clarify what she meant the first time.

Hearing my friend’s story made the sexologist in me to want to check all of my sex books to see if there WAS a definition for sexy and what it was.  In a quick glance through my own personal library I found only one book that had a glossary of terms that included the word “sexy”.  It was in Roger Libby’s book Sex from Ahh to Zipper.  The book is a fun book of terms but it is not a serious dictionary.  The definition reads as follows:

Sexy: A stunningly arousing look which causes shortness of breath, pupil dilation, and genital engorgement.  Accentuated by revealing clothing, tantalizing eyes, and facial expressions that lead to flirtatious propositions and steamed windows.  A sexy person exudes sexual desire.  Also, the bait for sex.  A less controversial word than sex itself, but the end result is often the same.  It takes a little sex appeal to attract lovers.  See Desire and Sexist.

Searching other sources for definitions I tried Urbandictionary.com.  They have pages and pages of variations of “sexy” submitted by any individual user who is so moved to submit a definition.  Their definitions are mostly characterized as defining sexy as how a person looks and nothing to do with the physiological response to seeing something arousing. Interestingly, very few of the definitions define sexy as a feeling or something that evokes feelings.  I begin to wonder if  this is because we don’t teach that there are feelings and emotions to sex — You know, the old saying “it’s better to look good than to feel good”?…

Another source,  Dictionary.com, cites from Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition a definition for sexy as follows:

sexy  (ˈsÉ›ksɪ) [Click for IPA pronunciation guide]
‘ adj  , sexier sexiest
1. provoking or intended to provoke sexual interest: a sexy dressa sexy book
2. feeling sexual interest; aroused
3. interesting, exciting, or trendy: a sexy project a sexy newcar

All of this makes me wonder:  Have you given this word much thought?  If you have, how would you define it if your child asked?

So how do we start talking about these words?  Probably one of the easiest ways to talk to your kids about sex related topics is to ask them what they already know.  Unless we have them living under a rock, chances are our kids have encountered sex talk, a sexual innuendo, or something implying sex via a TV show, or movie, or billboard, or magazine at the grocery check out, or news segment, or been told at school, or overheard adults talk when the adults didn’t think anyone was listening, yada yada yada…

I know my daughters have seen and heard plenty outside my home (I clarify “outside my home” because I give them context in conversations inside my home).  The outside influences working on our children about these topics can be overwhelming.  But take a deep breath and understand this is all the more reason to take the time to check in with them about these things when you hear and see and encounter them together.  Our children are already making up definitions for lots of stuff.  Asking them about what they know already gives you the chance to correct misinformation.

EXAMPLE:  Let’s say your kid is a 3rd, 4th, or 5th grader.  Let’s say they have just heard the good old “The man pees inside the woman” urban myth elementary school kids share with each other.  It’s ok to correct that info at whatever age they repeat it by gently explaining something like, “Actually that’s not correct. Semen and seminal fluid comes out of a man’s penis during sex.”  Of course your child’s follow up could be a line of questions or nothing at all.  My general rule:  answer the question and ONLY the question as simply as possible. Then let the child drive the next question if there is one.

Kids are hearing more outside the home than we can ever know for sure.  Ask your kids.  And make sure when you ask you really listen and speak using an open, nonjudgemental tone.  If your kids sense you are not willing to hear them, they will clam up and not continue to talk freely.  That clamming up behavior is no different than what we adults do: if we sense someone was judging us for what we share, we’d be less likely to share, right?  Kids are the same way.  Just listen to what your children say with love, not fear.

So many times you hear conservatives or sex-negative people preach that talking to kids about sex/uality is “spoiling children’s innocence.”   Even if we look at THAT word there is a whole heap of nastiness: Innocence is a term used to indicate a lack of guilt, with respect to any kind of crime, sin, or wrongdoing. No wonder we have such a hard time addressing this issue: Lots of adults associate sex/uality with bad things.  I disagree wholeheartedly.  Sex can be a beautiful thing when shared with loving partner.  Can anyone argue that?

I really do understand the anxiety that could be creeping in just thinking about this topic and children.  Just know your kids WANT to hear from you, their trusted source.  They want to hear from you about what terms mean. They want to hear about the values YOU have and eventually they will want to hear about the decisions YOU made while growing up and how you felt about them.  But before we get there, let’s take a deep breath and start talking. It’s not too late to start talking openly and honestly with your children. There is no need to be fearful of these conversations.  The honesty will benefit your children in the long run.


The MamaSutra

The MamaSutra

Mother of two girls. Holds a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) and a Certificate in Women's Studies from UW-Madison. Graduate of IASHS as Master of Human Sexuality. The articles you read here have goals in two main areas. 1) I strive to normalize conversations about sex and sexuality between parents and their children. To me this means helping parents accept and nurture their daughters' budding sexuality so they grow and learn to respect their bodies and accept their whole selves as they grow into strong, beautiful, powerful and healthy women. 2) Female Sexual Empowerment. Women deserve to learn about and explore the pleasure that can be felt through a full sexual life - however each of us may define that - without guilt, shame, or embarrassment.

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