Parents of the world: Talk to your child about sex. And then decide to take it one step further and make the talk a very intentional one.
Peggy Orenstein recently wrote a piece for the New York Times entitled “When Did Porn Become Sex Ed?”, in which she explores some of the problems that arise when sex education is left out of the curriculum or done badly. While I don’t necessarily agree with the potential anti-porn bias of the piece, Orenstein’s points are well articulated and well taken: Silence is dangerous. When we don’t talk to our children about sex, we set them up to become clueless, sexually irresponsible adults engaged in risky behaviors that may harm themselves and/or others.
Conversations about bodies, pleasure, and sex — especially between kids and parents — can be scary and deeply uncomfortable. But we have no choice but to have those conversations if we want to break the cycles of violence perpetuated by sexual taboos. Here are some tips to help you along the way:
1. Own Your Discomfort
For many, if not most, families, “the talk” is uncomfortable. And for most if not all families, it is necessary. Take ownership of what makes you uncomfortable, and encourage your kid to do the same. Recognize that uncertainty is perfectly fine, you do not need to have all the answers, and discomfort can bring you into a meaningful space of learning. The topics you find the most awkward may be some of the most important to discuss — so take a deep breath, and find a way to approach those topics. You can laugh together, you can say “this is awkward,” you can come with information or bullet points prepared, or whatever works for you.
However, some conversations may just bring you past your personal boundaries. If there’s something you simply can’t address, whether because you’re too uncomfortable or because you don’t have enough information, that’s fine. Just make sure to connect your child with someone you trust to address the topic, or show them alternative resources, like the ones listed below. Similarly (and most importantly), if your child is uncomfortable or not ready, step back and respect that. We have boundaries for a reason, and they may change with time.
2. Meet Your Child Where They’re At
This does not necessarily mean waiting for them to ask the tough questions, although it might. That depends on their personality and needs. Some people ask for the information and resources they want; others need a space to be opened up for them. This is where trust and communication come into play, particularly because when it comes to sex and sexuality, you cannot assume you know what your child does or doesn’t want. They might not even be sure, themselves.
Ask them if they’re ready to talk – about reproduction, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, sexual pleasure, safer sex, consent and communication, or whatever else you are trying to address. Be prepared for them to say yes or no, and be prepared for them to respond emotionally — with laughter, anger, confusion, etc. You can express your own emotions too, but demonstrate that you are perfectly serious about wanting to speak openly and honestly with them. And of course, make it clear that you are always available when and if they want to continue the conversation. Sex educator Reid Mihalko’s “Difficult Conversation Formula” is one of my favorite resources, and it can certainly be useful in these moments.
3. Pleasure Matters
Don’t discount the power of pleasure — and curiosity — as typical, healthy catalysts to sexual activity. If your child wants to engage in sexual activity, their reasons for doing that and their approach to it may not always align with your own. So when you talk about that sexual activity, don’t just talk about safer sex methods; also talk about pleasure. Acknowledging pleasure, and learning about how to own it, will lead them to a more empowering sexual and/or romantic life.
More enjoyable sex often means healthier and safer sex, anyway! Lube can make sexual activity easier and more fun as well as less risky. Masturbation is a healthy expression of sexuality with no risks attached, and also helps people figure out what they like so that they can have better sex with other people. Communication is another great example: if you teach your child how to communicate effectively, they will be able to negotiate protection and also to have the sex they want in the ways they want.
4. Emphasize Choice
As long as you’re teaching communication, which you must, have a discussion about the necessity for enthusiastic consent. Your child needs to know that whether or not they engage sexually, and how, is a choice for them and their partners. That means teaching them that they hold the power of choice, and so do their partners. Your child, and your child’s potential partners, must ask for what they want, must be able to say yes or no, must be able to change that answer, and so on. They may not want to engage at all, now or ever, but because our society fixates on sex, this discussion is mandatory. Acknowledge asexuality as an identity with a spectrum, acknowledge abstinence as a valid choice, and acknowledge that what we’re taught is “normal” or “correct” is very rarely someone’s exact experience with sexual development and sexual activity. For these and other reasons, make sure your child knows about the power of yes, the power of no, and the power of asking.
5. Provide Resources
Have resources available that you can offer to your child, especially for the tough topics that you aren’t sure how to talk about or that they may not want to hear about from you. The Internet (porn or not) can offer them plenty of sex education! My favorite resources include sex educator Laci Green, Scarleteen, Bedsider, the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health, and of course the wealth of information available right here at HelloFlo!
Talking about sex is admittedly not the easiest thing to do, for either side of the conversation, but the ability to start the conversation in a safe place is well worth it. What do you wish your parents had said to you about sex? Tell us in the comments!