Every year, I give presentations about my health classes to the parents of my students. And inevitably, every year, someone will express relief at the idea that I’ll be talking to their kids about sex so that they’ll be spared the awkwardness of doing so themselves.
At this point, I almost expect that. After all, for a lot of people, talking about sex with their kids is awkward. As my friend May said of having such conversations with her three- and eight-year-olds, “Their dad and I are nervous about it in general, so I know we’re putting it off.”
Partly, that’s because we live in a world where talking to kids about sex is presented as something nerve-wracking, uncomfortable, and even dangerous. Plus, a lot of parents didn’t talk about sex with adults when they were growing up, and so don’t have a model of how to do so.
But talking openly to your kids is one of the best ways to raise them with a positive view of sexuality – and to challenge the conventional and damaging messages so many are getting on the subject.
But what about school sex ed programs? Don’t they just take care of it?
Unfortunately, what passes for sexuality education in a lot of places is actually a fear- and shame-based abstinence-only program.
Plus, even if your children receive comprehensive sexuality education, reinforcing at home what they’re learning in school will go a lot further in helping them grow up with a healthy view of sexuality than will simply sitting in class a few times a week.
So what should you say, and where should you start? The first thing to do is to figure out what your goals are.
For example, do you want your kids to have accurate information about how their bodies work and to feel good in their skin? Do you want them to understand puberty and reproduction? To have good, pleasurable, and safe sex, now or in the future? To be able to communicate with you about sex? To be able to communicate with a partner about sex? To have healthy relationships? To understand consent? To avoid sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies? To feel comfortable and happy in their gender identity and sexual orientation?
Whatever your wishes, having a sense of them will go a long way in helping your children navigate these waters in a manner that feels true to your family.
Of course, while you might be clear about your views on certain issues, it’s also common to be at a loss about others.
So here are four things families who want to parent in a sex-positive way can keep in mind.
1. Don’t Only Make Sex About Reproduction
Most of the ways in which we talk about sex with children is in reproductive terms. From answering the “Where do babies come from?” question to having a conversation about puberty, the link between sexuality and procreation is a constant one.
But for almost all children, and for most teens, this is not the most salient aspect of sex.
Yet separating sex from reproduction can be hard to do. That’s because then you need to talk about desire, and pleasure, and as I did recently with my nine-year-old, things like oral sex. (“Eeeew,” she groaned after I gave a basic description, “That is so gross. What if someone didn’t wipe!?”)
But kids find a lot of things kind of gross and aren’t traumatized.
And explaining that many people have sex not to have babies, but because it feels nice and can forge intimacy and connection, isn’t actually all that hard to say.
Plus, you can always add that if something sounds unappealing, that’s a pretty good sign that a kid sure isn’t ready to experiment with it yet! And you can always let your kids know that they don’t ever have to do something they find unappealing and that no one should ever expect them to do something that sounds gross to them.
2. Start Conversations About Consent Early
Over the past few years, we have seen the emergence of a long overdue public discussion on consent – which is a great thing.
However, most of the focus has been on consent between teens, college students, and young adults. And while these are crucial populations to address, if we really want to nail sex positivity, we need to talk about consent long before high school – and in ways that don’t always link it to sex.
When addressing consent with young kids, you can teach them that they need to get permission to touch others by asking peers and siblings things like “Can I hug you?” or “Can I hold your hand?”
Children should also have their physical boundaries respected by adults.
Adults often think it is perfectly fine to continue to tickle or wrestle a child who is asking them to stop. But it isn’t – and it teaches kids that they don’t really have control over their bodies.
But if their limits are respected, then they can better learn how to identify when lines are belong crossed. This will also help them assert themselves now and in the future.
Kids should also be allowed to change their minds. They shouldn’t, for instance, be taught that keeping a promise is always the most moral thing to do. Enforcing this code can make children feel that they have to follow through with something they earlier agreed to, but that they have since realized isn’t a good idea, or which now makes them uncomfortable.
With older kids, explain that consent for sex can be withdrawn at any time.
Just because you told someone you would hook up with them earlier doesn’t mean you actually have to. Plus, kids and teens should know that you can stop a sexual interaction at any time, even if both people are naked and fooling around. Even in the middle of a sex act.
It also has to be clear that consent shouldn’t be wheedled or coerced, and that there are circumstances under which consent cannot freely be given – like if you’re asleep, passed out, incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, or under age.
Further, teens need to understand that being unsure about whether someone wants to have sex with you means that you don’t have consent.
Until you know for sure that someone wants to have sex, you just can’t make any assumptions. That’s true whether or not someone later tells you they do want to have sex, whether you have had sex with them before, whether they told you they wanted to have sex with you earlier, what they’re wearing, how they’re acting, and whether they’ve had sex with anyone else.
Consent can be a tricky topic, and talking about it is complicated.
If you want more tips on how to have these conversations, check out this great piece on teaching kids about consent from age 1 to 21.
3. Remember That Sex Takes Practice
Imagine if we gave sixteen-year-olds the keys to our cars and told them to go for a spin even though they had never sat behind the wheel before, let alone obtained a license.
Or consider what would happen if we plopped an eighteen-year-old down in a college calculus class without any math background and expected good grades. Or sent a high school sophomore on stage to perform a violin solo having only showed them a video of a concert at Carnegie Hall.
We don’t do those things because we know that each takes practice. As a result, it’s understood that teens who want to drive, or take calculus, or play violin should be given the space to learn how to do so before we expect any mastery of the subject.
But when it comes to sex, we deny children the ability to develop their skills, and then blame them when things don’t go well.
And while there are ways for kids to practice sex, many teens are forced to do so in secret. This can be the result of parents’ rules. But it also happens because things like looking at porn or sexting are illegal for minors.
And while such laws are ostensibly designed to protect children, particularly when it comes to sexting, they can do more harm than good.
As Dr. Peter Cumming, a professor at Toronto’s York University and the coordinator of the university’s children’s studies program has pointed out, “One could argue that in some ways, virtual sexual activities are safer for teens than actual ones: Nobody ever got pregnant or received a sexually transmitted disease directly from an online exchange.”
4. Allow High Schoolers to Have Sleepovers
For a lot of American parents, the idea of allowing a teen to have a sleepover with a boyfriend or girlfriend, let alone with a casual hook up, seems either like excessive permissiveness, or actual negligence or harm.
I know that was something my parents worried about when the issue came up for me as a teen. Ultimately, they let me stay over at my boyfriend’s, but they also made it clear that they were only doing so because they wanted to know where I was.
We all knew that they were pretty unhappy with the whole situation, and as a result, my return home the mornings after a sleepover were uncomfortable for everyone.
But in reality, permitting sleepovers with a partner can be one of the healthiest ways to keep teens safe since they are getting to learn about having sex in the security of their own homes – not drunk at a party, in the back of a car, or in a park where things often go terribly awry.
Plus, sleepovers can also teach important lessons about the healthy sexuality.
Indeed, in a New York Times article, writer Henry Alford interviewed a few parents who allow teen sleepovers and found that they felt the experience taught their children about responsibility and communication and reinforced the ideas that sexuality didn’t have to be a secret thing hidden from parents.
Sexuality is not an amorphous entity that lives separately from our children and which we need to protect them from unilaterally. Rather, it’s a part of who they are and something they’ll benefit from nurturing and developing.
But many of us live in environments where any openness about kids and sex is seen as potentially harmful. And as a result, the attempt to raise sexually healthy kids can seem like an uphill battle.
Still, that battle is worth fighting – and it’s one that can really make a lifelong difference for your kids.
As my social worker friend Jen told me, “I was really lucky in how my parents raised me because they were very open about sex and made it very easy. My mom’s approach was basically to get me an age appropriate book at various stages of my life and then leave it for me to read through on my own. She got me a copy of Our Bodies Our Selves when I was a teenager. She always told me that sex was a normal natural part of life. She made sex something that I could explore without fear or shame. But she wasn’t pushy or over-involved either. She gave us a lot of independence on the topic.”
Now Jen is trying to raise her own son with the same approach.
But even if you were raised in a household where the topic was utterly taboo, it’s never too late to send more positive messages about sex to your own kids – even if doing so seem a bit unnatural at the start.
Ellen Kate is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a health educator, sometimes writer, and mom. She has worked at Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, developed sex education curricula in Mumbai, India, and run HIV prevention programs for at-risk teens in the South Bronx. Currently, Ellen runs a middle and high school health education program and teaches human sexuality at Brooklyn College. More of Ellen’s writing can be found here. Follow her on Twitter @ellenkatef.
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