Most parents I speak with want to do the right thing by their kids but when it comes to talking about sex, they can be plagued by doubt and lack confidence in what they are saying and how they are saying it. This often leads to a delay in talking about the topic or complete avoidance. It’s understandable and not surprising that so many people feel uncomfortable talking about sex. We grow up with a barrage of conflicting messages about sex – most of which tell us that it's embarrassing at least and scary at worst. People and institutions hold strong opinions about when you should do it, with who and even how. Sometimes, people’s sexual behaviours are used as a source of judgement about their overall character so people are often burdened with guilt and shame about their completely natural sexuality. When we consider all of that and then ask you to talk to your kids about it, well, I understand your hesitancy.
Before you sit down and make your children wildly uncomfortable, I’m going to ask you to do one thing first. Pause and think about the messages that you received about sex growing up. Think about how they affected you. Ask yourself what shame, guilt or discomfort you carry about sex if any, and check in with yourself about your feelings towards topics such as homosexuality, same sex relationships, what you think is an appropriate age to have sex, how sex is different for boys and girls and lastly how you feel about the idea of your own child having sex. Do you hold fear for them in relationship to sex? If so, what about? I ask you to think about these things because much of this will likely dictate what you say. For example, if you hold fear they will be taken advantage of then much of the information you will give will be about keeping themselves safe. Unfortunately, the message that comes across when we do that is that sex is scary and something you need to protect yourself from. This can make it hard for young people to form a positive relationship with sex and their own naturally growing sexuality and interest in sex.
So what is the message that you want give about sex? In short the overall feeling that your young person should be left with is that sex is a natural, exciting and mostly positive experience that young adults are naturally drawn to as their sexuality develops. They should know that you know it is normal to want to explore that. The conversation should also recognise that there are responsibilities that come with sexual exploration and sex. The discussion should incorporate information about each person’s responsibilities in a sexual relationship and at some point include details about sexual heath check-ups, safer sex and contraception. This approach is called a sex positive approach and is a research based approach shown to increase a young person’s ability to make responsible decisions about their sexual relationships, feel good about their decisions and engage in better help seeking behaviours when necessary.
It is of course, ok and encouraged to talk about your own values around sex in this discussion. These may be cultural, religious or personal and should be shared as YOUR values. Not the rules. Encourage your children to think about their own values around sex and relationships, keep in mind, these may or may not be the same as yours and that’s ok. Sexual relationships that leave people feeling good about themselves, rather than bad, are relationships that line up with our own values. When we behave in ways that are not in line with our values we may be left feeling ashamed and with shame comes secrecy and people feeling shame about their actions are far less likely to seek help. This is problematic. The goals of comprehensive sex education is to build capacity in young people to make positive decisions for themselves about their sexual relationships and to take responsibility for their own sexual health and wellness whilst being respectful and considerate of the same in others.
So what do conversations (yes more than one) like this, look like? Here are some key points:
A growing curiosity and interest in sex is a normal part of human development. We all know this but we often act as though it isn’t. While it is not necessary or recommended to talk about your sex life with your children (they really don’t want to know) they shouldn’t be hearing you talk about sex for the first time ever, with them.
You don’t need to talk about sex all the time but don’t avoid it like the plague either. Rather than immediately turning off sexy scenes in movies, make a joke about how awkward it is. Don’t take it so seriously.
TV can also be a great way to start conversations about consent. MAFS, The Bachelor, Love Island are all rife with opportunities to discuss respectful relationships and consent in a context that is slightly depersonalised from them.
Don’t assume heterosexuality
Keep he’s and she’s to a minimum when referring to a potential partner or relationship. Your child may be questioning their sexuality and you want to provide a space for them to do so. Assuming the person, they are or will be interested in is of the opposite gender, can unknowingly make them feel shame for not meeting up to your expectations. Also don’t assume all sex involves a penis and vagina.
Always always always talk about consent
Sex isn’t something that someone does to someone else. Consent is not a box that needs to be ticked by one person to do a thing to another. It’s not a matter of getting a ‘yes’ before you proceed or assuming that not getting a ‘no’ is a green light.
Consent, in this context should be spoken about as an agreement between people who want to take part in sexual activities together. Consent is an evolving interaction, a conversation and a constant communication. Consent is well remembered using a FRIES analogy.
Consent is: Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic and Specific. Good sex is always with someone else who really wants to have sex with you.
Talk about pleasure
When I was teaching sex-ed in primary schools the question “what does sex feel like” was always in the question box. My answer, “Sex should feel good for all the people involved” Insert giggles. Please don’t shy away from this point. It is so important. Research shows that when conversations about pleasure are included in a young person’s sex –education, (especially girls) they are more likely to make better choices about their overall sexual health and wellbeing and less likely to express regret about sex. So – let them know. Sex should feel good. Great even. Conversations about pleasure are largely ignored in schools, so don’t skip them at home. Unless young people, girls in particular, know that sex should feel good, more so that it is important it feels good, they will be more willing to accept sexual interactions that are uncomfortable, painful or even shameful. Likewise, as the focus in pornography and mainstream culture has almost always been on male pleasure – it is important for young men to know sex is not just about them.
Avoid Gender Stereotypes and Myths
Beware of messaging or comments that assume girls are one way and boys are another. Comments such as “You know what boys are like” and “Girls get attached so easily” are loaded with assumptions based on gender stereotypes which at best are inaccurate and at worst dangerous. Stereotypes suggest women should be sexy but not want sex often. A sexy man is confident and assertive and goes after what he wants. Men want sex all the time and women well, they just don’t or shouldn’t. Women are generally perceived as the gatekeepers of sex and responsible for giving or withholding consent. Unfortunately, much of the education provided to young people about sex and consent reinforces these inaccurate, problematic and damaging stereotypical messages. Remember consent is an evolving conversation. It is the responsibility of both people involved to seek consent. It is not the girl’s responsibility to say no to sex. Despite the stereotype, boys are not always more interested in sex than girls and are definitely able to control their urges. In reality most young people are interested in sexual exploration. Differences in levels of interest or desire and readiness are more to do with personality than gender. Allow space for your child to be different from any of these stereotypes.
Finally, don’t wait until you think your child may be sexually active before you talk about sex and consent with them. Talk soon and talk often is the goal. Don’t assume you know where they are at in the sexual development and don’t ask for information about what, if any sexual activities they are engaged in during this conversation.It is largely irrelevant. You can safely assume the information you provide will be useful at some point in the future. Good luck!