Hard Talks with Teens: Sex
There’s nothing more awkward or embarrassing than having the sex talk - except, maybe, being the parent. Truth is, though, it should be natural.
It’s time to tough it up, know the facts, and have an open discussion with your child about one of life’s most important issues.
The scene: your young child is playing with their toys in the room while you absentmindedly read some emails. Moments later, your child is standing beside you, eyes wide, adoring, and curious, asking “Where do babies come from?”
You have two options, or so you think. You can either respond with “When a mommy and daddy love each other, they get married and then they have a baby,” and hope they don’t goad you any further, or you can go for the more difficult, “I’ll tell you when you’re older, honey” and risk endless questions.
The truth is, you have only one option. To provide accurate, safe, and real information when they ask you about sex. Studies show your child’s school will not do the job for you, and expecting them to do so could prove detrimental to your child’s health down the line. When and how you have “the talk” is entirely your choice as a parent. Depending on your child’s exposure to the world outside your home, you may even be too late.
Here’s another scene: Your child is older, perhaps starting puberty. Everything is awkward and new, and their hormones are flowing in full-force. They might not ask you anything anymore, might not confide in you, but they’ve come home to tell you something. A classmate is pregnant, and they’re wondering how it happened. While you may be afraid to approach this conversation with your child, consider how they feel.
In a 2012 survey conducted by Planned Parenthood, 19 percent of parents shared they were uncomfortable talking to their children about sex, while half of the teenagers surveyed felt uncomfortable talking to their parents — not because they were against the conversation or not curious, but because they were afraid of the negative consequences, primarily that their curiosity meant they were already having sex, and that they would be punished for it.
The culture surrounding sex in the United States is, in a word, absurd. Anyone can walk out their front door (or simply turn on a computer or television) and be bombarded with images, language, and references to sex. While it seems sex is more turned on than ever in our country, only 19 states require medically, factually, or technically accurate sex education when sex education is provided. To make matters worse, definitions of what constitutes medically accurate information varies from state to state.
Despite plenty of research and evidence to support that effective and accurate sex education delays teenager sexual activity, lowers teenage pregnancy rates, and reduces unwanted STDs and STIs, including AIDS there is still heavy backlash and fear relating to giving teenagers information about their own bodies. Many factors go into how sex education is brought into schools. Funding, interest, state laws, curriculum selection, and community play a massive role. Do you know which curriculum, if any, is being taught in your district?
We’re not here to tell you what is right and what is wrong. What we are saying is you cannot control what the world tells your children. You cannot stop their friends from perpetuating the hymen myth (that a hymen covers the entire vagina and is torn during initial vaginal intercourse) and you cannot prevent them from overhearing public conversations discussing their intimate practices. You can’t protect them from hearing sexual slurs and hate speech directed at gay and transgender youth.
You can control the information you pass along to your children.
Having Those Hard Talks with Teens
Talking about sex to your children need not be uncomfortable, it should feel natural. If it does not come naturally to you, practice with your friends first on what you will say. Ask them how they spoke to their own children. And if you remember what your parents told you, be it good or bad, model your own speech from that. Your children can figure out the mechanics on their own (after all, didn’t you?) but when you begin to have “the talk” remember to consider the following:
- Healthy relationship practices and communication
- How to know when they are ready
- Knowledge that hetero-relationships are not the only relationships
- Valuing their body autonomy
- Respecting other’s body autonomy
- Showing dignity and respect for others
- Protecting their academic success
Even if you’re against your teen having sex, if your religion prohibits it, or if you would rather never have this conversation, think of the good that can come of it. When you give your children accurate and safe information, it will be passed along to their friends (because teens talk, whether we like it or not), and they will be safer and wiser for it.
How much safer can they be? A survey of 600 teenager age 12-15 found that teens who talked with their parents about sex were more likely to communicate with their sexual partners in the future, and use condoms more frequently.
Partaking in this open communication has real results. Consider, the Dutch method of sex education. In the Netherlands, children start receiving sexuality education as early as kindergarten. This does not mean they’re being taught the mechanics of intercourse at age 6, but they are asked questions and implored to answer to increase body awareness. Children are asked to identify which intimacies feel good (hugs between friends or high fives) and which do not. Proponents of the Dutch method say their practice “reflects a broader emphasis on young people’s rights, responsibility, and respect that many public health experts say is the foundation of sexual health.”
If your goal is to prevent your child from being sexually active until they are older, teaching the Dutch method may a good choice. The focus on body awareness and autonomy has resulted in having one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the world, and evidence also suggests they do not have sexual intercourse any earlier than American teens, whose teen pregnancy rate is the highest in the developed world.
Having trouble on how to approach the situation? You’re not alone. “The talk” isn’t always explaining the birds and the bees in lecture format. The key is having an open discussion at all times. Keep it simple by letting them know they can come to you with questions and actually following through with it. You may be bashful about certain topics, but remember, you’re the adult. Even if they come to you with the most specific question, your knowledge will heed their curiosity without figuring it out for themselves – which could have life-altering consequences.
Prepping for “the talk” doesn’t need to be difficult or intimidating. Here are some basics to get you started:
1. Do not touch others who do not want to be touched.
2. Do not let others touch you when you do not want to be touched.
3. Never do anything you do not want to do.
The bottom line: Teaching your children about body autonomy is an important prerequisite when talking about sex. The same rules apply.
The more you tell them and the more accurate the information, the safer they will be, and we all want our children safe. After all, knowledge is power.