How we talk about sex naturally impacts the way our children view it. We all have stories about how our own parents dealt with – or didn’t deal with – ‘the sex talk’. We have an opportunity as parents to normalise sex as a part of a happy and healthy relationship between two consenting adults. In fact, we have a duty to normalise sex – research has shown that media representation of women and internet porn has given boys a skewed view of sexual relations. This in turn affects how girls feel about themselves and their bodies. ‘The sex talk’ has to be about empowerment: educating young men and women to respect their own and other people’s bodies.
Talking with female friends reveals a lot of unpleasant ‘first sexual encounter’ stories. Now I am the mother of a son these stories take on a new meaning. What did those boys’ mothers teach them about sex and about women? What kind of example were their fathers setting? Did they talk about sex in their families at all? And, in the case of us womenfolk, what did we learn about our bodies and our selves to put them in situations that felt at best uncomfortable and at worst, dangerous? We owe it to our sons and daughters to turn the tide on a culture of hypocrisy – taboo subjects juxtaposed with overtly sexualised media – and to raise them to enjoy a positive and empowering sexuality.
Here are some ideas on how to begin:
1. Model healthy relationship behaviour. We are our children’s greatest role models, so the way in which we behave around our partners and members of the opposite sex – as well as the way in which we talk about ourselves – sets a blueprint for them. When we make derogatory comments about our own bodies, or use abusive language about the opposite sex, we are giving them the message that this is an acceptable way to engage with others. Teenagers would mostly be mortified to see their parents having a long, loving kiss but this is far better than them seeing a man or a woman abusing each other, either verbally or physically. Letting children see that attraction is a part of a healthy relationship reminds them that it’s not just supermodels or even porn stars that have sex – everybody has a right to a loving sexual relationship, wrinkles and all.
2. Promote body awareness and self care. Teaching our children to honour their bodies is perhaps the most important part of promoting healthy sexual relationships. A teenager with good self esteem and a sense of their body as a temple is far less likely to end up in a compromising sexual situation. When your teen embarks on a sexual relationship, it’s vital that they respect both their own and their partner’s body. Part of our duty, then, is to educate educate and educate again about the wonders of the human body and the sense of the sacred and precious when it comes to sharing it. For boys, learning about the mysteries of the female body make it less of something to be conquered and more of something to be worshipped. The language we use is important too – discuss it with your partner or friends until you find the right words for your family. Don’t be coy though, or use baby-fied words. Talk to your child about protection and be prepared to purchase it for them.
3. Have some kind of ritual or rite of passage that marks your teenager’s transition to young adulthood. In traditional cultures this is a vital part of moving from one stage of life to another. Because we lack this in our society, teenagers can often feel in a kind of limbo land – neither child nor adult – and feel that society has no place, let alone respect, for them. Rites of passage are gradually returning to our collective consciousness as people recognise them as a way of honouring our teens. Marking this stage invites them to step up to further responsibility – to behave as fitting for a man or a woman – and this in turn gives them the much-needed respect needed to navigate uncharted waters. The message is one of respect and responsibility and this helps a teenager to face emotional and sexual relationships with far more maturity.
4. Honour your child’s emerging sexual self. That means giving them privacy – no bursting in on them in their bedrooms or asking what they’ve been doing – but also tackling subjects that might have been taboo when you were younger, such as masturbation or attraction to the opposite sex. Deal with your own issues around particular subjects and try and create an open, non-judgemental environment for them to open up. Never, ever, ever mock your child or tease them about their emerging sexual self: however light-hearted this may seem, it can have a huge impact on the way in which a teenager views themselves and cause them to retreat from you (and from themselves). Give them the respect they deserve. If, even for one moment, you consider teasing them about someone they’re attracted to, remember the intensity of your feelings for your first love and how easily and painfully they can be crushed. Be tender and gentle.
5. Start talking to your children about sex when you feel they’re ready. This can be quite young, when they start showing an interest in how babies are made or in animals having sex. Kids have a huge curiosity about these things and the way in which you respond when they’re young makes the difference to whether it becomes something awkward and taboo or something they can confidently ask questions about. Don’t wait until they’re adolescents who won’t listen to a word you say and are horribly embarrassed by you. This time will come anyway, but if you already have an open dialogue and ‘the sex talk’ isn’t something you suddenly decided upon because you’ve noticed your teenager has a boyfriend/girlfriend, you’ll avoid the cold shoulder you might receive. Lots of teenagers are going to be far too embarrassed to talk about sex, particularly with their parents, but if you’ve already laid the groundwork and set a healthy example, teaching them self care and respect, you don’t have to panic that you’ve missed the boat. Most of us remember from our own adolescents that by the time adults got around to having ‘the sex talk’ it was embarrassing because we were already well on our way to getting acquainted with sex without the talk. The best time to begin that dialogue is when your child is still open and curious, not when they’re shut in their room listening to heavy metal.
Find Out More:
Beautiful Girl: Celebrating the Wonders of Your Body by Dr. Christiane Northrup
Journeyman UK hold teenage camps for boys: as a unique mentoring charity, they are dedicated to supporting boys aged 13 to 17 to discover their unique potential and apply their gifts in service to themselves, each other and their community at large.
The Sex Talk: A Survival Guide for Parents by Joanna Hyatt
Ideas for a Red Tent Party for your daughter
The Girl God – a book about the female aspects of divinity
Scarleteen – a comprehensive website for teens and twenties about sex education using an educational model guided by both unschooling and the Montessori method