Read a Czech translation of this post prepared by Vera! (Thanks, Vera!)
As I recall, my father and I never really had any sort of discussion about The Sex. I sort of figured things out on my own, and gathered supporting data from a variety of sources. But the fact of the matter is that parents do talk to their kids about sex, and it’s an important conversation to have, and there are a lot of different approaches to that conversation.
I’m concerned about some of the suggestions I see out there for how to talk to children about sex, sexuality, and gender. I think that some of these suggestions are well meaning, but potentially really harmful. People really do need to think about what they’re saying, because this is a discussion with far-reaching consequences, and you could unwittingly plant the seeds of something very, very ugly. I think that parents want to have this conversation because they are concerned about the emotional and physical health of their children, but they need to be aware that it’s possible to be damaging when you’re trying to be helpful. Just as shaming a fat child to force ou to lose weight because you think fat is unhealthy can set that child up for a lifetime of eating disorders and other problems, telling a gay child to aspire to heterosexual ideas can spawn a lifetime to self hatred. Telling a kinky child that only one kind of sex is “normal” is dangerous. And so forth.
One key issue which I see a lot of people neglecting is that this is not a conversation about the parent. It’s a conversation about the child. As one parent put it, it’s not about me. The fundamental goal of this conversation should be providing a child with usable, age appropriate, healthy information, and reminding the child that this is about ou, and the choices that ou makes. Parents also need to remember that children, especially teens, naturally lie and conceal information. Even when children are assured that there will not be negative consequences for sharing information, they still choose not to share it. They need to know that this is ok, and that if they don’t feel comfortable going to a parent, they can go to someone else for help, and that this person will respect the autonomy of the child.
I got my first birth control prescription with the assistance of a an older female friend. Not because I thought my father wouldn’t help me or would disapprove, but because I felt shy, and awkward, and uncomfortable, and I was negotiating a new phase in my life, and I felt more comfortable with someone who wasn’t a parent. And she respected my autonomy and didn’t tell my father about the episode, rightly believing that the important person at that point in time was me, and that by protecting my choices, she was helping me make sound choices, like using birth control instead of having unprotected sex and getting pregnant. My father’s neutral to positive approach made this possible, because I knew that I would be safe in doing this, and my father’s friend knew that it would be ok for her to do this.
The sex talk is about more than just sex. It’s an opportunity to talk about the spectrum of human sexuality, and gender identity. It’s chance to inform children that lots of things are normal, that their bodies are their own, and that they have autonomy and power over their bodies. It’s an opportunity for a parent to admit that sometimes other people may be better sources of information and assistance, and that’s ok.
Good things to say during the sex talk:
- Your body is your own. No one can make you show your genitals, no one can touch your genitals without permission, you should not be forced to touch someone else’s genitals, you cannot touch someone else’s genitals without permission. You have the power to decide if you want to have sex, when, and where. You need to respect a partner’s expressed wishes about sex. You have the power to decide if you want children, and to determine the timing and spacing of those children.
- Negotiating consent is important, and consent is a slippery issue. If someone says “no” or “stop” that means you should stop. You have the power to say “no” and “stop” if you feel uncomfortable with anything that is going on. You are not less of a person if you decide you don’t want to have sex, or decide that a particular activity is something you are not ok with. No one, ever, has the right to force someone to do something they don’t want to do.
- You can be attracted to whoever you want. You can be attracted to men, women, people of ambiguous gender, and everything in between, and that is ok. Lots of people are attracted to people of a variety of genders, and that’s ok. Your sexual orientation: heterosexual, asexual, bisexual, queer, lesbian, gay, etc, is your business, and it is not a “choice,” something which you can change or manipulate at will. It is nothing to be ashamed of. That said, we live in a society in which certain types of sexual attraction are dangerous, and need to be handled with care. This sucks and is not fair, and you should not let it force you into an expression of sexuality you feel uncomfortable with: if you are a boy who likes boys, you don’t need to pretend to like girls. But you should be careful about the boys you approach.
- Lots of types of sexual activity are normal and healthy. The kind of sexuality you enjoy is your business, as long as it’s fully consenting. Enjoying “rough” sex doesn’t make you less of a person, doesn’t mean that people have the right to abuse you, doesn’t make you a freak. Not being interested in sex doesn’t make you a freak or less of a person either.
- Fetishes can be healthy, normal, and ok. Don’t be ashamed of them. Talk about them with your partner/partners. Communication is key.
- Fantasies are also healthy, normal, and ok. Having a rape fantasy doesn’t mean you want to be raped. If you would like to act out your fantasies in a controlled, safe environment after discussing them with a partner/partners, that’s ok. But, you can’t act on your fantasies without consent: you need to make sure that such scenes are carefully negotiated and that everyone feels safe at all times.
- Sexuality can be dangerous. There’s a large family of diseases which can be transmitted through sexual activity, and not necessarily just through intercourse. Protect yourself and your partner/partners by having regular medical exams and testing, by using barrier protection, by disclosing/encouraging the disclosure of disease status. Having a condition like herpes doesn’t mean you can’t have sex: it does mean that you need to talk with your partner/partners about the fact that you have herpes.
- Gender is not a binary. Gender expression can be highly fluid, and if you feel uncomfortable in your assigned gender, or have difficulty identifying with your assigned gender, that is ok. You may want to seek counseling or explore books talking about gender identity so that you can learn more, and explore your gender identity. We (your parents) or I (your parent) will support and love you no matter who you are: if, for example, you seem like a girl but believe you’re a boy, and you would prefer to identify as our/my son, we/I can support you in that and help you find services you may need.
- Sex isn’t a binary either. While many people are biologically male or biologically female, there are other configurations out there.
- Porn and erotic materials are not necessarily bad things, but some types of porn/erotica are damaging. Try to seek out woman-friendly materials, such as productions from woman-owned companies. While most children would probably prefer not to get porn recommendations from their parents, parents can gently steer children in the right direction (when it’s age appropriate).
- Sex toys are also great things to have. Again, most teenagers probably don’t want their parents making recommendations or going into a sex shop with them, but kids should be made aware that toys are available, and that it’s important to use the appropriate toys and to take care of them properly. (For example, anal-safe toys for anal play.) Since most sex shops won’t allow underage patrons, parents might want to pick up a catalogue, or allow their kids to browse an online catalogue for a woman-friendly store like Good Vibrations or Babes in Toyland.
- If you need help, get it. If you don’t feel comfortable coming to us/me (your parents/parent), that’s ok. What’s more important is that you get help for whatever the problem is. You can go to my/our friends for assistance, and they understand that your right to privacy is important. You can go to other adult friends for assistance, although please be careful, because some adult “friends” are not really your friends.
Bad things to say during the sex talk:
- “Wait until marriage/children need a mother and father/you can’t have children if you aren’t married/being a single parent is wrong/same sex parenting is wrong/sex before marriage is wrong.” Not helpful. This is shaming.
- “People can only have one other sexual partner/monogamy is the only normal sexuality.” Monogamy is not the only normal sexual pattern. Polyamory is also an option. What is ok to stress is communication; secret partners, not ok. Multiple partners with consent and discussion, ok.
- “Some women deserve to raped.” Seriously? I shouldn’t have to say this, but the fact of the matter is that some people believe that women who dress/act a certain way deserve, to some extent, to be raped. As has been pointed out at Fugitivus, this actually makes such women into targets, because rapists hear that kind of rhetoric and identify those kinds of women as people who make great rape victims.
- “If you do something for a partner, that partner owes you, and you have the right to extract payment.” Uhm, no. Relationships are give and take.
- “You should/must come to me for anything.” Even if you’re the coolest, most open-minded, most awesome parent ever, there are some things your children do not want to talk to you about. They need to know that this is ok, and that it is safe to talk to designated adults about these issues.