Jim (Jason Biggs) Is Caught In An Embarrassing Moment By His Mom (Molly Cheek) And Dad (Eugene Levy) In "American Pie." (Photo By Getty Images)

How to have the sex talk with your kids

Our resident teen and tween expert Louisa Woods on why The Talk isn’t just a talk – and why you need to start early. 

In the immortal words of Salt-N-Pepa, Lets talk about sex, baby. Well, not quite. Let’s talk about sex, kids, hits closer to the mark.

While much has changed since 1991 when singing along with Salt-N-Pepa was an elicit thrill for most of us – and don’t pretend you didn’t because we all know you did – the sex talk remains one of (if not the) most dreaded conversations between parent and child. There’s nothing like a frank conversation about sex to remind you your child is growing up. And often, the only jolt more jarring than the fact your own children are becoming sexual beings is the one they suffer realising their parents already are!

It’s weird we find it so awkward. It’s how we make babies. It’s one of the most intimate experiences people can share. Most of us boast some lingering natural sex drive. It’s also everywhere. How is it we hardly notice when half-naked people are used to sell coffee, or when the ad break includes a hydroslide metaphor meant to sell us lube, but we cringe at the thought of explaining sex to our children?

The conversations we should dread are those that can arise as a result of too little chat. The sorts I’ve had with young people who have felt too embarrassed or ashamed to talk with their parents alone because sex is taboo in their family. Difficult conversations about unprotected sex, non-consensual sex, pregnancies, STIs or sexting are much better broached before rather than after. Each are a valid worry, each somewhat avoidable by arming our children with knowledge and the confidence to communicate – prevention rather than cure, as the saying goes.

A recent review of the research on the subject concluded that positive and open parent-child communication about sex is linked to reduced rates of sexual risk-taking behaviours, increased condom and contraceptive use, older sexual debut, increased willingness to access sexual health services, and an increased ability for teens to communicate effectively with sexual partners. And even though within families most sex education comes from mothers, the stats suggest outcomes for young people are further improved when dads are involved in the conversation.  All good reasons for every parent to push through the awkwardness, don’t be coy, avoid, or make void the topic. (Salt-N-Pepa again – so wise!).

And that applies regardless of your child’s gender. Perhaps unsurprisingly when society often positions women as sexual gatekeepers and men as door-to-door salespeople leaning on the bell, parents are more likely to communicate with their girls about sex, often stressing potential negative consequences when they do. Not surprising – but not okay, either.

Young people, no matter what their gender identity, need to be given the same information and support, and with it the underlying message that we all have equal responsibility for creating and maintaining safe, respectful, and consensual sexual relationships.

I should stress (though I’ve used the phrase) it shouldn’t be ‘the talk’ so much as a topic of ongoing discussion. Including sexual behaviours and attitudes as part of ordinary conversation with your kids, as well as starting those conversations when your children are young – certainly pre-adolescence – normalises sex, destigmatises it, and through that, increases the likelihood your kids will come to you (or other adults) with questions and concerns should the need arise.

It’s also your opportunity to model honest and open communication, essential not only for your own relationship with your kids but for their future relationships and the conversations we want them to have with potential sexual partners: “Let’s talk about sex, baby. Let’s talk about you and me. Let’s talk about consensual sexual intimacy that is pleasurable and fulfilling for both of us while also including measures to protect us from unwanted pregnancy and infections.”

The Channel 4 (UK) factual series The Joy of Teen Sex

Starting the conversations early can seem daunting. How much is too much? Will they understand? Will they go to school and relay every word to an audience of fascinated seven-year-olds? Young people who are given information before they hit adolescence are better equipped to make decisions around sex and to express themselves clearly in relationships. The first open discussion I was ever involved in was when a forward-thinking teacher at my Catholic high school smuggled in a Family Planning nurse to meet with the seventh formers. It was highly informative, but to be frank, dear Mrs Dakers, by that point the horse had pretty much bolted for most of us. Better late than never? Maybe. But sometimes too late is just that. Young people need information, but also time to develop a sense of their own personal boundaries and beliefs around sex before they need to test either.

The thing is, if you’re weaving topics and issues around sex into everyday conversation, it needn’t be quite such a big deal. It can start with using anatomically correct names, by giving your child a sense of consent and control over their body, or by answering their specific questions clearly and confidently. I’ve said it before: if they’re old enough to ask, they’ll cope with an honest answer. Let their questions be your guide about how much to share and whether they’ll understand. The sharing on the playground is harder to control, but I figure at least if they’re passing on accurate information, that’s something. I know one boy who announced in triumph at primary school he’d figured out sex and it was all about belly-buttons; I bet there were some interesting conversations around his classmates’ dinner tables that night.

On that note, get your facts right, and don’t be embarrassed to go there – ignorance is not always bliss. The basic ins and outs of sex are easy enough to explain and understand but some of the detail can be trickier. While misunderstandings about the function of belly-buttons might be of little consequence (apart from utter humiliation the first time you try to put theory into practice) some things need to be clear: condoms are not risky to use because they cannot get lost inside you and cause infection; anal sex is not safe sex just because you can’t get pregnant from it, and actually, just so as you know, it’s not foolproof contraception either; sex should be pleasurable for both parties, it’s not just something you do for your partner. Those sorts of things.

And it’s important that the focus of your discussions isn’t all on baby-making. Most of the time sex isn’t the least bit about procreation; it’s about pleasure, intimacy and connection. It’s good for young people to know that, and to know it’s not shameful or embarrassing to have sexual feelings and to act on them. Or not, if they don’t want to. The conversation may well start with questions about where babies come from, but there are problems with not widening the topic beyond an answer to those.

For starters, it’s heteronormative. If sex is only for making babies, then what exactly are we implying about queer couples? The whole ‘when a woman and a man love each other very much…’ starter excludes and others many people. Conversation around sex should not focus solely on physical safety; emotional safety is just as important. If your child does not identify as straight but all the talk they’ve had at home about sex has linked it to baby-making, the underlying message they’re at risk of receiving is that their own sexual urges are not only strange, but wrong.

It also puts the emphasis on contraception rather than protected sex. There are worse things that can happen to a body as a result of sexual activity than an unwanted pregnancy. Much worse. Plus, pregnancy isn’t catchy, and you usually know when you’re carrying a baby, not necessarily true of some STIs, and I imagine it’s statistically easier to contract an infection through sex than it is to conceive a baby. But when you talk to young people about practising safe sex, their first response is often focussed on contraception rather than on condoms or dams, and that’s concerning.

I know some people feel concerned that talking openly with their children about sex equates to giving them approval to go out and do it. I don’t share that concern. You don’t have to be the ‘cool with it’ parent but you can be the ‘cool enough’ parent. Cool enough to realise your child is at some point going to make decisions about physical intimacy. Cool enough to understand there’s a lot of pressure on them to have sex. Cool enough to come to for support in making those decisions and dealing with the outcomes, whatever they may be.

Oh, and I’m pretty sure quoting Salt-N-Pepa makes anyone the ‘uncool parent’ so maybe leave them, insightful though they may be, out of the conversation.

Louisa Woods is a high school teacher and counsellor, currently filling her days looking after her own three children, writing a bit, singing a bit, and reading as much as she can.

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