Talking about sex with your kids is difficult. In part, that’s because so few of us had good conversations about sex with our parents so we don’t know how to do it. And in part, it’s because most of our knowledge about sex comes from our own experience, stories shared by friends, and what we’ve seen in the media. That’s not how we learn about history, for example. This means there’s a lot of stuff that we know, but most of us don’t have a larger framework for thinking about sex. We’ve got a little knowledge of this and a little knowledge of that and it’s all about sex, but somehow those pieces of knowledge don’t really seem to connect.
Talking about sex with your kids is difficult. In part, that’s because so few of us had good conversations about sex with our parents so we don’t know how to do it.
The results are hardly surprising. In survey after survey, only about half of high school seniors or college students say their parents ever talked to them about sex. Even worse, most of the kids who are lucky enough to have the talk had a conversation that lasted less than 10 minutes. Things are worse for boys than girls; they’re slightly less likely to have any conversation with their parents and when they do, it’s shorter and covers fewer topics. So here’s a short list of things your child needs to know. For simplicity, I’m going to write as though you’re talking to a son, but everything here applies equally in conversations for daughters. As you read, remember that the average American boy or girl loses their virginity around age 16 and only a minority are virgins at their high school graduation. Given that the typical age of first marriage is now in the mid- to late-20s for Americans, your child will probably date and have sex for about a decade. This means your son will probably have more than one partner before marriage.
1. Your values. Part of your job is to help your son develop sexual ethics that will guide his behavior. The most effective way to do this is to connect it to the values you’re already teaching, like respect, honesty, and care. And just like those things may look somewhat different when practiced with immediate family, extended family, friends, and strangers, they’ll probably look somewhat different here.
2. Focus broadly on sexuality. Talk about “sexuality” instead of “sex” because it’s a broad term that includes relationships and a variety of sexual behaviors. The word sex refers to both a specific act and also the broader set of things related to sex and that can get confusing at times.
3. Dating and Sexuality are connected. Dating inherently includes some level of sexual contact, even if it’s just kissing and holding hands. Doing those things in public is one way that we let other people know we’re dating someone. Kissing, holding hands, and other “pre-coital” sexual behaviors include implicit messages about trust and exclusiveness; talk to your son about the messages that a kiss sends.
4. Acceptable age of first sex. Related to your values, you should specify an age at which you think your son will be both physically and emotionally mature enough to have sex. To the best of your ability, be clear with your son that the age you give is based on who he is — his maturity level and values — in combination with your broader experience and perspective. Be realistic; he’ll use what you say to gauge his own behavior, and that includes deciding if he’s really ready at the age you specified. I recommend 16, which is the average.
5. Acceptability of hookups, FWB, etc. Related to your values, talk about sex in terms of various types of partners and relationships. Is romantic love necessary? Love for a friend? Trust? Lust?
6. Consent. Your son needs to be able to tell his partner that he gives consent and he needs to be able to hear consent from his partner. Make sure he understands that consent is reasonably specific and that he should use terms like “sex” and not nebulous expressions like “let’s do it.” Frankly, if your son can’t explicitly tell his partner that he wants to have sex, then he’s probably not ready to have sex with that person.
7. Refusal. Your son needs to know that he’s allowed to say “no,” “not yet,” “slow down,” or any other term that means he’s not willing or not ready. This is another aspect of consent and one that runs contrary to our stereotypical expectations that boys are always ready for sex and are the ones that initiate sexual contact. Ultimately, he needs to know what his options are when his partner is moving faster than he’d like.
8. Biological basics (genitalia): Your son needs to know the correct names for his external anatomy, that sperm live in seminal fluid, and that urine and sperm (and seminal fluid) all come out through the same part of the penis. If you and he aren’t quite sure what the vas deferens is or what it does, don’t sweat it. If you really want to know, find a website or book and go through it together, but remember that you probably don’t discuss his gall bladder or spleen in any detail either. If you’re lucky, he might even learn about those internal structures in health class.
9. Reproduction basics. He needs to know that any time his erect penis enters someone’s vagina, there’s a chance that pregnancy will occur. Your son needs to know this, even if he’s gay. After all, a surprising percentage of gay boys and men have sex with girls and women at least once (for a variety of reasons).
10. Contraceptive basics. Your son needs to know the odds of pregnancy can be changed through a variety of contraceptive strategies and devices. The specifics and level of detail are entirely up to you, and I realize that some people will talk only about tracking ovulation and the rhythm method. Help your son understand that contraception will help him control when he becomes a father (and you become a grandparent), although no form of contraception is 100% perfect.
11. Condoms. As the only form of contraception that guys control, it’s key that he knows what a condom is and how to use it. If you have that conversation with him before he has sex for the first time, there’s a greater chance that he’ll use a condom the first time he has sex and every time after that.
12. Diseases exist. Most of the discussion about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that we hear today focuses on HIV/AIDS and HPV. Syphilis, gonorrhea, and herpes haven’t gone away, they’re still out there. They won’t kill you the way that AIDS can, but nobody wants sores on their genitals or pain when they pee.
13. Pleasure. Sex should feel good, for him and his partner. Yes, there may be some embarrassment, funny noises, and odd smells, but the experience should be more positive than negative. It should be fun.
14. Porn. The odds are good that your son has seen pornography. Approximately 1/3rd of 14 year old boys say they’ve voluntarily watched porn online. Among 18 year olds boys — whether they’re high school seniors or 1st year college students — nearly all say they’ve seen porn. Help him understand that porn is about as realistic as an unscripted “reality” TV show and as healthy as junk food. If you’re willing, send him to MakeLoveNotPorn.tv for a more realistic view.
Feeling overwhelmed by this list? I’m not surprised. It’s definitely too much for a one-time talk. His sexual upbringing needs to involve a series of talks – call it a conversation – over years. After all, it’s not like the learned to say “please” and “thank you” after a single talk.
His sexual upbringing needs to involve a series of talks – call it a conversation – over years. After all, it’s not like they learned to say “please” and “thank you” after a single talk.
Most of us wouldn’t dream of sending our kids out into the world without some knowledge of who they are, how to manage their money, and how to manage their time, so we talk about those things with our kids on and off over the years. Sexuality is just as complex a topic, but we don’t do nearly as good of a job with it. As he develops, his mental abilities increase, he becomes more emotionally mature, and he gains sexual experience, so will your conversations with him about sex.
-photo by mistahbloo/flickr