Despite there being pockets of our society where attitudes toward sexual and gender identity issues are evolving, the vast majority of our culture remains squeamish about addressing sexual health and pleasure. Most sex education in schools, if it is taught at all, focuses on the mechanical aspects of sex — the function of organs, menstruation, etc., and the negative — STI’s, stranger danger, using condoms and pills to prevent unwanted pregnancy, and so on.
As a sex therapist who works every day with teens and adults struggling with sexual issues, I can assure you that there is far too little true sex education going on in our world. The lack of “sex positive” information — that is, acknowledging that sex is a huge part of everyone’s life and should be accepted, enjoyed, and informed — is evident in the lives of my clients. Many carry a burden of shame because their fantasies or private sexual practices don’t conform to the stereotypes that society has presented. Some have never acknowledged their own desires or understood how these may evolve over time. Others are terrified of admitting an attraction to someone of the same sex, or that they want to experiment with some sexual practice that society deems as “deviant” from the norm. They don’t know that when it comes to sexuality, there is little that can be called “normal.” Sexual expression is as broad and varied as you can imagine.
Talking To Your Kids About Sex
All of this negativity about our sexuality has roots in how we experience our first sexual awakenings in childhood and puberty. Without someone to talk to — an open-minded parent or relative, a therapist who has been educated about healthy sexuality — teens and tweens will gather information from peers (quite often wrong), and the Internet (which is awash with porn of all types, and often conveys misinformation about the emotional and physical realities of sex).
But what if parents were well informed and willing to talk to their kids in an honest and open way? Kids who grow up in families where sexuality is openly discussed are not just healthier and happier, but they also are less likely to take risks with their sexual health. It’s evident, as well, that the #MeToo movement has broken open much of the secrecy that surrounds women’s and girls’ sexual harassment and assault. This is a good thing that can lead to opportunities for conversations between parents and their children about consent, mutual pleasure and more.
Sex education isn’t just for our children. Certain negative ideas about sex lie deep within our social upbringing, so responsible parenting requires first that we face facts and educate ourselves. Parents need to be sensitive about how much information to share and consider the stage of their child’s development and be aware of their own biases and negative attitudes about sex or sexuality that falls outside their understanding of what is “normal.”
For instance, one client shared with me that when he was a boy struggling with his sexual identity, he and his dad drove by a gay bar. His father pointed to it and said, “That’s where all the fags go to dance.” A woman told me her mother found her porn and accusingly said, “You’re not into that , are you?” These offhand remarks drove their kids ever more deeply into silence and despair, and it took them years to acknowledge and come to terms with their sexuality.
It is vital for parents to convey to their child that they are willing to talk about anything, especially sexual pleasure and love. Then the most important thing is that the parent listensopenly and nonjudgmentally. Such moments are very vulnerable for both child and parent and must not be quashed by negative responses such as shaming and scaring. It is fine to talk about your family values, consent, contraception and such. And, if asked about one’s own experiences, one must be open and honest about them. Conversations like these can be helpful for the child to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy sexual practices and experiences.
Suppose he or she admits to you that they have been watching porn? This is a great opportunity not to judge them, but to offer important facts about porn, such as:
- The people in porn are not making love, they’re making a movie!
- Couples in the films aren’t modeling real intimacy. Real intimacy is about more than sex.
- In most porn, the actors are acting, faking real intimacy and the women are faking orgasms.
- Porn is fiction. Not every woman or man wants to be treated in the ways they may be treated in porn.
- You rarely see this in the movie, but the actors probably had a sexual health conversation before filming about what is okay and what is not while they are engaged in sex. The consent of both partiesis really important, because without it one may be caught up in embarrassing and difficult legal and moral situations later.
If they ask, “Have you watched porn?” and you have, don’t lie unless you want to drive a wedge between you and your teen. Be honest. Let them know they can ask any question, but that there are some questions you may prefer not to answer, as they are private to you.
It may seem rather ironic that in the regions of our nation that have the strongest religious cultures and/or negative attitudes toward sex education, LGBTQ issues and such, studies show that these are the places where the vast majority of Internet porn is being viewed. It’s a perfect example of how going to war with our sexuality doesn’t work. Healthy sexuality is a gift that too few people have opened, if one tries to avoid or repress it, will often come out in dark and damaging ways.
Matters of Consent
Therefore, there is one more thing that parents should instill in their child: They must know absolutely that they don’t ever have to succumb to pressure, emotional or physical, to have sex if they don’t want to. If the sex being offered is something they don’t want, or if it is with a sexual partner they don’t want, it is their right and responsibility to refuse. If they are sexually violated in any way, they must know that they can tell you as their parent what happened and that you will not judge them for it but are willing to comfort them and take whatever further action is needed.
There are few things in life that impact our sense of well-being and happiness as much as sex. Let’s give our children a good start on that road by being well-informed and willing to talk with them about healthy sex and the joy that it can bring.
This full article also is available on PsychologyToday.com.