The other day, a friend asked me for guidance in dialoging with her tween daughter about healthy sexuality. She asked with a caveat that I have gotten used to hearing, which is that she is more conservative than I am.
This always makes me smile, it is rarely true. That statement contains two false assumptions. 1) That I am wildly kinky and 2) that people who are not wildly kinky are conservative. Both are false.
Let’s parse that, because it’s important in terms of how we talk to our kids. I think that people conflate their own knowledge of their personal boundaries with a more generalized closed-mindnedness about sex as a concept. These are not the same thing. Knowing the limitations of what you want is not the same thing as imposing those limitations on others.
Most people, when we really talk about it, are clear that they want their children to be autonomous and fulfilled sexual beings, whatever that means for them. What they are afraid is “closed-mindedness” on their parts is really nothing more than a clear sense of their own boundaries, coupled with an absence of knowledge of what is out there in the vast human sex-o-sphere. And that’s okay. Not being into something, or knowing much about it, is not the same thing as bigotry, and that’s why seeking information is so important – at every age.
I am seen as “out there” because I believe in the radical notion that human sexuality is a human right and that no one has the right to strip any human of that right. I was able to figure out who I am sexually because no one instilled any fear or shame in me. My parents, for all their foibles, got that very right.
Back to my friend’s question, she said, basically, ” We’re not ‘anything goes’ people. We’re on the conservative side, but know there’s a WHOLE lot more to the discussion of sexuality than ‘wait until marriage if you can.’ Like, how do you deal with these feelings in healthy ways? How can you make good decisions that are healthy for you and respectful to others with regard to expressing yourself sexually–at this age.”
GREAT QUESTION! This parent is already way ahead of many!
With kids and teens, it is most important not to instill them with any sort of shame about their bodies or their sexual desires. They are born sexual, even as babies they will play with their genitals and their nipples because it feels good. It isn’t until they are older that they start adding cognitive processes to the physical sensations. It is during this critical time when the things we say are, perhaps, the most important. If they are discovering that something feels good and joyful to them, and we tell them it’s wrong and shameful, we can alter their self-esteem in a very serious way, that can often be very harmful.
You see this a lot in study after study on the psychological well-being of LGBT youth in repressive households and communities. You see it in the suicide rate of LGBT youth. It is heart breaking, and preventable. But it goes beyond LGBT youth. It impacts kids who are perceived as wanting more or less sex than their peers. Or a different kind of sex. Or who are discovering that their sexuality – how they express themselves sexually – is different than their parents or primary peer group or even mass media depictions of sexuality. And here’s the kicker, it’s often in their own heads. They are often no different than anyone around them, but because it is not discussed in a healthy manner, they assume they are different, and at that age, different is often felt as “weird,” or “bad.”
The most important phrase I use when I work with kids that age, and their parents, is “…and that’s perfectly normal, but we have to think about how you will feel as a result.” That leaves room for “I will feel good” and “I will feel bad” and “I don’t know how I will feel, but I would like to try and then I will know whether it’s something I will chose again or not.” But instilling agency – the ability to think and decide for themselves, and combating shame is huge, at any age.
However, with kids these days – a phrase that always makes me feel old – the messages they are getting are far more amped up then when I was growing up. When I was growing up, a blowjob was the wildest thing anyone was talking about. Now? Kids are having anal sex because they think it keeps them virgins. That’s horrifying. Not because there’s anything wrong with anal sex, (something I happen to enjoy,) but because the emphasis on purity and absence of sex-ed is leading kids to do things that are far riskier at ages that are far younger and at which they are far less likely to be responsible.
Without a solid understanding of the physical reality, anal sex can be harmful. Is anyone teaching them to use lots of lube? I doubt it. To relax into it and go slowly and start with a finger? I doubt it. Is anyone reminding them that they can still get every STI on the books, even though they can’t get pregnant? I doubt it.
And if there is shame around sexuality in general, and anal sex (as an example) in specific, then they won’t ask anyone except their peers and the internet. Is that the education that you want for your kids?
The point is that even aspects of sexuality that are fine and wonderful can be harmful if you are not fully versed in physical safety.
And all of them can be emotionally harmful if you are not empowered to ask for what you want and stand strong against what you don’t want. Our sexuality, at any stage, is something that is deep and innate within us. When we let people in there, it leaves fingerprints all over us. Ideally, we want the good fingerprints, the kind that lead us gently to a place of fulfillment. But it can also leave bruises. Kids need to know that is possible, likely, and normal. That it’s not always perfect, and you can grow from that too. We learn as much by discovering what we don’t want as what we do want. Like falling off a bike in order to learn how to balance.
We need to teach our kids to approach their sexuality as something that is deep and sacred. And that is theirs to do with as they please. Which means they are allowed to discover it without shame. Draw their own boundaries without shame. And do both in a way that is unique to them.
We also have to teach them to allow others around them to do the same. How we behave sexually with others will leave fingerprints on them too. And sometimes bruises. The physics of human sexuality is that every interaction causes some kind of reaction in others. We are responsible for what we do to others. Whether those others are our sexual partners, our peers, or just people who will be impacted by our language and our choices.
Yes, we desperately need sex-ed in schools that teaches kids about safety and disease and consent. But, as a society, we need sex-ed that allows us to look at sexuality in a more holistic manner, one that can simultaneously reduce shame and fear, while increasing acceptance and belonging.
Even when we’re talking to kids about sex, it’s as simple as “…that’s perfectly normal, let’s talk about how that makes you feel.” And then “that’s perfectly normal, how will that make your partner feel.”
Although, with adults, I hate the word normal. Really. But it is a powerful word with adolescents, who want to know that they are okay. I use it a lot. I use it about as many things as possible, so that they begin to learn that it’s ALL normal. Even if it isn’t something they’re into, it is still a normal part of human sexuality. There is no shame, and they have no right to judge.
Most of my friends who work with teens and tweens advocate delay and caution, when it comes to the onset of social sex. (We also tend to advocate masturbation as a great way to get to know your own sexual body.) We don’t advocate delay and caution out of fear and shame, but out of a deep understanding of how powerful and important their sexuality is, and wanting them to be sure that they feel both physically and emotionally safe. Both physically and emotionally fulfilled. At every age, it should be handled with caution. But especially that age.
Look, some part of me wants my daughter to wait until she’s in her 30’s to have sex. I’m a parent, I just want to protect her from anything that could ever hurt her. But that’s misguided, and I know it. She will need to learn these things for herself. So, in the real world, I just hope that she is safe and smart and careful and brave enough to not wait until she’s in her 30’s to start figuring out who she is. And that she knows she can always talk to me.
I am much more personally conservative than you’d think. But my crusade to end shame is a strong one. Because shame hurts people. On an individual level, people have the right to be and do whatever they want to be safe and happy and healthy. But knowledge and consent are key.
And yes, I do have some resources to help you:
1. I am proud to have co-authored this piece with some great people. The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21
2. Scarleteen is an amazing web site, and Heather Corinna has written volumes about this. She is, I think, the best.
This was the opening monologue for the July 10, 2013 edition of Sexxx Talk Radio on The Progressive Radio Network. The rest of the show is a discussion of STIs, and is seriously worth listening to. You can tune in every Wednesday at 4:00 PST.