I recently watched “Let’s Talk About Sex,” a documentary by James Houston about how American attitudes towards sex, and more specifically towards talking about sex, impact adolescent sexuality. If you haven’t seen it, you should. If you are the parent of a teenager in America you should watch it, especially if you are the parent who says, “Oh, my kid tells me everything” (and, let’s face it, we are ALL that parent). If you are the parent of a pre-teen, you should watch it. If you are the parent of a preschooler or a toddler or an infant. If you are thinking of having children. If you work with children. If you know children or know someone who knows children, you should watch it.
Despite the fact that I feel passionately about this topic, think about it a lot and feel driven to try to change the way we interact with children around the issue of sexuality, I am always blown away by the facts:
- The United States’ teen pregnancy rate is the highest in the developed world. (Almost three times that of Germany and France and over four times that of the Netherlands.)
- The United States’ teen birth rate is nearly eight times higher than that of the Netherlands, over five times higher that of France and over four times higher than that of Germany.
- The percentage of the United States’ adult population that has been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS is six times greater than that of Germany, three times greater than that of the Netherlands and one-and-a-half times greater than that of France.
Combine these statistics with the fact that there is no research or evidence available suggesting that US teens have more sex than teens in any other developed nation. So the same amount of teen sex results in staggeringly higher rates of STDs and pregnancy. After trying unsuccessfully to convince my husband that the only way to ensure our children don’t become teen parents is to move to the Netherlands, I realized that there is actually a solution. We can change the way we think about and talk about and react to our children’s sexuality. And not just our adolescents’ sexuality, but our children at any age. We need to talk about it. And I don’t mean “Have The Talk.” I mean talk about it. With our partners, our schools, our churches and most importantly with our children.
Need more proof that we need to do something differently?
- Everyday, 10,000 (yes, ten thousand) American teens catch a STD.
- Everyday, 2,400 American teens become pregnant.
- Every two minutes, someone in America is sexually assaulted.
- In the United States, approximately 1 out of every 4 girls and 1 out of every 6 boys is sexually abused.
- Approximately 30% of sexual abusers are family members, such as fathers, mothers, brothers, uncles or cousins.
- Approximately 60% of sexual abusers are known to the child but are not family members, such as family friends, babysitters or neighbors.
Everyday. Today. Right now. Our children. My children. Your children.
So our children are being victimized and our teenagers are having unprotected sex. What are we doing about it? What does our culture do about it? Well, as parents we squelch our fear about what we know is happening out there by adopting and clinging to two myths:
1) My kid is different. (This one is huge and actually consists of numerous overlapping myths including, “My kid tells me everything.” “My kid doesn’t even think about sex.” “My kid would never do anything behind my back.”)
2) If we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist.
Meanwhile, as we parents, teachers and mentors make ourselves cozy with our myths, the media takes the other angle by focusing on these two truths:
1) Your teenager is just like every other teenager. (“They don’t talk to their parents.” “All they think about is sex.” “They will absolutely do it behind their parents back.”)
2) If we talk about it (i.e., sell sex), they will listen (i.e., buy our product).
Guess who wins?
Unfortunately, we as parents send the message from day one that we are not available to talk about sex. We send the message that our kids should be asexual and if they aren’t we will be heartbroken, disappointed, fearful, etc. We send the message that sex is forbidden and wrong and evil. And all the while, the media, movies, magazines, music, TV and the internet send unrealistic, unobtainable and unreliable messages about sex with one goal: Money.
So then who is going to help children sort out the intriguingly complex connection between love and intimacy and sex? Who is teaching them to protect their bodies and love their bodies and know their bodies? Who can they turn to when those bodies change and grow and betray them? Who will be there for them when they want to say no but their hormones are screaming yes and their hearts have no idea where to turn?
They will look at us, scared and uncomfortable and disappointed.
They will look at the media, sexy and glamorous and scary and overwhelmingly daunting.
And they will turn to their friends. And the blind will lead the blind. (See above listed facts for outcomes.)
Or worse, they will have no one.
So what should we do about it? Well, we start by adopting new truths as parents. We must understand that sexual development is not controlled by an on/off switch. It starts at birth. Toddlers explore their genitals. Preschoolers collect information on girl versus boy body parts. Young children start to play and imitate partnering behaviors (“I’m the mama, you’re the papa, you kiss me goodbye when you go to work”). School-aged children experiment with masturbation and learn that it feels good. It’s happening, folks. You can’t stop it. You might as well tell the waves to stop crashing on the shore. You can build a wall or dig a ditch or yell or threaten, but in the end, the only way to not see the wave crash on the shore is by sticking your head in the sand. By ignoring their sexual development until they are teenagers (and then only acknowledging it with The Talk on one awkwardly painful occasion), we cheat our children. We miss out on helping them:
- understand and respect their own bodies.
- develop strong boundaries that can help protect them from abuse.
- build a vocabulary for talking about their bodies and sex in a healthy manner.
- develop a safe relationship that allows for open dialogue about sexual matters.
- learn how to think critically about the sexual information that comes from the media or friends.
- learn about how to have sexual experiences safely.
So how do we start? Figure out the ways that you may currently be sticking your head in the sand. Do you catch your toddler playing with his penis and swat his hand away? Do you disregard a child’s discomfort with giving a kiss goodbye and tell them to do it anyway (“Go on, kiss your grandpa, don’t make him feel bad”)? Do you minimize a school-aged child’s experience of love (“You’re too young to know what love is”)? Take some time to self-reflect on your own feelings, attitudes, fears, hang-ups and experiences about sex. Notice how you might respond when you get embarrassed or uncomfortable. And then, do it differently.
Be there with your child. Reflect back to your child what is happening and ask them what they think. To a toddler you might say, “You noticed your penis, what do you think about that?” To a school-aged child you may say, “You have a boyfriend now. How does that feel?” Asking a child what they think or feel and then really being available to listen to their answers opens up opportunities for discussions that would never be possible if you said instead, “We don’t do that” or, “You’re too young to have a boyfriend.”
The documentary points out that in the Netherlands, sex is an everyday household topic of conversation. At the dinner table, kids can talk about their homework, the football game and sex. Most of us have a long way to go until we get there. Most of us are likely to feel pretty awkward and uncomfortable as we start to do things differently than our cultural standard. But if our goal is to support our children in becoming healthy, strong, independent and thriving adults, we have to. If our goal is to protect our children from sexual abuse, we have to. If we want to believe that our children will talk to us (and have it be actually true), then we have to take our heads out of the sand and be available. From this point forward.
Everyday. Today. Right now.
Or, we can move to the Netherlands.
Check out the documentary “Let’s Talk About Sex” here http://www.letstalkaboutsexthefilm.com/about.html.