Let’s talk about sex. Again. Yes, I know I have written about it before, but I’m writing about it again. Why? Because just as in real life, we can’t talk about it just once and have it be a done deal. We have to keep talking about it. Talking until it becomes a topic that we are comfortable with. Until it becomes a topic our kids know we are comfortable with. I know, this goes against the grain of everything we hold dear in our culture when it comes to sex. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” “Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.” Mantras we live by when it comes to sex. We don’t want to or can’t talk about it with our families, our mentors, or our advisers and our society has this weird belief that if we acknowledge sex with real and meaningful discussions, we will turn into sex-crazed zombies. However, we are perfectly comfortable bombarding ourselves with sex in the media and we often see children oversexualized by the media. See this article in the Washington Post, for example. But talk about it? No! Oh, but I digress.
So we know we need to talk to our kids about sex, and we know we need to do it differently than we have been doing it. And we need to do it now. But how? Why are we so resistant? The message isn’t new. For years, experts have been saying that the current way our culture deals with sexuality is failing our youth. In October 1984, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote an article called “The Failure of Sex Education.” In it, she talks about the fact that parents, culture and the education system fail children with regard to their sexuality. She points out how we miss the boat by believing that sexual development happens only during certain ages (6-12), or that it is limited to certain behaviors (masturbation and intercourse), or that information should come from only one source (parents). The article states:
First, children are “sexual from birth.” Like many sex educators, Wilson rejects the classic notion that a latency period occurs between the ages of about six and twelve, when children are sexually quiescent. “Ever since I’ve gotten into this field, the opponents have used that argument to frighten policymakers,” she says. “But there is a body of developmental knowledge that says this is not true.” And, according to Wilson, it is not simply that children are born sexual or that their sexuality is constantly unfolding. It is also that sexuality is much broader than most imagine: “You are not just being sexual by having intercourse. You are being sexual when you throw your arms around your grandpa and give him a hug.”
This is not a message that we are comfortable with. It is not a message that we embrace. When we tell the parents of a toddler that their child is sexually developing as we speak, the parents are likely to cringe and wave their hands in dismay. Often, even parents of teenagers will say, “Oh, not my child. He doesn’t think about it at all. He probably never will.” Right. We are fooling ourselves into not seeing what is right in front of us. And when we fool ourselves, we fail our children. Unfortunately, failing our children in this arena has dramatic consequences. We make them more vulnerable to sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. And even if they escape all that, we fail them by leaving them alone to navigate scary, lonely and uncharted territory.
But we can’t put all the blame on the parents. Every time I see a new parenting book on the market, I quickly scan the table of contents. Nine times out of ten, the terms “sex,” “sexual development,” “masturbation,” “sexual health,” etc. do not even appear in the index. I get a surge of excitement when I find it and am often disappointed when the sum total of the discussion is a single sentence that equates to this: “Parents should be open to talking to their children about sex.” It’s slowly changing, but in the meantime, what is a parent to do? Here are four simple things to get you started:
1) We need to do a check-in with ourselves. Okay, maybe this one isn’t so easy, but it’s the most important. I talk about how our own issues interfere with our parenting here and sex is no different. Talking about sex is so difficult, because it brings up an overwhelming emotional response. Anxiety, fear, anger, shame. These types of feelings are devastatingly common reactions to sex. Very few of us come into parenthood without wounds from our past and, unfortunately, these wounds often revolve around sex. From sexual abuse to sexual stigma to sexually repression to painful messages regarding our sexuality, these experiences can make it difficult for us to respond in a healthy way when our children begin to explore their own sexuality. And even if we haven’t had any particularly traumatic or negative experiences, few of us grew up in households, churches or schools systems that encouraged healthy dialogue about sex. We just don’t have the models or experience to guide us in what we know we should be doing now. We are like deer in the headlights.
2) Adopt a new mantra about sex. Andy Warhol said, “Sex is the biggest nothing of all time.” Sex is and always will be a part of life. We need to get over it. If we can stop making it such a big deal, maybe we can deal with it!
3) Realize that sexual development means more than simply learning about how to make babies. Thinking about a preschooler’s sexual development does not equate to teaching him about intercourse. Sexual development and sexual health include: learning to respect our own bodies, learning to respect other people’s bodies, and learning about bodily functions, hormonal changes, relationships, gender identity, social identity, boundaries….I could go on and on.
4) Change your goal regarding sex education. The purpose of talking to our kids about sex is to lay a foundation so that they will talk to us about sex! Whitehead wrote:
In the beginning, before there is sex, there is sex literacy. Just as boys and girls learn their number facts in the first grade, they acquire the basic sex vocabulary, starting with the proper names for genitalia and progressing toward an understanding of masturbation, intercourse, and contraception. As they gain fluency and ease in talking about sexual matters, students become more comfortable with their own sexuality and more skillful in communicating their feelings and desires. Boys and girls can chat with one another about sex, and children can confide in adults without embarrassment.
Parents often ask what information they should give their kids and when. I don’t think there is one specific answer to this. Rather, if our goal in early childhood is to create a culture in which kids acquire the language, ease and fluency in talking about sexual matters, the result will be that they are able to ask for information when they need it and we will feel comfortable and open enough to give it to them!
Let’s talk about it! I would love to hear from all of you on this topic. Post here or on our Facebook page to share your thoughts!