By John T. Chirban
Is there anything more private and yet more public than sex? People talk about sex all the time: in the news, in advertisements, in casual conversation. Yet what people actually do behind closed doors or between the sheets is shrouded in mystery.
Is it wrong to want privacy when it comes to issues of sex? Some jump to the conclusion that anyone who keeps his or her sex life private has something to hide, while others act like they have no idea what you’re talking about when you imply that they’re sexual. Privacy and secrecy shouldn’t be confused—a desire for privacy isn’t necessarily indicative of skeletons in the closet. It’s important to recognize privacy as a desire for an individual’s boundaries.
Imagine the following scene: while cleaning her 14-year-old daughter Sandy’s room, Janet finds a hidden diary. Curiosity wins out over conscience, and Janet leafs through the little book. Janet is shocked to learn that Sandy has been writing about her crushes on both boys and girls, and she is disappointed that Sandy has never come to her to express these feelings. While Janet is reading the diary, Sandy walks in and bursts into angry sobs when she realizes what her mom is reading. This is undeniably a tense situation.
Janet could react in a number of positive ways. She could simply apologize for disrespecting her daughter’s privacy. She also could acknowledge her daughter’s feelings of hurt and betrayal and make a stronger effort to reopen lines of communication. But, instead, she becomes defensive and begins arguing with Sandy for her secrecy—actually not respecting Janet’s privacy.
There’s an important difference between secrecy and privacy. A secret is something that we shouldn’t share. Privacy is a natural and dynamic boundary based on trust and respect. When the lines between secrecy and privacy aren’t clear, kids think that sex is something they should never talk about (a secret) rather than realizing that sex is something that can talk about privately with those they trust. Sex does not need to be secretive, but it is private. We can help our children establishing boundaries by respecting boundaries in our relationships with them. While 50% of moms and dads want to talk with their kids about sex, 82% of teens do not feel comfortable to do so. The foundation for this level of vulnerability has not been established.
It’s important to treat your kids’ desire for privacy with the same respect that you’d want them to have for your sex life. That said it’s also vital to make sure your kids know that your respect for their privacy isn’t a mark of disinterest or permission to do as they please. Rather, it’s essential your kids feel comfortable speaking with you about their private thoughts, feelings, and actions because they trust you and have confidence that you respect their privacy. To many, sex is best kept as a secret. Our sexuality is physically and emotionally sensitive, and kids often feel vulnerable initiating such conversations, preferring to keep their thoughts and feelings private, unless they have learned from experience that you are a trusted ally.
Boundaries can also be introduced from early on to help our kids become make these distinctions. You might say to your young child, “Your sexual parts are your “privates.” No one should touch your privates; that’s why we call them privates!” You might go on to explain that it’s not appropriate to show your privates to others, unless there’s a special reason, such as during a medical exam—when a parent is in the room. Yet let’s keep in mind that little kids have sexual interests, too. They find pleasure in touching their privates. Yet these remain their privates—not publics! So we may add that when we touch our privates we need privacy—like when we wash our self in the bathroom or dress our self in our bedroom.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex (Thomas Nelson, 2012) that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information, go to dr.chirban.com and sexual problems.com.