“The Talk” is not a welcome guest in many families. No matter what the age of the child (or the parent) “The Talk” can produce feelings of anxiety, guilt, fear, and embarrassment for all involved. How sad. Our culture bombards us with unhealthy messages and images about sexuality at every turn. If we do not feel empowered and eager to talk with young people about these messages, and counter them with others that are healthier, it’s the unhealthy messages that hold sway. In a society that often assumes both sex and talking about sex are dangerous, I contend that not talking is infinitely more dangerous to the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual health of the young people we love. Given the proper framing, discussions about healthy sexuality with young people can be empowering, exciting, and enjoyable. We must also note that “The Talk” is a misnomer. The available data on effective sexuality education calls for repeated, ongoing dialogue rather than one momentous “talk." To ensure the healthiest sexual development for our children, it’s “The Talks” that need to happen.
To approach “The Talks” in the best way, we must first consider our own values about human sexuality and sexual activity. Any established pattern of “shame and blame” from our own negative beliefs or experiences must to be addressed before a successful talk with young people can be launched. We must move into these conversations with a core belief that human sexuality is a fundamentally good and healthy force in our lives. The guidelines below can help to establish a dialogue that focuses on achieving the best in our lives as sexual people rather than simply avoiding the worst.
1) Keep the long-term goal in mind: The phrase “educate for tomorrow” is important in having “The Talks." We must ask ourselves, “What is the long-term goal we want for our children in life?” In the Sexuality and Society class I want to help create students who can establish loving, romantic, intimate, pleasurable, committed sexual relationships. I want them to be able to fall deeply in love with someone, feel comfortable expressing that love both physically and emotionally, and understand the responsibilities and the rewards of decisions they make about themselves as sexual beings. The long term goal is ultimately a positive one that cannot be approached through negative means. If all kids hear is, “Be careful!” or “Sex is dangerous!” or “Unwanted pregnancy will happen if you have sex!” how can they develop a positive vision of their future as sexual beings? Just as bad, if they hear, “Sex isn’t a big deal” “Play around when you’re young because it ends when you get married” or “Sex is just a tool to getting what you want," how can they hope to see sex as anything valuable? After spending years telling young people either the negative consequences about sex or giving sex no value at all, how will they ever be able suddenly to forget all that and develop a healthy view of themselves and of sexuality that will lead to successful relationships? Perhaps so many of us have trouble in our own relationships because we were never encouraged to link what we did as young people to what we wanted in the future? I am not advising we paint an unrealistically rosy picture either. Every decision about sex can bring good as well as bad results. Put simply, if we want kids to form loving, safe, and committed relationships, we need to make sure what we say to them opens that possibility and shows the way to it. We need to educate towards our hopes, not our fears.
2) Don’t be sex-negative: This point is linked to the one above, but is more about the specific content rather than the overall goal of the discussion. Another way to state this point is “Give a yes for every no." It’s easy to rack up a long list of things we don’t want our kids to be doing as they explore their lives as sexual beings, but that’s only one side of the coin. What are the options open to them? Given that the process of becoming a sexual person demands experimentation, what actions would we hope they’d take? I have heard from too many kids that they initiated sexual intercourse early because the simply didn’t know what else to do. No one had ever talked with them about how to achieve intimate, romantic, pleasurable experiences without intercourse — or even that such a thing was possible. We need to be clear with kids that there are ways to be loving and romantic that don’t involve high risk for pregnancy or disease prevention. We must also work against the idea that sexual activity is a linear progression only successful if it ends with intercourse and orgasm. Nothing can be further from the truth. Kissing can be an end in itself, and a wonderfully romantic and pleasurable one. Have you ever told your child the story of your favorite kiss? Have you ever talked about how pleasant it can be just to hold someone or be held by someone without it progressing any further than that? If we don’t want kids participating in genital sexual activity then we have to help them learn that there are other parts of their bodies that are just as sensitive to pleasure and that there are other experiences besides sexual activity that can produce intimacy, connection, and romance. Probably some of your most romantic and intimate experiences didn’t involve sexual activity at all. Those stories are essential to share with our kids. The best sexual technique can only take someone so far, but knowing how to woo and be wooed in ways that reach beyond the sexual and the genital makes for a lifetime of good feelings and good experiences.
3) Share your values and experiences: Despite the eye rolls, grimaces, and sudden deafness that seem to appear when we try to talk to young people about sex, they really do want to hear what we have to say. Every year in my class, students report that hearing how people they love and respect have navigated opportunities, challenges, and decisions about sex are helpful in their growth as sexual people, and they often name their parents as people they’d like to hear more from. Sharing our values and experiences doesn’t mean moralizing, nor does it mean blurring boundaries between being an adult and a peer. It means helping to normalize the experiences our kids are having by expressing to them that we faced similar things. We’ve all had broken hearts, unrequited attractions, ecstatic moments with a beloved, and questions about whether or not to continue a relationship. Those are the very experiences that would be helpful to share. What is the decision you’re most proud of when you think of your life as young sexual people? Wouldn’t that be important to share? We are often too eager to share our mistakes but not our successes. Besides sharing our experiences, it’s also important (and I would argue essential) to make our own values explicit and to set guidelines for our kids. Saying, “I don’t want you to have sexual intercourse at this point in your life.” is a fine message. Reminding our kids that, “Anyone who wants to use your body without wanting to know what’s on your mind isn’t worth your time” can be just the nudge a kid needs to make a healthy decision. Urging them to adopt the mantra “If you can’t talk to your partner about it, you shouldn’t be doing it with him/her” provides kids with a practical yardstick they can use when their own yardsticks fail them. Young people may not act like they appreciate the guidelines we suggest to them, but they do; they hear them and it helps them know they have options.
4) Talk with kids and not at them: Dialogue is a two-way street. Listening is essential. Understanding a question is the best way to begin to answer it. Talking about sex can create so much background noise in our head that we forget these simple rules for good communication. Parents can be so bowled over that their kids have actually asked a question that they leap to a response fearful that any hesitation will destroy the moment. We must resist the urge to pounce and assess the situation. First, we must be sure we know what the real question is. A second grader came into the kitchen and asked, “Mom, where did I come from?” Seizing the moment, mom launched into a flurry of birds, bees, seeds, eggs, etc. The youngster stared puzzled, and said, “Oh, ‘cause Amanda said she came from a hospital. Did I come from a hospital too?” It turns out “Where did I come from” was really the question “Where was I born?” The question, “Can you get pregnant in a swimming pool?” might be about sex in public places, or about the spermicidal properties of chlorine, or a more general question about how pregnancy happens. Unless we know for sure we risk losing an opportunity to model positive communication about sexuality. Once we understand the question, answering what’s asked is imperative. Kids know how much information they want from us and are easily frustrated when they get too little or too much. Not every question needs to lead to a sit-down, serious discussion. A casual question deserves a casual answer; a specific question deserves a specific answer. Finally, eliciting feedback by asking open-ended questions is the best way to continue dialogue and to assess the interaction. I guarantee, the question, “Do you understand?” will only elicit a monosyllabic grunt. But saying, “I’d like to know what you think about that” or “Tell me if I answered your entire question” might have better results.
5) Talk about skills not just behaviors: Healthy sexual behaviors result from mastering certain skills. Telling a young person, “Don’t have sex until you’re in love” has no skill instruction in it. Nor does, “If you’re going to drink, don’t get sexual with people.” Asking, “How do you figure out whether or not you’re in love?” or “What are some things you can do to make sure if you have too much to drink you don’t get into an unwanted sexual situation?” are discussion that entail talking about skills. My problem with the “Just say ‘No!’” approach to sexuality education is that I don’t see any of the materials talking about how to say no. Saying yes or no is about practicing skills of decision making, communication, and reading situations. While role-playing and practicing discussions can help young people find the words to use, they don’t always show how to apply those words in different situations. One of the assignments in the Sexuality and Society class is to have students write their own “Safer Sex Philosophies." In these documents, students talk about values that guide their decision making about safer sex and the skills needed to make those decisions stick. If one of their values is “I won’t have genital sex in situations where I drink too much alcohol," they must also talk about their strategies for making decisions for balancing drinking alcohol and sexual activity, and about fail-safe measures if they no longer feel able to make those decisions. Identifying and practicing skills is the only way to improve our command of behaviors. Without the knowledge of what skills are needed to perform desired behaviors, we are left with a destination on the road map but no hint plan for getting there.
Talking with young people about healthy sexuality is possible. We must be willing to give up our negative assumptions about sex and about young people’s ability to make good decisions about it. Yes, the life of a young person often entails making mistakes, but it is also about learning to avoid mistakes and make healthy and helpful decisions. Going into these decisions with a positive outlook, a sense of the overall goal, and a willingness to engage in listening and sharing will help to produce interactions that are trusting, loving, and mutually satisfying — the perfect model of healthy sexuality.