A few years ago, while researching sex education at home and in schools, I happened to catch a few episodes of “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” a television program about teen pregnancy and parenting. I remember being struck by the number of times the characters in the show used the word sex. “Are they having sex?” “We had sex!” “Have you ever had sex?” It seemed as though the writers used every opportunity to insert the word sex into the script. Yet there was very little sex on the screen, just lots of talk about it. Since then I have noticed that most television programs do exactly the opposite: they show (or insinuate) sex rather than talk about it. The norm is to depict a sex scene, not to overtly discuss sex.

More recently, while watching the third season of “Downton Abbey,” a PBS drama set in England in the early 1900s, I observed a more extreme version of this aversion to sex talk. (Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the third season and plan to, you may want to skip to the next paragraph.) In one episode two main characters, married for over a year with no child or pregnancy to show for it, assiduously avoid discussing any concerns about possible fertility issues. Instead they independently visit a doctor, going behind each other’s backs to learn if they are infertile (a word that is never spoken, only implied). One character even goes so far as to use a fake name at the doctor’s office in an effort to keep her visit a secret. The words sex, infertility, or any body parts or mechanics related to reproduction are never uttered on screen. The delicate treatment of the topic, the viewer is led to believe, is a product of the era when sex talk was taboo.

Obviously our attitudes and openness about sex have changed since then, but perhaps not as much as we might like to think.

A few years ago, when my daughter was in sixth grade, she and a friend were in the backseat of the car as I ferried them to an event. I can no longer recall our conversation but I distinctly remember I used the word sex (probably in an effort to get the girls to think critically about something they were saying). I’ll never forget what happened next. My daughter turned to her friend and said apologetically, “My mom’s a sociologist.” As far as my daughter was concerned, my willingness to say the word sex out loud required an explanation. (I’m still tickled by the notion that all sociologists are comfortable talking about sex; I can assure you that’s not the case!) And, to be honest, I feel a stab of anxiety in writing that I used the word sex in front of 11 year olds. I wish I could remember the conversation so that I could convincingly convey that my use of the word was warranted and occurred in a proper context.

My daughter’s need to justify to her friend my use of the word sex and my anxiety about sharing this story are telling. In fact, most of the parents I spoke to for my book, Not My Kid: Parents’ Beliefs about the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers, avoided using the word sex in their interviews. As I reviewed the parents’ transcripts, I was struck by how many never uttered the word, even though much of our conversation revolved around sex. Parents instead used euphemisms for sex like “it,” “doing it,” and “having it.” And they used terms like “pee wee,” “down there,” and “private parts” to speak about genitalia.

Parents also told me that they face a great deal of resistance from their teens when they raise the topic of sex. Teens often don’t welcome these conversations and are embarrassed by them. And many parents confessed that they are frankly relieved when their teens do not want to have family conversations about sex; they aren’t particularly comfortable with this topic either. The parents’ stories made me realize just how hard it still is to talk about sex in our culture.

I also discovered that parents face stigma and scrutiny from others for their sexual lessons. Some of the parents I interviewed were reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) because people thought their children knew too much about sex. One couple I spoke with who tried to be open and honest with their daughter about sex was investigated by CPS after a member of their church overheard a family conversation that implied their daughter—who was 11 at the time—understood what sperm was. The congregant reported the couple to CPS based on his assumption that the only way an 11-year-old girl could understand and speak about sperm was if she was being sexually abused.

As the parents’ stories reveal, a climate of fear, suspicion, and taboo surrounds parents as they have, or contemplate having, conversations with their children about sex. Sexual images and messages are now commonplace in our culture, yet there’s still a lot of shame attached to talking openly and knowledgably about sex.

I often heard during the course of my research into sex education that parents are ultimately responsible for teaching their children about sex. But I also heard from parents that sex is not an easy thing to talk about—their kids don’t want to talk about it, parents themselves often don’t want to talk about it, and in having these conversations they risk being labeled sexual deviants for their children’s knowledge about sex.

So before we smugly declare our era far more enlightened than the time period depicted in “Downton Abbey,” it’s worth reflecting on how many taboos around sex talk persist. As the name of the recent show “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” implies, sex is still too often shrouded in secrecy. Family conversations about sex would likely be easier if all of us spoke more openly about sex—without fear of being labeled sexually deviant for doing so.

About the Author

Sinikka Elliott, Ph.D

Sinikka Elliott, Ph.D, author of Not My Kid: What Parents Believe about the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers, is a sociologist at North Carolina State University.

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