- Mothers who allow sons to ask questions related to sex have sons who report more sexual satisfaction and sexual self-esteem.
- Moms don't need to be proactive in talking to sons about sex but simply create a home environment where they can be prepared to be reactive.
- Leading by example might result in one's son being more likely to provide their future partners with a safe space to discuss sexual topics.
Parent-child communication is important, especially when it comes to difficult conversations. No conversation is more taboo than communication about sex. Therefore, I invited Ben Compton from the University of Washington to write a guest entry about research on sex communication and provide some advice on how parents can create a comfortable environment to discuss sex with their children.
The Talk. The birds and the bees. Sex. It’s a conversation most parents don’t want to have, but a discussion that all children need. But what might be the consequences for children if their parents don’t decide to communicate to them about sex?
A recent study published in the American Journal of Sexuality Education helps answer this question. Researchers at the University of Connecticut looked at the impact of whether mothers communicated to their sons about sex1. The team of communication scholars was interested in finding out if sons who talked to their mothers about sex lead to positive outcomes for their sons. Specifically, they looked at the relationship between communication about sex and sons’ sexual satisfaction, sexual self-esteem, and sexual anxiety.
What are we talking about exactly?
You might be asking yourself a few questions. First, why look at sexual satisfaction? It might seem odd that talking to one’s son would improve his sex life. Previous studies have found that people who communicate more about their sex lives with their sexual partners, however, are more likely to report being happier with their relationships2.
Second, what is the difference between sexual self-esteem and sexual anxiety? Sexual self-esteem is the likelihood for an individual to positively evaluate their own sexual worth to others3, whereas sexual anxiety is the likelihood to experience tension, discomfort, or anxiety about the sexual facets of one’s life4. That is, sexual self-esteem is the perception of oneself in relation to others whereas sexual anxiety is the perception of oneself and their sexual experience or confidence. Together, these two are key components of one’s own view of oneself as a sexual being.
What did the researchers do?
The team of researchers surveyed 137 young, primarily heterosexual, men aged 18-23. First, these men were asked if they perceived themselves to be sexually active. Next, participants were asked about their communicative habits with their mothers around sexual topics, such as their mother’s willingness to discuss sexual information or engage in non-judgmental talks about sex. Finally, each participant answered questions that assessed their sexual satisfaction, self-esteem, and sexual anxiety. The researchers then used the information to study whether this had a positive or negative impact on their sexual satisfaction, self-esteem, and anxiety.
What did the researchers find?
After statistical analysis, the team found that sons whose mothers were more open and nonjudgmental about sexual conversations were more likely to have higher sexual satisfaction and lower sexual anxiety. Sons’ sexual self-esteem was not affected. The authors suggest, however, that parents who are more open to the conversation might help to destigmatize sex and thus teach their sons that sexual interaction doesn’t have to be anxiety-provoking or a risky enterprise1.
What can you do?
Are you worried about what it would be like to talk to your son about sex? Here are two main considerations to keep in mind.
An inviting arena. Simply put—be open with talking to your sons about sex. Not everyone can be an expert, but what research shows is that being willing to discuss and respond in a nonjudgmental way to sexual topics with your sons will have significant positive impacts on their future sexual lives. Many mothers might be feeling unqualified or unconfident about bringing up intimate topics with their sons, but the good news is that creating an open environment, or what the researchers call an open communication environment, will help your son feel more comfortable initiating these conversations. This means you don’t have to be proactive, but reactive to when these topics arise.
Quality over quantity. A key feature of the study was that when these young men took the survey, they were asked about their perception of their communication with their mothers, and not necessarily the number of conversations they have had. Because this is only their perception, it means that a son might have had only 1 conversation with their mom, or 10 conversations with their mom, yet the quantity didn’t matter so long as their son perceived them as open to talking about sexual topics. Therefore, don’t worry about needing to have conversations frequently, as every individual might be more or less comfortable discussing sex. Instead, be ready for when the conversation does come up, so that way your son can leave feeling like it is a topic they could return to you if they wanted.
What is the key takeaway?
Sex is one of the most challenging topics to discuss5, but research shows that parents who do not talk to their children about sex lead to increases in adolescent sexual risk behavior6 and higher rates of teenage pregnancy7. Being an example of how sex-positive communication is appropriate within the family will show children that talking about sex is okay. This can lead to positive outcomes, such as increased use of condoms8, a decrease in the number of sexual partners8, and an increase in self-efficacy to communicate with their peers9.
It might be uncomfortable10, but having no conversation might signal to them that talking about sex is something to be kept to themselves. If a safe communication space is created for young men, imagine how your son might be able to create a comfortable space for his potential sexual partners in the future. Fostering a comfortable and accessible channel of dialogue can help any mother become a monumental figure in their son’s communicative development, ultimately facilitating the kind of open communication that elevates boys to men.
1. Denes, A., Crowley, J. P., Gibson, L. P., & Hamlin, E. L. (2021). Mother-son communication about sex: Exploring associations with emerging adult sons’ sexual self-esteem, anxiety, and satisfaction. American Journal of Sexuality Education.
2. Byers, E. S. (2011). Beyond the birds and the bees and was it good for you? Thirty years of research on sexual communication. Canadian Psychology, 51, 20-28.
3. Snell, W. E., Jr., Fisher, T. D., & Walters, A. S. (1993). The multidimensional sexuality questionnaire: An objective self-report measure of psychological tendencies associated with human sexuality. Annals of Sex Research, 6, 27-55.
4. Brassard, A., Dupuy, E., Bergeron, S., & Shaver, P. R. (2015). Attachment insecurities and women’s sexual function and satisfaction: The mediating roles of sexual self-esteem, sexual anxiety, and sexual assertiveness. Journals of Sex Research, 52, 110-119.
5. Guerrero, L. K., & Afifi, W. A. (1995). Some things are better left unsaid: Topic avoidance in family relationships. Communication Quarterly, 43, 276–296.
6. Guilamo-Ramos, V., Bouris, A., Lee, J., McCarthy, K., Michael, S. L., Pitt-Barnes, S., & Dittus, P. (2012). Paternal influence on adolescent sexual risk behaviors: A structured literature review. Pediatrics, 130, 1313–1325.
7. Silk, J., & Romero, D. (2014). The role of parents and families in teen pregnancy prevention: An analysis of programs and policies. Journal of Family Issues, 35(10, 1339-1362.
8. Huebner, A. J., & Howell, L. W. (2003). Examining the relationship between adolescent sexual risk-taking and perceptions of monitoring, communication, and parenting styles. Journal
of Adolescent Health, 33(2), 71-78.
9. Halpern-Felsher, B. L., Kropp, R. Y., Boyer, C. B., Tschann, J. M. & Ellen, J. M. (2004). Adolescents’ self-efficacy to communicate about sex: Its role in condom attitudes, commitment, and use. Adolescence, 39(155), 443-456.
10. Elliott, S. (2010). Talking to teens about sex: Mothers negotiate resistance, discomfort, and ambivalence. Sexuality Research & Social Policy: A Journal of the NSRC, 7(4), 310-322.