It’s a different world for teens from when you were growing up. The slightest inkling of curiosity about any topic sends them straight to a quick web search where they are instantaneously presented with a virtual smorgasbord of knowledge. It’s all out there: the useful, the dangerous, the titillating, the objectionable, the thought-provoking. The Internet is the greatest source of information that has ever existed. But it is missing something essential: a relational perspective conveyed directly from you to your kids.
If you’re like many parents, talking about sex with your kids is an awkward undertaking. They were once your innocent babies and you’d like to keep them that way as long as possible. You might prefer to deny they are growing up and will at some point become sexual beings. But if they don’t learn about it from you, they will learn about it from friends and the Internet, likely offering less savory advice than you would.
Eschewing the topic may be easier, but it does your kids a disservice. Fifty-five percent of teens in the United States have had sex by the age of 18 (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-sex-teenagers-idUSKBN19D0A5). The average age of first sexual intercourse is 17, with other sexual experience often beginning younger (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/on-late-in-life-virginity-loss/284412/). Only 3% of Americans remain abstinent until marriage (http://www.statisticbrain.com/abstinence-statistics/). Teaching abstinence does not adequately address the pressure teens feel and the interest they often have in engaging in sexual behavior.
Even if your kids are in the minority who choose to wait until marriage, what do you want them to know when they ultimately choose a partner and are faced with consummation?
Americans have always been paradoxically puritanical when it comes to sex. We don’t talk about it publicly, yet for many, it is a private obsession. It is a biological instinct imperative to our species’ survival. A satisfying sex life is a key determinant of physical and emotional well-being. Why would we not want our children to have a healthy and enjoyable relationship with sex?
Your kids deserve an education that teaches them more than just how babies are made. Prevention of pregnancy and STIs are important topics to cover, as is a very clear conversation about the importance of giving and obtaining consent before proceeding with sexual activity.
But limiting the conversation to these issues deprives kids from understanding sex as more than just a physically pleasurable activity with grave potential consequences.
Avoidance or awkwardness reveals your own discomfort with the topic and makes sex seem shameful. Making sex taboo fosters in kids a curiosity and, simultaneously, a sense that something is wrong with them for having an interest in it.
There is plenty of information out there. If they don’t learn about it from you, they are going to seek it out from other sources and base important decisions on potentially deficient and destructive suggestions. Don’t you want your voice in the mix?
Sex is more than pleasure or procreation. It is an opportunity for deep connection. Teach your kids to value their bodies and to respect other people as human beings, not conquests or subjects on whom to experiment. Though exploration is part of the allure, encourage them to wait until they have found a partner with whom they feel comfortable and emotionally safe. Tell them that the best sex is between two loving people who trust and care for one another, ideally in the context of a committed relationship.
Let them know that the first time they have intercourse is going to be clumsy and potentially difficult, and that taking it slowly can be helpful. Explain the importance of arousal and adequate lubrication in making sex pleasurable.
Teach them to be concerned about the other person’s experience at least as much as their own, to look for an unselfish partner and to communicate what they want and do not want. Tell them that real sex can be far more intimate and emotionally gratifying than explicit depictions they may have seen.
Encourage them to resist any pressure to engage in sexual behavior before they feel confident they are ready. Make it clear that becoming sexually active is not a badge of honor or a means to win a partner’s interest or popularity. They need to know that sex is always their choice and saying no, at any time, under any circumstances, is valid.
You teach them to tie their shoes, ride a bike and drive a car. Why would you trust someone else to educate your children about a subject so crucial to their development as successful adults?
Every child is different, so calibrate your conversations based on your kids’ maturity level and the influences to which they are exposed. Since close to half of high school students are having sex, it makes sense to have the conversation around freshman year, or earlier if your kids are more advanced (http://www.statisticbrain.com/abstinence-statistics/). If they insist they are nowhere near thinking about having sex, tell them you’re glad to hear it but you still want to provide some information for them to keep in mind whenever they are ready.
They may choose to engage in casual sex, but if their early experiences sever physical pleasure from emotional connection, it may be difficult to make that link when attempting to create romantic relationships later in life. Sex and porn addiction are growing due to a cultural trend away from intimacy with another person and toward self-focused pleasure (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27114191).
If you can instill in your kids that sex is about co-creating an experience with someone else, you will offer them a mature perspective that will support their relationships immeasurably.
There are some great resources available for teens to seek out advice on a healthy sex life, but these are not usually the ones they come across. If they ask questions, answer them as candidly as you can.
The risks of parental denial are alarming. Eighty percent of women and ninety percent of men will contract some form of HPV, a sexually transmitted infection responsible for genital warts and cancer (https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/infectious-agents/hpv-vaccine-fact-sheet). Condoms do not provide adequate protection but a simple vaccination from your kids’ pediatrician can prevent infection before they become sexually active, as early as 9 years old. Acknowledging that your children will, at some point, have sex may save their lives.
You owe it to your kids to work through your hang-ups and offer them a thorough and balanced conversation about sex. If you have difficulty discussing it, take a look at your own attitude toward sex and think about how it was shaped by the way it was addressed (or not addressed) in your family. What if your parents had been able to speak comfortably about sex, the way they taught you to sound out your letters or cook spaghetti? Sex is an important life skill necessary to support adult relationships. If you find yourself embarrassed to bring it up, challenge yourself to confront your discomfort. Dive into some experiential research, on your own or better yet, with your partner, and have some fun surmounting your squeamishness. Sex is not dirty and it can be exquisite.
Talking about it will not encourage your kids to have sex prematurely. It will help them develop comfort with their desires, and prize their physical and emotional well-being. It will also build trust, meaning they will be more likely to come to you when they have questions rather than make misguided choices. Since they are not going to stay kids forever, rather than perpetuate shame and discomfort about a very natural drive, do your part to help them grow into adults whose romantic relationships include the essential and valuable component of fulfilling sex.