I generally consider myself to be a pretty open-minded person. Yet, I’ve cringed at the thought that my precious toddler will one day become a teenager interested in sex. I’ve wondered whether I’ll handle the sex talk correctly or if I’ll make things awkward. After speaking with a therapist about it, they asked me to go on a discovery journey about my relationship with sex as a teen.
I was raised in a religious community and frequently heard sermons about how sex before marriage was sinful. When sex was discussed, it was framed as if it was the duty of married people to have sex so that they could procreate. There were many “be fruitful and multiply” conversations in the churches I attended, but I don’t recall married people ever speaking about sex in a pleasurable way.
I’m very grateful to my mother, who was adamant about me receiving a sex education. However, I realized early on that there was a great difference in what boys and girls were taught. All of the girls in my 5th-grade class received a bag filled with pads and tampons, while the boys were given a bag of condoms. Once I entered middle school, sex education was used to deter my peers and me from having sex. We were shown photos of genitalia affected by various STDs and a graphic video of a woman giving birth with absolutely no context.
While I know well to avoid that, I’m still working on how I want to approach the conversation as a parent. I’m also curious how parents will approach the topic of sex differently in the context of abortion rights. To help parents prepare for the conversation, Michelle Hope—Sexologist, Author, and Reproductive Justice Activist—shared her wonderful tips and resources.
When Does Sex Education Start in School?
According to the CDC, most teenagers who received sex education were taught how to say no to sex and how to prevent STDS or HIV/AIDS in middle school. Of course, sex education varies based on whether an institution is private or public and whether or not it’s religiously affiliated. However, most kids will have likely heard something about sex before middle school.
Michelle Hope believes it is a parent’s responsibility to ensure kids can advocate for regular conversations about sex (using medically accurate terminology) in their homes and at school. Children should be able to indicate their body autonomy when speaking to individuals who have authority.
Unpacking Your Own Feelings About Sex
Reminding me of my own past, Hope said, “It’s important to remember that a lot of us experienced sexual trauma. It may not necessarily have been physical, but it could stem from being taught to feel shame about sex or our bodily developments.” She added that it’s possible our “first sexual encounter was awkward, we haven’t processed our sexuality, or we didn’t receive comprehensive sex education.”
Parents may begin to “recognize that their child is growing up and that no matter what our wants or dreams are for them, they are going to make their own decisions,” Hope said. This may cause parents to “internalize that as a failure on our parts,” she continued. Instead of shying away from feelings of discomfort, she suggested parents lean into it and remember that they were once teenagers.
Creating a Safe Space for Conversations With Your Children
Although I don’t believe it was intentional, I recall feeling as if I couldn’t speak candidly with my mom about sex. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I expressed my feelings to her. She explained how her upbringing caused her to be apprehensive about the topic. Hope said parents need to acknowledge they are children’s first point of safe contact in the world and look to their parents for reassurance and guidance. She suggested some ways for parents to create a safe space for open conversation:
Ways parents create a safe space
- Assume questions about sex stem from curiosity. Do not assume they are already engaged in the behavior.
- Let your child know they won’t get in trouble for asking questions or sharing their experiences with you.
- Share as much as you feel comfortable with about your own experiences of puberty and introduction to sex (no need to overshare).
- Provide the child with age-appropriate books to begin the conversation.
- Do your own research and look up resources by Advocates for Youth, Planned Parenthood and AMAZE.
- Engage in training workshop opportunities on how to talk to kids about sex in a comfortable yet succinct way.
- Remember it’s not one conversation. Talking about sex should be continual to help build upon a safe foundation.
As with anything, Hope reminds us that “every parent has the right to guide their child’s upbringing in the way they would like to.” You may have your own expectations and values associated with sexuality or sex that you want to share with your child. Still, it’s important to “educate them and answer questions they may have regardless of what they choose to do or not.”
Sometimes, children like to ask subtle questions to gauge how a parent may respond. This will indicate to them if they can trust their parent with their questions or curiosity about sex. I remember being the queen of creating hypothetical scenarios to see how my mom would respond. By creating boundaries, Hope said parents can model that everyone has a right to privacy. This is especially important for children to understand.
Addressing Peer Pressure Surrounding Sex
If you remember what it’s like to be a teenager, then you probably remember how susceptible teenagers can be to peer pressure. This can range from skipping classes to sexual encounters. “Parents can remind their older children that becoming sexually active is a decision that looks different for everyone,” Hope said. Despite what their peers may be saying, everyone isn’t sexually active.
You may not be able to decide when your child becomes sexually active. Still, you can “encourage positive and pleasure-based communication, and talk openly about the importance of consent,” Hope said. As an alternative, “Don’t be afraid to talk about masturbation as a form of self-pleasure,” she added.
Responding to Questions About Sexuality
You may have your own beliefs about sexuality, but you can remind your child that you will love and support them regardless. To put action behind your words, engage with support groups to help educate yourself. Encourage your child to become involved in their school’s GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance or Gender and Sexuality Alliance) organization to help build their community. You can also search for a non-biased health care provider to answer questions your child has that you aren’t equipped to respond to.
Responding to Questions About Abortion
Again, regardless of your stance on abortion, Hope said parents can help their children understand it. “Parents can talk about abortion from the perspective of it being a medical procedure that in the past 40-50 years has become politicized.” It will help explain that abortion is another outcome of pregnancy because all situations involving pregnancies are not similar.
This is a great time to remind your child of their reproductive rights and body autonomy, regardless of their personal beliefs or how someone chooses to identify.
Hope said parents can also use the conversation as an opener to talk about other things, like pregnancy, periods, birth control, STIs/STDs, hormones, and more since all of these things are interconnected and related to abortion in some way. You can even discuss the reversal of Roe v. Wade and what it means for your state.
Sex doesn’t have to be a taboo discussion. As parents, we are responsible for creating a safe space for our children to talk to us and navigate the world. Again, we may have our personal beliefs about sex, but all children should know their consent and rights matter. They should also know to respect the decisions of others.
As parents, we have to work toward understanding how our prior experiences have shaped our view on sex. Letting our children know that we don’t always have the answers is okay. And if our child makes a decision we disagree with, we shouldn’t consider ourselves failures. Life is a learning process.