It’s the sex information night at our local public school this week. My kids are not going. Not because I’m a prude and nor because I’m still emotionally scarred from when my mum put up her hand and yelled ‘SPERM’ at my year six talk.
It’s because I’m not a believer of the ‘big talk’ where sex is seen as a secretive, massive big deal to be dumped on them in an overwhelming lecture with illustrations of anatomy. I’m keen for sex education to instead be a gradual growing awareness; a process of life long learning. So, I’ve tried to impart little bits of information, in age-appropriate manner, in response to questions. Interestingly enough, I’ve found this openness has made them less curious than some of their friends.
However, as my eldest child fast approaches high school, I am slowly beginning to consider how I will deal when my children become sexually active.
Like Clementine Ford, I cried with joy in the episode of Puberty Blues when Sue’s cool mother talked to her about enjoying sex. She told her to ‘choose a boy and teach him where to go’ and gave her a copy of ‘The Joy of Sex’ (the illustrated sex manual that came out in 1972 featuring groovy illustrations of sexual positions) to help her on the journey. I celebrate such a mother who wins her child’s affection and lifelong gratitude by introducing her to sex as pleasure. Of course, I would rather be her than the stitched up mother played by Claudia Karvan who drives her Debbie away with her strictness and inability to deal with daughter’s burgeoning sexuality.
But while I’d like to emulate Sue’s mother, I wonder if I will be able to be the groovy parent who lets my teenage children have lovers to stay the night, puts condoms under their pillow and who gives them ‘The Joy of Sex’. I’d like to think so. If nothing else, the book is an amusing historical document: showing them pubic hair, non-hipster beards, real boobs and un-airbrushed bodies in action. But given its old-fashioned look and lack of modern advice on STDs and condoms, perhaps I should show them the update. Or another sex book. Or is porn perhaps the modern equivalent? It’s likely they’ll see it anyway, with studies showing most children are exposed to pornography by the age of 11.
The increased availability of sexual material should make things easier. Yet there appears to be an increasing link between internet porn and risky sexual behaviour in young teens.
Perhaps this is why there’s been a leap to the opposite direction with some parents in the United States. Federally funded ‘Purity Balls’ have become all the rage with daughters often dressed in white, pledging to remain virgins until marriage and fathers promising to protect their daughters' chastity. This is paternalistic, creepy and dangerous, as an obsession with girls’ sexuality sends messages of virginity being special, sacred and a protection against all bad. Or a ‘gift’ as our Prime Minister liked to describe it. Witness these creepy photographs.
Aside from all the freakiness, vows of abstinence don’t work. Eighty-eight percent are understandably broken before marriage. And while such vows may delay sex, they no doubt sully the eventual intercourse with guilt, shame, and do not reduce teen pregnancy or STDs nearly effectively as condoms.
However at the other end of the spectrum, the ‘permissive parenting’ trialed in the days of the seventies has also been criticized. Not for the risk of being sprung (poor Sue’s father in Puberty Blues could not get the image of his daughter having oral sex out of his head) but for it’s inability to set boundaries.
We are constantly told that permissive parenting leads to children who are insecure and lack self discipline because of their lack of guidance. In terms of sex and drugs and rock and roll, research generally finds the children of such parents have kids that have sex younger and use more drugs.
Interestingly though, a Michigan school of nursing study this year found the sex was safer and that family connection and general communication helped protect against risky behaviours. At the end of the day, perhaps it’s not when sex starts (within reason and the law) but how safely and pleasurable it is that counts. The same study found those adolescents with strict and controlling parents had sex later but found it less enjoyable and much riskier.
What’s clear when you read much of the research is that while discussion about sex might be important, adolescents who feel connected in a stronger relationship with their parents will be more likely to have later sexual onset and fewer sex partners at a young age.
Of course, there’s no clear answer and its all highly dependent on the family and child and on a parent’s ability to actually be the parent they would like to be. Yet it’s important for parents to consider these questions because the fifth National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health has warned, that school sex education is out of date and not preparing young people for the complexities of sexual relationships. Clearly, it’s up to us to get it right.
No matter what type of parent we are, we probably all have work to do. We need to concentrate on not having any sense of a double standard in the way we talk to our teenage boys and girls about sex. And we need to accept that our adolescent children may be ready for sex before we are ready to accept they are doing it.
It’s confronting to consider opening up our own home and our ability to discuss pleasure, consent, relationships, respect, love, safety and masturbation.
It’s much more difficult than attending a sex talk.