Why I won't give my teens the 'sex talk'

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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 If nothing else, the book is an amusing historical document: showing them pubic hair, non-hipster beards, real boobs and un-airbrushed bodies in action.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. 

 

7 comments

  • "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."

    I think the sentence should have read....

    girls’ sexuality sends messages of virginity being special, sacred.

    I think this goes into ideology of which it is not simply a matter of black or white - although trashing one ideology in favour of another is not really a balanced opinion.

    Commenter
    confused
    Date and time
    May 13, 2014, 11:21AM
    • While your approach of answering questions when they are asked is a sound one, I would gamble there comes an age where the last thing a teenager wants to do is talk to their parents about sex and by not allowing your kids to attend the sex information night you could be preventing them from hearing important information that could save their life.

      I was aware from around the age of 13 that I was gay but I wouldn't come out to my parents about it until i was 19 and without these sex education classes I would have had no idea about STDs and protection.

      Yes the sex-ed back then was painfully heterosexually focussed but still, you got the general idea, put a rubber on, keep yourself safe.

      Even as a grown adult male now, I cringe at the idea of discussing sex with my parents although I am perfectly comfortable discussing this with any other adult relationship I have in my life.

      I'm not going to judge your parenting style and every relationship is different, but I think its important to ensure your kids have enough information to make responsible choices to avoid pregnancy, STDs etc and so forth.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 13, 2014, 11:58AM
      • I've always thought it strange that many parents don't take responsibility for teaching their kids about sex and instead pass it off to some poor teacher who may well have a different take on what is right and wrong from the parents. I'm sure it's not an easy conversation to have, but wouldn't you rather that your child gets to have a one on one chat rather than a group discussion where nobody wants to ask questions, gets your ideas on what is ethically ok rather than that of some teacher who you may not know at all, and the conversation itself hopefully fosters a closer relationship where your child feels more comfortable talking to you about not just sex but other matters as well.

        Commenter
        Hurrow
        Date and time
        May 13, 2014, 12:11PM
        • looked at the "creepy photographs" mentioned in para 7 read the accompanying text - seems the one who took the photographs could see more than a stereotype... the linked article says (and read from the BUT bit!) "From the outside looking in, these rituals feel terribly creepy and morally unacceptable, seeming to imply both that sex is "impure" and that a woman’s body belongs to her father and then to her husband. But Magnusson found unexpected independence and strength of spirit in his young female subjects; in some of the fathers, a few of whom knew nothing of purity balls until their daughters requested that they participate, he saw genuine respect. 
          --
          The images remain pointedly ambiguous, and they disallow us from making judgements or generalizations. In some young women, we might detect traces of discomfort, and that’s painful to see, but in others, the girls’ own deliberation and thoughtfulness shine through. Perhaps in a roundabout and controversial way, some of these teens are claiming their own bodies in the only way available to them. In these images, they might express their complex feelings about virginity. Magnusson explains that the photographs are at the mercy of each viewer; we may take from them what we will. 

          Commenter
          context
          Date and time
          May 13, 2014, 1:52PM
          • My first reaction was to the headline about 'teens'. I doubt that the average teenager (15-16yo) needs a "sex talk" from parents. But this article I suspect is talking about tweens.

            Age-appropriate is really hard to judge and it'd be interesting to see what people think is the level of discussion that is age appropriate for an 11yo and a 9 yo.

            Also, I'm dubious about the "in response to questions bit", for my children. I'd rather get in first with some teaching rather than wait till questions arise.

            But it is really easy to be judgemental about other parents' approach (as well as one's own).
            Even this author has the gall to call other parent's approach "creepy", and "freaky".

            Commenter
            heado
            Date and time
            May 13, 2014, 3:25PM
            • Sarah, I am quite surprised that you say you are keen for your children to have sex-education but don’t let them go to their public-school sex information night – what are you scared of? It’s better when children have both, at least at school the kids can talk about the information they receive with their peers and if they are lucky they have parents who are not too embarrassed to talk to them.

              For all parents who would like information helping them to talk to their children there are some good resources, just a few::

              An excellent book is TALK SOON – TALK OFTEN by Jenny Walsh from La Trobe University
              .
              Another good book is: 500+ Questions Kids Have About Sex.by Lyndall Caldwell

              An excellent DVD called The Talk is available for parents and their teenage children, presented by Melbourne comedian Nelly Thomas. It features talks about sex and relationships in a frank, informed and non-threatening way.

              Sarah Tarca, editor of popular teenage magazine Girlfriend teamed up with Professor Alan McKee from Queensland University of Technology to co-edit a publication, Girl-friend Guide to Life, which is a great resource that covers all aspects of emotional, physical and mental development in teen girls.

              Another fantastic source is the newly published book Loveability, written by Nina Funnell and Dannielle Miller for teenage girls and boys.

              Commenter
              Matty Silver
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              May 13, 2014, 3:45PM
              • The school talks etc are really good for the 'what goes where' aspects of sex education and the practical stuff about staying safe.

                Big picture though, sex is about respecting yourself and respecting other people, feeling confident to say yes (or no) based on how you feel, and not feeling regret about your decisions. Which is where the parents come in.

                Was it sex ed when I told my three year old son that he needed to stop play wresting when his co-wrestler tells him to, because when a friend asks you to stop, you stop? Is it sex ed when I encourage my daughter to speak to the hairdresser when she's not happy, explain why not and ask them what they can do to fix it? I don't think so, but those and similar interactions over many years teach children respect for others and themselves, and how to negotiate challenging situations.

                Commenter
                Iorek
                Location
                Brisbane
                Date and time
                May 13, 2014, 4:50PM
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