Are you talking to your kids about sex?
Sex positivity columnist Anouszka Tate looks at how to talk to your kids about sex. Because it really shouldn't be the ultra-awkward one-time conversation that you avoid until they're 24.
I’m 15 and have just hung up the phone to my boyfriend. We’d been chatting for a good three hours, as is the wont of lovesick teenagers.
For the latter part of the conversation I’ve been sat at the breakfast bar, bum going slightly numb from perching on one of those never-quite-comfortable-enough bar stools. My mum has been wandering in and out of the kitchen. “Did I hear you talking about baby names?” she asks. “Ha, yeah, amongst other things,” I reply, nonchalant.
“If you’re talking about baby names does that mean you’re talking about sex?”
“Great, let’s book a GP appointment to talk about contraception options.”
I grew up in a house where sex is just not a big deal. The un-intimidating notion that sex exists gently swirled through the air alongside the scent of my mum’s lasagne and my brother’s football kit. My dad’s a surgeon so detailed descriptions of bodies were just as commonplace at the dinner table as were the ins and outs of the day’s maths class.
I don’t remember ever being sat down for The Chat. Conversations about sex, bodies, consent, rights, and pleasure just happened organically over many years.
I probably didn’t really realise we were having those conversations. Answers were given when questions arose. Yes, the importance of bodily autonomy, unwanted pregnancy, and knowing I deserve to feel good were made clear, but it’s hard for sex to become a panic-inducing mountain to climb when you’ve segued from how cute Orlando Bloom is and moved on to getting your homework diary signed.
By the time I was 15 and seriously thinking about having sex, it was already something positive to move towards with excitement and kindness, not something to be afraid of or be humiliated by.
As a result, my first sexual experience was chilled, happy, and communicative. I mean, let’s make it abundantly clear, it was by no means the mindblowing sex I would learn to have in the future, but it certainly wasn’t scary, or risky, or shameful.
It’s easy to shirk responsibility of teaching sex to your kids because you think you have to do just that: teach. That it has to be a formal sit-down lesson about explicit facts and figures and details you’re possibly not even sure about yourself. School is for learning lessons, right?
Firstly, I think we’re all well aware that the reason so many adults (read: parents) are so awkward about sex is because their school sex ed was a joke. There is a new relationship and sex education curriculum from this school year, but I’ll be honest, I’m not holding out a wild amount of hope.
Secondly, the brain is the largest sexual organ, so you cannot underestimate the psychological impact of growing up in a sex positive house. That means fostering an environment that’s constantly sex positive, constantly body positive, and constantly open to any and all questions, even if you don’t know the answer yourself yet. Tell your teen that’s a great question, and maybe you can find out together.
Did my parents teach me Actual Details About How to Have Sex? Good lord no! Did they foster a feeling of safety that meant I was in an excellent position (sorry) to learn those things myself? Absolutely.
So, given you don’t have to sit your child down to have The One Chat. What should you do?
Start early. The term ‘age-appropriate sex ed’ is often salaciously thrown around by the media to engender clickbait controversy, but it does exist, and it’s absolutely vital.
As your child learns to talk you’ll no doubt be teaching them that their foot is called a ‘foot’ and their nose is called a ‘nose’. You’ll play a cute little game where you point at a body part and, giggling with glee, they’ll name it correctly. No biggie.
I cannot even begin to stress how important it is to use correct anatomical terms for your child’s genitals. Have you made up some stupid fluffy name for their hand? Eek! If I don’t name it they might not notice it exists, thus never using it to slap someone with!
I jest, but this is incredibly important when it comes to safety and consent. Imagine a young child trying to explain to a teacher that an adult has touched their ‘cookie’ or their ‘flower’. The potential confusion from both parties doesn’t bear thinking about.
Imagine being a grown up petrified you might have testicular or cervical cancer but too afraid to seek medical help because you’ve only ever been taught to talk about your genitals in cutesy or obscure ways.
Imagine being an adult human just wanting to have bloody great sex but not knowing how to ask for it because you still don’t know the intricacies of your own anatomy. No one ever told you there was a difference between your urethra, your vagina, and your vulva. Isn’t everything below the waist just your ‘twinkle’???
Starting compassionate conversations young will also make things less awkward for you in the long run, because you won’t suddenly be caught off-guard. You might have noticed (or even remember from your own childhood) that kids generally start experimenting with self-touch at around three years old. THREE?? We must alert the church elders!
At this age, masturbation isn’t a sexual thing. It’s a self-soother, it’s comforting. As adults we’re quick to ascribe meaning to self-touch, frantically fitting it into our own understanding of sexuality …a kid doesn’t have all that social context. You may well have sucked your thumb as a child – you’re just calming yourself with a bodily sensation.
So, this is actually a great opportunity to start talking about privacy and autonomy. Tell your child it’s ok for them to touch their penis or vulva, but that no one else can, and it’s good to do it when they’re alone.
At some point masturbation will become an actively sexual thing, but the rules remain largely the same. You might have noticed that they’re hogging the bathroom a bit longer than usual, or some questionable items are ending up in the laundry basket …take little moments to remind them that there are some things we do privately, but that private doesn’t have to mean secret or shameful. It can be as simple as letting them know you’re there if they have questions. You know your child best; a little bit of humour might be the way to break the ice, but be careful not to make them feel embarrassed about being caught.
A walk or a car journey are often good times to chat because you don’t have to make direct eye contact, putting both of you a little more at ease.
Speaking of getting caught – do not, and I cannot express this strongly enough, burst into your child’s room unannounced. Even more importantly, do not chastise them if you realise you’ve caught them masturbating.
In my work I’ve spoken to so many people – women, in particular – for whom the shame they were taught about their own bodies and masturbation when they were incredibly young has had a profound effect on their sex life to this day. It’s heartbreaking. All it takes is a split second of a parent’s vocal disgust for a person to spend a lifetime engaging in risky sex, or not enjoying sex, while they untangle humiliation from pleasure.
While we’re here, be careful of gendered reactions to both masturbation and curious questions about sex. We generally find the idea of a young boy exploring his body – and other people’s – much more acceptable than we do a young girl. I’d really like any teen daughter of mine to know she’s allowed to explore her own body rather than believing that’s something only others can do to her.
Back to privacy. This is a two-way street. You’ve made it clear to your child that their body is something to be enjoyed, but in private, so you have to respect that privacy too. Assure them you’ll never barge into their room or the bathroom unannounced. Tell them you’ll always knock, and that they have the right to say ‘come in’, or ‘not right now’.
This builds trust and respect and develops personal autonomy, concepts that are all quietly transferred to bodies too. When a young person knows they’re in control of their own personal space, they feel safe to say ‘not right now’, or ‘no’, or indeed that all-important enthusiastic ‘yes’ when others want to touch them.
To end on a potentially uncomfortable home truth, it’s probably you as a parent who feels way more awkward talking about sex than your child does. This is more about you and your tightly held beliefs about sex and bodies than it is to do with your child’s behaviour, so make sure you’ve had a bit of a chat with yourself first about why you might be feeling awkward or embarrassed about having any of these conversations in the first place.
Your child doesn’t know to be ashamed of sex yet, so don’t teach them to be.
This needs to be a mutually pleasurable experience; I want to help answer your questions too. What are you confused, curious, or concerned about? Ask me a question in the comments below or on my Instagram page, and I’ll do my best to answer in my next column!
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