How To Talk To Your Kids About Sex — Without Shame, Guilt, Or Common Heteronormative Myths

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2019 Guide For How To Talk To Kids About Sex Without Shame Or Heteronormative Myths
Family, Health And Wellness

The thirty minutes I spent listening to my mother trying to teach me the ins and outs of sexual intercourse will be burned into my brain until the day I die. Her idea of how to talk to her kids about sex will always stick with me.

I was draped across my parents’ bed, my nine-year-old feet dangling off the edge as I prepared to bolt if things took an uncomfortable turn for the worse. As if things could get any worse.

In my hand, I held a note I’d scribbled in crayon for a boy, and every time my mom used a "dirty" word my cheeks burned and I tore a tiny scrap from the corner and piled it on the comforter beside me. I’d been caught talking about sex, and apparently my punishment was listening to a grown-up repeat the words “erection” and “vagina” ad nauseam.

That was her version of sex education, and it's not unlike the way most parents talked to kids about sex back in those days: heteronormative, reproduction-based, and leaving kids riddled with shame. Sex ed back then was often confusing for LGBTQ+ kids, and likely harmful in some ways.

RELATED: 10 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Sex, Decades After I Took Sex Education

That memory is more vivid than the birth of my three children and probably equally as painful. I’m certain that on my deathbed, the instant before I leave this world, I will see that tiny pile of shredded paper on the blanket I hoped to God my mom had washed.

Being humiliated by a parent giving “the sex talk” is a rite of passage for all children, and, as it just so happens, my oldest son just crossed that threshold. It was bedtime and I was lying beside my nine-year-old when he asked a question about romantic and sexual relationships from which there was no return.

I wanted to talk to my son about sex differently. I wanted his sex education to be inclusive of LGBTQIA folks, non-shaming, and hopefully not so embarrassing.

We’d talked before about the science of how babies were made: sperm, eggs, fertilization. But this time was different. He wanted to understand why people had boyfriends and girlfriends and why they kissed “and stuff.”

The wheels in my brain whirred to a stop and I thought to myself: Okay, I guess we’re doing this.

I started out following the basic script I remembered my mom using. It seemed reasonable. After all, I turned out alright…

"When a man and a woman love each other very much, and they want to make a baby..."

And then I stopped, only a few minutes into the talk and halfway through the word “penis,” and bit my tongue. I’m a single mother, just getting back into dating after my divorce, and definitely done having kids. Could I really tell my child that sex is purely about reproduction? Could I even straight-face that?

Of all the arcane concepts peddled for decades about sexuality, that one takes the cake. There are many reasons the sex-only-for-procreation story is not only out-dated but totally false. But in addition to those, attempting to convince kids that sex should be reserved only for reproductive purposes discounts the relationships of a growing portion of people in the LGBTQIA community who may never have penis-in-vagina intercourse.

Research also shows that preaching abstinence until marriage can also increase guilt and shame in the long run. Not only that, statistically, very few people actually do reserve sex for marriage. In the most comprehensive study of attitudes about sex and sexual behaviors to date, researchers discovered that, as of 2002 (the last year studied), 95% of people ages 44 years old and younger had participated in sexual intercourse before marriage.

What's possibly even more fascinating, according to The Guttmacher Institute's analysis of the research, "the study shows that even among women who were born in the 1940s, nearly nine in 10 had sex before marriage."

In other words, nearly everyone is having sex before they are married ... just as they have been for decades. The old "when two married people decide to make a baby together" line just doesn't cut it anymore, when it comes to talking to kids about sex or in our sex education models.

RELATED: What Abstinence-Only Sex Education Does To Parents, Kids, And Teen Pregnancy Rates

Sure, as a parent it’s a lot more comfortable to talk to children about the mechanics of reproductive intercourse, but it’s inevitable that they are going to be confronted with other versions at some point — maybe sooner rather than later, if you consider that people of all ages masturbate, and it is a perfectly healthy thing to do.

During adolescence, they’ll learn that here’s oral sex, anal sex, mutual masturbation, and even types of sexual pleasure that don’t involve physical contact at all.

There are as many types of sex as there are types of people in the world — and at my son's tender age of nine, I have no idea which of these will apply to him or the people he might love in his life.

My children have been raised around their two gay grandmas, friends with single moms and dads, families with same-sex or nonbinary parents, and a variety of blended families (including our own).

We’ve become comfortable with the idea that families can look a variety of ways and that every individual is unique and worth getting to know. But, of course, this is all new for me — and many other parents — when it comes to talking about people's physical relationships, and this was my first attempt at broaching the subject with a child.

My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth as I started again.

"Sex is something that serves multiple purposes. It’s about reproduction, and it’s also a way that people feel close to their partner. It’s also something people do because it feels good."

He stared at me like I’d spoken Greek.

It was a vague introduction to the talk, but let’s face it, sex is no longer restricted to penile intercourse between a man and a woman, and it’s certainly not restricted to its practical function. To instruct our children otherwise would be doing them (and society) a disservice. It might even be harmful to their mental health.

Former U.S. Surgeon General, Jocelyn Elders, commented in a recent article in the Journal of Sexual Medicine:

“We have a sexually dysfunctional society because of our limited views of sexuality and our lack of knowledge and understanding concerning the complexities and joys of humanity. We must revolutionize our conversation from sex only as prevention of pregnancy and disease to a discussion of pleasure. Talk concerning procreation is not enough, because it neither addresses accurately the varied sexuality of Americans nor the broad range of sexual practice.”

RELATED: Yes, Your Kids Want Sex Education From You — Not The Internet

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that most of what I remembered so clearly from my childhood sex talk was completely obsolete. It’s as if I were trying to explain the video game Fortnite to my kid using an Atari to demonstrate.

Sexual orientation and gender identity ar no longer considered binary and people aren’t expected or required to fit into any particular pre-fabricated box. That's great for society, but it poses an interesting challenge for overhauling the traditional sex talk.

As a heterosexual woman, penile penetration between a man and a woman is the easiest version of sex for me to talk about — mostly because it is the one that I remember having explained to me as a child. But as I spoke, I found myself wondering how my son would feel if in a few years he found himself attracted to boys, both boys and girls, or not attracted to anyone at all. So, I broadened the definition.

As I stumbled my way through, I also tried to shift the focus of my talk away from the logistics and more on the intention behind sex. First and foremost, sex is an evolutionarily-driven act of pleasure. So, I started again…

"Sex is an act that usually involves touching a person’s private parts — our own or someone else's — and results in a very particular kind of pleasure. The important message for you, at your age, is to know that when you’re a kid, your private parts are private and are only for you to touch or take care of."

Our bodies are designed to crave that pleasure for reproductive purposes, but now that mankind is no longer operating with the sole intention of spreading our genes to every corner of the earth, penetration is no longer the definition of sex. In addition, kids need to learn that it’s OK to have boundaries and to protect their bodies.

RELATED: How To Stop The Bullying Of LGBTQIA+ Kids In Schools (And Teach Yours How To Be Allies Instead)

If you’re a parent having “the sex talk” with your kids, you may find yourself in the same situation I am. To help out, here are a few substitutions that might help bring “the sex talk” into the new world.

Instead of saying: When a man and a woman love each other…

Try: When two people choose to express their feelings physically…

Instead of saying: Sex should be saved for marriage…

Try: Sex should be saved for when both partners are sure they are ready and feel mature enough to handle all the complications and possible consequences of a sexual relationship…

Instead of saying: Sex is when a man’s penis enters a woman's vagina…

Try: Sex is finding pleasure in each other's bodies…

Instead of saying: Sex is between two people…

Try: Sex can be something you do alone or with another person…

Instead of saying: Sex is part of procreation…

Try: Sex is a natural part of being human…

The modern world we live in is a very different sexual landscape than it was when I was nine. Sex is no longer expected to be simply an act performed between a man and a woman — and of course, it never was. Non-hetero, non-monogamous, extramarital sex has always existed, and being able to discuss sex more openly is a wonderful change.

In fact, sex is no longer a single, explicit act at all.

It’s abstract, and trying to define what sex is can feel like trying to define the meaning of art. And as I find with art, it’s more interesting to talk about how a painting makes you feel than the exact strokes the artist used to create the piece. The details will come later once the kids decide what kind of art inspires them.

For now, the most important thing for our kids to understand is that sex can look like almost anything that people choose to share with another person, when they’re older and truly ready. It's also important that we convey the message that sex is intended to make them feel both physical and emotional pleasure. And what could be better than that?

RELATED: 4 Steps To Having Open And Honest Talks About Sex With Your Kids

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Her internet search history is not for the faint of heart. Mary’s writing has also been featured on The Washington Post, Medium, Vox, Brain, Child Magazine, and Bustle. For more, visit her website.

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