“How can you get pregnant from kissing?”
When she was a child, Alice Rolfe-Chin of Ann Arbor posed this question to her mom and sister during a car ride. The two laughed, but neither answered. This was just one of a series of unanswered inquiries about sex that Rolfe-Chin would have to figure out on her own.
“Sexuality is not something I was spoken to about at all,” she says. “I really remember what it was like to be a kid and want those questions answered.”
And she’s not alone.
Many children grow up in families where sex isn’t discussed, or if it is talked about, it’s referred to as “dirty” or “nasty” – and children grow up thinking there is something wrong with having sexual feelings.
Parents, many times due to embarrassment or their own discomfort with the topic, take this approach instead of talking to their kids about a natural part of life.
But silence isn’t smart, experts say.
Michelle Miletic, a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in Birmingham, says parents don’t want to see their kids as sexual beings, but this puts children at risk of things like sexual abuse. The Rape Abuse & Incest National Network reports that 44 percent of sexual abuse victims are ages 18 and under.
“I think it puts them in a very vulnerable space because they really don’t understand danger situations and clues,” Miletic says. “They are also very curious because they have no one educate them.”
Some kids aren’t even getting sexual education in schools. Sex education isn’t mandatory in Michigan, and the state is among 25 states that require abstinence be “stressed” in sex education when it is taught, according to February 2016 data from Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based nonprofit focused on reproductive health (another 12 require it be “covered”). Is it working? Maybe not, some stats hint. Amy Schalet, associate professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex, took a closer look at teen sex education and sexuality in the United States and the Netherlands. She found that while the average age of first-time intercourse in both countries is about 17, the rates of STDs, pregnancy and abortion are much higher in the United States than the Netherlands, which has a more “comprehensive” sex education model.
The abstinence-only model in schools combined with lack of parent-child conversation at home can put kids at a disadvantage and leave them “clueless and curious,” as Miletic puts it.
That’s why Rolfe-Chin, now mom to two daughters ages 10 and 2, has broken the mold in her family and stopped the cycle of silence as a “sex-positive” parent.
“Sex-positive parenting is a belief that your children’s sexual health and well-being is something you have to think about and prioritize,” says Airial Clark, a sexual health educator and parenting coach from the San Francisco Bay area in California. Clark founded TheSexPositiveParent.com and teaches parents how to have open, direct conversations about sex, gender roles, sexual health and consent at every stage of their child’s development.
Talk early and often
Talking about sex isn’t a one-time thing – and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for families. But Miletic says you should talk early and often about it. “If you wait until your kid is 14 or 15 to talk about sex, you’ve waited too long,” she says.
It starts with your toddler.
“It’s really about teaching them about their bodies and the appropriate names for their body parts,” Clark says. Ditch the cute nicknames for penis and vagina and use correct terminology.
Toddlers will inevitably get curious about what’s in their diaper – and when they do, don’t freak.
“Children masturbate. That’s where it starts,” Clark says. “Teach your children that it’s OK to masturbate.”
There are parameters, though. Stress that your child should do it privately and safely – and avoid masturbating when company is over. Kids should wash their hands and remember to not use items to masturbate with. Be careful not to shame your children about masturbation.
As your kids continue to grow, you can talk to them in age-appropriate ways about sex and their bodies.
“When you talk to your kids and you tell them things, you also don’t want to just bombard them with information,” Miletic says. “You don’t want to give a 5-year-old information that they really can’t understand and process.”
When conversing with a school-aged kid, be direct and scientific, and answer his or her questions without shame. Use opportunities that arise naturally to talk to your kids about sex – but don’t force the topic. And Miletic suggests ramping up the conversation if your child ramps it up.
At this stage, your children might ask you something about sex or bodies based on what they see on TV or hear in music. Be prepared to combat these images, Miletic says.
“Sex is presented in a certain way in the media and in music, and if you’re not sort of presenting it a different way, I think that is much more damaging to kids.”
Be an information source for your child so he doesn’t seek that info elsewhere. That’s something Rolfe-Chin does with daughter Leni, who’s 10.
“I’ve been very straightforward with her. I don’t really sugarcoat anything for her,” Rolfe-Chin says. Leni was 6 or 7 when she asked mom what sex was, so Rolfe-Chin explained it with correct terminology – telling Leni that a man puts his penis into a vagina – but not telling her daughter anything she could not comprehend at that age.
Thanks to this approach, Leni feels comfortable asking mom questions. Rolfe-Chin says she checks in with her daughter often, especially now that she’s in her tween years. Body changes and periods come to the forefront during this time.
“It’s really important for girls to know there’s nothing wrong with them if they start (their period) before their friends do,” Clark says. Teach boys that periods are normal, she adds, and make sure to stress to them that it’s not OK to make fun of a girl because she’s on her period.
The teen years
With a combination of hormones and curiosity, it’s no wonder the average age of intercourse is 17. This also means there’s a chance your teen won’t make it out of high school with his or her virginity.
This isn’t something most parents want to think about, but denial won’t do your teen any favors, so keep the conversations going at home.
Sex talk isn’t out of the ordinary in Clark’s household.
TheSexPositiveParent.com founder is mom to two boys ages 14 and 16 – and thanks to her open dialogue about gender, sex, bodies and development, her sons are comfortable talking about all sorts of topics with their mom.
Case in point: porn.
One day, one of Clark’s sons complained to mom that his friend was obsessed with pornography. Clark used that comment as a teachable moment and told her son that it’s not appropriate for a tween or teen to watch a grown person have sex or for a child to be videotaped having sex.
Kids are surrounded by sex and sexual images, she says, so it doesn’t make sense for parents to avoid talking about it.
If you’ve made it to the teen years with your child and have not had any sex talks because you’re uncomfortable with the topic, own that fact with your kids, Miletic suggests. Tell your child why you haven’t discussed the topic with them and explain the root of that discomfort.
Gender and sex
In her book Girls & Sex, author Peggy Orenstein interviewed young women ages 15 to 20 about their attitudes and experiences with sex. Among her discoveries was the fact that young women are being taught to please their partners – not so much about their own pleasure. In an NPR interview about the book, Orenstein recommended parents talk openly to girls about their own pleasures.
Talk to young women about “the idea that your body and the act of sex is about two people giving pleasure to each other – not just servicing,” she says.
Boys should learn that sex isn’t about just getting off, Miletic adds, and fathers play an important role in teaching their sons that.
Clark says both males and females need to be made aware of the external pressures regarding gender roles and, as parents, it’s important to get rid of the old-school notions that girls should be one way while boys are another. Boys can be vulnerable, too, Clark adds. In fact, Clark says she’s worked hard to treat her sons as delicate and vulnerable people – and has avoided passing down what she calls “toxic masculinity.”
Rolfe-Chin’s openness with her children isn’t the norm, she says – and it’s been difficult for her to find fellow moms who are raising their kids the same way. It can be tough if you’re the only mom or dad in your group who’s more open with your children about sex, gender roles and their bodies.
“If you’re the only sex-positive parent in your circle, your kid’s the little information source (and) that can be uncomfortable,” Clark says. But that shouldn’t dissuade you from continuing down the path of sex-positive parenting.
Instead, talk to your kids about privacy and boundaries, Miletic says. Explain that not every kid talks to his parents about sex and, because it’s a private thing, kids shouldn’t randomly bring it up to their peers at school. Be careful not to make your child feel like it’s wrong – just stress that it’s a private matter.
“Sex positive doesn’t mean you say everything’s OK. It’s talking about not being ashamed of your sexuality,” Miletic says.
And there’s no harm in that.
For parents who still need guidance, Miletic and Clark agree that seeking help from a professional is essential. Miletic adds: “The more educated you are, the better. The more you expose yourself to the world out there, the more you can help yourself with it and therefore help your kids.”
This post was originally published in 2017 and is updated regularly.