We all have anecdotes about how awkward it was to talk about sex with adults in our lives. Maybe it was the embarrassment of hearing about intercourse from a teacher you didn’t want to picture engaging in such a deed. Maybe it was that awkwardness between the girls and the boys, once you were reunited after “the talk,” every single person wondering, “Am I normal? Am I the only one who feels like this?”
My favorite story comes from family lore. When a neighborhood father took his son out to the family station wagon to tell his son, the oldest of three, about sex, his incredulous response was, “Wow, Dad! You did THAT three times?!” From then on, he was called “Three-Time Frank.”
Nearly everyone feels awkward talking about sex with their kids. But are we adding that awkwardness? If we are open about sex from the beginning and tear down the mystery, sex becomes “normal”—normal and positive, not awkward. And not “normal” in a “I’m going to run out and have sex right now” way—normal in a “now I know what this is about and what the facts are” way. Look at the Netherlands—they have a strong, open sex-ed component for their youth, and they have one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the industrialized world.
When my mother told me about sex, I was too young to know that it was supposed to be awkward. I was fascinated! My mom told me this was privileged information and that sex is something private and special. By sharing it with me, she thought I was ready for this information and the responsibility that came with it (i.e., not telling my younger sister and my friends). I felt big; I felt special: I knew something important that I would need to know for that elusive day when I would be…an adult! I was six.
As I got older, when anyone talked about sex, I didn’t see it as a big deal. I: a.) already knew the information, b.) could discern fact from fiction, or c.) knew I could ask my mom anything—like the time in the third grade when I asked her what a blowjob was and, after hearing the description and proclaiming it “gross,” swore I would NEVER do that! She said I might change my mind some day, but I assured her I wouldn’t. I was nine.
The important point is that a dialogue had been started. I knew that, no matter how embarrassing or private the subject might seem at first, I could talk to my mother about dating, contraception, STDs, pregnancy, abortion and other sensitive subjects. As the ’90s came along and sex became an even more open topic, she would confirm for me that yes, it’s possible to get pregnant the first time you have sex; yes, you can die from AIDS; yes, sometimes men like to sleep with men and women like to sleep with women and some sleep with both; and that while sex could be fun, it’s not something worth dying for.
Talking the Talk
Whatever your values and beliefs are, we can all agree that talking to our children about sex is an important part of their upbringing— at some point, they have to learn, and preferably not from friends telling wild stories in the school restroom. You can frame your discussion within your beliefs. For example, if you believe that sex should wait until after marriage, you can still foster a healthy attitude about sex by talking about how sex is normal while giving the benefits of waiting to have sex. You as the parent have to make that decision.
How do we foster a sex positive attitude in our children? How do we help them understand that sex is normal, almost everyone engages in it (monks notwithstanding), and it’s nothing to be ashamed about—while also helping them to understand that sex can be so many things, from the one-night stand to the sacred and sublime?
When is the right age to talk to our children about sex, and how should we do it? Was it right for my mom to lay it all out on the table at such a young age? Literally—she had books with pictures and everything. I was probably the only kid in kindergarten who knew what an actual sperm looked like and what zygote meant.
On the surface, telling our children about intercourse should be easy—after all, without it, they and none of the rest of us would be here today. What could be more important than explaining to your offspring the whole story of how they came to be?
One organic approach to the “talk” is to have it gradually, in stages, letting the child take the lead. The theory here is that a child will ask questions when they are ready to hear the answer. Wait for your child to bring questions to you, and then give them the most basic answer possible to satisfy their curiosity. For example, if your toddler asks, “Where do babies come from?” you can simply say, from a woman’s stomach/belly/tummy/uterus. That is probably all they really want to know. If they go further and ask how the baby gets out, you can say, through a woman’s vagina. You want to be specific without getting overly technical and complex.
If they keep asking and want to know more and won’t let the topic go, then maybe they are ready to hear how babies are made.
My mom didn’t have to go into all the aspects of foreplay, fetishes, polyamory, and sexual identities and roles to get the basic information across of “penis goes into vagina and sperm fertilizes egg” to satisfy my curiosity. With young children, it’s not usually “sex” they are asking about. They are usually asking about babies, and it just so happens that sex is how babies are made, last time we checked.
And really, should this part of it be that big of a deal? It’s biology. It’s science. It is how all of us essentially came to be. You can decide how much extra information about sex you want to give, based on your child’s response and your comfort level. If you and your partner adopted or utilized fertilization treatments, you can adapt that information into your own story as you see fit. It actually becomes part of the family narrative and a bonding experience.
As children get older, you can gauge your own child’s readiness to hear more: about how dating and sex relate, about how to tell if they’re ready to have sex with someone, and about safer sex and birth control methods. They may have questions about how it feels and why people have sex, even if they don’t really love the person.
While it’s great to foster a sex positive attitude in the upcoming generations and not saddle them with our own personal hang-ups, remember that you have to respect your own boundaries too. If you do not feel comfortable taking sex to such an individual level with your child, help them find a counselor or confidant who can have these discussions with them.
Sex is not dirty. Sex is not something to be ashamed of. The things that turn us on are as unique and varied as the visitors to this site. You must agree with this statement to some degree, or else you wouldn’t be here.
Whatever you decide is right for you, your child, and your family, I hope that what you take away from this article is that fostering openness with your child about sex takes away the mystery and the confusion surrounding this topic. The point is to be open, be direct, and do it sooner, rather than later. Taking away the confusion may even help your maturing child see their relationship issues for what they are and help them become stronger individuals.
And the awkwardness doesn’t always go away just because you’re older, like the time my husband and I were having breakfast with his mom and his sister. We were expecting our first child. Since my due date was close to my husband’s birthday, I joked, “Well, at least we know around what time of year you were conceived, honey!” My mother-in-law chimed in, in a matter of fact, off-hand way, “Oh, yeah,” and told us all that my husband had been conceived on his older brothers’ bunk beds one afternoon, when his mother and father were celebrating buying their new house. My husband was 40. He still to this day wonders why he couldn’t have gone the next 40 years of his life without knowing that fact.