My daughter will be heading off to college next year. As her departure draws near, things I want to tell her — the topics range from laundry to driving to inspirational mantras — pop into my head at all hours. Perform random acts of kindness! If you can dream it, you can do it! Life is not a dress rehearsal!
And then there’s sex. Have I told her everything she needs to know to enjoy healthy sexual relationships and be safe? (And what, exactly, does she need to know?)
Like other parents, I’ve heard stories about casual hookups, booty calls, passed-out sex, campus sexual assault, and other nightmarish facts of contemporary college life. In fact, I got a close-up look at these issues when I edited The Hunting Ground, the companion book to the award-winning CNN documentary that explores sexual violence on college campuses. Of course, rape is a violent crime, completely different (but unfortunately not completely separate) from the complex modern world of sex and romance. Without knowing what our teens are going to encounter once they are away from home, what do we need to tell our kids about sex and relationships so that they learn to have healthy, satisfying experiences and keep themselves and their partners safe? To find out, I turned to the experts: educators and writers who’ve spent years in the trenches, talking to teens and their parents about sex and relationships.
You need to have these conversations — no matter how uncomfortable they make you or your teen
Talking to your child about sex, hookups, relationships, and consent is not just one conversation. Experts recommend that parents talk openly with their teens about these topics on an ongoing basis. As your child matures, so should the conversations. But that’s when things get tricky. Sex is everywhere in American culture, yet many of us find it a difficult topic to broach. And most teens are even less eager to have these discussions than we are. Well-meaning parents who try to introduce the subject quickly learn that there’s no better way to clear a room. After a few tries, many parents give up and reassure themselves, “Oh well, she had sex ed at school last year;” or, “Parents are the last person teens want to talk to about this stuff.”
But experts say that having these conversations is an essential parenting responsibility. According to Al Vernacchio, a high school sex educator and the author of For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk To Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health, “No matter what your kids learn in school — and it’s probably less than you think — parents need to be their kids’ primary sex educator.”
Deborah Roffman, author of Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go To” Person about Sex, agrees. “What we know from literally decades of research is that young people raised in families where sexuality is openly discussed are less vulnerable to premature engagement in sexual activities and, if and when they do become involved, do so with greater insight, forethought, and sense of caring and responsibility. It’s education, not evasion, that makes our kids safer,” Roffman writes in The Huffington Post.
Beyond just say no
Many parents, if they talk to their kids at all, tend to emphasize the dangers of sexual intercourse and don’t talk about the positive aspects of healthy sexual relationships.
Most sex ed classes convey a similar message, says Roffman. “Sexuality education is really sex education: ‘These are the parts you have, and what you can do with them, and the trouble you can get in if you do, and ways to prevent that.’”
Peggy Orenstein, the author of Girls & Sex, calls this a fear-based approach to talking about sex. “We make sure kids know about all the things that can go wrong — pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases — and as parents we think we’ve done a good job. As a parent, I would have thought so, too, before I started exploring the subject.”
In her research, Orenstein found that this emphasis on the risks of sex has contributed to a woeful ignorance about sex and intimacy among teens. In particular, she found that, despite advances in women’s rights, for many teen girls today, sex is more about their partner’s pleasure than their own. “Many of the girls I interviewed felt entitled to engage in sex, but didn’t feel entitled to enjoy it,” she says.
If parents only emphasize the hazards of sex, then kids will be less likely to learn about their own body and their partner’s, and about reciprocity, respect, and other ingredients that go into a mature, fulfilling relationship.
“I have never met a parent who didn’t want their child to have a happy, healthy sexual relationship,” Vernacchio says. “But if we only tell them, ‘no’ because we are afraid for them, then we are not giving them the information they need to achieve that goal.”
Talk about values, not just mechanics
The reality is, if you aren’t talking to your kids about sex, they are getting information somewhere. And you’re missing an opportunity to share your values and help shape theirs. “They are hearing it from their peers, the internet, the media, and who knows where else,” says Vernacchio. In fact, he thinks that many disturbing behaviors, like alcohol-fueled hookups, porn addiction, and sexual assault, result from this lack of honest, open communication about sex between young people and the adults in their lives. “We aren’t talking to our kids about their values, about issues like authenticity versus popularity, and about how you treat other people,” he says.
In his book, Vernacchio encourages parents to create a values framework around relationships and sex. So when parents talk to their teens about sex, they shouldn’t just talk about the mechanics of sexual reproduction. They should also talk about respect, self-respect, reciprocity, authenticity, honesty, empathy — these are values you have likely been teaching your children their whole lives, and they are relevant to healthy sexual relationships, too.
Parents model and convey lessons on reciprocity, respect, and other values in everyday life. You can also help your child identify these qualities (or lack of them) in interactions you observe around you. When you overhear an exchange at the table next to you at a restaurant or when you’re watching a movie together, ask questions like, “I didn’t like the way he talked to her, did you?” Or, “Does it seem like they’re treating each other with mutual respect?” Or, “They just met and they had sex almost immediately. What do you think about that?” Even if your child is uncomfortable or doesn’t reply, questions like these will get your teen thinking. It also demonstrates your willingness to openly discuss such issues and your respect for your teen’s opinion.
“We teach our kids life lessons all the time, but we don’t connect all these great life lessons to sexuality,” Deborah Roffman points out. But it’s time we did.
And if your child flees every time your try to talk about sex, “You have to keep trying,” she says. “Tell your child, ‘I have been trying to talk to you about this, and now I am just going to do it. As a parent, there are things I need you to know.’ And start talking.”
“Studies show that teens want their parents to talk to them about sex,” Vernacchio says. “Your kids might make a big, loud production out of telling you to go away or to stop talking, but don’t be fooled. They are listening.”
Roffman agrees. “Of course teenagers are going to resist their parent’s viewpoint — that is how you become a separate person. But they hear it. They use their parents’ values as a reference point. I have noticed that kids who know what their parents’ values are have an easier time figuring out their own.”
Changing the metaphor
Baseball has a long history as America’s favorite metaphor for sex. We’ve all heard about getting to first, second, or third base, and scoring. Vernacchio never liked this model for sex. He writes in For Goodness Sex, “It sets up the idea that it’s a game and that there are opposing teams. On one side is an aggressor who’s trying to move deeper into the field, often thought to be the boy; and on the other side is the girl, whose role is to defend her turf. It’s competitive … someone wins, and someone loses.”
Vernacchio’s new metaphor for sex? Pizza. When two people get together for pizza, they aren’t competing. It’s a shared experience that’s satisfying for both people. It requires communication (“Do you like pepperoni?” “I’d like extra cheese”). There aren’t winners or losers. Instead, Vernacchio points out, the pizza model is about asking questions: “Learning about one’s sexuality should be about assessing desires and asking and answering questions.”
It’s a word that teens should hear almost as soon as they get to campus. Today, most colleges have workshops (often mandatory) on sex and consent during college orientation. Consent simply means that both individuals involved in a sexual encounter must agree to it, and either person may decide — at any time — that they no longer consent, and that they wish to stop the sexual activity.
“Consent means respecting people’s boundaries,” Roffman says. “The prevailing attitude used to be that everything is okay unless the other person says no. Now the onus is on the person who wants to engage in behavior to have their partner’s permission.” That means both partners need to hear each other clearly say yes.
If you’ve raised your teen to listen to and respect other people, the concept of consent may seem obvious, but it’s still a good idea to explore some of the nuances that could arise in real-life situations. How you help your teen prepare for specific situations may depend on his or her gender, since girls are more likely to be the target of sexual aggression and boys to be the aggressor. Discuss possible situations, and how to handle them. Is it consent if the other person is so high she can’t walk or so drunk that everyone can tell she’s had one too many? If you change your mind in the middle of a sexual encounter, what’s the best way to communicate that to your partner? If you’re having doubts about going further, what are some good ways to de-escalate a situation? Sex educators Roffman and Vernacchio both say parents’ overall messages about sex and consent should be the same for both boys and girls. “I think it’s the same message: a single standard for everyone,” says Roffman. “I don’t believe in the sexual double standard: overlooking or even praising boys for behavior girls are vilified for. I think parents’ message should be about the values they expect their children to bring to any and all relationships.”
Discussing possible scenarios and strategies will help your teen plan ahead and be prepared if difficult situations come up. Preparing in advance is a skill many young people apply to academics but not to real life, according to high school sex educator Charis Denison. Most teens wouldn’t think of showing up for a test without knowing what they were going to be tested on, Denison says in Orenstein’s book. “But people will go to a party without any thought at all, not even of what they don’t want to happen.”
When young adults use the term “hookup,” it can mean anything from kissing to oral or anal sex to intercourse, according to Orenstein, and they’re usually referring to an encounter that involves no emotional commitment.
Despite media hype about the rampant hookup culture on college campuses, the real numbers aren’t as high as you may think. Orenstein cites findings by the Online College Social Life Survey, which concludes that 20 percent of college students hook up ten times or more by senior year; 40 percent hook up three times or fewer, and only one third of hookups include intercourse.
Widespread or not, hooking up is a subject parents should talk about with their teens. Most adults understand how difficult it is to separate sex and feelings, and most would agree that sex is far better in the context of a loving relationship. These aren’t moral judgements about whether hooking up is right or wrong, they are simply the conclusions most of us reach, based on our own experiences and the experiences of those around us — and as such they are worth sharing with our kids. Whether or not teens have hooked up themselves, you can be sure they know kids who have. Ask them what they think about sexual encounters with no emotional involvement, and how they feel about hooking up versus being in a relationship. Discussing these issues will help your teen reflect on his own values, and what he wants from the relationships in his life.
In all of these discussions, you’ll want to convey to your kids that they can always turn to you for information and support. The American Sexual Health Association encourages parents to be “askable” on the subject of sex, which means being approachable — and not becoming upset or threatened by whatever questions your teen asks. If you don’t know an answer, tell your child that, consult a reliable source to find out (see suggestions below), and discuss what you learn with your teen. By creating an open, curious, non-charged environment around the topic of sex, you’ll be able to provide information your children need when they need it.
In Vernacchio’s experience, parents who do the best job communicating with their teens about sex are more focused on the thought process than the outcome. If your goal is to convince your child not to have sex and you’re fixated on that, you may be disappointed. “The issue is not whether or not your child is going to have sex,” he says. “It’s about how they think about it and make that decision,” he says. “Your child may not make the choice you want them to make, but if they make the choice in a mature, responsible, deliberate way, you’re going to respect the process.”
Fortified by my research, I offer to drive my daughter to school one morning. She’s always happy to avoid the bus, so eagerly accepts. As we slowly negotiate the morning traffic, I decide to just start talking. I tell her there are a few things about sex and relationships that I want her to know.
“Mom, we’ve talked about this already,” she protests, rolling her eyes. “And I’ve had sex ed about a million times.” When I insist, she tells me, while unraveling her earphones, “Okay, you can talk, but I’m not listening!”
I launch into my talk, and she puts one earbud in her ear, but lets the other dangle loose. She stares straight ahead and doesn’t say much, but I know she’s listening: she even ends up telling me about a friend who was on birth control and asks a question or two. It isn’t a linear conversation — in fact, it’s more of a monologue, with a few reluctant responses from my hostage daughter, and there are many things I didn’t have a chance to say. Still, I feel good about it. I created an opening, and it will be easier next time.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” I ask when we pull up in front of her school.
“Whatever,” she says as she gets out of the car. “But next time I’m taking the bus.”
Resources for starting the conversation about hookups, sex, and consent
There’s no shame in seeking help to begin conversations about sex with your teen. These books and websites are great resources for sparking discussion. Watch Vernacchio’s TED talk about changing the metaphor from baseball to pizza together and go from there. Or browse (and share with your teen) any of the books and websites listed below.
5 books to check out
- For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk To Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health by Al Vernacchio
- Girls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein
- Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go To” Person about Sex by Deborah Roffman
- S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College by Heather Corinna
- From Diapers to Dating by Debra W. Haffner
Websites for parents
- Planned Parenthood’s resources for parents
- Talk With Your Kids
- Rutgers University’s Answer: Sex ed, honestly
- Al Vernacchio’s TED talk “Sex needs a new metaphor. Here’s one…”
- Amaze videos on puberty, sexuality, and healthy relationships
- Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)
- True Colors resources for heterosexual parents of LGBT children
Websites for teens
- Planned Parenthood’s info for teens
- Amaze videos on puberty, sexuality, and healthy relationships
- SEX, etc. a website by and for teens
- Scarleteen a sex information website for teens
- Al Vernacchio’s TED talk “Sex needs a new metaphor. Here’s one…”
- Go Ask Alice! experts answers to health questions
- Family Acceptance Project videos and documentaries