Forward Thinking: Talking to Teens About Sex

Dan Fincke and Libby Anne’s latest question in their Forward Thinking series is a very interesting one: What would you tell teenagers about sex? Let me preface this by saying that I don’t have any kids and I never will. And I don’t think you should wait until they’re teens to talk to them about sex. But there is a hell of a lot that needs to be said on many related issues.

On sexual orientation: You may know at this point whether you’re attracted to boys or girls or both or neither. Whatever it is, it’s who you are and there is nothing wrong with it, so don’t ever let anyone make you feel bad or ashamed about it. You have my complete support and love, period.

On when to have sex: I’m not going to tell you not to have sex until you get married because I don’t think that’s either likely or healthy. And I’m not going to tell you to have sex with everyone willing to have sex with you either, because that can be dangerous and unhealthy in multiple ways. What I am going to tell you is this: When you have sex with someone, you’re engaging not only their body but also, quite often, their emotions. And both of those things bring some responsibility with them, so don’t treat sex frivolously.

On consent: You should never use deception, force or any kind of coercion of any kind to get someone to have sex with you, or give in to anyone who does use those things. If the person you want to have sex with is not ready to have sex, you have no right to push them into it, and if you’re not ready to have sex, no one else has the right to push you into it.

On safety: Some kinds of sex can result in pregnancy and all kinds of sex can transmit various diseases (with all the appropriate information, of course). Never presume that the person you have sex with is using protection. Always use a condom and have backup as well — and talk about all of this ahead of time. Plan it out, be prepared, don’t get into a situation where you don’t have what you need and then think “Oh, it’ll be okay just this once.”

On relationships: There are many different types of sexual relationships. Some are monogamous and exclusive, others are not. Decide what you want for yourself and then make sure that your partner understands that and make sure you understand what they want. It’s okay to have casual sex as long as you’re being safe and both of you understand that it’s casual and uncommitted. Again, talk about this well in advance. You can really hurt someone if they expect something you aren’t prepared to give, or vice versa. Communication and honesty are absolutely crucial in any sexual situation and in any relationship.

I’m sure there are things I’m leaving out, but the conversation should always end with this: Don’t ever feel ashamed or afraid to ask or tell me anything. If you’re old enough to ask the question, you’re old enough to get an honest, accurate answer. What I want for you is for you to be happy and healthy and for any relationship you have, whether it lasts one night or the rest of your life, to be based on honesty and communication — especially your relationship with me. I will never make you feel bad for asking questions or telling me what you’ve done, what you’re thinking about doing or how you feel about it. If you have any doubts or conflicts about something, you can always come and talk to me and I’ll do my best to help you figure out what is best for you.

Actually, just go read Gretchen’s answer to the question. It’s far better than what I managed.

P.S. All of this reminds me of the joke about the father who was too embarrassed to have a talk with his son about sex, so he just gave him a stack of Penthouse Forums to read. After a few days he asked his son, “Do you have any questions about what you read?” The son said, “Just one, dad. Am I the only guy on earth who doesn’t have 10 inches of throbbing manmeat?” *insert rimshot here*

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  • ArtK

    I’ve got two teenage sons (15 & 17) and this is about what I’ve told them.

  • magistramarla


    I’m impressed. You did a very good job.

    My daughter and her husband have recently had a similar discussion with my 13 year old grandson.

    They designed their own sex-ed plan after reading the outline of what was being taught in his (Texas) health class. They found it so deficient that they felt that they needed to fill him in on the truth for his own safety.

    They chuckled when he walked into the house one day and announced to his Mom, Step-Dad and Dad (who happened to be there) – “Just so you know – I kissed a girl today”.

    We were open with our kids and they are doing the same with theirs. That openness has made them feel comfortable with talking to the adults in their family. That’s an important part of being a family.

  • Ichthyic

    What would you tell teenagers about sex?

    …that they don’t already know, you mean.

    seriously though, I found when I was teaching middle school/high school students that the big thing they lack is awareness of the impacts of their actions on others.

    The “on relationships” paragraph is the concise version of what needs to be said, but really, this is the main thing that needs to be dealt with in much detail. Even then, the teenage brain is at odds with grasping many of these concepts, and often the best that can be hoped for is that at least they will have your words in mind when they inevitably DO make a mistake and hurt someone, and that they can then learn faster from the experience and make corrections.

    I’ve often thought that “social studies” courses in high school should be much more focused on understanding interpersonal relationships and the impacts our behavior has on others. I think the reason this is not so is simply because it’s a very difficult subject to teach.

  • martincothran

    And I thought fundamentalists were preachy and moralistic.

  • ArtK

    @ martincothran

    Huh? Would you care to elaborate, or was that some drive-by snark?

  • lofgren

    My child is yet unborn (about one month away now), but I think that my “talk” will emphasize trust a lot more. Whoever you have sex with, I think it is very important that you feel like you can trust them and that you be somebody whom they can trust. You should trust that they understand your boundaries, that they will be respectful of your person and your feelings, that the relationship will progress in a direction you both want it to, that they will share responsibility should any unforeseen consequences arise (be they hurt feelings, pregnancy, STD, whatever) etc. It should be somebody with whom you are comfortable making Very Important Decisions.

    I think I will be a just little bit more disparaging of casual sex. Not totally, but I do feel that it is irresponsible to have sex with people who you don’t know well enough to trust. I don’t think that a person has to have a deep emotional connection with every sex partner, nor that they must always be thoroughly vetted in some rigorous manner. But I don’t think it is responsible, safe, or healthy behavior to jump somebody just because they have a hot booty or something like that. You should know the person well enough to have some inkling that they are honest, trustworthy, decent people.

    This is a highly subjective standard, of course, but I hope that I will raise my daughter with a level enough head on her shoulders that I can trust her judgement in this area.

    The only other thing I would say is that I think the consent portion of this talk is really part of a much more complex talk about being a decent human being and treating people the way you would like to be treated. Consent in sexual situations should not need to be singled out and given special attention except because it is a very common case. By the time we are ready to have the sex talk with our kid, I hope that her reaction to the bit about consent will be, “Well no duh, Dad.”

  • martincothran

    Just a drive-by snark. Don’t know what came over me. I was just observing how self-proclaimed skeptics are every bit as prescriptive and dogmatic about the things they care about as many of those they criticize–and their tone (although often hidden in non-directive rhetoric) every bit as absolutist.

  • martincothran,

    1. By and large, I think not.

    2. If you consider this post to be an example of such, could you trouble yourself to bother explaining why?

  • lofgren

    martincothran does not know what skeptic means.

  • No One

    One thing that worked with my daughter was listening to Dr. Drew’s radio show “Loveline”, in the car when I was driving her around. Not because I held Dr. Drew in high esteem, but the callers “problems” where a spring board for conversation on a variety of subjects, including sex, relationships, substance abuse, etc… I tried very hard not to tell her what to do, but would express my thoughts and explain why I chose to think that way.

    @martincothran my guess is that you don’t have any children of your own. None the less I’d be interested on what you consider to be appropriate to tell a teenager about sex.

  • ArtK

    Ah, I see. It’s “dogmatic” to teach children to respect others and to be careful with their health and emotions. Got it. That’s just like the fundies.

  • So it’s the usual. Believing that there are right and wrong answers is dogmatic.

  • cjcolucci

    My mother had been an obstetric nurse, and taught me the facts of life out of an old OB-GYN text. I lasted until the pictures (B&W) of the baby’s head coming out.

    Problem was, the book picked up with a patient already pregnant, and while I learned a great deal about the birthing process, I didn’t know how the sperm and egg got together in the first place and she forgot to mention that part. (In those days, I didn’t see why being an unwed mother was so awful. I thought it was just some kind of bad luck. Dreadfully unfair of people to stigmatize these victims of random fertilization.)

    Realizing her error some months later, she finished the discussion. But she always insisted that sex was beautiful and natural and not the least bit dirty, which put me off it for a long time. If it wasn’t dirty, I wasn’t interested. Took a while to get back on track.

    Looking back, maybe my mother was a genius.

  • No One

    At the ripe age of 7 my mother explained (upon my request) how things worked. The egg thing I understood, having seen a baby chick hatch. The sperm was a bit puzzling till M explained they were like tadpoles except smaller. I spent the next couple of days pointing to my crotch and proudly explaining to anyone who paid attention to me that I “had tadpoles”.

  • mithrandir

    martincothran @7: In all seriousness, what are you getting at? When you spoke of self-proclaimed skeptics being “prescriptive”, “dogmatic”, or “absolutist”, what was on your mind? Was it something in Ed’s blog post, something in the comments up till that point, or something else that this post and comments happened to remind you of?

  • ttch

    You’re ignoring some important things.

    (1) In most U.S. jurisdictions, teenagers having any sort of consensual sex–even “petting”–prior to some age, means someone is committing a felony. You should know what the law is in your state and inform your teen appropriately.

    (2) Ditto “sexting”, particularly taking, sending, or keeping received pictures of any teenager–even oneself–in any state of undress. Most prosecutors consider these to be “child pornography” with serious lifelong repercussions.

    (3) You haven’t addressed the issue of commercial pornography except as a joke. Is it OK to masturbate to pictures or videos of women who may have been trafficked or abused? Also, if your teen is interested in fetish porn, is that OK? Or does it mean it’s time to get him or her into treatment?

  • No One

    mithrandir @ 15

    You know the dog that loves to play fetch? Brings the stick back and goes into a feedback loop ala “I really want him to throw the stick again but I also want the human to play chase to get it from me”. That’s our friend martincothran. He really really wants to tell us “more” but he’s having so much fun watching us trying to engage him his hands are frozen over the keyboard.

  • angle

    [Completely off topic]

    All of a sudden, I think I understand why so many of us tend to be so short on patience- they’ve had too many encounters with people like martincothran. Still, I think the best response, once actual conversation proves hopeless, is to simply ignore them. There are few things more painful than being ignored.

    [/completely off topic]

    As for the post, I’d say that communication is the most important thing. Make sure you both know exactly what it is that you’re getting in to.

  • I think I would probably want to tell any children (that I’m not likely to have, but hey, it doesn’t hurt to think about what I would say if) about how while I wouldn’t want them to feel the shame I felt about sex and sexuality as a young person, that it’s not a taboo and being a sexual person really is a good thing – I actually value the result, which was waiting for my sexual experiences until I was older and ready and able to make informed, consenting decisions, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    That said, the other thing I would add to the usual types of things like the OP is that I think more people including imaginary teenagers should be informed that visually based attraction is not the only way human beings work. In our visually based television and pornography culture it may be the way most people talk about attraction and sexuality, but thinking that “attraction” = looking at another human being or a photograph of one and thinking, unbidden, sexual thoughts about them was a source of great confusion for me and caused me great anxiety. For a while I thought I was not interested in sex at all because this just doesn’t happen to me because attraction for me is primarily emotional with secondary scent and touch aspects.

    Oh, and Loveline worked pretty good for me for breaking up the awful taboos and shame of a fundie upbringing. It was pretty good for picking up the weird slang of the whole arena and for some perspective on the chaos of my home life.

  • No One

    ttch @16

    I’d be more concerned about the social/psychological ramifications of “picture taking”. Having intimate pictures of oneself passed around the ether-sphere can be devastating. I had an acquaintance who’s daughter had a hard break-up with her “boyfriend”. He posted pics of her as part of his break-up revenge. She was of age at the time so it wasn’t an automatic no-no. But to prove a continuing pattern of harassment (much and varied) the father had to find all the sites her pictures were posted on and print them out for the judge. Removing the tattoo of his name was pretty expensive too.

  • Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Just a drive-by snark. Don’t know what came over me. I was just observing how self-proclaimed skeptics are every bit as prescriptive and dogmatic about the things they care about as many of those they criticize–and their tone (although often hidden in non-directive rhetoric) every bit as absolutist.

    I guess if you’re the kind of shit-for-brains who thinks “treat people like people, yourself included” is “authoritarian and dogmatic…”

  • Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Also, if your teen is interested in fetish porn, is that OK? Or does it mean it’s time to get him or her into treatment?

    Are you fucking serious?

  • mildlymagnificent

    I’d be more concerned about the social/psychological ramifications of “picture taking”. Having intimate pictures of oneself passed around the ether-sphere can be devastating. I had an acquaintance who’s daughter had a hard break-up with her “boyfriend”. He posted pics of her as part of his break-up revenge.

    Which gets us right back to the starting point of that trust issue. We can’t ever know for certain how we or another person might behave when things go pear-shaped, but being open and honest – and cautious – about granting or accepting to/from another person would at least give an aggrieved person a voice in their head which could ameliorate their behaviour. Not entirely and not all of them, but an improvement.

    As for talking to teenagers – you have to start earlier. I can’t really remember what we said or how we said it, but it was never a special occasion thing. It’s helpful to be sensible from the time they’re first learning language that you use proper names for body parts. A couple of decades on, there are now specific issues that really need to be hammered into resistant teenage skulls. Porn being readily available online is one thing. 15 year old boys telling their 14 year old girlfriends that they “should” perform all kinds of sexual activities and that they “should” alter the appearance of their bodies and, worst of all, many do this despite my brain telling me that it’s beyond comprehension, that they “should” consider cosmetic surgery to make their breasts or their genitalia look more like what is presented on porn flicks. This has to be dealt with for both boys and girls. It’s upsetting for teachers who find themselves fielding questions from the girls in their sex/relationship classes about these things. This should have been preempted by better education earlier in the process.

  • mildlymagnificent

    Oh dear. That would be granting and accepting *trust*

  • One is left to wonder if that was the Martin Cothran that TFK used to mention.

  • Olav

    The article is titled “Talking to teens about sex”. All very well, however I believe the sex talk should start at a much younger age. Like from the start – all “age appropriate” of course.

  • lofgren

    Just because this column is about talking to teens about sex does not preclude talking to them about sex when they are younger. I have to assume the talk you give to your kid before they reach puberty is going to be very different from the talk afterward. If you are advising your kindergartner to always use condoms, best case scenario you are jumping the gun by a decade or so.

  • lofgren

    In most U.S. jurisdictions, teenagers having any sort of consensual sex–even “petting”–prior to some age, means someone is committing a felony.

    This is not true. Most US states have a close-in-age exception. Even if you are in a state that does not have close-in-age exceptions and forbids that defense in court, the most common age of consent is 16. So in “most” US jurisdictions the only way for one teenager to commit a felony by engaging in sexual activity with another teenager is for a 17 year old to fool around with a 13 year old, an 18 year old with a 14 year old, or a 19 year old with a 15 year old. That’s a far cry from “any sort of consensual sex.”

  • mypettaco

    Another really important point that all people, not just teens need to know is that you have to explicitly ask for consent. It’s not good enough to not to assume something is OK because someone hasn’t said no. If you don’t know if something is OK ask. As a general rule, ask before you touch unless you’ve clearly been given blanket consent. Also it’s never wrong to ask for consent and it’s never wrong to say no. Asking for consent doesn’t have to kill the mood and it’s likely to make you and any partners you have a lot safer, healthier, and happier.

  • Another really important point that all people, not just teens need to know is that you have to explicitly ask for consent.

    Yes. And all persons should carry signature authorization forms listing specific acts that can be jointly initialed to indicate mutual consent. Notarization would be best, but not absolutely necessary. A witness 18 or over will suffice.

    This is extremely important. I’ve been sexually assaulted hundreds of times by women who thought they could do things without explicitly seeking and obtaining my consent.

  • Did anyone mention listening to your child, being attuned to who they are, what they need at a given time? How about when to approach the subject–a big talk or lots of little spontaneous discussions? How does a parent know when they’re being driven more by their own anxieties than their child’s need? Might approaches be significantly different for different kids. Can you be excessive in your own need to protect your child from emotionally painful experiences?

    Biggest problem, IMO, is that smart parents often know a lot, but they have trouble listening and being guided by the cues their children give them. They confuse their own preoccupations with what their kids need and can use. Children present lots of little opportunities for education.

  • That’s the thing, Dr. X. People keep saying “But you left out this or that.” Of course there’s stuff left out– nobody has (or should have, anyway) one ultimate, final, singular talk about sex with their children. Ideally a parent should talk about these things with their kids on a continual basis. A blog post isn’t a substitute for that, especially a blog post by childless Ed or childless me. The prompt was “What would you tell teenagers about sex?” and I had a tough time keeping it under 3,000 words– and that’s sticking to what I consider to be the critical stuff.

    And really, I wrote mine more in terms of “What would you like teenagers to know about sex?” I’d like them to know that a lot of things they’re told to feel guilty about, sexually, they shouldn’t. And what they should be concerned about, when it comes to sexual morality– what actually harms others– is not impressed on them as well as it should be.

  • stace

    Also, if your teen is interested in fetish porn, is that OK? Or does it mean it’s time to get him or her into treatment?

    Yes, by all means, if he shows any interest in ball gags, rubber suits, or crush videos whatsoever, get the electrodes hooked up to the temples immediately and turn the voltage dial up to 11.

  • My parents taught my two brothers, two sisters, and me nothing about sex. My father was a medic in WWII. When he left the Army he stole enough medical supplies to last through another world war. He also stole several medical books. I read all of the medical books by the time I was ten, so I kew the theories behind reproduction. I learned the mechanics when, at the age of 11, I found some old comic-book-character porn books my father had. So I knew what went went where..

    I realized when I became a father that my parents’ methods were destructive, so I did the opposite of what they did. We talked about sex when the boys brought it up, always at an age-appropriate level.

    My older son is mildly autistic. When he brought home a permission slip for sex ex I was a little concerned that he might not grasp the concepts being taught. The slip invited parents to attend the sessions. I went to the first one. I was the only parent there. I don’t remember if there were any kids who were opted out.

    The instructor seemed a little nervous and kept looking at me to see how I was reacting. Finally my son’s teacher noticed this, too. She walked over to the sex teacher and said, “It’s okay. He’s one of us.” The sex teacher relaxed and gave a very good presentation. Two years later my younger son had the same classes with the same woman. I didn’t bother going to the classes.


  • jonathangray

    Meanwhile, back in the real world …

    There is a storm coming. I can feel it as I stand on a street corner in south London, thinking about my daughters. Lily and Rose are both 11 years old. One is crazy about dogs, the other loves owls.

    They are at that tender age when the hormones have begun to stir, and they could be stomping around the room like furious teenagers one minute but snuggling up for a cuddle the next.

    The girls are fast approaching 13, the age that Chevonea Kendall-Bryan was when she leaned out of one of the windows on the fourth floor of a block of flats on this street. A boy she knew was down here on the ground, but this was not Romeo and Juliet. Far from it.

    Chevonea had been pressurised into performing a sex act on him, and he had shared a phone clip of her doing so with all his mates. She threatened to jump from the window if he did not delete it. Then she slipped and fell 60 feet to the ground, dying from massive brain injuries.

    Her mother says she will now campaign against what is happening to young girls in our society. They are certainly under extreme pressure, having to cope with a world more brutal, more demanding and far more overtly sexual than anything their parents knew.

    “Never before has girlhood been under such a sustained assault – from ads, alcohol marketing, girls’ magazines, sexually explicit TV programmes and the hard pornography that is regularly accessed in so many teenager’s bedrooms,” says the psychologist Steve Biddulph, currently touring the country to promote a book called Raising Girls.

    It is a follow-up to his best-seller Raising Boys – and they are under pressure too, being led to believe that girls will look and behave like porn stars. Our children are becoming victims of pornification.

    “It is usually girls who are on the receiving end of some pretty degrading stuff,” says Claire Perry MP, who has just been appointed David Cameron’s special adviser on the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood. “We’ve got young girls being asked to write their names on their boobs and send pictures. Parents would be really shocked to know this is happening in pretty much every school in the country. Our children are growing up in a very sexualised world.”

    So this is the storm my girls will soon face. I can already hear the rumblings. For their sake, I want to know, how bad is it? How widespread? I ask to speak to Mrs Perry, and while I’m waiting for the call back I read a report by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which suggests it is very bad indeed. Researchers who carried out an in-depth study of the lives of pupils at two London schools in 2010 say that year eight was when they began to feel confused and overwhelmed by sexual expectations and demands.

    Claire, who must be 12 or 13, is quoted as saying of the boys in her class: “If they want oral sex, they will ask every single day until you say yes.”

    Kamal, a boy in the same year, says: “Say I got a girlfriend, I would ask her to write my name on her breast and then send it to me and then I would upload it on to Facebook or Bebo or something like that.” The profile picture on his phone, seen by everyone to whom he sends messages, is an image of his girlfriend’s cleavage. Some of the boys at his school have explicit images of up to 30 different girls on their phone. They swap them like we used to swap football cards. If they fancy a girl, they send her a picture of their genitals. As one teenage girl said after the report came out, sending pictures of your body parts is “the new flirting”.

    Boys have always tried their luck, but now they have the technological means to apply pressure, on phones with cameras and messenger networks that no adult ever sees.

    Chloe Combi, a former teacher who began her career in “a pretty posh school”, has written in the Times Educational Supplement about when it goes further: “The hardest conversation I’ve ever had was with a distraught, confused man of about 45. I had to explain to him that we had to exclude from school his seemingly non-abused, non-disturbed, well-loved daughter because she had been caught administering fellatio to a line of young men in the boys’ toilets for cash.

    Ms Combi went on: “A friend of mine, who teaches at another school (much more posh than mine) said that it had got so bad they had to go on patrol every lunchtime to prevent similar incidents.”

    What is the cause of all this? We need more research, the experts say. But to a dismayed parent, it seems like the horrific result of a massive experiment. Thanks to the internet, our boys and girls are the first children to grow up with free, round-the-clock access to hardcore pornography. Porn has become part of the adult mainstream, colouring everything from advertising to best-selling books like Fifty Shades of Grey. Of course our children are affected.

    Diane Abbott, the shadow public health minister, said last week: “I want to highlight what I believe is the rise of a secret garden, striptease culture in British schools and society, which has been put beyond the control of British families by fast-developing technology, and an increasingly pornified British culture.”

    It starts young, with pencil cases that carry the Playboy bunny logo and Bratz dolls that look like they have just finished a shift at a strip joint. High-heeled shoes are sold to girls at the age of eight, along with knickers bearing slogans that on an adult would be meant to sound saucy. Campaigns by concerned groups like Mumsnet only stop products like these for a while, until new ones are pushed out.

    The pop industry, which aims at hooking kids before they hit puberty, teaches little girls to bump and grind. I’m not a prude, but I have been called one for asking why a 10-year-old was copying the moves in a video in which Rihanna prowls like a dominatrix and sings, “Come on rude boy, boy, can you get it up? Come on rude boy, boy, is you big enough?”

    Working backwards, Rihanna is inverting the more extreme imagery used by some male hip hop stars, whose videos effectively show women as sex slaves. They, in turn, offer a polished version of the behaviour in hardcore porn, which is only a click away, on imitations of YouTube.

    It’s not hidden behind a paywall, it’s free. And you don’t even have to claim to be 18 to watch it. This is not the cheesy porn on the newsagent’s top shelf, which was all we could get our hands on when I was a boy. The extreme, violent stuff our children can see so easily now would make a Seventies porn star blush. Or throw up.

    The ubiquity of such material has shifted the understanding of what is normal. Three-quarters of teachers surveyed for the TES last year said they believed access to porn was having a “damaging effect” on pupils. One said girls were dressing like “inflatable plastic dolls” while another said some pupils “couldn’t get to sleep without watching porn”.

    However, there is also disturbing evidence that hardcore pornography has become so commonplace that some children see it as “mundane”. The pioneering NSPCC study in 2010 found that watching professional porn was seen by boys as a sign of desperation. They would rather watch – and circulate – home-made porn shots on phones with girls they knew.

    This is part of the phenomenon called sexting, the exchange of sexual messages or images by text, smartphones and social networking sites. Chevonea Kendall-Bryan was a victim of it, and worse. She had been bullied by boys since the age of 11, a coroner heard earlier this month. At 13, she was forced to perform a sex act on an 18-year-old after a party. A boy of 15 later demanded the same treatment – or he would smash the windows of her south London home. When she obeyed, he filmed her on his phone and shared the clip around her school.

    Sexual pressure can cause girls to contemplate suicide, self-harm, develop eating disorders, or try to lose themselves in drugs or alcohol. But does sexting only happen in the most troubled inner-city schools? No, says Prof Andy Phippen of Plymouth University, who led his own research in Cornwall, Somerset and Devon. “I’ve been into all kinds of schools – including inner city, rural and semi-rural – and I can’t remember a single one where sexting was not an issue,” he says. “It’s not a class thing either. I visit elite schools, and the kids there talk about it just as much.”

    However, it is important to say that children may be telling the truth if they insist they have never come across it. Estimates of those affected range from 15 to 40 per cent of pupils, depending on where you are. And when I speak to Claire Perry, she admits: “The answer is we don’t know. I think it is a growing problem. My sense is that even in the nicest, leafiest part of the country, this is something that children are doing.”

    Hadn’t we better find out? “Yes. That is why it is good that the debate is happening. Bullying has always taken place, but technology means we have given our children a space where there are no adult eyeballs watching. We have to do something about that. I expect there will be lots of difficult conversations this weekend.”

    Over the past few days, she has been accused of being a snooper, after suggesting that parents should read their children’s texts and emails. “If your child was going out with somebody you thought was taking drugs, you would feel you had the right to intervene. Somehow, we don’t feel we have the right to do that in the online world. We are on the back foot. But I think that this week’s reaction shows that parents do want to be able to do this.”

    Her first job, though, is to focus on the internet. Last year, Mr Cameron backed an “opt-in” system to block adult content on home computers. The idea has now been dropped, however. A consultation showed that the majority of people thought it too draconian, admits Mrs Perry – but she is now working with internet service providers on a series of changes, including a block on adult content on public Wi-Fi. In the home, customers will have to verify that they are over 18 and want access to adult content, or else restrictions will apply. “You will have to say, ‘I don’t want that filter.’ Once we have this, we will lead the world in online child safety.”

    All of which is fine, except it won’t do a thing about sexting. In any case, technologically savvy boys like my 15-year-old will find a way round it if they want to. Of course, he will seek out pictures of people having sex. Boys do. I’m just scared of the effects of the tsunami of hardcore he must see any time he tries. As Claire Perry says: “Porn is a terrible sexual educator and that is not where our children should be getting their information.”

    As for his sisters, I shudder. I don’t want them to live in a world in which romance means boy meets girl, boy sends a picture of his genitals. Lily and Rose are not their real names, by the way. I’m that afraid of their being drawn in. We clearly need to talk, awkward as it may be.

    As adults, we also have to be clear where the blame lies. I’m reminded of that as I travel home to hug the girls, and a text arrives from a 14-year-old friend of the family. Responding to the call to talk about the pressure she’s under, she texts: “DON’T bash the kids. We don’t sell porn. Grown-ups do. YOU FIX IT!!!!”