Forward Thinking: Talking to Teenagers about Sex

I spend more time talking about how the purity culture “does it wrong” than about what it looks like to be doing it right. I want to change that.

Forward Thinking is a values development project created in collaboration with Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers. Dan is introducing our next prompt today (head on over to see it!), but in this post I will pull together some of the responses to this month’s prompt: “What would you tell teenagers about sex?”

Not only were there a large number of blog posts written on the topic, but there was also a great deal of discussion and input in the comments section of the post where the prompt was introduced. As a result, I’m going to format this month’s roundup slightly different from last month’s. I am simply going to pick one thing from each person’s list and reproduce it here, with a link and attribution. Enjoy!

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“I would tell a teenager that sex is something that most people enjoy immensely, and that they will probably want to do themselves, but that it does carry risks. So all in all, I would approach it quite similarly to alcohol – it is something I hope they enjoy responsibly as they get older, but that it is something to explore carefully with people you can trust…and if they ever get into trouble relating to it, I hope that they can rely on my reaction being to solve the problem first, then do any required lecturing!” ~ Slow Learner

“You don’t actually have to love everybody you do sexy things with. I’d like them to be people you trust and people who know what consent is and like communication, but you don’t have to love them. Kissing is fun and bodies are nice and hooking up with people who have especially nice bodies or brains or who are just friends with exactly enough time and singlehood on their hands is fun.” ~ Kate Donovan

“Well, first thing—I’d never have “the talk”. I don’t think a one-off chat to a teen covers it.” ~ Mafrin

“Sex education begins with consent education and a fundamental respect for bodily autonomy. Obviously, for children, bodily autonomy cannot be inviolable (sorry, kid, you’re getting your vaccines no matter how much you protest) and if your child is very small then it’s difficult if not impossible to tell if they consent to be touched. But there are a lot of times in the average child’s life where they are forced to hug or talk to someone they’re scared of, or be tickled by their parents even when they’re screaming no, or otherwise have their consent violated for the amusement or convenience of their parents. How can we teach kids that no one should touch them without their consent if we touch them without their consent?” ~ Ozy Frantz

“I’d say, don’t be afraid of your sexual feelings as they arise. Feel them and learn about them; get used to them alone before you act on them with another.” ~ GemmaM

“As a society, we (speaking from a U.S. perspective here) tend to treat sex as this thing that is completely outside normal life. The fact that most of us have sex with the rest of the world on the other side of a door means we act like sex happens in another world with rules of its own. That’s a problem because we act as though all the things we knew on the other side of that door are useless when it comes to sex. They aren’t, of course. Sex is a number of things: (frequently) a social interaction, bodily mechanics, pleasure, risk. We already deal with all of those in the rest of our lives, and we already know plenty about how to deal with them.” ~ Stephanie Zhan

“If I had kids, I would tell them sex can be wonderful, but that, like most things, it must be approached responsibly. I would then go on to inform them of all that is involved in approaching it responsibly. But I wouldn’t stop there. No, I would make sure they knew that sex and relationships have a learning curve, that they are likely to make mistakes, and that mistakes can usually be learned from. Hence, they are not to despair and think the world is coming to an end if and when they do make mistakes. Lastly, I would be sure to teach them how to identify an abusive relationship and how to get out of one.” ~ Paul Sunstone

“A person who does not take your pleasure into account isn’t worth having sex with.” ~ Lucreza Borgia

“You don’t owe anyone sex or intimacy. Even if you’ve had sex with them before. Even if you said you would. Even if they’re your significant other. Even if they’ll be sad if you don’t. Relatedly, if you ever feel uncomfortable in a sexual situation, get out of it if you are able to, as quickly as possible. Even if the other person hasn’t “done anything” to make you uncomfortable. You don’t owe it to anyone to stay in a situation that you feel weird about.” ~ Miri

“I’m going to teach [my future children] about masturbation. I’m going to take my daughter to a classy sex store, and we’re going to have an open, honest chat about why I’m entirely in support of this activity. With the shame removed, the act of “Self-love” is a wonderful expression of self respect. It can do wonders for self esteem and body image, and it really helps get teens ready for the day they decide to try things with a partner. It’s incredibly relaxing, it’s healthy, and it doesn’t have to carry with it an air of secrecy and dirtiness. Guilt and shame with masturbation are taught and deeply ingrained, and that’s not right or fair.” ~ FlightedChemist

“Not all sexual activities will be your favourite ones. Some will make you overdo, some will put you off quickly, many will be really OK. And once we grow up, we understand that tastes are different and that just because you find eggplant to be dull, and celery to be vomit-inducing, it doesn’t mean that people who eat eggplant with celery are bad people. It especially doesn’t mean that you have to like something because apparently everybody does. Know your own tastes. You don’t let people tell you that you actually like eggplant though you know you don’t, so don’t let anybody tell you that you really like or need sexual activity X.” ~ Giliell

“[Teenagers] need to be given accurate factual information about STIs, their symptoms, if any (mostly so they can recognize them, just in case), and methods of prevention. Also, they need to be given concrete information on how to get STI screenings in their area, in the most practical terms possible: you make an appointment with such-and-such (here’s the number), you go here (take this bus). If possible, help them navigate the system the first time. They [also] need to be given accurate factual information about pregnancy and contraceptives.” ~ Anna

“The baseball metaphor sucks. Not only does everyone disagree on what each base actually stands for (your euphemism is a failure when you have to argue about what every part means), but it ranks things. Some people can take or leave P-I-V–or, you know, their partnerships don’t include one penis and one vagina–and some think oral sex is the best thing ever. And some people would actually rather be playing baseball.” ~ Kate Donovan

“I want to talk a little bit about how to do so, while being a good person– what you could call sexual ethics. There are two aspects of that which I’m going to cover: (1) Taking care of yourself; (2) Taking care of others. Yep, that’s it. That’s what sexual ethics is. You might think it’s a no-brainer, but it isn’t to a lot of people…and I’m going to try and explain that too.” ~ Gretchen Koch

“Any sexual activity you choose to participate in needs to be in concert with your values and the values of your partner.” ~ Victoria

“If we want people to act like adults, the best way to achieve that is to treat them like adults. That means we have to teach them everything they need to know to make informed choices and have sex safely: the importance of enthusiastic consent, how to use contraception, and all the rest of it. I’m sure other bloggers will address these areas, so I won’t dwell on them. I want to focus on the deeper importance of de-mystification, of breaking down the taboos and false ideas around sex, and here’s what I think is the biggest one: Sex has no magic power to transform you.” ~ Adam Lee

“It is not your job to act out porn or to only do the things your partner wants to do, especially if you don’t like them or feel uncomfortable. If they insist, google some “how to identify a controlling person” checklists.” ~ Meg

“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.” ~ Ed Brayton

“To the boys I would tell them that “No,” does not mean “I need to be convinced”. I would tell them not to be afraid to ask a girl to dance or for a date, but not to be upset if they are told no. To the girls I would tell them that their value as a person does not reside between their legs and anyone who tries to make them think it does is not someone they want to be with.” ~ Highlander

“What I would like to say to my former self, and what I think that a lot of kids today could profit from hearing is this: feelings are comprehensible and manageable. There’s no need to ignore or suppress them, nor do they have to control your life. The trick to managing feelings — the technique I was never taught — is to pay attention to them without being drawn in.” ~ The Fruits of Ofkamma

“Sure, teaching “yes means yes” (and also no means no, because it allows for someone to change their mind) is good, but I don’t want a “yes” coming from “well everyone else is doing it, so obviously I should be ok with this” or “I don’t want to be a little kid, so I’ll say yes” or “I want him/her to think better of me, so I’ll say yes” or anything else.” ~ Christine

“My hope is that, along with other “moral” issues, I will be able to put as much responsibility on my son as I think he can handle to make the right decision, neither burdening him with the weight of it all or removing his obvious will from the situation. While I will not argue that he should only have sex in marriage, I will likely recommend that the best scenario for him to engage in sex is one in which he has a handle on other areas of his life and thus is prepared to deal with the pleasures and consequences of his actions. This, for me, would be later, rather than earlier, in a committed relationship, where the chances of one partner taking advantage of another have decreased, if ever so slightly.” ~ Matt Recla

“I’d first and foremost point out that a person is likely to treat you like they treated their past parters – if a guy breaks up with his girlfriend to be with you, they’re probably not going to hesitate to break up with you when someone newer and more interesting comes along. If someone says “all my exes are crazy”, you’re going to be the crazy ex, too (and they probably drove all of their exes crazy). If they got someone else pregnant, they might get you pregnant. And so on.” ~ Rae

“Your worth as a human being isn’t remotely contingent on whether or not you’ve had sex. You might hear that you’re sullied if you’ve “lost your virginity,” or that you need to have sex to be cool, or to be an adult. Neither is true. The only right time to have sex is when both you and your partner feel that you’re ready to have sex, and that you want to have sex. And that’s something you get to decide for yourself.” ~ Rachel Marcy

“Sex isn’t love. Sex is sex, love is love. Lots of people find that sex is better with somebody you love, but they aren’t the same thing.” ~ Uly

“You never “have to” have sex. You never owe it to anyone. I don’t care if they paid for dinner or helped you move or you’ve been dating for a year and they’re ready. I don’t care if you’ve had sex before with someone else or even with this person. You never owe anyone sex, ever. And if they’re not willing to wait for your enthusiastic consent, then they are not worth your time, trust, and certainly not your love.” ~ Kay

“Basically my strategy is start young, be completely non-judgemental and teach them to respect themselves.” ~ Sophie

“Only have sex with someone if you can say, with confidence, that you love them, or at least deeply trust them. This one is kind of personal and I realize many people may disagree. However, this isn’t rooted in some bullshit about how sex is such a ~*~spiritual and magical~*~ union. Rather, I think that sex is an act of profound trust and vulnerability, for both sexes. You are rendering yourself pretty defenseless to that person. When you engage in sex acts with someone, they become capable of doing very deep harm to you on many levels (physical, verbal/emotional, blackmail). So, in my opinion, you should have a deep trust of someone before opening up this possibility. If you’ll excuse the mediocre analogy, you wouldn’t let someone borrow your credit card or your car unless you knew a lot about them and trusted them with such sensitive resources, so why on earth would you apply a lower standard when it comes to *your own body/self*?” ~ Lane

“[In conversations with my boyfriend's 12 year old daughter] I’ve stressed to her a lot that her worth lies in far more than her looks and her body. She has an amazing mind and I want her to value that. I’ve talked to her some about body image and valuing herself, and that if a boy values her only for her body he doesn’t really love her.” ~ Ecolt

“Advice specific to women who are attracted to men: Don’t have sex with a “pro-life” man. It doesn’t matter if you’re pro-life, if you would never have an abortion under any circumstances, etc. Don’t do it. A man who will tell you what to do with your uterus will tell you what to do with your vagina. Find a man with the same values as you, but not one who is willing to force his values on you, no matter how much you agree with him.” ~ Niemand

“Describe how sex can be fun—pleasure, orgasms, emotional and physical intimacy—and how it can go wrong—abuse, cheating, jealousy, manipulation, and heartbreak. Give examples of negotiating sex. Talk about monogamy and polyamory. This isn’t technical knowledge and can’t be taught as such, though it can be informed with information like descriptions of what abusive romantic relationships look like. The goal would be to situate sex in the wider context of relationships and to explain how to find healthy, functional sexual relationships while avoiding unhealthy, dysfunctional ones. I doubt it’s possible to really teach this, but maybe provoking teenagers to think about it and arming them with some ideas of what healthy and unhealthy look like might help.” ~ Cara

“Learning about our bodies is essential to create confidence in our physical selves, gives us understanding about what pleasure is and can be, lets us understand the risks associated with sex, and thus improves the foundations of communication and makes possible informed consent.” ~ AndersH

“This one may cost me my progressive card, because I can be a little prudish when it comes to sex. I think that sexuality is a big decision which teenagers should take seriously and only become intimate some ways into the relationship, once you have an emotional foundation and a certain degree of trust. But I’m also in favor (majorly) of thorough sex education and birth control access, and majorly *not* in favor of the focus on virginity and the hard-divide between sex and everything-but you see in some conservative circles.” ~ Marta L.

“Our culture often transmits contradictory messages. In America, the dominant culture purveys a mix of puritanism and individualism. One preaches a message of abstinence while the other says, “anything goes.” Neither of these is particularly helpful.” ~ Celebration of Gaia

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://thechurchproject.me Tracey

    Thank you, Libby Anne. Pulling so much good advice together is really wonderful. I had difficulty figuring out sex, and this collection of ideas helps me not only consider what I will someday say to a teenager, but also absorb good advice for my adult brain to remember sex is a good thing. And thank you to the folks with all the blogs and comments featured here.

  • africaturtle

    I posted a question elsewhere just this week concerning sexuality and younger children (my oldest is 7) DO you have any practical advice/links in this category? I feel really lost because we are always told that this is a “Teen” issue (as indicated in this write-up) and yet even my pediatrician confirmed that there are major sexual developments happening in a 5 year old! (always wanting to “flash” everyone!) They (my kids) talk about erections, masturbation (wihtout calling it that) and laugh about “sex” since they hear kids at school laughing about it. I really don’t feel prepared for some of these conversations (though i tend to go with a open/honest approach) I don’t know where to set “limits” (if any need to be set)…because all of my personal limits were taught within the confines of fundamentalism…any help from you and your readers would be appreciated! (and i wonder about the one link where she wants to take her daughter to a shop and talk about pleasing herself…shouldn’t some parts of sexuality remain “private” even if “shame” doesn’t need to be included?? Maybe the daughter would be weirded out by that, or maybe it’s just me…)

    • AnyBeth

      Hm. I don’t know resources, but I have a bit of advice, mostly from things I wish I’d known as a child. Ok, so childhood sex-ed:
      I’m good with “naming parts what they are”, though it never would’ve occurred to me. It’d make mystery and shame less, as well as making other “talks” easier to understand. First thing after names (proper or not) is abuse prevention. (My elementary school did this, but it was too late for me.) This begins with bodily autonomy (as mentioned above), talk about who can touch what places, and demonstrating different kinds of touch (because even hands can be touched in a creepy way). The elementary guidance counselor called them “good touch”, “bad touch”, and “funny touch”. A good touch makes you feel good; a bad touch hurts and does no good; a funny touch makes you feel funny, like confused inside. Basically, teach consent.
      I can’t speak as to boys, but girls probably need sexual development talks earlier than a lot of people think. Generally TMI, but I got discharge when I was 8. I had no idea what it was and thought I was somehow peeing myself without realizing. I was very embarrassed and tried to deal with it on my own for months.
      I figure a good beginning to a “sex talk” would be to take a time the kids are laughing about “sex” and ask them what they think “sex” means. That way you know what their level is, you can correct any basic misconceptions (like, “sex is kissing” or “sex is when people sleep next to each other [naked]“). And then you ask, “Is there anything [else] you’d like to know about it?” and answer in terms that match their level. And follow up with, “If you have any more questions, come ask me [at home].” You could explain erections fairly simply, too. The simplest I can think of is this: “You know how if you rub your eyes a lot, they get red and puffy? That’s because when you rub places a lot, more blood goes there. When boys get older, sometimes so much blood goes to their penises (especially if they rub them) that their penises get stiff and come up. It’s like how a balloon is small and droopy until you fill it up with air, only penises get filled up with blood. Later they deflate like balloons and the blood that was in them goes back to the rest of their bodies.”

      Planned Parenthood is a good resource for parents (and teens and anyone) and has a good list of resources for parents.

      I’ve only had to satisfy my little sister’s curiosity and take care of the basic questions from the preschool set. You know, that girls don’t have penises and what women’s breasts are for. (Fortunately, the former had a baby sister and the latter had a breastfeeding mother.) Oh, I did have to answer an 11-year-old what 69 meant (as the only other person who’d say was an unreliable resource), but the kid already knew about Clinton, so it wasn’t too hard.

      About sexuality being private… visiting a nice sex store with Mom could be awkward, sure… but would it be any more awkward than not learning anything more than the most basic sex-ed until 20? I’d err on the side of a bit more information. But some things of sexuality are private. Like masturbation and, well, not flashing (that being, “private parts” are private, not to be touched by or displayed to just anyone).

    • Monika

      AnyBeth has covered your questions really well I think. I just wanted to add I was raised in a progressive household and I would have found it weird for my mum or dad to take me to a sex toy shop. Like you I can’t decide if that advice is pushing/breaking boundaries or if it is just me. I think masturbation is a good thing to talk about but buying the equipment is a bit too personal. Maybe I would suggest a website or shop? Or give her a gift voucher to spend? Not sure. Thank god my daughter is 3 and I have some time to work it out.

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    Great work everyone! Every time I started up a post on this subject I would google around and find that one of these fine bloggers had beaten me to exactly what I wanted to say!

  • Ann Fuller

    Lots of excellent advice here!!

  • http://celebrationofgaia.wordpress.com/ Editor B

    Ack! I missed the deadline. I’m blaming it on Mardi Gras. Anyhow my post can be read here:
    http://celebrationofgaia.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/sex-education/

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      There, I added you! :-)

  • Sam Grover

    I had already gone over Mr. P. Sunstone’s ‘you will make mistakes/it’s a learning curve’ with my kids. I loved it when I read it and had never put things quite that way with my kids. Thank you both Libby Anne and Paul S.

    Sam

  • http://amethystmarie.com/ Amethyst

    “I would tell [boys] not to be afraid to ask a girl to dance or for a date, but not to be upset if they are told no.”

    I’d amend this a little bit, because “don’t be upset” could come across as emotion policing. The sting of rejection is possibly the most natural, universal feeling in the world. Instead of saying “Don’t be upset,” I’d tell my son (or daughter) that it’s natural to feel hurt when you want someone who doesn’t want you back, but that there are healthy and unhealthy ways to process that pain. I’d teach my kids that, no matter how much you care about someone, that person isn’t obligated to return your affection. That there is no magic formula to make someone feel the same way about you that you feel about them. And that, like all emotions, both the pain of unrequited love/lust/hormones/whatevs and the love/lust/hormones/whatevs itself will eventually pass.

  • K

    I think the talk is an ongoing thing, from being little-like you start off teaching little kids the proper names for their private parts, the differences between the sexes, the difference between a good touch and a bad touch, and that our bodies belong to ourselfes and we decide who touches it. Teach them that they have the right to not allow people to touch them, dont force them to hug and kiss others if they dont want to. They should also be taught to respect other peoples bodies as well, like not touching others when they dont want you to. Also a discussion on different kinds of families, like that some people have a mommy and a daddy, but other people have two mommies or daddies and some have only one parent.

    As kids ask questions, answer them in a simple, age appropriate way and add more information as they get older, the talk is the kind of thing that isnt just a one time thing, but something that happens over time. Make sure the kid knows about puberty before it happens though, especially little girls, cause my friend thought she was dying when she had her first period because nobody told her it was going to happen.

    I think by the time kids are sexually active, they should know, as well as how sex works:
    How to use protection, and the consequences of unprotected sex, and information about where they can go if they have had unprotected sex and fear they might be pregnant or have an STD.
    Consent-that they only should have sex when theyre ready and not to let someone pressure them into it, and also that they need to wait til the other person is ready for sex and not pressure them into it.
    That virginity shouldnt define you-you dont need to be in a rush to lose your virginity because your friends all have, and that theres nothing wrong with not being a virgin either, if you choose to wait til marriage, thats fine, but it doesnt make you dirty or a whore if you are sexually active.
    Healthy relationships-how to spot when someone is being abusive or controlling, and help you can get if you do find yourself in an abusive relationship.
    That not everyone you have feelings for will feel the same way, sometimes things dont work out, sure, you will be sad, but it gets better and you will meet someone else who loves you.

  • Notreligious

    I just want to comment on the idea of “good touch, bad touch, funny touch”, for children.

    I don’t find this useful, as it can be both inaccurate and can be shaming. The neutral adult thinks a kid being molested will necessarily feel bad/funny, and thats often true, but just as often, they kid gets a good physical sensation, and might even enjoy the extra attention. They cannot help it, our bodies are made to respond positively to sexual touching, and some predators are very skilled in manipulation and choosing vulnerable kids. When we frame it in these terms, we are telling kids that it should “feel bad”, which can do two things: make them feel shame if it doesn’t feel bad, or make them assume it’s not molestation/rape.

    My DH was raped repeatedly by an older relative from 7-12yrs old, but never thought of it as such because he had found the sexual contact pleasurable. His abuser put on porn, and worked very hard to normalize the behavior. Looking back, he sees how clearly he was abused, but he said at the time, he got used to it, and even looked forward to it. He didn’t think it was something bad at the time, though he was too young to consent, and too young to realize the effect this would have on his life. Sexual abuse, when mentioned at all, was focused on the bad feelings, which masked his long term abuse, and made it harder to process as an adult.

    The last thing abuse victims need is more shame. They feel bad when told that the predator is a disgusting person who does horrific things, since they were the person that predator chose, and the things done were things they participated in (unwillingly, but it doesn’t matter)- Maybe that horrific person is a family member. They feel bad again when they hear how they should have felt bad/strange/grossed out, if they didn’t feel this way, or didn’t act on it. They feel bad for “letting it happen”, and shameful if they were getting physical or emotional pleasure.

    I am not saying all kids feel this way, but I am trying to point out that a kids reaction can be complicated, and by assuming that they all feel bad, it does a disservice to those that don’t identify abuse this way. I think this is especially true when the rapist/abuser is a family member who had a relationship with the kid other than the abuse.

    Most people don’t dare mention this stuff, but, this needs to change. Just because a victims body felt good, or they were emotionally manipulated, does NOT mean it’s not abuse, or rape. I’m not sure a better way to discuss it, I only know that “bad touch” is not the best way.

    • Monika

      Thanks for sharing this. It had not occurred to me but it is really important to discuss. Perhaps a better way could be framed around consent? Touch that you did not ask for or agree to? But then I assume some abusers are good at coercing or tricking you into agreement. Difficult question.

  • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com The Discerning Christian Blog

    So let me preface this with saying that even though I am a Christian, I agree with you that the purity culture in Christianity, and the lies which it has spread about sex, have done incredible damage, and that damage needs repair.

    Yet it would appear that much of the advice here — not all of it — is fairly unprofessional/uncritical of the actual issues and appears more like arbitrary emotionalism than any well-reasoned advice. I would suggest that we have less “open discussion” where anyone can have a say and that we let philosophers, psychologists, and other trained persons try to frame the issues and seek solutions.

    I honestly don’t care what people think about sex unless they’ve done some homework and really thought about the consequences and implications are of certain actions. Looking through the bloggers listed, I don’t see much of a reason to accept their reasoning. I’m not saying they’re all wrong, but that their statements are not well-supported, and I don’t know what kind of training any of these people have that I should trust them.

    It was shallow, biased advice which got us into this mess which we now call the purity culture, and I hardly think that the solution is more shallow, biased advice. I don’t mean any disrespect for the people whom you quote, but it seems the sex discussion lacks seriousness on all fronts.

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