Natasha – thanks for a great blog. My husband and I have a toddler son, but I am already thinking about his adolescence and future sex education. Obviously it is a long way off, and things might change in the meantime, but I really wish there were more resources available to young people to actually get clear, honest, non shame-inducing sex education. I know some people who turn to porn mostly out of curiosity, who in my view just start with a legitimate need to learn about sex and their own sexuality. Porn is what they find to fill that sex education void. I feel like they might have benefited if there were other options for them to explore and learn about sex without all the potentially negative messages or experiences they end up encountering through porn. I think they can handle sexually explicit information by late adolescence, in fact they absolutely need good clear information in our culture where they encounter sexual messages every day – but the only source they can find to fill in the gaps is internet porn. I keep thinking there has to be another option, something satisfying and helpful and affirming, something that celebrates real sex instead of fantasy sex, something that educates and helps them anticipate and develop toward healthy and meaningful relational sex, instead of potentially sending the wrong message or becoming problematic as internet porn sometimes can. But I can’t find any such thing. My question then is, what would you suggest to adolescents who need sources of positive, real sex education? I hope I can find ways to provide that some day as a parent, but I wish I knew about better resources, and I feel for youth who need information and don’t know where to get it (who are repeatedly told that porn is dangerous, but are then provided with no alternative).
It is a great thing you are already taking your son’s sexual education seriously. There are many ways you can currently begin this important process – use correct anatomical language; answer questions simply in an age-appropriate and honest manner; allow for self touch (as he gets a bit older – 4 to 5ish – you may calmly and non-shamefully suggest he go into his room where he can touch himself in private); show appropriate physical affection openly with your spouse if you are married and probably most importantly – work on any of your own sexual inhibitions/education.
As far as pornography is concerned – there are many reasons why adolescents today will more than likely have at least one experience viewing it. The most obvious reason being availability having become much more accessible. Peer pressure and curiosity are also common reasons. Even the healthiest of sexual education provided by parents will not guarantee that pornography will not be viewed – and parents shouldn’t put this guilt trip on themselves. However, a healthy sexual education can decrease a teen’s propensity towards having a more chronic problem with pornography. A few ideas of what can be helpful: sharing our values with our teens, allowing for their feelings/questions/ideas to be expressed (even if not completely in line with our own), educating as to the “whys” pornography is not something you want them getting involved with, discussing cultural norms and scientific research, and responding in a loving, normalizing and non-shameful way if it comes to your attention that your teen has been exposed to porn. Just as a brief example: “It saddens me that you have been watching pornography because I don’t want your sexuality to be skewed in an unhealthy way. Sex is such a great thing and I’m afraid that porn would cheapen that for you or give you unrealistic views of what sex is really about. Most people don’t look or act in those ways when they are having a good sexual encounter. At the same time, I understand that it’s pretty easy to come across porn and that probably a lot of your friends are also watching it. Do you find this to be the case? Can we talk about your feelings about this? Is this something you agree or disagree with me about? This is a great opportunity to use the atonement in your life. We all fall short and the last thing I want is for you to fall into a cycle of guilt/shame that makes you feel intrinsically bad about yourself. What are your ideas about the atonement? What are your ideas about healthy sexuality?”
One of the most difficult things I believe devout Mormon parents face is the anxiety of how to parent a teen and/or single adult who is not acting in a sexual way that is considered “appropriate.” Whether this pertains to masturbation, pornography use, premarital sex, premarital sexual exploration, dating before the age of 16, announcing they are gay, etc., the anxiety about the child’s behavior can be overwhelming for many. The parent begins to doubt their parenting skills, they begin to think of eternal implications (which have been touted in our religious history in severe and provocative language), they worry about social implications (i.e. “what will others think,” “what if my son/daughter can’t go on a mission or marry in the temple,” etc.), and many times unresolved sexual issues from their own pasts can be triggered. The church offers a lot in the way of telling kids what they are not supposed to do prior to marriage. There is not as much emphasis on what to say or do when the child is already in the midst of “sin.” This is where many parents feel they have to provide an all-or-nothing approach, placing rigid and oftentimes unrealistic punishments/limits, and further alienating their child. One of the biggest challenges of managing the parenting of an adolescent is finding the balance between 1. honoring their agency at a time where it is developmentally normal to test limits and become more independent and 2. honoring the values, rules and boundaries you have set for your home environment. This is a balancing act that usually looks different in each family and even with each child. It is also important to understand that a child will behave sexually for a variety of biological, psychological and social reasons – not because they somehow enjoy “sinning.” Recognizing the complexity of these types of choices allows the parent to tap into the empathy and understanding needed to best be of help and support.
As far as books and other educational resources, there are many out there that offer great sexual education (starting with our public schools). I would not choose to give a child a book/resource I had not first read or understood the contents of myself. Books and resources coming from a Christian perspective are usually anatomically thorough, although many times do not address the education of practicing safe sex since they are working only from the abstinence approach. Books written from a non-theological perspective usually include a frank and normalizing approach to sex but also to other issues that many religiously conservative parents are uncomfortable with: masturbation, avoiding STD’s through condom usage and other safe sex practices, homosexuality, etc. I usually encourage parents to find books they are comfortable with. However, I also encourage parents to not immediately write off information they disagree with. It can be useful for your adolescent to see your willingness to still offer the information and reasons as to why you are not in agreement. The likelihood your teen will be exposed to this information regardless – through school, peers and our overall culture – is extremely high. Might as well come from you. This is why I am not a fan of parents pulling out their children from public school sexual education programs. For one, it has the potential of ostracizing your child socially – kids notice. Second, they are more than likely to hear the information anyway – except it will now be second-hand from their peers with much room for inaccurate interpretation. Third, it can potentially drive a wedge between parent and child with the child beginning to assume that sex is not a safe topic to discuss in an open way with their parents.
Good luck in the continuation of your parenting journey! I wish you the very best.
Talking about Sex with TeensI know there will be things on this site not all LDS parents will agree with or find congruent with their values. At the same time, I think it is a list that gives very clear and useful direction for the most part and gives you an idea of the type of information your child’s peers are probably talking about. Take from it what you do agree with and at least teach those things.
Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST is a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist, a Certified Sex Therapist and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She has almost 20 years of experience working with LDS members. She graduated from BYU-Provo with a degree in Psychology and from Friends University-Wichita with her masters in MFT. More information about her private practice and other endeavors can be found at natashaparker.org.