Gather round, gentlefolk, and listen well. We’ve reached into our electronic mailbag and come up with a question we’re proud to answer. Not “qualified” to answer, mind you — but who needs qualifications when you have pride? Not us! So let’s cut the jibber-jabber and get this week’s advice column going!
(Remember: We may be proud but we’re not too proud to solicit your questions. Just email your problems, quandaries, and other assorted dilemmas to [email protected] and let us take a crack at it.)
This week we’ve got a Mama Bear who is facing that most dreaded of parenting milestones: The Sex Talk. So naturally she came to the Overlords, noted experts in the field of Having and Talking About The Sex Stuffs. Are we up to the task of helping today’s parents help today’s teens to understand their bodies and themselves?
Yeah. Probably. Let’s go with “yes.”
Here’s the question:
So I have a real question here - when my daughter was 13 she told us that she thought she was gay. This is the easy part, right? Having a gay daughter was, truth be told, maybe a bit of a relief (hashtag not all men whatever). But now that she’s 14, and maturing rapidly, I’m starting to think that her generation is really tearing down the rigid demarcations that us olds had in regards to sexual orientation and gender. In other words, if I had to guess, I’d wager there are not only boys and girls in her romantic future, but also some shifts and blurs in gender identification.
I was all prepared for the big sex talk with a straight daughter (having been a straight teen myself many moons ago). But this shift in the times and who she is make me wonder what kind of advice to offer. She hasn’t had a girlfriend or a boyfriend yet, but i have a feeling it’s imminent and I wonder do I need to offer more beyond the basic idea of enthusiastic consent and keeping herself protected against pregnancy and STDs.
In short: what does the sex talk look like in these modern times (other than, you know, horribly embarrassing for the teen on the other end)?
(obvy, you’ll keep this as anonymous as hell, right? Because we’d be looking at a potential murder/suicide situation if word ever got out that I was talking about my extremely private girl this way)[Editor’s Note: Yeah, totes]
Dear Concerned Mama Bear:
You came to the right place! It just so happens that the Overlords count amongst our numbers professional educators as well as parents — not to mention the fact that every single one of us survived our own puberty/teenage years/awkward hormonal fumblings-about with partners. So we all had insights to share on this topic, from things we wish we’d been told at your daughter’s age to things we’re already having to tell the teens in our own lives. One of the biggest things that came out of our internal discussion was the fact that the very idea of the “sex talk” is so limiting. It’s not all biology and mechanics and diseases — there are emotions to cover as well. And the very language we use to cover these topics, not to mention our understanding of sexuality and gender identity, is evolving. So the first thing we wanted to share is:
It’s OK not to have the right answer at first
Look, it sounds like you and your daughter have a strong enough relationship that she’s already come to you to discuss her sexuality. That’s huge. And if she’s being honest with you, then you owe her the same courtesy. If she comes to you with a question you don’t feel prepared to answer, tell her you’ll get back to her. Just put a pin in it, and go educate yourself on that topic so you can help her in turn. It shows her that you’re taking her questions, not to mention her health and safety, seriously. We’re not perfect, and we can’t always have all the answers — so why fake it? “The Sex Talk” isn’t a solitary thing — it’s a series of conversations that will evolve over the years, so don’t feel pressure to get everything right the first time.
Of course, this approach hinges on your ability to find support to help you answer those questions. Sure, you could keep writing to us (please do!), but we’re not SO chock-full of pride that we can’t admit there are other resources out there you should also consider. PFLAG may have a chapter in your area, or may be able to point you in the right direction for help. Human Rights Campaign and the CDC have put together lists of useful resources for parents and teens, and Advocates for Youth have put together list of tips for parents of LGBTQ youth.
But to get back to your original question: What does the modern sex talk look like? Here’s what we came up with.
Consent. Consentconsentconsent. As Emily put it, you need to cover “how to ask for it, how to give it, that the baseline expectation should be that no one has it unless it’s been specifically asked for, and that she should never feel someone else’s expectations override her lack of consent. Literally practice saying no.” Also — consent isn’t a blanket sentiment! Agreeing once isn’t a contract for life, and agreeing to certain things doesn’t mean an implicit agreement to EVERYTHING.
Emotional Abuse/Emotional Manipulations… and Emotions In General
There’s more to the dynamics of healthy relationships than just “wait to have sex until you’re with someone you really like.” Even taking sex off the table entirely, there is a lot to be taught about what a healthy relationship looks like — and what it emphatically DOESN’T look like. There are PSAs and ads on YouTube that illustrate pressure and abuse, which may be useful conversation starters. To a certain extent, this is a lifelong lesson that we all are constantly learning, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give your daughter a jumpstart.
Another big lesson is how to be honest about her own expectations from a relationship — particularly when sex IS involved. Once hormones and inexperience start complicating matters, it’s easy to take things too seriously (or not seriously enough). Some people find sex to be a bonding, intimate experience that may lead to even deeper feelings. Some people just have fun and don’t get emotionally invested. Where we fall on that spectrum may depend on the partner or the circumstances, but the key is that where we stand may NOT be the same as where our partner stands. That’s why it’s never too early to learn how to clearly communicate expectations — to be true to yourself, and to better understand your partner’s feelings so everyone can proceed responsibly and honestly.
What even is “sex”?
It’s not just penetration! At the risk of sounding like a porn primer, walk her through the moves — all of them. Also, I feel like masturbation should get some (self)love — it’s a nice, normal, low-risk way to figure out what you like without having to worry about what your partner likes. I very clearly remember my mom trying to impart some wisdom one night, while I was busy watching Ally McBeal: namely that oral sex was the best sex position for women (when it’s performed on them, not by them). It… was a memorable lesson. I’m not saying you should approach this part of the chat by placing a value on different sex acts, but I do think that being able to talk about them unemotionally, in a matter-of-fact manner, can help mitigate any embarrassment and encourage her to ask more questions. Sure, she may end up googling them afterwards, but at least the internet won’t be teaching her ALL the dirty deeds.
And speaking of the internet…
The impact that technology has on our sex lives is hard to fathom. Sexting is a thing. Revenge porn is a thing. Those weren’t topics that I remember being taught, but they are facts of life now — and should be included in the lessons. The key is to be honest but non-judgmental. Sexting, and even sending nudes, can be a useful tool. It can help people explore boundaries and establish consent that they may be uncomfortable voicing in person, and can be satisfying on their own even without leading to a physical act. Unfortunately, those texts and pictures don’t always stay private, and that abuse of trust is a danger that teens should be informed of so they can make their own decisions. Not to mention the unsolicited photos — which can be another chance to practice saying “no”! Of course, making matters even MORE complicated is the electronic paper trail of sexual texts and images… of minors. If one partner is older than the other, there may come a time when sexting turns into child pornography. So while discussing the matter is important, because it is absolutely something that teenagers will be navigating, it probably shouldn’t be an explicit encouragement.
Oh, also: internet porn. Fascinating, useful, and completely unrealistic. Probably not a topic that needs to be encouraged either, but also shouldn’t be shied away from. Let’s face it — curious teenagers may watch porn. It’s not the end of the world. Just make sure they realize that real-life sex doesn’t look like that. It’s messier, it’s less photogenic, and it doesn’t always involve multiple orgasms (if fucking only…). Also, it doesn’t always involve plumbers. Who knew!
I personally find this so disturbing that it’s getting its own section. As you mentioned, your daughter may experiment with partners of both genders, so discussing condoms makes sense. But any discussion should include the fact that sometimes dudes may agree to use protection and then secretly remove it because it “feels better” or whatever. Fuck that shit. FUCK THAT SHIT. Make her aware, because sadly giving consent isn’t the be all/end all of the sexual experience. That consent can be betrayed, and she should be aware. Related: “hole-poking,” which I thought was just a euphemism for sex but is actually when someone pokes a hole in a condom to trap their partner with pregnancy. Have I mentioned how awesome masturbation is, btw?
Diseases, “safe sex,” and the usual
When you wrote to us, I’m sure you weren’t looking for help talking about birth control, STDs, or any of the other sex ed standbys. However, it’s worth brushing up on those topics because they’ve changed over the years as well. There are treatments for HIV, and even preventative drugs on the market. Herpes is still a confusing, nebulous disease that basically everyone has whether they know it or not. Getting regular STD screenings, and making sure their partners have as well, is a solid lesson to impart. Also — for the love of all that is holy, EXPLAIN WHAT A UTI IS! As a woman, urinary tract infections are a nasty bit of reality that always seems to fall by the wayside. Even if the lesson is just “make sure you pee after sex,” that can be hugely beneficial. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything…
In summary, sex ed isn’t all Judy Blume books and whispered rumors amongst friends. Your daughter is lucky to have you to talk to. And, to a lesser extent, you’re lucky to have us!