Are you still recovering from your own cringe-able experiences with sexual health education from your youth?
My less-than-ideal experience wasn’t a product of family discussions but rather from my only—as in singular!—sex education session in high school. I was in grade 9 and the facilitator was, based on her rigid body, red face and lack of eye contact, clearly uncomfortable discussing sexuality. Twenty plus years later, I am still trying to unsee those graphic images of what the nurse called “Venereal Disease/VD” or as we call them now, Sexually Transmitted Infections.
Among the not so silent screams of my peers, there was a very clear message that sex was scary and something to be feared. Cue the horror music and the obvious message that our typical teenage sexual curiosity was somehow wrong or shameful. This is now what I refer to as “fear factor education” and that we, in the sexuality education field, now formally refer to as a sex-negative approach.
My 20 years of experience as a sexual health educator and 40+ years as a life learner have taught me that this approach limits everyone’s capacity to understand human sexuality. It denies the right of youth to develop their sexuality in a respectful, affirming and honest way. Countless research reports from across the globe back this up and prove that open and ongoing dialogue about sexuality becomes a protective factor in sexual decision making. If we as parents and adult allies give our youth honest, accurate information and we support them in their decision making with resources and a sex-positive approach, they are more likely to engage in consensual, respectful and satisfying experiences with sexuality.
What exactly is a sex-positive approach?
A sex-positive approach means that we intentionally root and develop our understandings of sexuality with curiosity and positivity and the belief that sexuality has the potential to be affirming and empowering at all stages of our lives including adolescence. What then does being a sex-positive parent mean? Does it mean buying your teenager an endless supply of condoms and allowing their partner to sleepover?
In my experience as a sexual health educator, the foundation of sex-positive parenting is to develop an approach that specifically works for your family values, beliefs and practices through a series of open, honest conversations throughout their adolescence. Being a sex-positive family means we share the core value that sexuality is a natural, healthy and positive part of the human experience and that each person has the right to make choices about what that experience will look and feel like for themselves. It means acknowledging that the majority of our children will grow into adults who become sexually active with a partner and we commit to support them through this process with accurate information, resources and unconditional affirmation and spectrum of their sexual identity.
Sounds simple, right?
If this feels like really BIG life stuff and overwhelming to you, steady on because my experiences with youth and their adult allies tells me that we are doing a better job of this than we often give ourselves credit for.
In case you feel like you need some direction, here are seven ingredients for your sex-positive to-do list as a parent/family/adult ally:
1. Reflect on your own experiences with sexuality conversations as a youth. Thinking back helps remind us of what worked for us, what was missing and what we as adults would like to do differently for our youth.
2. Ask yourself “What are the most important and valuable messages about sexuality that you want your youth to receive?” and then ask your youth “What are the most important and valuable messages you think youth should hear from adults?” These questions are at the root of sex-positive families; they help us to remain aware of everyone’s values, beliefs, and needs and practice empathy.
3. Remind your adult self and your youth that sexuality (however that spectrum is personally defined) has the potential to be affirming and empowering experiences throughout a person’s life when boundaries, respect and expectations are clear. This reminder helps to frame all conversations in a positive light, prevent our conversations from becoming a fear factor list and be open about our personal values and rules as a family.
4. Affirm consent as a non-negotiable basis of all healthy, positive relationships. Help your youth talk openly and comfortably about how they feel and how to ask for what they want and need in all life situations. Strategize ways to accept situations when we don’t receive what we want, need or ask for. Being aware of what a person wants is as important as knowing what they don’t want in a sexual situation. We must be prepared to support our youth around shared responsibility in knowing how to say and hear yes or no from a partner (current or future).
5. Include pleasure (physical and emotional) in your conversations at every opportunity. Youth often ask me why adults are so negative about sex and embarrassed about the fact that sex can feel good? I remember one youth saying to me “If sex is really as scary as adults make it out to be, why do many people want to do it?” Great question! Talk about how pleasure is more than they physical side of sex; connect pleasure to feeling confident in decisions, valued in relationships and knowing what feels pleasurable for their own bodies with and/or without a partner. Also let youth know that it they don’t feel like sex could be emotionally and physically pleasurable, that’s cool too!
6. Utilize the expertise of youth to help you stay current on today’s sexuality topics: spectrums of gender identity; sexual and romantic orientation and consent are areas that many youth are extremely well educated and passionate about. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of asking what your youth think. This helps you to share the knowledge and power in sexuality education and builds trust and intimacy in your relationship.
7. Supply resources for youth based on their needs. Are they exploring or questioning their gender identity or sexual orientation? Do they have “a friend” who is in need of safer sex supplies and/or birth control methods? Connect them with your greater community: youth drop in groups, local sexual health or youth clinics. Consider getting safer sex methods (condoms, dams, gloves, lube) and keeping them somewhere they could access them if that fits with your family. Would it be helpful to have a book about sexuality? A current favourite book with the youth I work with is s.e.x. by Heather Corinna. This is a great way to provide youth with accurate and relevant information to grow their knowledge in a safe and respectful way.
So when you think about having sexuality conversations with your youth, try to think of it as a list of dos not a list of don’ts. Communicating about sexuality with youth can feel overwhelming and may cause us to either avoid the topic or minimize the conversations into a very specific and scary don’t list. These big life conversations aren’t always as easy or comfortable as they could be but the more you actually talk about it; the more comfortable it becomes and the more likely you’ll become more sex positive and your youth will make positive choices. As a bonus, it may help to make those memories from your own youth a little less cringe-able.