Feeling confounded about when to talk candidly with your children about sex? The right time is middle school, says Amber Madison, a safe-sex lecturer and author of the new book “Talking Sex With Your Kids: Keeping Them Safe and You Sane — By Knowing What They’re Really Thinking.” In this excerpt, Madison explains why those sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade years are so pivotal and spells out how parents can broach this awkward subject in just the right way.
Oh, eighth grade. It was the year Sean and Anna got caught making out in the woods and “Damn, it’s a sports bra” became everyone’s favorite quote. That was the year I had a boyfriend/boy friend/whatever he was, who wanted to talk to me on the phone for hours every day, otherwise he said he was going to kill himself. It was also the year I became aware of calories, and half the girls in my class developed eating disorders.
When I talk to parents, they always want to know: When does it all start? When do I need to start talking with my kids about sex — like sex sex. My answer to that is this: It all starts in middle school; grades six, seven, and eight (and possibly even before). Sure, the majority of middle schoolers aren’t necessarily having sex — though according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (2007) a good third do before they enter high school. But even middle schoolers who aren’t having intercourse may be starting to have romantic relationships, developing feelings about their bodies, starting to form opinions about sexuality, and beginning to engage in sexual activities (that may or may not include intercourse). Although most people’s sexual orientation isn’t solidified until later in their teens or twenties, middle school is the time gay youth may start to realize they’re different. It’s also the time when kids start tossing around the term “gay” as an insult or colorful adjective.
Some middle schoolers may be too young to start talking to about the more physical aspects of sex (like what birth control method works best, or the nuances of how to properly use a condom). But they are certainly old enough to start hearing about broader issues that have to do with sexuality and healthy relationships. The whole point of talking with your kids about sexual issues is to start the conversations before they need to actually utilize the advice. Besides, “whatever your kids aren’t ready to hear they’ll filter out,” says Katharine O’Connell White, an OB/GYN at Baystate Medical Center. “You cannot give kids too much information.”
This chapter is about some of the initial topics to start discussing with your kids: technology and the media, body image, relationships, sexual assault, sexual orientation, and oral sex. The topics at the beginning of this chapter (technology and the media, body image, and healthy relationships) are all topics you may want to start discussing with your kids even before middle school. The ones toward the end of the chapter are issues you may want to discuss a bit later (seventh and eighth grade), depending on your child’s maturity.
Sex and the media
It used to be that television was “the great American babysitter,” but now with newer technology — iPods, portable DVD players, and that thing they call the inter-web — your TV has outsourced some of its responsibilities. If your kids are like most, they spend a good amount of their day watching/listening/surfing something — possibly something you barely know how to use. According to a recent survey, around 10 percent of all media that children use has sexual content, almost 40 percent of the music they listen to has sexual lyrics (Brown 2005), and less than 1 percent of the sexual content in the media could be considered a portrayal of healthy sexual behavior (Hust et al. 2008). For better or for worse (and until the media starts portraying healthier messages just worse), Hollywood is educating your kids about sex and relationships.
As easy as it is to get upset about this and call it a day, I didn’t bring it up just to add something else onto your plate of concerns. In truth, the media can only be as much of an influence as you let it. I’m not suggesting that you ban anything with possible sexual content from your house. After all, as strict as you may want to be in your own home, your children are going to be exposed to sexual content eventually. Your job isn’t necessarily to limit what they are exposed to (although you may want to do that anyway), it is to teach your kids to be smarter media consumers.
Find out what messages are being sent to your kids and confront them. Remind your kids that everything they’re looking at isn’t reality; it’s entertainment. When an emotionally unavailable, sex-hungry guy gets all the girls on television, tell your kids: “That’s not the kind of guy that girls want in real life.” When a movie shows two gorgeous teen actors having hot Hollywood sex, protest how unrealistic it is that they never stopped to use a condom and that neither one is freaking out about pregnancy or STDs. Sit down with your daughter as she’s leafing through a magazine and tell her about all the airbrushing they do to pictures and how if you saw a model in real life she would look nothing like that. As painful as it may be, let your child listen to his or her favorite radio station in the car, just so that you can hear “the type of crap” they’re calling music these days. When a really sexual song comes on, talk about the lyrics: “All these rappers talking about pussy this, and bling that. They’re just selling a tough-guy image. In real life they probably just go home to a golden retriever and cuddle.”
A related concern that seems to be increasingly on parents’ minds (and the talk show circuit) is sex and technology: kids sending sexual text messages, or posting provocative pictures on Facebook. But to blame technology for this behavior is blaming a symptom of a greater disease; dirty text messages aren’t sending themselves. Contrary to what some sensationalistic media would like for you to believe (remember the lecture you just gave your kid, “media is entertainment”), the solution here is pretty simple. And it has less to do with eliminating cell phone and Facebook use and more to do with talking with your kids about appropriate ways of communicating. There will always be some new form of something that kids can use to sexually exploit themselves. Your goal is to keep them from thinking that’s a good idea in the first place.
First of all, let your kids in on a very important aspect of technology: It leaves a trail. Text messages can be shown to anyone; anything posted online lives forever, and everyone — a parent, teacher, coach, future boss — has access to the Internet. Secondly, talk with your kids about what it means to respect themselves sexually. Tell them they should only act sexual with people they actually want to have sex with, and they should only have sex within a respectful and caring context (more about this in Chapters 4, 8, and 9). Although it may seem like less of a big deal to send a dirty text than it is to say the same thing to a person’s face, essentially if they texted it, they said it. Tell them that if something is too risqué to say or do in front of someone, it’s too risqué to text, send, or post. If it’s not something they would show a teacher, say on TV, or print on the front page of the newspaper, it should not be posted online or sent in a text message.
Real-life advice: The Internet can be a pretty vague concept. Help your child understand just how far-reaching and permanent the Internet and other forms of technology are by explaining it in concrete terms: “You need to be careful about what you send to people’s cell phones or post online. Maybe you think you’re sending a raunchy text as a joke, but you won’t be able to prove that when the message is being circulated around your whole school. If you upload a picture of yourself naked onto Facebook, someone can copy that picture and years from now when you’re running for mayor, starting your own business, or becoming a well-known artist it can resurface and ruin your reputation. When you’re applying for colleges, going out for a sports team, or trying to get a job, the very people you are trying to impress can go online and see anything embarrassing you have ever posted. If it’s not something you would send or post in front of me, don’t do it.”
The media, technology, and any other negative influence that hurls itself at your kid is nothing that you can’t swat down. But in order to combat these influences you have to constantly be alert, aware, and willing to start talking.
Oral sexA few years back there was a great deal of hubbub about middle schoolers having oral sex parties, having oral sex in casual relationships, and just generally going down on people at inappropriate times. Although for a while it seemed like a blowjob was becoming the latest bar mitzvah gift, no studies show that casual oral sex is actually a widespread middle school norm.
What research has supported, however, is the fact that some teens that aren’t having intercourse are having oral sex (about a third to be exact). When asked why a teen has engaged in oral sex but not intercourse, these are some of the common answers they gave: because of their religion/morals, to avoid pregnancy, to avoid STDs, because they haven’t met the right partner, and because it wasn’t the right time (The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy 2005). Quite simply, oral sex doesn’t matter to teens as much as intercourse. The red flags this information raises are (1) that teens may not know they can get STDs from oral sex, and (2) that some don’t see oral sex as a big deal (it’s okay with God, they can do it with Mr. or Ms. Wrong, and they don’t have to be as emotionally prepared).
The emphasis that widespread abstinence-only sex education has placed on virginity has backfired in that it’s inadvertently encouraged sex acts other than penis-in-vagina intercourse. I went to a conservative Southern high school where a lot of the girls were told they should save themselves for marriage. Wanting to stay true to their religion, they only had anal sex with their boyfriends, and walked around heads held high because they were still virgins. The cultural obsession with virginity has led to some absurd choices. Because vaginal intercourse is what most people mean by “having sex” (as far as the term “virgin” is concerned), many teens believe that other acts don’t count.
Teens need to know that whether it affects their status as a virgin or not, all sex acts matter. Although some STDs are probably less likely to be transmitted through oral sex, it’s not a completely “safe” activity. Anal sex is actually riskier than vaginal sex as far as STDs are concerned. But all infections aside, everything teens go through to decide if they’re ready for intercourse should apply to other sex acts as well. Feeling used, regretful, or vulnerable is not unique to vaginal sex. Teens should be told that all of the bad emotions someone might experience from having intercourse in the wrong situation can be experienced from having any type of sex in the wrong situation. Sex is sex is sex. And with all sex acts, teens need to make sure they’re truly ready, they’re doing it with a caring and supportive partner, and it’s something they’re doing for the right reasons.
Real-life advice: Ask your teens how they would describe a virgin. If they say they don’t know, prompt them with scenarios: “Is someone who has had oral sex a virgin? What about anal sex? What about touched someone else’s penis/vagina?” Then, launch into this advice: “Even though you can engage in some sex acts and still technically be considered a virgin, all types of sex matter. Even if it can’t make a girl pregnant, oral sex and anal sex can still spread STDs. And actually, you’re more likely to get an STD through anal sex than you are from vaginal sex. Always choose carefully when you want to have sex and who you want to have sex with, and that goes for oral sex too.”
Topics for tweens cheat sheetHere’s a summary of the topics covered in this chapter, the major issues to discuss with your kids, and the important things to tell them:
1. Use the sexual content in the media to your advantage by having it serve as a jumping off point for conversations about sex. Remind your kids that what they see/hear is entertainment, not reality. Pay attention to what they’re watching, reading, and listening to, and talk with them about the messages they’re getting from the material.
2. Make sure your children know that respecting themselves carries over to cell phones, the Internet, and any other device. A good rule of thumb is never send a text message you wouldn’t say to someone’s face, or a picture of something you’d be embarrassed to show them in person.
3. Everyone has things they don’t love about their body, and that’s okay. But the most important thing about someone’s body is that it is healthy. If it’s not healthy, they can’t continue to do all of the activities they love.
4. In a healthy relationship there is trust, respect, kindness, understanding, and equality, and both people keep their own separate lives and interests. For teens, the best relationships are those between two people of roughly the same age.
5. Abusive relationships can happen to anyone, and the abuse often happens in a cycle, interspersed with great times in the relationship. Abuse can be mental and emotional as well as physical.
6. Date rape (where the victim and attacker know each other) is much more common than stranger rape. Anytime one person says no and is then physically or verbally forced into sex, it is rape.
7. Sexual orientation is a continuum, with gay on one end and straight on the other. Most people fall at some point on that line, but not at one end or the other. A person’s sexual orientation is based on how they feel, not necessarily what they do.
8. Oral sex matters. Even though a person can have oral sex and still technically be a virgin, it carries many of the same risks and repercussions as sexual intercourse. A person still needs to think carefully before they engage in oral sex.
Excerpted with permission from “Talking Sex With Your Kids: Keeping Them Safe and You Sane — By Knowing What They’re Really Thinking” by Amber Madison (Adams Media, 2010).