BIRDS AND BEES

There’s a better way to talk to your kids about sex

A better way to talk about the birds and the bees.
A better way to talk about the birds and the bees.
Image: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
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It’s no secret that many parents struggle with talking to their kids about sex. But a new study from Britain suggests those awkward conversations may be key in helping kids navigate their first sexual experiences—and offers some useful guidance on how to do it.

The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles poll delves into sexual behavior in Britain. It asks some obvious questions, such as “What age did you first have sex?” Others dig deeper: “Did you feel peer pressure to have sex when you did it for the first time?” “Were you drunk?” “Did you want it as much as your partner wanted it?”

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine used the survey to do a more in-depth study on the circumstances surrounding young people’s first time and how they felt about it, interviewing 2,825 young people from the survey. (The broader national survey included 15,162 men and women, aged 17-24, between 2010-2012.) The study, recently published in BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health, was retrospective, meaning that young adults were asked to reflect on their first experience, which could have been years earlier.

In an effort to get beyond the simplistic question of “When did you first have sex” to the more important ones around whether young adults felt ready, the authors sought to assess respondents’ “sexual competence” based on questions the young adults answered in the survey. The components of sexual competence include:

  • Did you use contraception?
  • Did you feel in charge of your decision (or was the decision influenced by things such as peer pressure and/or drunkenness)?
  • Were you and your partner equally willing to do it?
  • Did it happen at the right time?

Competence feels like a loaded word, especially in the context of sex. But if you lose the word and look at the questions embedded in the definition, you have an interesting road map to what readiness may look like, including consent, protection, safety, and interest.

Not surprisingly, many people found their first times to be not-so-great. A whopping 40% of women and 26% of men did not think that their first sexual experience occurred at the ‘right time,’ while 17.4% of women reported that they and their partner were not equally willing to have sex the first time it happened. A similar share of women reported a non-autonomous reason—such as peer pressure or drunkenness—for their first sexual encounter. Nine out of ten young adults used contraception.

According to the researchers’ definition of competence, 52% of women and 42% of men were not sexually competent for their first time.

The relationship between age and sexual competence was not straightforward, but it was clearly directional: 78% of 13-14-year-old girls were not competent, compared to 36% of 18-24-year-old girls. (For boys, 65% were not competent at 13-14, compared to 40% at 18-24.)

First times are often fraught for a variety of reasons: peer or partner pressure, expectations, mechanics. But being older clearly has advantages. The study suggested that there was also a connection—for girls at least—between having conversations with parents or learning about sex and relationships in school and feeling ready.

“That young women who had discussed sexual matters with their parents, and those who reported school to be their main source from which they learnt about sexual matters, were more likely to have been sexually competent at first sex resonates with previous research,” the study said. The authors suggest that may be because parental input and conversations, and school-based relationships and sex education, “may provide the knowledge and skills required to negotiate a positive and safe sexual experience.”

That association was not observed with men. The authors suggest one interpretation is that communication is less important for men as they reflect on their first encounter.

Self-reported retrospective interviews necessarily may be influenced by flaws of memory and bias. But if self-reporting shows this much uncertainty and openness about not being ready, it seems safe to assume the numbers are even greater.

Clearly, parents need to do more to help kids figure out the right time to become sexually active. Forty-seven percent of 14-year-old girls and 58% of 14-year-old boys said they had never discussed sex with either parent. And as awareness of sexual health and well-being develops, conversations between parents and kids must go beyond advice like “Use protection. Don’t get a disease” to what healthy relationships look and feel like, what consent is, how to say no, and how porn pollutes our idea about what sex should be like.

A starting point for those conversations is a vernacular that makes sense. The definition of competence laid out by the BMJ researchers is compatible with that of the World Health Organization, which also goes beyond physical health (contraception and sexually transmitted diseases) to include mental well-being and social aspects, referring to a “positive and respectful approach to… sexual relationships” and “safe sexual experiences, free of coercion.”

Based on the BMJ study, the BBC suggests that parents talk to teens about sex using this checklist:

When is the right time?

If you think you might have sex, ask yourself:

  • Does it feel right?
  • Do I love my partner?
  • Does he/she love me just as much?
  • Have we talked about using condoms to prevent STIs and HIV, and was the talk OK?
  • Have we got contraception organised to protect against pregnancy?
  • Do I feel able to say “no” at any point if I change my mind, and will we both be OK with that?

Also consider:

  • Do I feel under pressure from anyone, such as my partner or friends?
  • Could I have any regrets afterwards?
  • Am I thinking about having sex just to impress my friends or keep up with them?
  • Am I thinking about having sex just to keep my partner?

Research suggests that our early experiences with sex can have a long-term influence on sexual health. So it makes sense for parents to do what they can—from an ongoing conversation to an anonymous checklist left on the table—to increase the odds that teens’ first encounters are good ones.