It’s not clear who dreads the Sex Talk more, parents or children. Parents know that it’s important to impart their values and arm kids with knowledge, but they don’t know how to approach the subject or how much to say.
Although they know it’s irrational, parents want to think that their kids will wait until their wedding nights to have sex, or at least until they are 30. (The truth is that 7 out of 10 Americans become sexually active before the age of 19.) All children would like to believe that they are the product of immaculate conception. They are queasy about the very notion of their parents ever having sex, and the last thing they want to do is talk to them about it.
My husband and I recently decided that it was time to have The Talk with our four middle-school aged children, three pubescent girls and a boy who has not quite entered puberty. They haven’t yet experienced anything more than unrequited crushes, and their friends are not sexually precocious, but our rationale for choosing this time is that we wanted them to be informed before choices arise, not after.
We had also observed some group chat messages among the kids and their friends that demonstrated poor understanding of human sexuality and social boundaries. These included jocular but inappropriate references to sex acts and a photo of denim with a seam that apparently represented a crotch shot. Our kids and their friends were trying to act like grown-ups, but they were acting like politicians instead. They clearly needed some guidance.
At our monthly family meeting, with the four of them perched in a row on the opposite couch, my husband and I launched into what we thought was the easiest part of The Talk, a discussion about what is inappropriate to say and post in email, chats, and on social media. We explained that there can be no expectation of privacy, even when using platforms that are supposed to be private, not only because of security vulnerabilities, but because people are sloppy about leaving their accounts open for others to see.
If photos or other explicit content get into the wrong hands, this could expose them to sexual predators, cyberbullying and discrimination even beyond childhood, because nothing on the internet ever goes away. We also told them that taking explicit pictures of themselves or possessing naked photos of other minors is against the law, and teens can and have been prosecuted for the crime.
Even this rather tame subject led to squirming and blushing, and that was just the adults. We could not induce the kids to participate in the conversation. They turned their heads away, trying to shut out our embarrassing words, and then they bolted as soon as we gave them permission. It wasn’t clear that they had absorbed anything that we had said. We knew that we had to try something different for our next talk.
As a medical educator, I had learned that one way of ensuring student participation was to turn a lecture into a fun quiz.
As a parent, I had learned that one of the most effective ways to motivate kids is to offer them tooth-rotting candy with lurid colors and disturbing synthetic flavors. What if we combined these two excellent strategies and turned The Talk into The Game?
We bought colored index cards and used each color for a different category: Anatomy, Physiology, Sexually Transmitted Infections, Pregnancy, and Sex & Society. We then came up with a range of questions, some multiple choice, some true/false, some open-ended, and wrote them on the cards. We tried to guess how hard each question would be for the kids to answer, and we assigned a point value from one to three. Candies were given corresponding point values depending on size and perceived desirability.
As the kids filed in for the family meeting, they eyed the sweets with interest. The announcement that we were going to talk about sex again elicited protests and groans, but their ears perked up when we explained the point system. Every child loves a game, particularly one that involves sugar. We started by putting sheets of paper in front of them with diagrams of male and female reproductive organs and asked them to label them for three points each. They went eagerly to work.
By the time we moved on to the questions on the index cards, the kids were so absorbed in maximizing their winnings that they forgot to be embarrassed. When one got an answer wrong, others raised their hands and waved them, bouncing in their seats, hoping for a chance to get the question right. We learned what the kids knew and where there were gaps in their knowledge, and we had the opportunity to talk about subjects that we might not otherwise have thought to raise. For instance, it would not have occurred to us to talk about whether couples have sex when a woman is menstruating or whether a prescription is required to buy condoms.
The kids built on the answers to earlier questions to formulate responses to later questions, indicating that they were learning. As an example, one of the questions was, “Approximately how effective are condoms for preventing sexually transmitted infections?” (The answer is about 70-80% for the infections that have been studied.) So when asked, “How can you be guaranteed not to get a sexually transmitted infection?” our daughter said, “Well, using a condom would be a good idea, but it obviously can’t guarantee you won’t get infected. So I guess the answer is don’t have sex. Or only have sex with someone who has never had sex before.”
Some of the things that surprised us were that the kids did not know how birth control pills work, but they all knew about the connection between human papilloma virus (HPV) and cervical cancer. Oddly, our son somehow knew the precise prevalence of genital herpes (If you’re wondering, it’s one in six adults) but couldn’t figure out how to put a condom on a banana. His sisters yelled, “You have to ROLL it! Figure out which way it unrolls!” like he was a contestant on a game show, while he puzzled over how it could possibly fit.
One of the funniest moments came from a question that was, in retrospect, poorly considered on our part: “Define the word fellatio.” In our defense, we did award the question three points because we knew it would be difficult. Even our theater nerd daughter, who has a vocabulary larger than many adults, didn’t know the answer. She said that it sounded like a character from Shakespeare. Putting on her best British accent, she called out dramatically, “Greetings! How doest thou, dear Fellatio?” (While unfamiliar with the formal term, the kids were familiar with the concept. After we offered them the definition, they shared a string of more colloquial synonyms with us.)
There were poignant moments too. When asked, “How many sexually active teens say that they wish that had waited longer before having sex,” the kids overestimated the correct number, which is about two-thirds (pdf). When asked, “Why might someone wish that he or she had waited longer to become sexually active,” one of the kids answered, “You make yourself so open to someone and trust them so much if you have sex with them, and then if they break up with you, it would make you feel really, really awful, like you were nothing.”
We ended up talking about sex for almost two hours. There was much hilarity, a number of new facts taught, and some earnest discussion. Making it a group activity allowed the children to learn from one another, and it diffused the uncomfortable intimacy of a quiet conversation about sex between a child and an adult. Some conversations require privacy, but the dissemination of facts about human sexuality doesn’t, and it can be an easier conversation to have in an impersonal setting. Even before we broached the subject, one of our daughters said, “I’m okay with you talking to us about sex if you use the doctor voice, but not if you use the mom voice. Definitely not the mom voice.”
My husband and I were elated at how well The Talk went. We high-fived each other and congratulated ourselves as though we had discovered the Rosetta Stone for communicating with kids. When we asked one of our daughters what she thought, she brought us back down to earth. “Meh,” she said, “It wasn’t as awkward as I thought it would be.” That’s not exactly high praise, but it’s maybe as much approval as we’re ever going to get from a teenager.