Parents are getting the “sex talk” all wrong—and not because of the sex part

Help wanted.
Help wanted.
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Few parents relish the idea of talking to their kids about sex. It’s awkward, it’s highly likely that kids will tune out in shock and horror, and chances are they’ve learned it all online anyways. Or so parents tell themselves.

Parents appear to be doing just as poor a job talking about relationships, even though ample evidence exists to show that good relationships are fairly critical to human well-being. According to a new report from Harvard’s Making Caring Common project, 70% of kids surveyed wished they had gotten more information from their parents about managing the emotions of a relationship. More than a third said they wanted more guidance on “how to have a more mature relationship,” “how to deal with deal with breakups,” and “how to avoid getting hurt.” Other topics of interest among kids included: “how to compromise in a relationship when you’re both stubborn,” “how to deal with falling out of love with someone,” how “to wait” to have sex, and how to “deal with cheating.”

Parents assume kids “are going to learn to love naturally, or that they will magically or organically figure this out,” says Richard Weissbourd, lead author on the study and faculty director of the Making Caring Common project, which is part of Harvard’s graduate school of education. “There’s a lot of evidence that’s not the case.”

Avoiding these conversations may be convenient, but it is not without consequence. On top of the endemic societal costs of botched relationships, such as high divorce rates, marital misery, alcoholism, depression, and domestic abuse, the report offers damning statistics that show misogyny and sexual harassment are pervasive in our culture:

“For adults to hand over responsibility for educating young people about romantic love—and sex—to popular culture is a dumbfounding abdication of responsibility,” the authors wrote. One in five women reported being sexually assaulted during college, a 2015 national report from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center found.

The reasons parents are dropping the ball vary, Weissbourd says. Many parents assume kids don’t want advice from them, or think their own failed relationships render them unfit to offer insights. “When you probe more deeply, a number say some version of ‘I feel I failed at my own relationships,'” he says. “But relationship failures can generate as many insights as successes.”

Weissbourd and his team conducted two surveys to investigate perceptions of relationships, misogyny, and sexual harassment. The first included about 1,300 students at three high schools and five universities in the US. These kids did not all get the same questions, and were randomly selected. The second study included a nationally representative sample of 2,195 respondents aged 18 to 25, all of whom answered the same questions.

How bad is it?

Kids who do not understand misogyny and sexual assault will not always develop the tools stop it, the report says. Most respondents said they’d never had a conversation with their parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others, nor had most talked about misogyny.

Parents and kids also aren’t discussing consent, says Weissbourd, meaning no talk of pleasure and how to have a caring, gratifying, reciprocal sexual relationship. More than 60% of kids in the nationally representative survey had never spoken with their parents about “being sure your partner wants to have sex and is comfortable doing so before having sex,” and a similar share had never talked about the “importance of not pressuring someone to have sex with you.”

This would all seem less scary if kids were aware of the prevalence of sexual harassment. But they don’t seem to be. According to the report, two-thirds agreed or didn’t oppose the idea that government and media overhype sexual harassment. Weissbourg says he was ”flabergasted” by how many respondents felt there was too much attention to sexual assault in the media.

Dangerous myths

Part of the problem is that kids think everyone else is part of a rampant hook-up culture, which the research suggests isn’t true.

The survey asked kids in the nationally representative sample to guess how many of their 18 and 19-year-old peers had had more than one sexual partner in the past year, and what percentage of them had hooked up with more than 10 people in college.

Only about half of respondents said they were hooking up, and only a fraction of them were having sex. But a far larger share assumed others were much more sexually active. In other words, plenty of kids think other kids are hooking up all the time, even though most are not.

Other research supports this idea. According to a study from sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong, only one-fifth of college students have hooked up more than 10 times by their senior year (for an average of 2.5 hook-ups a year). According to the Centers for Disease Control, roughly a quarter of 18 to 19-year-olds nationally (in and out of school) had more than one sexual partner in the previous year, and only 8% had four or more partners.

Bad sex education is not helping 

Sex education in America isn’t filling in the gaps of what parents fail to discuss with their kids. School courses are often tied in with general health education, typical taught by people with little training or inclination to discuss sex with teens. Intimacy, LGBTQIA issues, pornography, sexual harassment, consent, and differences between, say, love and infatuation, are rarely covered.

Many states still support an abstinence-only-until-marriage version of sex ed: According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 18 states and the District of Columbia require that sex ed classes include information about on contraception. By contrast, 37 states require information on abstinence to be provided.

The notion that giving kids information about sex causes them to have it isn’t born out by facts, says Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit committed to teaching kids about all aspects of sex. She cites research showing that comprehensive sex education not only helps young people delay sexual initiation, but also use condoms and contraception when they do become sexually active.

Advocates for Youth believes kids need to talk to a lot of people and feel comfortable asking about what they want to know. To do so, it has supplemented traditional sex ed programs with a series of videos called AMAZE for kids aged 10 to 14, on everything from puberty to porn.

“I am not giving up on school-based sex ed, but I am ready to do this direct-to-consumer to make sure we are not leaving young people with nothing,” Hauser says. (A CDC study found that for US teens aged 15-17 who had had sex, roughly 80% had not received any formal sex ed before they lost their virginity).

Weissbourd agrees. “Sex ed in this country is abstinence only or disaster prevention—how not to get pregnant and not get sexually transmitted diseases,” he says. “It’s not about respect and care in a loving relationship.”

In Weissbourd’s study, 65% of respondents in the nationally representative sample wished that they had received guidance on some emotional aspect of romantic relationships in a health or sex education class at school.

What to do

The Harvard report includes a comprehensive list (pdf) of resources for parents and kids. The recommendations (pdf) boil down to a lot more talk about relationships. Which ones look healthy, and why? What skills do people bring into a good relationship versus a bad one? Do Beyonce and Jay-Z seem to have a solid relationship, or do those songs about cheating suggest something might be amiss? What would you do if a partner you loved cheated on you? Examples abound, from TV and movies to literature and politics (see, the Clintons): we have to harness them for teaching purposes. 

Parents should also get out of their comfort zones, the report says, especially when it comes to discussing degrading and sexist comments. Not discussing these can be interpreted as permission.

Weissbourd says women have made tremendous gains in schools and universities and workplaces, but those gains are muted by a lack of progress on misogyny and sexual harassment. Kids need more guidance, and want to know more about how to have deep, self-respecting romantic relationships, he notes. “We can do a much better job at providing that guidance, even if we didn’t do it ourselves.”