Sex Positive Parenting
Just to be clear, sex positive parenting does NOT mean teaching your kids to go ahead and have sex anywhere with anyone or multiple people at the same time.
Sex positive parenting is the philosophy that sexuality is a natural, healthy and positive part of childhood, adolescence and adulthood and that children deserve to be educated about it.
A major goal of sex positive parenting is for kids to engage in sexual activity only when they're socially, emotionally and physically ready. Ideally, they come away from their first sexual experience feeling like they made a good decision, and that sex is a positive part of life.
It's our job as parents to raise educated, informed kids. That goal is no different when it comes to bodies and sex. Feminist parents (and hopefully all parents) want to set their kids up to have healthy, fulfilling sex lives as adults. But even more immediately, it's a HEALTH & SAFETY ISSUE. Kids need the facts, along with our values, to make safe choices when the time comes for making decisions about dating, relationships, and sex. We can do this through regular, open and effective conversations with our children (see the Normalize, Normalize, Normalize page).
Deep-Rooted Process: Messages about sex take root in us when we're young. Most of us didn't have good examples of how to parent around sexuality. There was "The Talk" (one talk!) that was laden with shame and awkwardness or the book (one book!). And many people -- women especially -- have experienced some form of sexual trauma, so the fear and shame associated with that is likely to impact how we parent around sexuality. It can lead to hyper vigilant parenting which can be anxiety-inducing for kids, or to denial that a kid is becoming a sexual being, or to some other unproductive parenting behavior. If you've been assaulted or abused in your lifetime or even just grew up with negative messages about sex, working through that in therapy can be very helpful. The better you know and take care of yourself, the better you can care for your children.
Don't expect to just know how and when to talk to your kids. Especially these days, there's a lot more happening with different genders, sexualities, and relationship styles (see the Gender Diversity Page). The more sex-educated parents are and the clearer they are about their values, the more they can help their kids navigate this tough terrain. Books, websites and other resources can guide the way.
General Guidelines for Sex Ed: Ideally, we should start having conversations and reading books with our kids by age five when they're still open, curious and unembarrassed. By age nine they become more modest and by 12...yeah, better not to start at 12 unless you enjoy being scrutinized, critiqued, and shut down by your kids. That doesn't mean don't talk about this stuff when they're tweens and teens (definitely do), but if you've been doing it all along in age-appropriate ways, it won't be totally awkward.
Early on we want to teach out kids about body parts, safe touch, and how babies are (usually) made. We want to teach about consent in general (see page on Boundaries & Consent) and consent regarding sex specifically.
- We need to explicitly tell our kids that people only engage in sexual touching when everyone agrees.
- We need to explicitly say that sex is not for kids and EVERY big kid and adult knows that.
- We need to explicitly say that an adult should never ask them to keep a secret because adults know that children don't keep secrets from their parents when they're young.
Around age eight we want them to know their body is going to change so we want to make sure the topic of puberty is normalized.
By late middle school kids should know all about sex -- the different kinds, their values, birth control, and STIs, so that when sexual experimenting and dating starts they can make good choices for themselves.
Teens who have recurring conversations with their parents about sex-related topics are more likely to delay sex until they are older, and use birth control when they do become sexually active. If you're clear about what you want for them, they'll be more likely to adopt similar hopes so give them a clear message about your personal values and beliefs about sex and relationships. Believe it or not, most teens name their parents as the biggest influence in their decisions about sex.
We want kids to know their personal limits before they go out on a date with someone. We can encourage them to consider how far they're willing to go that night with that particular person. We also want them to have as clear a sense as possible about what their personal rules are. For example, how many dates before there's any physical touch, what they're willing to do and not do in a car or public place, etc. Of course they're not robots and they also possess impulsive teenage brains so they may not always stick to the rules but having guidelines in place helps in the heat of the moment.
You may also decide to have family rules about dating. Maybe your child has to bring home their love interest at least twice before there's a private date. It's our job to help our kids be savvy daters and relaters.
Mixed Messages = Confusion
A sexually active girl is considered a slut while a sexually active boy is a "player"
The mixed messages girls’ get about sex can paralyze them in their decisions about whether or not to have sex.
As a psychologist, I’ve had too many teenage girls and women, straight, gay and queer, bemoan that their first sexual experiences with a male did not feel totally like their choice.
They describe situations in which they’re enjoying hooking up with their boyfriend or another male they’re attracted to who then moves toward having sex with them. Part of them wants to have sex because it feels good, intimate and sex is an experience they’d like to have.
Part of them, however, doesn’t because they’re supposed to wait to give the guy something to look forward to before giving "all of themselves" away (as if sex is all they have to offer). And because they have understood waiting makes them a proper and morally better person and reduces the risk of being labeled a slut.
Girls also long for the romantic story of deep love that naturally leads to sex and isn’t really a decision at all, but a deep-knowing that this is the right thing.
Sex should always be a decision.
The stories go something like this: “I was lying there unable to speak or move, unsure what to do and the next thing I know he’s having sex with me and I’m left feeling used, empty and not knowing if I was just taken advantage of”.
Yes Means Yes is just as important for girls as for boys. Not only do boys have to be taught to wait to hear those words, but girls need to know that if they can’t freely say it, they are probably confused and not ready to have sex yet.
Sometimes though girls tell me about scenarios in which they found it difficult to say no to sex even though they were clear about not wanting it because they were scared they would be raped. Others talked about having said no but then not fighting the guy off because then it would for sure be rape. In other words, girls are terrified of being raped; of being stripped of their sense of power and dignity so instead they try desperately to find a way to make it feel okay.
Of course, too many women do say no very clearly or fight and still get raped. The point here is that girls so often do not get to set the terms for their own bodies. They are constantly trying to find creative ways to keep themselves safe in a culture that confuses them with mixed messages and doesn’t listen to them.
Boys are also given mixed messages. On the one hand, they're told girls need protecting and special, paternalistic respect (see our page on Benevolent Sexism). On the other hand, they're given accolades and rewards by their friends for pressuring girls to have sex.
The stories I hear from men about their earlier sexual lives are often about sensing a girl was uncomfortable or unsure, or in some cases, saying she didn't want to, and moving ahead anyway because the peer confirmation of their manhood was too tempting.
They tell me these stories sheepishly, with shame. And also with pain. They were left feeling guilty, ashamed, and in most cases had been unable to remain friends with this person even if they had really liked her, even if she had been willing to continue the relationship.
Also common: he hadn't enjoyed or even necessarily wanted to have sex. But he did it for the high-fives.
As parents we need to untangle sex and masculinity for our sons. It's a huge responsibility to raise a respectful man. We need to remind them that hurting others isn't actually manly; that, like anything else, doing something they don't want to do, taking that dare, hurts them too. We need to reiterate throughout their young lives the rules and benefits of consent (see our page on teaching Bounderies and Consent).