Let’s talk about sex, baby.
Specifically, let’s talk about the messages most of us receive from our parents in our childhood about sex:
1. sex gets you pregnant
2. sex gives you disease
3. sex defines (and can ruin) your reputation
4. sex is dangerous
5. sex is secretive and nearly forbidden.
Sound familiar? All roads from that messaging point to sex being negative and a source of shame. Never do we hear about sex as an expression of intimacy. Sex as a healing and spiritual act. Sex being so damn fun and feeling oh so good.
We rarely - if ever - get the message from our families that sex is a beautiful and wonderfully pleasurable thing. And if we’re like the 70% of kids aged 7 to 18 who “accidentally” stumble across porn, we’re getting a totally different message about what sex is and isn’t from complete and utter strangers.
When our kids watch porn (spoiler alert, Mama: the largest consumer group of online porn is children aged 12 to 17; mind blown, right?), they still aren’t getting the “Wow, those people look like they’re in a super respectful exchange of energy and love and physicality” message. The vast majority of online porn isn’t finding-a-stack-of-still-nude-close-ups in your friend’s dad’s 1992 Playboy collection. It’s aggressive “rage-fucking,” ball gagging, cum-on-your-face, bitch-your-pleasure-has-nothing-to-do-with-this streamed videos. On repeat.
What kind of message about sex does that send our girls?
What kind of message about sex does that send our boys?
Fast forward to a generation of adult men and women who are wildly repressed in their sexual health. Men have an absolutely skewed perception of what female pleasure entails, and women expect to not receive pleasure from their partner. Men are terrified of accidental pregnancy and bringing shame on their families. Women are unable to orgasm without the help of a vibrator. We are seeing men who are unable to orgasm without porn, women who stay quiet about what they like and what feels good on their bodies for fear of being perceived as a slut.
A generally pervasive consensus in married couples that sex is something you have to do, but don’t have to enjoy; that pleasure is only available to him and isn’t a crucial part of a healthy relationship.
You guys, we have to change this. We must give our kids (and hell, we must give ourselves) the awareness that sex is a really good thing.
Yes, it comes with responsibility. Yes, it comes with a learning curve. And yes, there are precautions we need to take that will protect our bodies, our minds, and our hearts from damage or recourse.
So how do we do it? How do we give our kids the broad-spectrum view of what sex actually is? We teach them to respect it, right from the beginning.
This starts very young, with giving our little tiny children the proper language of their body parts: this is your knee, this is your elbow, this is your vulva, this is your belly button, this is your scrotum, this is your ankle. Talk about what pads and tampons and menstrual cups are; talk about what each function of the body is, from peeing, pooping, bleeding, to delivering babies. Having real words to name their bodies and functions is the first step in healthy sexual perception. “It’s not the Stork” and other early sexual health education books are great places to explore for your kids on their own and with you at their side.
When your child starts to explore their more intimate body parts, allow them to do so, and encourage them to freely explore their bodies and the accompanying pleasure in the privacy of their own room and company, versus at school or extracurricular activities, for example. It’s not a bad thing to do - at all - but it is contextual, and that’s a limit they can respect early on.
Every time you listen to an inane story about which Shopkin does what, or what so and so did at recess today, you are teaching your kids that what they say matters to you. That you always have time to listen to what they want to tell you, and that you value this exchange of information. They need to know that they will never get in trouble for telling you the truth. These are patterns we set very early on in their lives, and can continue even as the context evolves as they grow.
Similarly, you can provide a top-down attitude regarding bodies, and that your body is always your own. By acknowledging and encouraging them to listen to their bodies when they feel full, or sick, or want cuddles, or don’t want hugs, you’re showing them that they are in charge of their physical space.
The healthiest parent relationships tend to be the ones that gross your kids out. Kissing, hugging, embracing, cuddling, had holding, all in for of your children demonstrate what healthy intimacy looks like, and that it needn’t be hidden. Does this mean you need to have an open-door bedroom policy? No, it just means that your attitude towards intimacy can actively shape your kids’ perception of intimacy, so make the message count.
What does that mean to you? Maybe it’s having a fishbowl of condoms available in the family bathroom. Maybe it’s talking to your daughter about vibrators. Maybe it’s ending the awkward silence that happens at family movie night when there is an intimate scene. Maybe it’s inviting your teen’s new BF or GF to those exact movie nights, or family dinners, or trips to Grandma’s, ensuring that they feel welcomed as respected members of your tribe.
Avoiding or pretending sex doesn’t exist doesn’t work. Openly shaming and punishing the ideas around sex doesn’t work. Avoidance, shame, and guilt fetishize sex and make it taboo. When the fruit is forbidden, all you want is a taste.
So, if you can open up a consistently sex positive attitude around sex and intimacy, respect for the act itself is inherent. Whatever you do, take the shame away. This might mean confronting some of your own demons and relationship to sex and pleasure in the process, as you learn in tandem that sex is a fantastic, healthy, and important part of our lives when the time and context is right.