A guide for adults and parents who didn’t get the sex education they deserve
If you feel like sex isn’t something that should be spoken about openly and honestly, or you just don’t know how to have frank discussions about sex, you’re not alone. Not long ago, we saw this play out on a national scale, with the federal government developing a consent education program using metaphors like milkshakes to avoid any references to sex. The campaign was justifiably slammed as bizarre and wildly inappropriate, but its existence sheds some light on our society’s values and the way in which we treat sex as something that needs to be skirted around and sugar coated.
In this post, we’ll examine why so many of us feel this way and why it’s important for everyone, but especially parents/guardians and teachers/educators to confront this if we want to ensure a happier, safer, more respectful future.
Why is talking about sex so awkward?
From a young age, each of us is exposed to competing values and attitudes towards sex through the media and those around us. From parents making clear what parts of our body are ‘private’, to portrayals of sex on TV, to what we’re taught at school or by religious leaders, each of these moments contribute to the way in which we will feel towards sex later in life.
For some of us, religion taught us that sex was shameful, something we should avoid until marriage. For others, our parents were the source of that shame - we weren’t even taught the correct anatomical terms for our own body parts, even by those who were trying to get it right. How often do you still hear the word vagina used in place of vulva? For others, it was ‘willy’ instead of penis. How can we possibly feel comfortable talking about sex, when we have internalised the message that certain parts of our body are so shameful we can’t even say their name?
On the other hand, TV showcased that sex was everywhere. It was something for young men to achieve and brag about, that women were reluctant to ‘give away’. We watched sex scenes awkwardly alongside parents or older siblings who were equally as uncomfortable as we were with what was playing out on screen.
For women or minority genders, the messages were even more damaging and confusing. Highly sexualised depictions of women were plastered across magazines, films, movies and music videos as objects of desire, while at the same time we were told that we needed to remain chaste and pure. Trans people, when they were depicted at all, were the butt of a joke. We internalised the message that we couldn’t possibly be desirable.
And yet for our generation, we also grew up watching Sex and City, where young, sexually liberated women talked openly about their relationships. While the values of the show have not aged well, it did help its audience see that women can talk about, and enjoy, sex.
With all of these mixed messages, it’s no wonder so many of us aren’t sure how to feel about sex, let alone talk about it. This discomfort around sex plays out in our day-to-day lives, getting in the way. For some, it might look like being afraid to raise things with a doctor. Others endure uncomfortable sex with a partner, too afraid to give feedback or ask for what they want.
Our parents, understanding the importance of sex education, may have given us ‘the talk’, but were still disguising it with metaphors about birds and bees. Sex became something cheeky, to be whispered about amongst friends or scribbled onto bathroom walls. In the classroom, sex became something that was dangerous; we were taught to fear pregnancy and STIs. We were not taught communication skills or emotional intelligence.
Many parents wonder how to talk to their kids about sex
Sex education is a crucial aspect of growing up, yet it remains a topic that many parents feel uncomfortable discussing with their children, even though they know that it’s important that they do. A survey conducted by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) in 2019 found that 73% of parents believed that they were the best source of information for their children about sex and relationships. However, according to a survey conducted by ARCSHS in 2020, a whopping 62% of adults believed that their own sex education was inadequate or inaccurate. When more than 3 out of every 5 adults feel this way, how can we expect parents to feel confident giving their children a comprehensive, up-to-date sex education without first updating their own?
Why it's important for parents to be comfortable talking about sex with their children
Discomfort around talking about sex can lead to a variety of negative outcomes for children. If we received incomplete or inaccurate information about sex and relationships when we were children ourselves, how can we expect to educate our children in a way that empowers them to successfully navigate healthy relationships, sex and boundaries? For example, the writers both have memories of being taught that for people with vulvas “sex will always hurt the first time”. As school children, we believe these harmful inaccuracies. Without doing further learning as an adult, how can you pass on to your children that pain is not something that should simply be expected during sex? How do you empower your kids with the tools to check in to make sure their partner is comfortable? How do you support them to find their voice and speak up if they’re ever in pain or discomfort themselves?
Inaccurate or incomplete sex education can make it difficult for children to understand what consent is and how it works. This can lead to situations where they engage in sexual behavior without fully understanding the importance of obtaining consent from their partner, and continuing to check for consent on an ongoing basis.
Have you ever been in a sexual situation where you weren’t really enjoying what was happening, but you didn’t say anything, either because you didn’t know how, you felt awkward or unsafe to, or it simply didn’t occur to you that you could? So have we. Our discomfort talking about sex as a society can very often lead to sex that just isn’t enjoyable. If we’re not comfortable calling body parts by their anatomical names, and talking about sex in a neutral setting - such as the family home - how can we expect to be comfortable asking our partner if they’re comfortable, or requesting that your partner touch you a little more gently? And wouldn’t you rather empower your children with these skills, rather than have them endure sexual situations that they’re just not enjoying?
How do I talk to my kids about sex without influencing them to have sex earlY?
One common myth around sex education is that talking to children about sex will encourage them to have sex earlier. However, research has shown that comprehensive sex education actually delays the onset of sexual activity, reduces the number of sexual partners, and increases the likelihood of using contraception (Kirby, 2007). Talking to children about sex can also help to normalize healthy sexual behavior and reduce the stigma around sex.
Without adequate education, many children seek out alternative sources of sex education, such as pornography. In fact, a recent study found that 67% of children aged 14-17 had been exposed to porn, with 35% of them reporting that it was their primary source of sex education (Plan International, 2020). There are several issues with this. Pornography often portrays unrealistic and harmful sexual behaviors, which can create unrealistic expectations for children about what sex should look like. This can lead to a distorted understanding of consent and what is acceptable sexual behavior. Porn does not accurately depict the importance of consent in sexual situations. Consent is a crucial aspect of healthy sexual relationships, and it is important for children to understand that everyone involved in sex is responsible to make the other person/people feel safe to say no or ask to change things at any given time. However, pornography often portrays sexual encounters where consent is not explicitly given or is coerced, which can lead to confusion about what constitutes consent.
Porn often also portrays power dynamics in a way that is harmful and can perpetuate gender inequality. This can lead to children developing problematic attitudes towards sex and relationships, which can contribute to a culture of sexual violence. Australia has high rates of sexual assault, with 1 in 5 women and 1 in 22 men experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2019). Children who do not receive comprehensive sex education, which includes education about consent, are more likely to be victims of sexual assault or engage in sexually risky behaviors.
Women and other marginalized groups are often disproportionately affected by a lack of sex education, as they may not have access to accurate information about their bodies or their rights in sexual situations. This can lead to a lack of agency and autonomy, and can contribute to a culture of sexual violence. It is also one of the reasons that women, people of colour, LGBTIQA+ people and people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by sexual harm (National Student Safety Survey, 2021).
So how do I get comfortable talking about sex and consent with my child?
If you are a parent who feels uncomfortable talking about sex with your children, there are several steps you can take to make yourself more comfortable.
1. Start early
It's never too early to start talking to your children about their bodies and boundaries. Tailor the language you use to your child's age and development level, but always use correct terms for body parts. Regardless of your child’s age, be clear and concise and avoid using euphemisms.
2. Listen, answer and discuss honestly
Be open to your child's questions and answer them honestly. Don't shy away from difficult topics or pretend to know all the answers if you don't - it’s ok to take some time to come back with an answer, or perhaps do the research together with your child.
Don't just wait for your child to come to you with questions. Initiate conversations about sex and consent regularly so that your child knows it's a topic that's open for discussion. Take advantage of everyday situations to talk about sex and consent. For example, use TV shows or movies as a starting point for conversations.
3. Examine your own discomfort
Examining our own discomfort around sex is important because it can help us to identify and address any biases, beliefs, or fears that may be influencing our attitudes towards sex. Many people have been raised in cultures or families that place a taboo on discussing sex openly and honestly, which can lead to discomfort and shame around the topic. This discomfort can be problematic when it comes to teaching children about sex and consent, as it can create barriers to having open and honest conversations. If parents or caregivers are uncomfortable talking about sex, they may inadvertently communicate to their children that sex is a taboo subject or that it should be avoided altogether. This can lead to children seeking information from unreliable sources or being unable to communicate their boundaries effectively in sexual situations. Furthermore, examining our own discomfort around sex can help us to understand our own sexual values and beliefs, which can inform how we teach our children about sex and consent. It can also help us to identify any biases or problematic attitudes that we may have towards certain sexual behaviors or identities, and work to overcome them.
Overall, examining our own discomfort around sex is an important step towards promoting healthy and open communication about sex and consent with our children. By understanding our own beliefs and biases, we can better equip ourselves to have honest and constructive conversations about these important topics.
4. Update your own sex and consent education
Read up on sex education and consent to help you feel more comfortable and knowledgeable when talking to your child. Follow sex positive accounts on social media. Complete our free online course, Understand Affirmative Consent, sign up for our self-paced, Consent Crash Course for Parents, or contact us to see how else we can support you.
Being comfortable talking about sex with your children is important for their well-being and safety. By providing accurate and comprehensive sex education, parents can help to normalize healthy sexual behavior, reduce the stigma around sex, and prevent sexual violence. Remember that talking to your child about sex and consent is an ongoing conversation, not a one-time event. By being open, honest, and proactive, you can help your child develop a healthy and respectful understanding of their body and relationships.
Mel Brush (he/they) and Eleonora Bertsa-Fuchs (she/they) are former high school teachers who now run Let’s Talk About X, providing training in consent and LGBTIQA+ inclusion.