When my sons were 7 and 11 we were driving through town one day when the younger one started saying “sex” repeatedly. He wasn’t saying it because he knew or cared what it meant, rather to bother his older brother, who didn’t want him to say that word. This somehow turned into a conversation I was only half listening to, but my ears perked up when I heard my older son say it:
Well, Mommy and Scott haven’t had sex.
My response? A firm, “I don’t know what gave you that idea!” I know this isn’t the response many of my friends would have given their children. He stared at me as I told him, “I know this is hard to believe, but sex is something that grown ups enjoy, and one day in the not too distant future it might be something that you’re curious about too.”
Opportunities to talk to kids about sex come up all the time.
Most people ignore them, or sit there with fingers crossed, hoping that their child won’t notice or ask questions. As a sex-positive parent, I don’t do that. It hasn’t always been totally comfortable because of societal norms, but the more we do it, the less strange and uncomfortable it feels. Thirteen years in, it feels natural to me to answer any question my kids have.
To understand sex-positive parenting, you first have to understand being a sex-positive human being. Sex-positive people believe that sexual activity between consenting adults is a natural part of being human, and that sexual exploration and pleasure are healthy and nothing to be ashamed of. Being a sex-positive parent means that I want my kids to grow up without the shroud of shame and secrecy that too often surrounds sex in our culture. I want them to feel empowered, to learn to love themselves and their bodies, and to understand what having responsible sexual relationships looks and feels like.
I don’t want to have “the talk” with my boys, I want sex and sexuality to be an ongoing, open conversation between us.
When they have questions, I want them to know that they can come to me, or to any of their three other parents, and ask us. That even when it feels embarrassing it’s probably something we have thought about or experienced too, and we are here to answer their questions; or if we don’t have answers, to help them find some.
During our nightly pre-bedtime TV show family time, we are watching an old episode of Raising Hope. The episode ends with the parents going into the bedroom to get it on. One of my kids asks “what are they going to do?” I tell them the truth- they’re going to have sex! Then my younger son asks, does that mean they’re going to have another baby?
This leads to a conversation where I ask if they remember what a uterus is, and tell them about a couple of different types of birth control. The conversation doesn’t last long, maybe five minutes, then they move on, bored. Their brains don’t usually stay on subjects that don’t directly concern them for too long and they lose interest quickly. Honestly, that’s sort of my goal.
I want to normalize sex for my kids.
I want them to understand that as they grow, they are going to start to feel things, and have urges, and know how to handle it. I want to teach them about how to be safe and what it might feel like to know that you are ready to take those physical steps with someone else.
Sex positive parenting doesn’t mean I expose my kids to things that are not age appropriate for them. Yes, we have talked about sex, more times than I could count in short bursts and minutes-long conversations. We have talked about the idea that sex is something between two adults who both want to do it, and that sometimes grown ups just do it for fun. I’ve never told them that it’s between people in love or a mommy and a daddy. These ideas don’t do anyone any good.
The night I opened the browser on my eight year old son’s tablet and came face to face with a video whose thumbnail prominently featured an enormous set of fake boobs was one of the most shocking moments of my parenting journey so far. When I looked in the search history, there were DOZENS of searches for naked kids, naked kids under 9 years old, full naked kids, etc.
After full-on panicking for a few minutes (I am human, after all), I pretty immediately suspected that he hadn’t made the searches. Regardless of that, because there was even the minute possibility he HAD done these searches, we both felt that I had to talk to him about it.
I sat down with him and gently told him that I’d seen some searches on his tablet and wanted to ask him about them. He admitted doing a few searches about having a crush- and I’m going to be honest, finding the search “what to do when you have a crush on someone” is pretty adorable if it hadn’t been followed by everything else. He told me he has a crush on someone but wouldn’t tell me who and I told him that was okay, and that my first crush wasn’t until 5th grade.
I asked him several times about different terms (naked people, naked 2nd graders, girls mooning, a page with a picture of a lady with big boobs) and he was pretty matter-of-fact and not overly defensive. He told me he loved me and didn’t get upset or embarrassed like I would have expected him to even if he hadn’t done the searches.
I told him that if he is ever curious about girls or boys or bodies or sex or butts or anything that is okay and cool and we can get a book or something. I told him the internet is not a safe place to look for that kind of thing because there is a lot of crazy stuff on the internet and searching for that kind of stuff will probably show him stuff he didn’t want to see and that wouldn’t really answer his questions. I told him I know it can feel kind of embarrassing to talk about that kind of stuff but that it would always be okay to talk to me or Dad or his other Moms, because we have all had those sorts of questions, and had crushes, and have lots of experience and knowledge.
I was incredibly nervous going into the conversation, but in the end I felt proud of how I had handled it.
The last thing I wanted to do was to make him feel bad or embarrassed or ashamed, or close any doors on his ability to talk to us about sex or bodies.
After everything, we came out of it confident that he hadn’t made the searches. I talked to my older son about whether his brother had mentioned anything, and he said he hadn’t. Between all of the information we had, the times of the searches, and the conversation I ended up having with him, his other parent and I came to the conclusion that he’d gotten hacked or gotten a virus. We wiped the tablet, and the issue never reoccurred.
I think people get flustered thinking about teaching little kids about consent, but it’s really not very hard. I have been talking to my boys about consent for years, and insert the concept into everyday conversation as much as I can. One of our house rules is that if someone says stop, you stop immediately.
One of the easiest ways to teach this to little ones is when it comes to being tickled. Being tickled by your mom or dad is super fun, sometimes. But when it gets to be too much or you don’t want to be tickled anymore, you can always say no, and the other person needs to listen. We also tried to teach them that if they say no, even if they are joking or still want to play, we will always stop to check in.
So much of it is so simple, letting people have their own body autonomy is pretty easy, even when they’re small. If you don’t want to give me a hug or kiss, you never have to. Of course I love hugs! But if you’re not in the mood, that is always okay.
My go-to for kiddos asking big questions is always to question them right back. From subjects like Santa Claus to God to sex and pregnancy, responding with “what do you think?” is an amazing way to gauge a child’s interest, the level of their thinking, and what they’re actually asking. This is a great way to figure out an appropriate response and avoid that trap of offering more information than they actually needed or wanted.
When our kids started exploring their bodies, we never told them no, we just reminded them (time and time again) that it’s totally okay if you want to touch your penis, but it’s not for doing right next to me on the couch. We always used the right names for body parts, because why not? They need to know what their parts are called and have the confidence to say those words.
We have also talked to them matter-of-factly about things like pregnancy, how babies are made, and birth control and STI protection. Some people worry that sex education or talking about sex in a positive way will give kids ideas, or is the equivalent of giving them permission to have sex. That’s just not how it works.
I check in regularly with my newly-minted-just-13 son about relationships at school, whether he has crushes etc. Offhanded check-ins about puberty give him an opening to say more if he wants to, but I don’t push it. I’ve been looking for a good book to get him now that he’s solidly in the teen years, that he can turn to with questions and curiosities if he doesn’t know where to go. He’s a voracious reader, so it seems like a natural choice.
So far, neither of my boys has expressed much interest in romantic relationships with boys or girls, and that’s cool with me. But when they finally do start to show interest, I feel like we are standing on firm ground, and we’ll be able to continue to support them in the healthiest, most positive way possible.