Talking to your pre-teen or teen about sex can be daunting, but did you know this is a great age to time to talk to your children about sex and help them make better choices. In the third part of our “How to talk to your children about sex” series (here’s part one and part two), we’ve teamed up once again with Erika Lust, founder of The Porn Conversation, to help you go nail talking to your children about sex at this age.
Why talk about it?
As children approach and begin senior school, they tend to have more freedom. With this freedom will come the ability to seek out even more information about sex. Furthermore starting senior school means that your children will be surrounded by older children and as a result are likely to start hearing more about sex and sexuality at school.
If an opportunity has not presented itself for you to talk to your children about sex yet then between these ages is a good time to start. Whilst many children are not yet sexually active at this age, this doesn’t seem to me to be a good reason not to teach your children about sex and sexuality.
For instance, we teach our children about the importance of good nutrition and eating a balanced diet years before they are cooking and preparing their own food. We do this so that when the time comes our children are in a good position to make responsible decisions about what they eat.
Similarly, if you talk to your children about sex, sexual health and relationships early, you ensure that they are in a good position to make responsible sexual decisions when the time comes.
Take Denmark as a case study: In Denmark, (the first country to legalize pornography), sex education is required in every school. Most schools teach an entire week of lessons about sexual health and relationships. Statistically, Denmark has a very low rate of teen pregnancy, abortions, and sexually transmitted infections (much lower than the U.S.A. or the U.K.). By discussing sex and demystifying it, they are reducing the potential consequences of early sexual experiences.
What to talk about and how to talk about it?
As I mentioned above, studies suggest that frank, open and accurate conversations about sex and sexuality at a young age enables young people to make sexually responsible choices later on. When you talk to your children about sex, it is important that they don’t just know about the mechanics of sex, but also about the realities of STD’s and pregnancy.
The consequences of sex
Questions about STD’s aren’t as intuitive as questions about sex and sexuality, so it’s unlikely that before this age your children will ask you about them (although if they do the rules above still apply!). When talking to my daughter about these topics (and most topics actually) I’ve found that lecturing is not effective.
By this stage your child should know that sex can result in pregnancy, and that sometimes this is not intentional. So in order to introduce the idea of STD I would recommend asking what your child thinks the risks associated with sex are.
Once pregnancy is mentioned you can then say that STDs also pose a risk. Discussions of STDs can progress naturally to discussions of contraception. For instance whilst there are other ways that you can prevent pregnancy (and outline what these are), condoms are the only way to prevent STDs.
Safe not scared
In my opinion the aim of these discussions should not be to scare your child, we want to make sure that our children can make informed decisions, not put them off sex for life. I’ve made sure that my daughter knows that whilst sexual relationships (like everything in life) come with risks, these are risks that can be managed and that it is possible to enjoy a fulfilling sex life and still be safe and responsible.
Growing up in Sweden I had the advantage of having access to very progressive sex education programmes. Starting from the age of 12 we had sexologists coming to our school – not teachers, but experts who were specialised in sex education. They divided us into smaller groups, had honest conversations, answered questions, told us things about sex beyond the typical scaremongering. It was positive!
We got all the practical information about STDs and pregnancy and risks. But they also gave us strategies for how you could interact sexually with someone without having to have intercourse, like touching each other with your hands.
Combating gender stereotypes
Whilst children are exposed to gendered stereotypes all their lives, I have found that this is the age range where I have been able to really start discussing the impact of gendered and sexualised images on society’s view of men and women with my daughter.
These issues are pretty complex so you may want to hold off on talking about these issues, and similarly you might see a good opportunity to talk about these things earlier. Gendered language and imagery is everywhere, so there is no shortage of things to spark your discussion.
Perhaps you have noticed that all your child’s science teachers are men, you could ask your child why they think that is. Answers to these questions can often be difficult to stomach, (especially if you have a daughter!) but they are useful ways for you to explain that there are societal reasons for these differences. And that it’s not just that men are naturally good at X whereas women are just naturally good at Y.
This is also true of sexualised images – these are everywhere in advertising, so again there is a wealth of material that can spark this conversation. Earlier this year I read about the story of the dad who complained to JD sports about the sexualised way that women´s football shirts where advertised in comparison to mens. New stories like this provide great opportunities to talk about the reasons why gendered advertising might be troubling and the way these images shape our views of men and women.
If you find articles like this show them to your child over dinner, ask them what they think. This makes these kinds of conversations less of a lecture and far easier for young people to follow. Storytelling is very powerful. Telling your kids stories that you’ve heard to help get the information out is a great way to start these difficult conversations. And here’s my tip for parents who truly feel like “Oh my god, I can’t do this!”. Ask a friend or relative to do it. Maybe your sister is more equipped or open-minded than you are and can help with these conversations.
The porn thing
And when we are on the topic of sexualised images, now is also a good time to broach the topic of pornography with your children. Sources say that 53% of 11 to 16 year olds have seen explicit material online and that nearly all of these children (94%) had seen it by the time they were 14. Some researchers encountered multiple examples of children stumbling across pornographic imagery or being shown it by older friends when they were as young as 8. So although it will invariably depend on your child´s circumstances (do they and their friends have smartphones? What gender and age are they?) exactly when they will first encounter porn or sexual content online, we can know for sure that it is before they are of the age of consent, and way before it’s legal.
This is not to say that children in this age group are seeking out pornography, with increased access to the internet needed for school projects, especially in senior school, the chances of your child stumbling across inappropriate material is high. Children are curious, and if they type “sex” into Google, many of the results will be easily accessible, free pornography. Even if you feel that you have ironclad parental controls installed on your kids devices that doesn’t mean that their friends and peers do.
Creating real expectations
Porn can confuse kids about how sex connects with sensuality and relationships. It can be damaging because it separates sex from emotions. A lot of the free porn that they will be able to watch easily on the tube sites doesn’t teach boys and girls how to communicate their feelings. Furthermore, it can also project unrealistic expectations about how to look and act.
It can teach boys and girls that it’s ok to take naked pictures of each other, or films of themselves and of other kids, without taking into consideration the importance of confidentiality, the right to intimacy or the relevance of consent in any relationship. Pornographic material frequently normalizes degrading or violent behaviour towards women. 71% of girls aged 11-21 in the UK think porn gives confusing messages about consent and makes sexually violent behaviour seem normal.
Men in porn aren’t portrayed positively either, it’s based on stereotypes and roles associated to male sexuality. They are shown to be dominant, irresponsible, rude, forever willing and with uncontrollable desire. We want our kids to grow up respecting and valuing themselves and each other, avoiding dangerous situations and maintaining an idea that their bodies are their own and that they should never feel pressured to undress if they don’t want to.
Take the pressure off
Again when broaching this topic it’s better not to lecture, as this makes the situation seem very serious and might make your child feel like you are accusing them of something bad. I would suggest starting with something like, “Hey, I was recently online and some explicit videos and images popped up that you might have seen too. Have you seen them?”.
Or if you want to be more forthright you might just want to let you child know that you are aware that at some point they might be interested in sexual content online and that you’d like to answer any questions they might have about it. If they offer nothing up them you could perhaps say, “well this is a question I have about it, what do you think?”. In my experience giving your child authority in these situations makes them more likely to be responsive and engage.
The key areas to cover at this age are the fact that pornography isn’t real and that the sex and relationships depicted in pornography are nothing like sex and relationships in real life. This provides a good opportunity to further discuss the things that should be present in real life sex and relationships – respect, boundaries and consent.
When you talk to your children about sex, remind them that whilst pornography might not make this clear erotic relationships have to be fully consensual, and that means there has to be trust between both people. Let your child know that if at any point they feel uncomfortable in a sexual situation they have the right to tell the other person to stop and that if the person does not stop they are committing a crime.
Respect and consent
The Metropolitan Police campaign ‘Consent is Everything’ has a brilliant, and age appropriate video that clearly explains the importance of consent in sexual and romantic relationships. This is also a good time to discuss your child’s online safety, especially now that most of them will have access to smart phones and be contacting their friends on social media.
Explain to your child that once pornography and sexual images are created and put on the internet they are there forever, explain to them that they should never undress for anyone if they feel pressured but that this is particularly true if there is a camera involved as once an image is out there it is hard to get rid of and can cause huge distress.
Do you have a a 11- 14 year old child? What are your thoughts on the above? Do share in a comment below. And stay tuned for the final part in our talk “How to talk to your children about sex” series – 15 year olds onwards!
ABOUT ERIKA LUST
Erika Lust (erikalust.com) is an award-winning indie adult filmmaker, mother of two daughters and founder of the non profit The Porn Conversation, a project she set up with her husband to help parents broach the topic of pornography with their children.
Picture credit: Background photo created by yanalya – www.freepik.com