Some parents, not surprisingly, are afraid to address sex in a positive way with their teens for fear that if we make sex sound too good, every teen will be doing it ten times a week. Not true. Within the context of giving life-saving safety information, we need to emphasize at every opportunity that sex is a good thing. Between two consenting adults in a healthy, respectful relationship, sex is great. It’s a way that people not only reproduce but, more commonly, a way that people show their love and affection for one another. And it feels good, people! If we don’t acknowledge this, our teens will catch on that we’re not telling the whole story and we’ll lose credibility.
Being sex positive also includes recognizing that teens’ sexual feelings are real and that they’re powerful. One way we can show our teens that we understand this is by talking more about masturbation as a healthy, safe way to satisfy their natural sexual urges. Share with your teen that we know from research most people in the world, at every age, masturbate. Let’s teach our teens to embrace their sexual feelings in a healthy way. Let’s also teach them that they don’t need to rely on someone else to give them sexual pleasure. In fact, sex will be even better when the time comes if they masturbate, because they already know their body and what makes them feel good.
When it comes to having sex with another person, remember that many teens aren’t (and never will be) interested in vaginal sex, because they identify as gay, or they’re just not attracted to vaginas. Some teens are exploring their sexual attraction and haven’t yet decided who they want to share their sexuality with, and that’s just fine, too. Knowing this, conversations need to include all kinds of sex and relationships, and pregnancy as an outcome (positive or negative) shouldn’t be the only focus. Having said that, research shows that youth who are questioning their sexuality are actually more likely than straight youth to face an unplanned pregnancy. Counterintuitive, I know, but when sex with someone of the opposite sex is unplanned, exploratory or happens outside of a relationship, contraception is less likely to be used. This shows us how everyone needs a broad range of information.
We also need to recognize that teen sex doesn’t always happen in the context of a committed relationship. They “hook up,” they have “friends with benefits,” and, particularly in these situations, sex may not be planned. My point is that even if your teen isn’t in a relationship right now, the topic of sex is still relevant. We may not have the luxury of guiding our teen through the decision-making process if sex happens spontaneously, or in a context they think we disapprove of.
Something else to consider is that we know from statistics that teens are actually more likely to engage in oral sex than vaginal sex during high school. It’s also important to know that, in heterosexual encounters, girls are usually the givers of oral sex and boys the receivers. And regardless of whether it’s inside or outside the context of a relationship, a girl can quickly be branded a slut if word gets around. Talk with your teen about the importance of equality. In a healthy sexual relationship, pleasure is shared. It’s not fair to expect someone to do something to your body when you don’t feel comfortable doing the same thing to them. Also, teach your teen that it’s not cool to kiss and tell. Everyone involved deserves to have their privacy respected.
No conversation with teens about sex would be complete without an appreciation of how powerful peer and societal pressure to be sexually active can be. Girls learn from their peers, media, and our society in general that they should put a good chunk of effort into how they look, mostly so that they can get attention from guys. As a result, they may mistakenly believe that they have to get or respond to this attention with sex, or at least with the promise of sex. Girls are also trying to navigate some pretty impossible mixed messages about their sexuality. On the one hand, they’re taught to preserve their sexual purity, but are teased for being “frigid” if they’re in a relationship and don’t want sex. Even stronger is the message is that if they want to stay in the game they need to “give it up.” Again, this comes with the risk of being branded as a slut, especially if sex happens outside of a committed relationship.
Boys, on the other hand, are taught that if they aren’t sexually experienced at a young age something’s wrong with them. They brag about their sexual conquests (even if they’re imaginary) to gain approval, and to be seen as a “pimp” or “player” by their friends. Years ago, after a session teaching a class of Grade 10 students, one of the boys disclosed to me that he had been at a house party the weekend before, and one of the girls there had offered to perform oral sex on him in one of the back bedrooms. He barely knew her and (like most teenage boys) wasn’t interested in the least, so politely said, “Nah, I’m good,” and walked back to his group of friends. He then made the mistake of telling them what had just happened. When they found out that he refused oral sex from a “hot girl,” they teased him for days about being a wuss and a fag. I worried about what this boy would do the next time someone gave him a similar offer. Would he say, “Yah, sure” to avoid being harassed again by his friends?
Talk about this double standard with your teen, and remind them that good friends and partners respect each other’s decisions. Ask questions, but be careful to keep them general: “Do you think people your age feel pressure to have sex?” “Are pressures to have sex different for boys and girls? How so?” “Why is it socially acceptable for boys to be sexually experienced, but not for girls?” and “Do you think many people have sex during high school?” Position them as the expert, teens love it when they’re given the opportunity to teach their parent something. And if you feel comfortable, share your experience of peer pressure and the sexual double standard when you were in high school. Have things changed since then?
Obviously, you can’t make sexual decisions for your teen (although life would be a lot easier if you could! Or so we tell ourselves). Best-case scenario, we can be involved in their decision-making by being an objective sounding board, sharing our experience when appropriate, and offering scientific information. It also doesn’t hurt to let your teen know that you’ve never heard an adult say, “Ya know, I wish I started having sex earlier!”
Seriously, though, don’t be afraid to offer your teen tips on how to make any decision that involves their body. Talk about how their head, their heart, and their physical body need to be aligned in order to truly give sexual consent. Only when that happens will sex be the best it can be, which is what you hope for them.
If your teen shares with you that they’re feeling pressure from their partner to have sex and they’re certain they’re not ready to go there, take their openness as a compliment. Be grateful that they trust you as a support and praise them profusely for their courage to share. This is a good time to revisit the concept of sexual consent. Let your teen know that it’s okay to say “no” and that their partner needs to respect this, even if they’re disappointed or don’t understand. It’s not your teen’s job to justify why they don’t want to have sex. And if not having sex is a deal breaker for their partner, well, better the relationship ends now than later. Sounds simple, and I know it’s not. But we need to help our teens understand that no relationship is worth compromising our own personal boundaries and values. Not only that, but someone in a healthy relationship would never want their partner to do this.
Brainstorm and practice some specific phrases using what’s known as the “sandwich technique,” which involves placing a statement that may be perceived as negative or disappointing to the other person between two positive or affirming statements. For example, your teen could say to their partner, “I love that we’re getting closer, and I’m not ready to have sex. I also love that I can be honest with you about how I’m feeling,” or “I care so much about you that I want to be really sure I’m ready to have sex. I’m not ready right now and I’m glad we’re getting closer in other ways.”
Of course, some teens aren’t as affected by pressure from others and decide whether or not to have sex for reasons of their own. This is the time to ask lots of questions about what’s factoring into their decision, especially if they’ve decided to have sex. Do they want to take their relationship to that next level of intimacy? Maybe they need some ideas for how they can do this without having sex. Is their body telling them they’re ready? If it’s sexual arousal that’s driving force, remind them that they can satisfy these natural feelings on their own. At that point they may blow you off, but at least you’ve planted the seed. And congratulations on getting that far!
An equally important question is, “Is your partner ready for sex?” Remind your teen that silence doesn’t indicate consent. The only real way a person can let you know they’re ready for a sexual relationship is for them to tell you using words. It’s not enough for them to act like they’re okay with it. At the same time, we all need to watch our partner’s non-verbal cues. If they’re pulling away, look physically uncomfortable or seem hesitant, they’re trying to tell us something. As sexual activity progresses, your teen need to check in with their partner every now and then with simple questions like, “Are you okay with this?” “Are you having fun?” “Would you like me to…?” It’s never okay to be pushy or to make a partner feel bad for saying no. And remind your teen that if their partner consents and then changes their mind, that’s fine too. Consenting once doesn’t mean they have to consent later; each person is always free to reconsider what they do or do not consent to. And if their partner is drunk, passed out, or sleeping, it’s game off.
The bottom line is that having sex with someone who doesn’t consent is not only not sexy, it’s assault. Sex is best when both partners are 100% ready, on board, and feel respected by their partner.
Most parents aren’t thrilled when their teen becomes sexually active, and being positive can be difficult. As hard as it is, though, we need to give our teens space to make their own decisions about their body. We can give information, we can support them in their decision-making process, but at the end of the day the decision is theirs to make. Stay involved and interested, continue to offer information and guidance, and trust that your teen is armed to make smart decisions when it comes to sex. Tell them, “I know you’re old enough and mature enough to make your own decisions about your body, and I trust you’ll do what’s right for you. Even though I may not always agree, I respect your decisions and will always be here to support you without judging you or getting mad.”