Sorry parents, “the talk” just got harder

by Claire McCarthy on November 9, 2010

There are some tasks of parenthood that all parents hate. Like cleaning up vomit, or dealing with tantrums in public places, or picking poop out of clothes during potty training, or searching endlessly for matching socks (my theory is that aliens take them). But all of these pale in comparison with giving the Big Talk. You know, the one about the Birds and the Bees.

I have bad news: that talk just got harder.

It’s hard to imagine it being harder. It’s so incredibly awkward to talk about sex with your child, especially when experts are saying we need to start early, like by late elementary school or early middle school. And it’s so hard to know what to say. We’re supposed to give them information, so that they’re hearing things from us instead of their friends. But parents can’t help feeling that when they give detailed information, especially about different kinds of sex, or about birth control, that they are somehow condoning having sex. So the tendency is to take a broad-strokes, non-graphic approach.

That’s not going to work anymore. Not that it was ever actually working in the first place.

I have some sobering statistics for you. According to the Centers for Disease Control, just under half of all U.S. high school students have had sex, ranging from a third of freshmen to two-thirds of the seniors. And do you know what else? Just over half of youth ages 15 to 19 are having oral sex.

Oral sex is the most common sexual behavior among adolescents. If you’re thinking, well, at least they aren’t having vaginal sex, think again. A study just published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine showed that a) most teens start having oral sex and vaginal sex in the same six month period, and b) oral sex usually comes first. So for many teens, oral sex ends up leading to vaginal sex. This means that—gulp—parents need to talk about oral sex.

“We all want to think that it’s not our kids who are having sex. But do the math. We can’t all be the parents of the half that aren’t.”

We all want to think that it’s not our kids who are having sex, oral or otherwise. Our kids are listening to us when we tell them to be abstinent. It’s other people’s kids who are having sex. But do the math. We can’t all be the parents of the half that aren’t. We can hope for it, but we can’t count on it.

So parents need to sit their kids down and really talk with them. (This is much easier to do if you’ve been talking with them since they were small about bodies, feelings, values, and how all three relate—so if you’re reading this and your kids are small, don’t go thinking that you’re off the hook.)

If you’re not sure what to say, here are some talking points you can use:

  • Sexual feelings are normal. You shouldn’t feel bad for having them.
  • That said, sex can have consequences—you can get sick or pregnant, and it can change how you feel about yourself and how others think about you. You need to understand those consequences. (You can ad lib here and talk more about those consequences, based on your kid’s level of understanding and how much you want to scare them).
  • Oral sex is sex. It’s not like kissing. You can’t get pregnant, but you can still get infections, and it can still affect how you feel about yourself and how others think about you. Not only that, it can lead to other kinds of sex. (If you’ve got the fortitude, you can talk about other kinds of sex.)
  • Anyone having any kind of sex needs to be protected. I don’t want you to have sex, but I really don’t want you to get sick or pregnant. (You can talk more here about condoms and other forms of birth control if you’re comfortable, but at a minimum make sure your teen knows where and how to access confidential medical care).
  • It’s your body and your life. Don’t let anyone make you do something you don’t want to do (and conversely, don’t ever try to make anyone do something they don’t want to do).

And there’s one other thing you should say, because it really is the point:

I can’t promise you that I won’t be upset if you have sex. But I can promise you that I will always love you, no matter what.

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