This post is written by another sex-positive parent, Julie Barr. Julie is a 42-yr-old mom of two sons, ages 13 and 8 years old. This post was originally published on the Good Vibrations magazine site and is cross posted with Julie’s permission.
Last week I wrote about raising sex positive kids and touched on my dreams of providing space for my kids to explore their sexuality in a safe environment where they don’t have to fear getting in trouble with their parents or the cops or the neighbor down the street who might “catch” them. This sparked all kinds of conversation in my community about how we, as parents, can provide that space without setting off any taboo radars, without being arrested for child molestation/voyeurism or abuse, and without grossing out our teens with our obnoxious thoughts and questions about their sexual feelings and ideas.
My thoughts turned to when I was young and I asked about sex. My mom gave me the message that sex was something you do when you are married. From an early age, I was convinced that I would have sex by the time I was 17 yrs old. This left me as a young teen with a dilemma about whether I could talk to my mother about sex or not. I decided that because my parents had a rigid idea of what was “okay”, I was not able to tell them if and when I chose a different path. For most of my teenage years, I fumbled, sometimes literally, through exploring my sexuality without the guidance of any adult, relying on the advice of others my age. I learned many lessons in the most difficult ways possible.
Many of my first experiences with sex were wild, exciting and what I thought was fun, while simultaneously being cramped, dirty and shameful. I was often drunk, having met my lovers at drunken teen parties or even at adult bars. I had no idea what I was doing except following the lead of the guy I was with or my friends; none of them suggested I have a “safe sex” talk or that I could say “no” or even ask for what I wanted from these men. I spent years trying to find love and affection by offering my body to men. I had my first orgasm at 20 yrs old after almost 5 years of being sexually active. And I didn’t learn what my own desires and needs were until I was well into my 20’s.
Now when I imagine the “perfect parent” who could have been helpful to me, I envision someone who was willing to hear what I was experiencing or thinking without judging me for my actions or thoughts. I would have wanted guidance around how to get what I wanted without losing my sense of self in the process. Most of all, when I made dumb decisions and really fucked up, I yearned for someone to help me pick up the pieces, clean up the mistakes and support me to get back to feeling whole again.
When I turned 21, after years of making innumerable poor decisions about my sexuality, I told my mother some of the major mistakes I made. It was very important at the time for her to understand the serious impact her rigid message about sex had on my life. I wanted her to understand my lack of ability to make informed decisions about sex throughout my teen years. My mother could not tell me what decisions she might have made if I had shared my struggles with her back when I was young, but she was very sad that I had not trusted her enough to share this with her. There are two pieces that I learned were crucial and lacking in this process: information and practice.
In our modern world, with our advanced technology, young folk may or may not need information from their parents about sex. There is a lot of decent information today on the internet and in some school programs; well informed teachers give kids a broad understanding of their bodies and others and how they can interact with each other sexually. I want to be available for my kids for whatever questions they have after receiving this information. Clearly, they may choose not to ask me those questions, but I frequently make sure that they know I am there, willing to talk and will not put them down in the process.
One reader left a comment on my blog last week about a book called “The Guide to Getting It On” by Paul Joannides. She suggested that as a child, she found it helpful when her father left this book lying around, giving her the chance to pick it up and read it at her leisure. She later told me that she might have actually asked her father for information about sex and this was his response. Education through books seems a great resource for kids who are self motivated and need to do things at their own pace.
I have found with my kids that subjects come up in the car, at the dinner table or in particular, after 5th grade when “sex ed” classes start at school and we are able to actively start conversations about how the class is going. Because I am eager to discuss these ideas with my kids, I often jump at the chance to talk about the subject. Sometimes this is good, and sometimes it is too much for the kids.
I want my kids to know that whatever questions they have about sex, they do not need to feel as if they might be ridiculed or demeaned for asking questions or having a thought in the first place. My youngest son recently made a statement in the car about not wanting to look “gay” because he liked a boy. We spent some time discussing this idea and not necessarily whether it was bad to be “gay” or even “not gay” but rather that it was not nice to use “gay” as an insult about other people. I made sure that my boys know that they can be attracted to whomever they want and they will not be judged. My 7 year old, with eye rolling irritation replies, “I KNOW, Mom.”
What seems more difficult to discern is a clear path to how to allow the kids a space to “practice”. When do we ever see young kids encouraged to have sex and enjoy themselves? We are bombarded by the media with sex and the use of sex to sell products is rampant, but the message gets lost in translation. We are not necessarily saying, “Hey kids, sex is a lot of hard work and emotionally difficult, but a lot of fun in the process.” Sex IS hot, sex IS awesome, but sex is not EVERYTHING. And it takes practice.
But where do we expect them to get that practice? Another friend of mine is an incredible planner of epic and super sexy events for adults. Although I loved the conversation about how he could make this also work for teens, I tend to operate on a smaller scale. Again, I can envision my kids having a space at my house to “practice”. However, I can also imagine that I could run into some difficult conversations with my kids’ friends’ parents. I can imagine that how I communicate with them about the space will be very important. I believe in direct, honest communication in most areas of my life. This seems like a crucial place to continue that trend.
I would tell other parents my beliefs about sex, my beliefs about how we should talk to our kids about sex, my beliefs about how if we take the mystery and riskiness out of sex, perhaps our kids might not even rush to do it so soon, and might be more conscious about how they relate to sex. I would tell other parents that if they do NOT want their kids to have sex with my kids who are aware of safe sex practices; if they do NOT want their kids to have sex with my kids who are taught to be respectful of boundaries and respect a “no”; if they do NOT want their kids to have sex with my kids who are learning how to ask for what they want; if they do NOT want their kids to have sex with my kids who are learning how to recognize their feelings and speak up for themselves when they feel uncomfortable; and if they do NOT want their kids to have sex in a safe, comfortable environment without the stress of being caught or arrested, then they should NOT let their kids come over to my house. Otherwise, send them over and their kids might get the same message my kids get: be safe, be respectful, ask for what you want, notice what you are feeling, relax and have fun!
Julie Barr, MA, MFT, has been licensed in California since 2002 and has worked for the last 21 years with children, families, adults and couples to create richer, more rewarding relationships and help individuals and families process and heal from serious trauma and mental health issues. More recently, Julie has begun to lead workshops and facilitate community events to increase a sense of shared responsibility for caring for others in a healthy and loving manner.