It’s understandable if having “the talk” with your kids is enough to make you break into a cold sweat. After all, each of us has our own uniquely personal relationships to sex and sexuality shaped by our history and experiences — all of which can be compounded by shame or trauma placed on us by others in our own childhoods.
Parents of teens are in a distinct position to help shape their kids’ beliefs and experiences, offering the opportunity to provide a safe, affirming, and honest landscape as their kids bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood. So if you’re wondering how you can have sex-positive talks with your teens without making them cringe — or worse, making them feel ashamed, guilty, or afraid — the good news is, there are plenty of ways to encourage open dialogue, explains Kelifern Pomeranz, Psy.D., CST, a California-based clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist.
What does sex positive mean?
First things first: It’s OK if you aren’t sure what it even means to be sex-positive, let alone how you can confidently relay the message to your teens. Sex positivity is both a guiding belief and a historical movement aimed at reducing societal shame and stigmas surrounding sex, sexuality, and gender expression. It encompasses any and all expressions of gender and sexuality without shame, fear, regret, or guilt, acknowledging that safe and consensual sexual behaviors are healthy, normal, and natural, prioritizing making empowered sexual decisions, the expectation of enthusiastic consent, and a mutual respect and open communication for and with your partners at all times.
The modern iteration of sex positivity can be traced back to the late 1990s, but these topics aren’t exactly new — in fact, they’re at least 37,000 years old. Still, with sex education in most states being woeful at best and downright harmful at worst, shaping your kids’ beliefs about sexuality and gender is of utmost importance, especially if you want them to develop healthy attitudes and agency over their feelings and bodies.
How to begin sex-positive talks with your teens
The best place to start is when your children are babies, explains Pomeranz. “Parents should not wait until their kids are teenagers to begin talking about sex as more than 40 percent of high school students say they have already had sexual intercourse. Parents should begin talking about all things sex with their kids from the day they are born.”
Before you panic, just remember that there’s no need to sit your toddler down and have “the sex talk;” instead, you can provide small, digestible teachable moments to your young child throughout their lives, making sex education an ongoing conversation, so that when they do reach the teen years, they feel comfortable and secure coming to you with any questions or issues they might have.
And these conversations aren’t merely about sex itself, says Pomeranz. “Sex does not just include the act itself but also: anatomy (use proper names for body parts!); what constitutes healthy and unhealthy intimate relationships; enthusiastic consent; masturbation and why it should feel pleasurable and not shameful; porn as entertainment and not as an ‘instruction manual’; sexual attraction and orientation; and sexual activity, including pleasure.”
You’ll also want to do a bit of soul-searching yourself before you chat with your kids no matter how old they are, which might mean diving into your own beliefs about sex and sexuality, suggests Pomeranz. Given the continued cultural narrative that centers heterosexual relationships, purity culture, slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and more, you might not even realize your own sex-negative beliefs, especially if you have experienced your own shame, stigma, or physical and/or emotional trauma.
“All conversations — not just ones about sex — should be affirming and non-shaming,” says Pomeranz. “Parents cannot provide a safe space for their kids until they sort out their own personal feelings about sex.” Talking to a therapist, especially one that is certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), can help you navigate and reframe your own sexual identity.
How you can make the conversations positive
Simply put, relying on your kids’ health class to help them learn the basics is not the best move, notes Pomeranz. As she points out, more than half of states don’t mandate sex education at all, while only 13 require that lessons be medically and scientifically accurate. (Yikes!) That’s without mentioning that “the push for abstinence-only education remains strong,” she said, adding, “States with the highest rate of teen pregnancies in the country are also those states with schools that teach abstinence-based sex education or no sex education at all.”
“Educational books about sex, changing bodies, and sexuality/gender should be readily available in the home for kids to access as they desire,” says Pomeranz. Ask your kid if they want to read the books together, or talk about them after they read them, she suggests. And keep tabs about what they’re learning in sex ed and fill in the gaps where you can. “Watching TV shows, TikTok videos, or other media about these topics with your teens might be more effective than trying to start a conversation without context,” she adds.
When it comes to discussing disease and pregnancy prevention, “scaring kids is never a good strategy,” says Pomeranz. “Open and honest conversations about potential risks, risk management, and harm reduction are the name of the game.” And while you’ll naturally want to protect your children from making mistakes, Pomeranz argues it’s better to offer a “safe haven” for your teen so they know you’re just a phone call or text away for help in any situation, no questions asked.
The TL;DR here, according to Pomeranz: “Conversations about these topics will flow a lot smoother, be a lot less awkward, and have a better likelihood of success if the parents and teens have been talking about sex all along,” making a big sit-down talk about sex cringe-worthy for all parties involved. “Kids are often mortified when sex is brought up out of the blue. If your teen speaks up about sexuality, sex, or gender, listen deeply, express interest and curiosity, and love greatly.”