What Your Child Needs to Know About Sex
What's at Stake: Understanding the Good and Bad Aspects of Sex
Perhaps the single most important message that your child needs to hear about sex is that it’s like a coin, with two sides.
Without sex, none of us would be here today. Sex creates new life! Think about that. A microscopic sperm joins with an egg cell the size of a grain of sand and about nine months later a fully formed human being is born. Absolutely amazing! In my opinion, there is nothing more incredible than that fact.
But turn the coin over. Sex can kill you. What an interesting paradox: the same behavior that creates a life can also take a life!
Turn the coin back over. Sex can make two people who care deeply for one another feel even closer to each other. Physically rewarding intimacy with another person is something that so many of us want and seek, and when we experience it our lives can be thoroughly enhanced.
But turn the coin over again. The same behavior that has so enriched our lives can be catastrophic and horrible: witness teenage pregnancy, AIDS, sexual assault, sexual bullying, and the like.
After this chapter we’re going to get pretty specific about what to say to your children, how to say it, when to say it, and the context in which to say it. We’ll be talking sex probably like you’ve never done before. But first I want to talk to you more about this “sex is like a coin” paradox. I want you to fully appreciate the good and the bad aspects of sex because ultimately this is what we want our kids to be able to do. We want them to be able to make sense of a confusing sexual world and we want them to be able to distinguish between the good parts, the bad parts, and the ugly parts.
Well, thank goodness that there is a whole lot of good in sex and sexuality. And it’s a message we do need to spread to our kids. But, as I said earlier, our discussions need to be balanced. I’m laughing inside as I write this because I’m thinking of the looks I’ve seen on the faces of the thousands of kids when I have told them that “sex can be good; it can be very good.” It doesn’t matter whether they’re fourth graders or twelfth graders, most of them burst out laughing and look around at their classmates, not sure what to make of what I just said. Here’s an adult who is telling them something that very few other adults, if any, have told them. But it is a message that they need to hear from an adult, in an honest, dignified, and mature context. Certainly most of them have gotten that message from plenty of sources of information other than a caring adult. Their sexualized wall is chock full of the “sex is great” message from music, DVDs, chat rooms, their peers, movies, and the like. But when I visit their classrooms, they are now going to hear that sex can be great from me. They are also going to hear many other important messages about sex from me (like being responsible, having empathy for others, being informed, and so on)—and without the BS from the media and all the other inaccurate sources of sexual information and influence. They also need to hear this from you!
As you know from the previous chapter, the three biggest sex words in this book are love, respect, and trust. Sex can be great when you have all three.
How Will You Know?
Admittedly, it’s hard for any of us to truly know when we have love, respect, and trust in a relationship. Not surprisingly, too many high school kids have no clue about it either. “Oh, I’m in love, Dr. Fred. I’ve known him for six months and I know everything about him. He loves me; he’d never hurt me or leave me.” Yeah, right, and I have some excellent swamp land to sell you! It sounds silly, but most of us have been there, haven’t we? How many times did we think we were in love during high school?
So we need to spend a lot of time helping our child learn how to recognize the real thing. If we help kids understand love, respect, and trust, we’ll reduce a lot of the bad. Even when kids know they should have these three things in a relationship—and want to have them—before they have sex, many are having sex because they think they’ve got those three qualities, when in reality they don’t. If they understood this, I think many of them would rethink some of their sexual behavior. I could spend an entire year with these kids just exploring the signs and symptoms of having true love, respect, and trust in a relationship—it’s such a complex issue and takes a long time to completely understand.
You will want to instill in your children that they are sexual human beings and will be so until the day they die—that they will experience a variety of sexual emotions as they grow and develop, and that those emotions are normal and part of being human. I always tell kids and parents that the single most significant change of puberty has nothing to do with biological changes; it is the development of sexual feelings. Our sexual feelings represent a major aspect of who we are, and we must help our kids understand how to manage and negotiate them, and teach them to appreciate the positive value they can add to one’s life.
So now I want you to think of your kid at age fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen. Will you be comfortable with her having sexual intercourse at one of these ages? Let us assume that she is smart and aware, and appears to pretty much understand how to handle herself in a romantic relationship. Let’s also say that she has known her partner for several years and is certain there is love, respect, and trust between them. Will you be comfortable knowing that she is having sex as a minor? If so, please be very certain that you read this entire book and follow my advice on how to prepare your child to protect herself from sexual harm. You need to remember that adults sure make enough mistakes when it comes to their sexual relationships, and because of their age and immaturity teens are even more likely to make mistakes. In light of this, are you going to be okay with your sixteen-year-old doing it? How about your seventeen-year-old? I’m not saying that there could never be circumstances in which you’d be comfortable knowing your teenager is sexually intimate. I’m just saying you should think long and hard before you are okay with the prospect of your teen being sexually active.
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE CONSEQUENCES
You also want your children to appreciate the sobering magnitude of the creation of new life as well as just how miraculous it is. This is another major aspect of real life that most schools spend virtually no time on. How do we as a society allow our public schools to not spend any significant time helping our children learn to appreciate the complex set of responsibilities that are necessary in order to have a baby? That’s not to say that there aren’t some noteworthy parenting education programs in public schools. There are. I’ve seen classes dedicated to parenting, kids carrying “baby eggs” or sacks of flour around with the instructions to treat them like actual babies so they get a feel for what it might be like to have a real baby, and some students learn about real babies and their parents who visit their classrooms so they better understand child development and parent-child relationships. But believe me, these programs are rare and usually relegated to our high schools. I would say that the overwhelming majority of students never experience any parenting education in their entire school career, and those who do have more fingers on their hands than hours spent learning about the subject. I believe this to be the case even in those school districts that have state regulations requiring parent education for students.
Like I said previously, on paper an educational system can indicate that it provides something to students but in actuality do so in a very limited fashion. One of the most important things that most humans will do in life is try to be a good parent, and our schools spend virtually zero time on anything remotely resembling parenting education. So it is up to us parents to help our children to develop the skills that are needed to postpone pregnancy until adulthood, put the miracle of life into a context that they can understand, and gain some semblance of what is needed for parenthood.
Unfortunately, there are far too many bad aspects of sex. I’ll lay out for you the problematic and troubling side of sexual behavior that you will want to pay close attention to.
The Sexual Bully
In my opinion, the scariest trend in child sexual behavior in recent years is sexual bullying: children harassing, intimidating, even assaulting others by using some form of sexual behavior or by provoking another child to use some form of unwanted sexual behavior.
“We are raising a generation of sexualized bullies,” I tell a large group of elementary school parents at one of the public schools that I work with. “As we sexualize all children through the vast array of sources of sexual information and influences, we are also sexualizing those children who are becoming bullies. And these developing bullies are learning that using sexual behavior to bully other children is as effective, if not more so, than using traditional methods of bullying. I get numerous calls from elementary school principals, counselors, and other school staff about young children who are using sexual behavior to harass, intimidate, and strike fear in other children. We almost never saw these behaviors among such young children in previous decades. But now we are seeing them on a regular basis. So beware the sexual bully.”
The parents stare back at me in amazement. Most of them are shocked to hear me say this. Some, however, nod their heads in agreement and acknowledge that their own child or a friend’s child has been bullied in such a way. Lately, more and more parents know what I am talking about. I get far too many calls about children who touch the genitals of other children without consent, and force them to touch their genitals in return. There are children who force other children to pull their pants down, children who intimidate other children by rubbing their genitals against them or by lying on top of them. There are children who will forcefully kiss another child’s genitals or force them to kiss their own.
Both the perpetrators and the victims can be as young as five, six, or seven years of age. Again, we are now seeing these behaviors far too frequently. When a parent comes forward in one of my presentations and acknowledges that her child has been sexually touched in an intrusive or hurtful manner by another child, it takes a whole lot of courage. I can only imagine how many more remain silent. This is what happens when children have multiple exposures to sexualized messages that are confusing and incomprehensible to them. The sexual bully has been created as a result and will remain as long as we live in a hypersexualized society.
I have dealt far too often with students who have been humiliated and devastated as a result of “sexting” and harassment while online. Some of these kids are as young as ten and eleven, and countless more are of middle school age. Tragically, we have even seen children commit suicide as a result of this type of harassment. This tells us that as parents we need to begin our discussions of sexting and online dangers with our kids while they are still in elementary school.
Targeting Specific Sexualities
Discrimination against, and persecution of, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth by other youth is a very significant problem in our society. Irrespective of what one believes about homosexuality or differing sexualities, there is no room for discrimination or persecution. Unfortunately, there are people who are bullied, harmed, and even killed because their sexuality is perceived as something other than heterosexual. The message our kids need to hear from all of us is that we must never treat those who seem to be different with any less respect than the way we expect to be treated.
Understanding the Sexual Bully
One truly frightening potential of hypersexualizing children is an increase in numbers of adolescent and adult sexual offenders. We have known for a long time that the origins of hurtful sexual behavior, in fact the origins of any violent behavior, occur very early in life. Most adult sexual offenders began to develop their perpetrator behavior as young children, and retrospective studies reveal that a majority of adult sexual offenders committed their first offenses as adolescents.1 This raises the question of what will happen if we continue to see an increasing number of sexual bullies who are children. Will we see more sexual offenders down the road?
I think we know the answer to this question. Sadly, I have already seen far too many cases of sexualized bullying that have occurred in schools.2 My most recent case of sexualized bullying was a six-year-old girl who was caught—several times—touching the penises of boys her age on the bus on the way to school. One day, a boy in her grade told his teacher that the girl was bothering him. When asked what she was doing he would only say, “She just keeps bothering me.” Eventually, his teacher drew out of him that the girl had “touched his privates.” And the girl freely admitted to asking the boy if she could touch him. In fact, she calmly and matter-of-factly described what she had done. When asked why she’d done it, she just replied, “I don’t know.” Her mother was informed and expressed concern but said she couldn’t imagine why her daughter would have done such a thing.
The girl was caught a second time and said, “It was an accident.” But when the behavior occurred a third time, the school asked the mother to have her daughter seen by a mental health practitioner. Unfortunately the mother did not follow through and shortly thereafter another boy came forward. Only this time, the girl had licked his penis. The boy said she’d been touching it and then had asked him if she could lick it “like a lollipop.” He told the teacher he’d initially refused, but that she had continued to ask until he eventually relented.
It was at this point that the situation was brought to my attention, and I had the case referred to the child protection agency. An investigation found that the girl, who lives in a city-funded temporary shelter, had witnessed numerous sexual encounters between her mother and the mother’s boyfriend. I am happy to say that the little girl is now receiving very good mental health care and I am hopeful that this intervention will halt any further development of her sexualized bullying behavior. She does, however, still require an adult escort on the school bus to monitor her behavior.
Unfortunately, I have far too many stories like this to share. Some involve group sexual activities, invariably organized by one child who is the bully. He or she develops or determines what sexual activities the group will engage in: usually touching behaviors that involve the genitals. At times, the behavior may escalate to include humping or oral-genital contact. Other students are recruited through coercion or fear in order to ensure the activities are carried out. The bully will punish any member of the group who tries to disrupt the activities. Sometimes the sexual bully actually befriends the other children, and will only use intrusive tactics when he or she has to.
I have also handled many cases that involve only one-child-at-a-time bullying. The sexual bully who orchestrates group sex needs to keep multiple children involved, which requires a front of friendly seduction for recruiting. The one-on-one sexual bully doesn’t have to manage multiple players to make things happen, so he or she can afford to use a more coercive and fear-inducing tactic. If it doesn’t work, the bully can easily go on to another child. While the group-oriented sexual bully tends to make a game out of his or her bullying, the one-on-one sexual bully typically gets straight to the bullying. This usually includes intrusive, dominating, and offensive sexual touching, which may or may not lead to more adult-like sexual behavior.
As parents, we should always be ready and able to evaluate our children’s sexual behaviors; particularly those that involve another child. Are you capable of doing that? For example, the “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” game has been around forever. So when you catch your seven-year-old child on a playdate where he and his playmate have their pants down, giggling and embarrassed, it is probably a normal expression of sexual curiosity. When children display a genuine sense of sexual curiosity, they do it with a great deal of natural wonder, which is often accompanied by embarrassment.
When the behavior becomes problematic, you can usually tell by paying attention to the context in which it occurs. That means that if a sexual behavior appears to cause fear, concern, anxiety, or stress, then it’s probably unwanted and you need to be on guard. Naturally occurring sexual curiosity between children does not produce these effects.
If you notice that your child displays any of the following, he or she may be a victim of sexual bullying:
- Fear of being left alone with a particular child
- Nightmares or sleep problems with no explanation
- In an older child, regression to behavior such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting
- Resistance to routine bath time activities, using the toilet, or removing clothes in otherwise appropriate situations
If your child or another child you know engages in the following it could be indicative of sexual bullying:
- Responding sexually to ordinary gestures of friendliness or affection
- Insisting on physical contact with a child even when that child resists
- Turning to younger or less-powerful children rather than peers to explore natural sexual curiosity
- Taking younger children to “secret” places to play “special” undressing or touching games
- Displaying interest in sexual matters beyond what you would expect for the child’s age, or engaging in sexual behavior on an excessive or compulsive basis
In addition, there are some sexual behaviors that in and of themselves cause concern. Here are some warning signs and sexual behaviors that call for your intervention:
- Sexual behavior engaged in excessively, or to the exclusion of other activities
- Genital touching of another child where there is actual manipulation or massaging of the genitals (beyond the single tentative touch of curiosity)
- Sexual behavior involving age disparity or difference in power between the children
- Any attempt to engage in sexual intercourse or simulate sexual intercourse
- Any attempt to engage in oral sex
- Any attempt to insert objects into the rectum or vagina
So what do you do if you happen to observe any of these behaviors? The last group listed requires immediate action. These are behaviors that by themselves should cause us concern and require intervention by a qualified mental health provider. For those behaviors that could indicate that the child is a victim of sexual bullying, keep in mind that any of these occurrences, on its own, doesn’t automatically mean something is happening to your child. But an overall pattern of behavior involving more than one of these issues is something to address with your child’s doctor or a mental health professional.
When talking to your child about what’s going on, stress that it is not his or her fault, and acknowledge your child’s courage in being willing to talk about it. Reinforce that you are there to love and protect your child. Above all, stay calm and keep your own emotions in check. For those behaviors that might indicate sexual bullying, you will want to take action. If your own child is bullying, it means calling a mental health professional; if it is another child, it means calling their parents and, if these behaviors are occurring at school, the school authorities. Keep in mind that anytime a child is engaging in sexual bullying there is the possibility that the behavior is against the law. The idea that legal authorities could be called with regard to a child’s behavior can be difficult to come to terms with. But remember that this is sometimes the only way to get help for the parties involved—help that can heal a victim and hopefully lead to treatment and support for the perpetrator so he or she will stop the behavior.
If we are vigilant we can really make a difference in reducing the incidence of child sexual bullying and the display of problematic sexual behavior. Clearly, we must first know which sexual behaviors may be problematic—which is why I listed the warning signs on this page. When we can recognize sexual behaviors that stray from what we would normally see in children, we stand a better chance of intercepting the development of problematic sexual behavior. And always keep in mind the following: fear, coercion, force, stress, or anxiety; one child older or more powerful than another; and sexual behaviors that seem excessive or are not stopped when boundaries are set. These are all warning signs. And, of course, any sexual behavior that reflects that of adults—real or simulated intercourse, oral sex, or insertion of objects into the rectum or vagina—is problematic.
MONKEY SEE, MONKEY DO
The sexual bully is just one manifestation of a general problem: kids are simply acting out what they are exposed to. It makes sense that the more times a child is confronted with confusing sexualized messages, the likelier it becomes that he will experience more and more difficulty managing those messages. Consequently, the more explicit the sexual messages are and the more frequently they are consumed by the child, the more likely it is that the child will manifest some problem as a result of all the exposure. One of the most common problems arises when the child acts out the sexual behaviors he has been exposed to.
Consequently, some children will become sexual bullies. Others will try to engage other children in sexual behaviors but without the level of coercion we see with the sexual bully. Still others simply become confused by what they see and hear. No doubt virtually all these children will require some sort of adult intervention to help them make sense of what they have been exposed to. Many of them will require a more intensive, therapeutic intervention to help them resolve their confusion, stop their sexualized behavior, and return to a healthier place.
Teen Sexual Intercourse, Pregnancy, and STDs
While I believe that our message about sex to our kids has got to be balanced, that is, sex positive and sex negative, we have to be clear with our kids that we hope they remain abstinent until adulthood. That doesn’t mean that a little “foolin’ around” is necessarily bad. When I say this I do so with the understanding that it is normal during adolescence to want to express physical affection, and when teens do so we shouldn’t overreact by viewing it as problematic. I’ll clarify this in chapter 9 by discussing how parents can determine when physical affection among teens becomes too risky. For now, let me just say that we need to start early with our message about two major principles: not having any type of sexual intercourse until adulthood, and then only in a context of true respect, trust, and love in his or her relationship. So remember these words: love, respect, and trust, for they are by far the most important sex words in any book on sex.
I get many calls from school counselors who ask my advice on eleven-, twelve-, and thirteen-year-old kids who are engaging in sexual intercourse. When I get one of these calls, two sides of myself become instantly concerned. One, obviously, is the professional sex educator in me. I immediately begin to work with the counselor to develop a plan of intervention. Our goals are (1) to help this young person develop the capacity to make better decisions about sexual behavior, and (2) to try to determine the reasons why a decision to have sex was made. Every case is unique, yet we do see patterns. Some of the contributing factors that lead to early sexual intercourse are chaotic family life; abuse; alcohol; destructive peer group and peer pressure; mental illness like depression, conduct disorder, and oppositional defiance disorder; poor self-esteem and self-concept; and just poor decision making.
The father in me is the other part of myself that jumps to attention. I immediately think of my own kid and what I would need to do as a parent to ensure that this never happens to him. The ultimate reality for a parent is that you can’t completely control what behavior your child will engage in. But when I receive a call from a counselor who is concerned about a child engaging in sexual intercourse, I also think of all the things I need to do as a parent to minimize the chances that my child would engage in risky and destructive behavior. So very often, I see actions that parents have taken or not taken that have contributed to their child’s early sexual activity, and when I am looking at one of these cases, I too must come to terms with my own failings as a parent.
What Part Do I Play?
My point is that every one of us must take full responsibility for being a parent. Irrespective of our own personal life dilemmas, we need to constantly ask ourselves, What am I not doing for my kids that I should be doing? How can I be better at serving my children? Our kids didn’t choose us as parents. But we are the parents they got. All parents, regardless of socioeconomic, cultural, and racial backgrounds, fall somewhere on a spectrum from effective to ineffective. And you need to ask yourself, Where do I fall?
Ironically, our own children need to be asking themselves similar questions as they grow and develop. How do I as a girl or boy manage my life so that I grow up to be a healthy, happy, capable adult?And specifically with respect to sexual behavior, How do I ensure that I get to enjoy the good, life-enhancing, satisfying aspects of sex and sexuality, and avoid the destructive, horrible, and even deadly aspects? This brings us back to the “sex is like a coin” analogy I spoke about previously. As parents we need to ask, at every stage of our child’s development, What is it that I need to instill in my child about the good and bad aspects of sex and sexuality?
Laying the Foundation: Early Lessons
Let’s start with helping them avoid the negative consequences; here are a few examples:
- You explain and reinforce to your four- and five-year-olds that no one is allowed to touch their private parts and they are not allowed to touch the private parts of others. Again, you clearly explain the exceptions—Mom or Dad teaching them how to wash their private parts, or a doctor examining their private parts to make sure they stay healthy—but otherwise it’s hands off.
- When your eight-year-old is watching a news story about HIV infection, you interject with a broader discussion of how there are many other types of infections one can spread through sexual intercourse.
- When your ten-year-old hears that the thirteen-year-old in the apartment down the hall is pregnant, you seize the opportunity to discuss strategies to avoid an unwanted pregnancy.
When I talk to ten-year-olds, I work with them to explore why far too many kids in this country become pregnant every year and how there can be epidemic levels of sexually transmitted infections among teenagers. No matter where I encounter fifth graders, very few have any sort of deep awareness of the personal and social costs of teenage pregnancy, and there are even fewer who appreciate the costs of sexually transmitted infections; HIV and AIDS don’t cause nearly the level of concern they did just ten years ago. Most kids of this age know very little about all that can happen to them if they become sexually active. When I tell parents that the incidence of teen sexual activity goes from about 8 to 10 percent for seventh graders to almost 32 percent for ninth graders, their eyes open pretty wide.3If you have a kid in elementary school and you wait until middle school to have in-depth discussions about intercourse, it may be too late. It takes a good deal of time to learn how to drive a car, but it takes much longer to become a very good driver. How long do you think it takes a teenager to learn how to manage and control their sexual emotions and feelings?
Oral Sex Is Sex
Our discussion of sexual intercourse must include oral sex and anal sex. When I talk to both students and parents I am very emphatic about this. If you’re going to put your mouth on a vulva or on a penis, you had darn well better come to terms with the fact that you are having sex. The same goes for anal sex. We do believe that oral sex is about as widespread as vaginal sex among teens ages fifteen to seventeen, and the incidence of anal sex for this age group is between 6 and 7 percent.4 It’s worth noting that there is great difficulty in obtaining various data about the sexual behaviors of minors. There are legal and ethical dilemmas involved with trying to survey minors about the sort of sexual behaviors they engage in. Countless kids have told me that oral sex is not sex. There is a pervasive belief that they are still virgins if they have oral sex, and far too many still believe that one cannot contract HIV orally. “What, are you kidding me?” I say to them. “Of course it’s sex. And about that idea of still being a virgin? Forget it—if you put your mouth on it, or if your girlfriend or boyfriend puts her or his mouth on your genitals, you can throw the virgin idea out the window. You all need to realize that whether it’s vaginal sex or oral sex, it’s all sex.”
You’ll notice that some of the things I categorize as the ugly could also be categorized as the bad. That is, all of the ugly is bad, but may not necessarily be as bad as what I discussed in that section. I’ll cover this issue in more detail later in the book, but when I say ugly, I’m talking about things like the following:
- Girls who dress in a sexy way—or at least want to—at a very young age. Too many ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year-old girls are trying to appear far older than they are
- Sexual harassment through suggestive comments, stares, and gestures—mainly boy to girl, but also girl to boy, girl to girl, and boy to boy
- “Sexting” and social media networking
- Music and DVDs that are demeaning to women (especially) and to men
And, of course:
- Boys who let their pants hang low and look like slobs
These are some of the ugly aspects of sex that I’ll address later in the book.
It’s time now to talk about an issue that, while it may seem frivolous to some, can make all the difference in raising kids who understand and appreciate their bodies—and who will defend them from harm. I’m talking about all the “secret” body parts and the silly or ugly slang terms we use for these parts and their functions. I’ll explain why our kids can and should use the real words, from the start.