How (Not) to Talk About Sex

Martha Kempner, who is the Vice President for Information and Communications at SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States), has written a great post about abstinence-only sex education programs–isn’t that a contradiction in terms??–over at RH Reality Check. This time she’s writing about the scare and humiliation tactics used by such programs to supposedly terrify and shame young people so they won’t want to have sex.

In my opinion, that’s the equivalent of telling children when they do something bad that the bogeyman is going to get them. Not only that, it sends the message that sex is something to be afraid of and that you should be singled out for shame if you engage in it. What’s that going to accomplish?

I used the abstinence argument with my children but I didn’t tell them that sex was dirty and that they’d be dirty if they had it. I told them about the possibility of getting pregnant but I didn’t tell them I’d disown them or kick them out of the house if they got pregnant. I told them that I didn’t want them to rush into sex, but that I’d rather know about it than have them hide it and feel that they couldn’t talk to me about it. I don’t think any of my children take sex and its consequences lightly, but they also feel quite comfortable about it. They have, by their own accounts, reasonably healthy sex lives. In fact, the hangups that any of them (and that we all) have come from being made to feel shame about something they’d done or had done to them.

Right now there’s a lot of public concern about the H1N1 virus (or swine flu). I can tell my child to wash his hands and sneeze into his sleeve all I want, but if I’m a responsible parent I’ll get my child vaccinated if I think he or she is at risk. I can tell my child to stay away from sick people, but human nature (and an incubation period) being what it is, I know that’s unrealistic. So I use other means to protect him in case he engages in behavior that can endanger him.

But all this is missing the real point, which is that the only way we can hope to protect our children is to communicate with them. I read an article in today’s newspaper that said that children respond better when reasoned with than when they are just told to do or not to do something. Using fear or shame to back up our parental messages is not the same as reasoning with them. Spitting into a pitcher of water and then asking if anyone wants to drink from it is not the same as explaining to our children what sex is all about and why they should refrain from it.

But our children are not going to talk to us if they’ve been made to feel ashamed of what they feel or what they’ve already done. Fear and humiliation tactics might work in some cases, or for the short term, but they’re not good for our children as they attempt to make the transition to adulthood.

Which brings me to another thing that bothers me about the whole sex- education/abstinence- only debate is that both sides tend to group all children together. What you say to a nine-year-old who just got her period (yes, it happens!) or a pre-teen who has just started to go through puberty is entirely different from what you should say to a “child” who is going away to college or who just became engaged.

Let’s talk to our children where they are and not try to squeeze them into a “one-size-fits-all” philosophy.