How To Have Sex-Positive Talks With Your Teen Without Being Cringey

Instead of placing emphasis on "The Talk," parents can establish lasting trust which holds space for "The Recurring Conversation" necessary for sexual education.

Teen son walks with mom
Photo: Getty

I was young when Mom gave me a hand mirror and then suggested I take a look down there. To her, she was trying to break the familial cycle of avoiding uncomfortable conversations that she learned from her mother who of course, learned from her mom and so on. Mom couldn't talk to her mother about her body or her period, let alone ask for sex advice. So she raised me differently. Now she and I can reflect on that hand mirror moment with necessary distance. She can see that I was too young, and I should have discovered my body on my own—I can also see that her heart was in the right place. Mother-daughter relationships are famously complicated; our relationship is no different.

Years later, in an age-appropriate era, Mom gave me a vibrator. She discovered I was...let's say...misusing a vibrating hairbrush so she knew it was the right time. I don't remember us ever having "The Talk." Instead, the door was always open. I knew I could ask her questions or let her know when I wanted to start taking birth control. Her laid-back approach helped destigmatize that oh-so-complicated part of puberty.

Instead of placing emphasis on one big, sex talk, parents can establish lasting trust which holds space for what should be dubbed "The Recurring Conversation." Here are a few tips I learned from my mom and ones we can pass along to all children.

Introduce Your Kids to Diversity

I'm fortunate to have a gay uncle and a lesbian aunt, both are Mom's siblings. She also had friends of all different ethnicities and sexualities. This taught me that diversity was the norm. People have different life experiences and each unique journey is valid. This loving acceptance helped me discover my own bisexuality at age 14. I didn't have the words for the way I felt (and it took years before I embraced the bisexual label), but being around different types of people showed me that there's nothing wrong with who I'm attracted to. Gone are the days of "when a man and a woman love each other…" That antiquated approach often isn't relatable, especially when parenting queer kids. Representation is more important than we realize.

Keep the Door Open

Even though Mom was (and is!) open-minded, I was still a teenager who thought I knew everything. I couldn't stand the idea of talking to Mom about sex. Hearing friends and classmates talk about how they can't talk to their parents about sex made me grateful, even in my reluctance, to have a mom who made such an effort to have those difficult conversations. While I didn't tell her everything, it felt nice to know that I could.

"Introduce information in bite-sized chunks," Paulina Pinsky, writer, and co-author of It Doesn't Have To Be Awkward: Dealing with Relationships, Consent, and Other Hard-to-Talk-About Stuff shares. "In the same way you used to cut up your kid's food, offer them information bit by bit. Slowly over time, they will ingest everything that you want them to learn. You don't want to overload them."

She says the quintessential "birds and the bees" talk is actually quite overwhelming for kids. "Even though it would make you feel better to offload all that information, it may not be the best way for your kid to hear about sex for the first time."

Introduce, but Don't Judge

Mom did a great job of introducing me to ideas like feminism and sex-positivity without sharing her opinion on them. I remember watching the movie If These Walls Could Talk together while I was in middle school. That film shows abortion from various perspectives, and I appreciate that Mom presented information to me then let me process it however I chose. She also gave me copies of Playboy and Playgirl to look at on my own. This, too, showed me that there's nothing wrong with sex or nudity. I noticed a difference between the high-quality photos in Playboy vs. the porn that the early 2000's internet provided. The former showed me that nudity can actually be beautiful and empowering. Nudity doesn't always have to do with sex; sexuality has its own identity outside of sexual activity.

Educate Yourself

I'm an elder Millennial who grew up both with and without the internet. Kids today have significantly more access to, well, everything. Some folks might read this piece and think that advocating for safe, consensual sex is teaching kids things they don't already know, when having these conversations can actually help them access parts of who they are and what they may be questioning.

If you don't teach your kids about sex and sexuality, they'll learn it on Pornhub or TikTok. Familiarize yourself with the content your kids consume and the platforms with which they consume it. "I strongly recommend that parents get in the same sandbox with their teens from time to time. If your teen loves gaming, rather than just tolerating the amount of time they spend on the machine, sit and watch, ask questions, try to play," says Mike Rosen, M.S., Ed., psychotherapist and public speaker. "If they love K-Pop, listen to the records with them. Then bring in your own pop culture, books, music, and movies that aren't censored for kids, that can help create common ground to have conversations."

Talk About Pleasure

This might be the most cringe-worthy part but I can't express its importance enough. For folks who were lucky enough to receive realistic sex education at school, they most likely aren't taught about the pleasure aspect.

I grew up in Waco, Texas, where I received abstinence-based "sex ed" at school. This approach was more of a foreboding warning that highlighted what can go wrong and how sex can ruin your life as opposed to how natural and normal sex is. No wonder adults (especially adults who are queer or grew up in purity culture) have so much shame attached to sex. For years I thought sex was something that should be done to me. Now I know that sex is something that all consenting parties should receive pleasure from.

"How you, as a parent, embody and/or prioritize pleasure will teach your kid more than uttering a single word. But also, accept that there might be cringe-worthy moments. You may know [certain words or topics] that will make your shoulders tense and your breath hitch, so prepare for it," Pinsky adds.

Discuss the Intersections of Substances and Sex

It's important to acknowledge the intersection of sex, substance use, and consent with your kids. According to Prevention Action Alliance, "Half of all sexual assaults involve alcohol—consumed by the victim, the perpetrator, or both. And 1 in 10 high school drinkers and 1 in 8 high school binge drinkers report being physically forced to have sexual intercourse."

Prescription drugs are now one of the top drugs of choice among 12th-grade students. A scene in Euphoria shows Rue and Jules engaging in oral sex. Rue shares through a voiceover that she's too high on opiates to feel anything. So she fakes an orgasm. Zendaya, who plays Rue, perfectly depicted one of the many side effects of substance abuse: anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure. The fact that pain killers numb our bodies isn't a novel concept, but these sexual side effects (low libido, erectile dysfunction, inability to create vaginal lubrication, and more) are rarely depicted on screen, especially through a queer relationship.

These side effects can be especially problematic during teen years when the body is still developing. "The truth is, when you're inebriated, you can't accurately assess your physical and emotional boundaries, you can't trust your judgment, and because you can't assess your boundaries or trust your judgment, you certainly can't exercise compassion for yourself or your partner," says Pinsky.

Be Authentic

I spent a lot of time in therapy unpacking that hand mirror moment. Was I too young? Did it lead to me becoming sexual at a young age? How would my life be different if I discovered my vulva organically? I've overanalyzed these questions for years. Then I shared these anxious feelings with a friend who calmly replied, "Wow. I'm so ashamed of my vulva. I wish my mom encouraged me to explore mine at a young age!" I appreciated the opposing perspective.

Remember: There's no perfect way to parent just like there's no perfect way to be a child. "If we allow integrity and authenticity to guide us, no conversations are uncomfortable," says David Ortmann, LCSW, CMBT, Manhattan sex therapist, and author of Sexual Outsiders.

Imagine how empowered the next generation can be if they learn about how their bodies work, what feels good, what they like and don't like, and how to advocate for their own agency. And the best and most crucial part to this is knowing they can talk to their parents and guardians when needed.

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