How To Talk to Kids About Sex Using Pop Culture, According to Experts

Movies and television are more than entertainment. According to experts, they're opportunities for sex education for kids.

Growing up, I watched a lot of TV with my folks. We were obsessed with Hollywood and, in our free time, took it upon ourselves to rent every possible movie on DVD. When I was 13, we rented the new Spider-Man movie with Tobey Maguire. I was so excited to watch it with my family. The popcorn was ready. We huddled together, popped the DVD into the player, and got ready to watch Spiderman in action.

We watched in delight as Peter Parker discovered his new identity. The scenes progressed and there is one, in particular, that is forever etched in my mind—the moment Spider-Man saves Mary Jane from a couple of goons. Once they're alone in an alley, it starts to rain. They get wet. Her nipples start to show through her dress, and she asks how she can thank him. He lowers himself down, allowing himself to be partially unmasked by MJ, who then proceeds to kiss him passionately.

As a 13-year-old girl going through puberty, I had a lot of questions. The room that was initially loud with excitement turned silent. My parents had their eyes locked on the screen and didn't engage with me. When the movie ended, I remember feeling confused.

Soon, I started to notice a pattern that emerged whenever similar scenes would appear on TV. If things got too intense, the channel was either swiftly changed, we sat frozen in silence, or one of us would make an awkward sound. It wasn't just limited to sex scenes, but also included scenes about queerness, contraception, abortion, or sexual harassment. Coupled with a complete absence of sex education in my school and a vague conversation about genitals with my mom, I was always left craving more chats with my parents about sexual health.

Perhaps, there was always an assumption that I was too young and naive for these talks. I know now that though it may have seemed like I couldn't handle conversations about sex, sexuality and gender, I needed the advice. In fact, though kids are too young to understand many of these issues in depth, they are often looking for parents to create spaces in their homes to talk about sex.

A study by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln looked into adolescent perspectives on parent-child communication about sex-related topics. It found that a significant percentage of teens want their parents to have conversations with them about sex that are in-depth and memorable.

Having the sex talk at an early age also helps delay sexual initiation and should not be reserved for special moments. In another study done by George Washington University, researchers found that an overwhelming number of parents were prompted to have the talk with their kids when asked questions or when they deemed the child to be old enough. But dare I say, waiting for kids to grow up to give them the talk might, in fact, be too late.

As an adult who talks and writes about sexual health for living, I can tell you that I was never too young to have the sex talk. In fact, I still wish my parents would talk about these issues openly. Like many other kids, I didn't have this opportunity because my parents didn't know how to bring it up. Despite being presented with multiple opportunities to clarify or highlight important topics through pop culture, often, parents aren't aware of how to create spaces to talk about sex.

An image of the shows, Big Mouth, Sex Education, and the movie, Spiderman.
Getty Images (1). Netflix (2). Jillian Sellers.

According to sex educator Ericka Hart, the sex talk shouldn't be reserved for a singular moment but should instead be treated as a long-term process. She says any show or movie portraying relationships, gender, or sex presents a great opportunity to have a conversation with kids.

"From Disney movies to PG-13 films, there is messaging embedded in all of these mediums that is worth having a conversation," says Hart. "For example, in Sleeping Beauty, the princess is awakened by being kissed by a prince. This demonstrates the lack of consent, and it's great to reiterate with kids not to romanticize being kissed or touched without consent."

Dr. Ericka Burns is the founder and CEO of Sacramento Peers on Prevention (SACPOP), a youth-driven organization dedicated to addressing sexual health and reproductive justice issues. She recommends talking to your kids even if you feel uncomfortable. Burns tells parents not to cover their kids' eyes when watching something that makes them uncomfortable and suggests reflecting about difficult topics together, instead. She also suggests that parents familiarize themselves with what kids are watching by watching together. Shows like Big Mouth and Sex Education create great opportunities to discuss safe sex, sexuality, relationships, and consent. They also use humor to help break the ice—it is ok to laugh!

Parents also have to be prepared to speak openly about the hardest topics. Shows like Euphoria and 13 Reasons Why include scenes of drug use, sexual assault, and bullying. Parents shouldn't berate their children for watching these shows but should use them as teaching moments, instead.

Kids may need to be reminded that TV and movies are just for entertainment. They'll also need to know that TV shows rarely depict condoms, testing, and other important components of sexual health. Talking about reality and fiction is also an opportunity to teach important lessons.

There are many ways that kids can watch sexual content on TV, so it's vital that parents use every opportunity to talk to their kids about sexual health. These necessary conversations are just another opportunity for parents to learn from each other.

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