Sex series: The sexually healthy adolescent

On November 5th, an article I wrote about a conversation I had with my daughter regarding abstinence was published.  Since that day, I have received so many letters in regards to that article.  The opinions ranged from outrage, believing that encouraging abstinence left kids without vital information – to elation over the topic of abstinence, believing that kids needed the encouragement to just say no.

For the next several weeks, I will be revisiting this topic sporadically, allowing for voices other than mine to speak their piece.  Today’s post is by Remi Newman, a sexuality educator here in Santa Rosa who offers some vital information on having “the talk” with your child, right from the very beginning.

Sex Matters: Raising a sexually healthy adolescent
Guest post by Remi Newman

From the moment they are born, our children are learning about their bodies, learning how to love and who to trust. In other words, they are learning about a fundamental component of their personality- their sexuality. And we, their parents, whether we realize it or not, are their primary teachers.

Being a parent can be overwhelming enough, never mind taking on the responsibility of becoming your child’s primary sexuality educator. Many parents feel they didn’t receive much sexuality education as kids and don’t even know where to begin. Sexuality is a highly charged and sensitive subject that can be hard to talk about with anyone, especially our own children. Meanwhile, we live in a society with conflicting messages about sexuality. Our society’s veneer of chastity discourages us from having open and intelligent discussions about sexuality. At the same time, we are bombarded with misinformation and the exploitation of sexuality primarily as a marketing tool.

It’s not surprising that when it comes to sex and our children, fear often steps in. Rather than seeing themselves as sexuality educators for their kids, parents instead see themselves as gatekeepers of sexuality information, not wanting them to know too much too soon. In no other area of life do we see a value in withholding education from our kids. Parents may worry that the information itself is inherently damaging or that it will encourage sexual activity. Yet, studies have shown that teens who learn about sex and sexuality from their parents are more likely to postpone first sexual intercourse and more likely to use protection when they do have their first sexual intercourse. The only thing you may be withholding from your child is the chance to learn correct information and the opportunity for you to share your personal values about sex and sexuality.

 A parent who says they will wait for their child or teen to ask them about sex, before broaching the subject, may be in for a never ending wait. So instead of waiting to have “the talk” with your child, no matter what age, look for teachable moments. For example, a teachable moment for a toddler could be seeing a pregnant woman and telling your child that that woman has a baby in her belly or teaching them the correct names for their genitals when you’re washing them in the bathtub. A teachable moment for a pre-teen may be seeing something on the news about HIV. This is an opportunity to ask what they know about how HIV is transmitted.

If a parent takes advantage of these moments throughout their child’s youth, by the time that child is experiencing puberty and the stakes often get higher, having a conversation about sexual abstinence, sexual intercourse, contraception, condoms—whatever direction you choose to take it in—doesn’t have to be painfully awkward for parent and teen.

 Aside from using teachable moments as you raise your children, listen (if at all possible without judgment) to their thoughts and opinions on sexuality. Give them honest thoughtful answers if they come to you with questions. If you don’t know the answer to a question let them know you will help them find the answer. Giving dishonest answers or withholding information will only come back to hurt you later on. Your child will eventually learn the real facts of life and will also have learned that you, their parent, are not a reliable source of information on sexuality. Share your personal values around sex and sexuality with your children. All of these things can help make you an “askable parent” – a parent that an adolescent actually feels comfortable talking to about sex and sexuality.

Recommended books:

Everything you never wanted your kids to know about sex (but were afraid they’d ask), Justin Richardson, M.D. and Mark A. Schuster, M.D., PhD

From Diapers to Dating, A parent’s guide to raising sexually healthy children, Debra W. Haffner, M.P.H.

Beyond the Big Talk: A parent’s guide to raising sexually healthy teens, Debra W. Haffner, M.P.H.

Sex and Sensibility, The thinking parent’s guide to talking sense about sex, Deborah Roffman

 Remi Newman, M.A. received her master’s degree in sexuality education from New York University and has over 10 years of experience developing and facilitating sexuality education workshops. She is the proud mother of her 4 year old son, Leo, who, so far, knows all the correct names for his body parts. She has created “Having ‘the talk’ before they can talk”, a bilingual sexuality education parenting workshop for new and expectant parents. For more info email reminew@yahoo.com

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3 thoughts on “Sex series: The sexually healthy adolescent”

  1. As a survivor of sexual abuse, talking about sexuality with my kids has been loaded with issues for me. I have found, as Ms. Newman suggests, that using teachable moments has been the most effective way to broach this topic. Thanks for your no-nonsense approach! Especially for pointing out that education about sexuality is the one area where we often believe in less education!

  2. Dear Ms. Dillon,

    I just got around to reading your November 6th article published in the Press Democrat. I was grateful that you brought up many valid and crucial points about teen sexuality. I do however have some concerns about your reactions to your daughter’s and teen sexuality in general.

    First, let me state that I admire you for what sounds like a wonderful relationship with your daughter. Communication is what is key to any relationship at anytime in our lives whether it be at home, in the work place or amongst friends. I too am a father of two smart and beautiful daughters, divorced once and widowed once.

    Secondly, I am not a religious person at all and not influenced by any deity or organization of any kind. I am however influenced by my intrinsic sense of right and wrong but fully aware that grey areas in life are either a mystery to my intellect or completely over my head.

    I think it’s delightful that your daughter has a new found “hero” in your abstinence until married friend. I think each and everyone of us has an obligation to be true to ourselves regardless of what others including parents think. Heroes are quite different than mentors though. I bring this up because what was once tradition, marriage and even marriage before sex is just made up by people that don’t know or don’t care about the history of why these traditions or cultural customs came about. It’s a mindset that has no real basis in present day life. It’s kind of like the people that say that marriage is only between a man and a woman. I’m hoping you’re not threatened by this or have these preconceived notions as to what makes up a ‘real’ marriage. That’s a lot like saying he’s “real man”, a “true Republican” or a “real intellectual.” To me, none of those things ring true. I’ve seen bumper stickers that say “Real Men Love Jesus.” Does this mean that many of my male friends are not “real men?”

    The marriage tradition doesn’t exist anymore. There isn’t any formula to go by anymore for us to adhere to. We don’t have a blueprint on how relationships are to be or even what they look like. There might be loosely defined guidelines but even that is up for discussion. I think it’s a bit subjective to think that marriage is a be all end all. Why do we think that divorce spells failure? What if it’s not meant to last? Why do we see the end of relationships as failure? Why can’t we find these transitions as lessons or stepping stones? Many people call this “baggage” but I would use the word ‘history.’ I think this is what makes each one of us who we are. Each relationship is different and unique and that’s about all I know. No, I don’t want my daughters sleeping with every man they meet. Do I want to protect them? Yes. Am I concerned about the decisions that they make, the ugliness they might encounter? Yes. I don’t think I could idly stand by and watch my daughters spin out to control either but realize that’s subjective too. I firmly believe that if they never get married that that is okay too and if they choose to have a sexual life outside of marriage, then that is their own business and I’ll respect that.

    Do I think that sex is sacred? No. But I do think it’s special. I never would have dreamed of waiting for sex until marriage. And after knowing what I know now, I would never have married a virgin. Is this because I’m a male? Who knows and one can only speculate. There isn’t any scientific data stating what we should and shouldn’t do in or for relationships to work. I know that a very real American statistic tells us at least fifty percent of these marriages won’t work out. Will your thirty two year old friend’s marriage last? Well, we can say she’s got a 50/50 chance that it will. I think your daughter and all teens ought to know that. They also should know that sex is biological. With many of us it can be a pleasurable experience. It’s not a religious act. It’s not dirty. It’s not only about procreation and it’s not some preconceived manipulation by parents, churches or teachers about what it should be. I do know it can be beautiful, fulfilling, tender and most of all it bring a sense of intimacy and preciousness to a relationship that I find unparalleled. But one must remember that this is my take on sex and realize not everyone thinks like I do. Not everyone thinks the way you do either. I also believe that if you, Ms. Dillon are devoutly religious, this will be lost on you.

    Lastly, I’d like to close by saying that I’m glad that you stated that your daughter’s decision to have sex is not yours to make. I’d also like to think you’d stand by the decision she makes. That you love her and are immensely proud of who she is and excited about what kind of woman she’ll become. We try to be the best parents we can be and I think that loving and listening to them is a gift we can give them for the rest of our lives.

    Sincerely,
    Michael Thompson

  3. Michael — i wish to take my hat off to you for a fabulously well-reasoned and just….good…response to this issue. You raise some very good points.
    I mean, if you think about it, the tradition of women ‘waiting for marriage’ is one that comes from an authoritarian and patriarchal society. As my mom explained it to me, women always know if a baby is theirs, but men have to take a woman’s word for it. So, once property that was passed down in a hereditary fashion became an issue, men wanted to make sure that the only possible recipient of their worldly goods was the fruit of their own loins…thus, they wanted to make sure that they were the only one that had touched the woman bearing their children, and the only one that would. So, women were expected to remain chaste, come to the marriage bed innocent and know the touch of her husband only. Where as men who philandered were looked upon as a bit naughty (possibly deliciously so), women who did so were the worst kind of criminal in a male-run society.

    Today, the same standards still largely apply, though we are striving to shake them off…women are expected to be chaste, but men, experienced. However, I certainly don’t think young girls should run around having sex at young ages just to make a statement…I think that the nail was hit exactly on the head with the ideas of being true to one’s self and having good role models. If a girl OR boy wants to wait for marriage, that is FINE, however…I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with a couple that shares an emotional connection making a physical one as well, and maybe getting a little practice in before the wedding night. It’s about figuring out what you want (ahead of time, not in the heat of the moment when hormones are all ablaze) and sticking to that commitment to yourself.

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