From the time I was very young I was taught that sex is bad. According to the mormon religion, pre-marital sex is a sin. That, coupled with all the STDs my health teacher explained in graphic detail and told me would most likely occur were I to engage in hanky-panky, definitely programmed me to view sex with an unhealthy amount of fear and guilt. I was not only scared of the concept of sex, but I was ashamed of my body. I experienced intense guilt every time I had sex for many years, even though I left Mormonism in my wake long ago.
That’s why I want to explain sex differently to my children. I want them to be comfortable talking about it with me. I want them to feel excitement about the prospect of eventually engaging in a sexual relationship with someone they care about (when the time is right). The last thing I want is for them to face it with fear and definitely not the intense guilt I felt throughout my teens and twenties.
An article on Salon called “You’re Doing Sex Ed Wrong: How Teaching Kids About Sex is Like Teaching Toddlers to Walk” nails it when it comes to how I’d like to raise my kids. It focuses on Philadelphia high school teacher Al Vernacchio and it’s too bad there aren’t more teachers like him scattered around the states. Vernacchio teaches kids the basics of sex, of course. Basic anatomy as well as birth control options (and yes, STDs) but he also talks to students about the positives of sex.
Yep, the positives. Imagine that! Sex is a good thing, in case you forgot. That means Vernacchio covers orgasms, masturbation, and all the other things most of us enjoy about sex. How about that? Instead of just scaring the crap out of kids with genital wart talk and photos of diseased genitalia, Vernacchio offers a more well-rounded approach to sex. He calls it “sex positive education.”
Vernacchio tells Salon that America gets sex education wrong because we teach it as a problem:
“’Here are all the terrible things that can happen if you have sex. Now go have a healthy relationship.’ So I start from the premise that sexuality is a force for good in the universe and that we can use it all kinds of ways to create close connection and equity and even justice in the world. If that was the way we started sex ed, I think we’d be much more successful … We just don’t talk about those things enough with kids. That’s what kids really want to know. They want to know how you know when you’re in love and how can you connect with somebody. I think sometimes they have sex because they don’t know what else to do. We haven’t given kids enough of a toolbox. Taking a nap can be just as intimate and lovely.”
Vernacchio encourages parents who are coming from a place of fear about their children and sex to envision what they want for their children in terms of a healthy, loving, sexy relationship. Once they envision that, ask them “starting from where your kid is today, how do you get there? It’s pretty clear that you don’t get there by scare tactics.”
He’s onto something. For so long we’ve discussed the horrors of sex — the STDs, the teen moms — in some kind of scare-them-abstinent tactic. But anyone who has ever been a teenager (which is all of us, by the way) should be well aware of the fact that teaching abstinence-only doesn’t delay sexual activity. What happens instead is that when teens do have sex they are less likely to use birth control because they didn’t plan for it to happen.
I should know because it happened to me. I became pregnant at seventeen because my boyfriend and I never dared acknowledge that we might have sex even though we were thinking about it and leading up to it for months. Yet purchasing condoms was simply out of the question.
“Shouldn’t we buy condoms?”
“No! We’re not going to have sex.”
“I know. But just in case.”
“We’re not. We should go tell our bishops what’s been happening. We need to pray.”
Parents who received little to no sex education themselves pass on the same lack of knowledge to their children, perhaps hoping that not talking about it will keep their kids from doing it. But refusing to level with children and engage in open conversations about sex leaves kids vulnerable to the worst sort of misinformation, from the merely inaccurate (school friends) to the downright threatening (sexual predators). Ignorance is not a defense against wrong actions; it’s just denying people the information to make good decisions.
STDs shouldn’t be framed as dangers because sex isn’t fundamentally dangerous. Unplanned pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases are negative consequences that can easily be avoided. Vernacchio says those things are not inherent in sex, they are inherent in unhealthy sex: “OK, of course you don’t want to get pregnant, I don’t want you to get pregnant. You don’t want to get an STD, I don’t want you to get an STD. But showing you gross pictures of swollen genitals is not actually going to do that.”
You know what negative consequences of sex can’t be so easily avoided? Broken hearts and abusive relationships. The psychological angle of sex education is what’s missing from sex ed today. Not just education about how it all works but the emotions involved, how your ego gets entangled with your crushes. Vernacchio says that’s the stuff kids usually want to know about the most:
“A lot of the questions are, ‘How do I know when I’m ready?’ Or, ‘How do you know when you’re in love?’ Or, ‘How do you talk to somebody about this?’ ‘How do you ask for what you want?’ The mechanics, the kids have that now. Technology has provided all that information. What the Internet can’t provide them with is the human element of it. The Internet can’t provide for the process of thinking through a decision and coming to a conclusion.”
That’s where we come in as parents. There should be no such thing as The Talk. There should be many talks, small conversations that pop up while spending time with our children; lots of small conversations that add up to an ongoing conversation about relationships, love, and sex. We need to talk but also listen; engage with our children in a way that isn’t accusatory but respectful and I think we’ll find they are more willing to ask us the questions for which they need answers and — lucky you — those answers can come from you and not somebody else.
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