Word on the Street: Let’s Talk About Sex!
Let’s talk about sex, baby
Let’s talk about you and me
Let’s talk about all the good things
And the bad things that may be
Let’s talk about sex…
Salt-N-Pepa’s catchy song from back in the day still rings true. Talking about sex is important in maintaining a healthy sense of oneself and in creating healthy relationships with another person. Without the conversation, choices for most young adults are uninformed and potentially dangerous. But talking about who we are and how we relate to others sexually is still so difficult, especially when it comes to introducing these concepts to youth.
“Talking about sex is important in maintaining a healthy sense of oneself and in creating healthy relationships with another person.”
Starting at puberty and through the age of 25, adolescents move through an interesting intersection in both their brain and sexual development. It is a time of incredible ‘re-modeling’ of their brain as development starts from the more primitive or limbic brain first, working its way through to the pre-frontal cortex where executive function occurs in the later phases.
This means teens are seeking new information, ideas and connections without a lot of the problem solving or planning that the executive function provides. This is often expressed as increased impulsivity, risk-taking and volatile emotions. Not always an easy combination to relate to, as any parent of a teenager can attest, but a normal and necessary part of development.
The good news is that they are learning new concepts quickly and efficiently during this time, especially those things where their attention is focused. Regular conversations about choices, healthy risk-taking and problem-solving are necessary to set young adults up for success by reinforcing healthy relational habits.
This video by Dr. Dan Siegel, author of The Whole Brain Child, illustrates not only what is happening in the adolescent brain, but what is possible in the ways we perceive teens and support their learning and connections with others.
Sex, intimacy and identity are tender topics for many reasons in our culture. At their core, they tap into our deepest fears, wounds and most importantly, shame. Shame is associated with sex more often than any other experience in our culture. And sadly, when we experience shame, it is more likely that we will avoid conversation or attention to it rather than openly sharing about it. This avoidance of dialogue can lead to serious consequences, the most dire of which is suicide. One study reports suicide attempt rates as high as 50% for transgender teens.
In our culture there has historically been a lack of education that focuses beyond the cursory conversation of the nuts and bolts of anatomy and physiology or the scare tactics of abstinence to prevent pregnancy and STI or STD’s. Some states in recent years have opted out of education altogether, leaving it the families and communities to educate their children. That certainly allows personal beliefs of the family to guide the thinking, but these communities do not necessarily consider the brain development and social impact if the teen and the family are at odds in their beliefs.
In an article from Pitt News, the writer states: “There is proven correlation between the rates of STDs in certain areas and how comprehensive sex education is. States that mandate abstinence-only sex ed had the highest rates of STDs, compared to states with no mandate. States that stressed abstinence but did not provide it as the only form of sex ed fell between abstinence-only and no-mandate states.”
States have jurisdiction in deciding the type of sexual education provided in schools, including whether it is provided at all. In this published paper on the effects of State Mandated Sex Education, Brittany Bass explains: “According to the National Sexuality Education Standards (NSES), a representative school-based sex education mandate should include information on seven key components: anatomy and physiology, puberty and adolescent development, identity, pregnancy and reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV, healthy relationships, and personal safety.” California has recently passed the California Healthy Youth Act, which has been controversial due to newer additions which expand education around LGBTQ issues, HIV prevention, sex trafficking and more explicit instruction on sex, contraception and infections.
As an organization that provides life skills education and with one of our core tenants as a focus on healthy relating, we were invited to dive into this topic with the same private school we worked with in December. We came back to the same seventh grade class where we discussed digestion to help complete their physiology block with male and female anatomy and sex education.
I worked alongside the main teacher to create and deliver curriculum that was “medically accurate” and “age-appropriate” as required by the law. But more importantly, we wanted to get below the surface of what is being taught in most schools, and back to the basics of supporting the development of whole, healthy and compassionate human beings.
“Our goal was to create a safe space that allowed for curiosity while encouraging a shame-free and accepting environment that wasn’t beyond their age-level.”
The teacher and I covered particular concepts, but we went about the week in a ‘student-led’ fashion; we introduced concepts and allowed students to guide the conversation with their questions and interests in the subject-matter.
Our goal was to create a safe space that allowed for curiosity while encouraging a shame-free and accepting environment that wasn’t beyond their age-level. We used a “Question Box” for anonymous questions and comments that we reviewed and answered throughout the week. Rather than a lecture style approach to the discussion, we held more of a talking circle and incorporated embodied physical exercises, particularly around boundaries.
Our lessons boiled down to three main aspects of healthy relating: to oneself, to other individuals and to our global community. These three concepts overlapped as we touched on each topic. Before we can relate authentically to another human, it is important to create a solid knowing of our own being. Yes, sometimes your sense of self touches a nerve for those in your global community, teens experience to some degree anytime they open up about sex or share their gender identity. How then does it impact our sense of self when the boundaries you have for yourself are disregarded?
Without even knowing it, our lessons during that week were focused and intended on what Dr. Siegel described as offering insight, developing empathy and supporting integration through our dialogue and activities. It was not a week of overloading the students with the what and how of sex and intimacy, but rather the why and the who for themselves and then others.
Some of the highlights of our conversations:
- The spectrums of biological sex, gender and orientation.
- The importance of having a trusted adult to talk to.
- Ways to discover your own identity, preferences, desires and boundaries.
- Coping with differences in your own identity and desires in relation to family and community.
- The importance of self-acceptance and non-judgement of others.
- Normalizing exploration and curiosity, but utilizing safe avenues with consent and mutual agreement, protection and being in clear and conscious states.
- Seeking healthy role models and trusted sources for learning, cautioning the use of pornography and social media for instruction and information.
- The rhythm and flow of menstruation and the need for rest and gentleness during that time. The encouragement of young males to be supportive and helpful of their moms, sisters and friends during this time as well.
- What happens to the woman’s body and the baby during pregnancy and birth.
- Masculine and Feminine communication patterns, understanding that intent and perception may be different.
- What consent is and why it is important for real intimacy and connection to thrive.
- What boundaries are and learning to read social cues about them.
It was touching by the end of the day to hear that the majority of students felt relieved and grateful for the conversations. Almost all of them reported learning something and having a positive experience with only one expressing feeling still confused by the end. It was encouraged that the students continue the conversations with their parents and/or trusted adults in their lives.
“Education is not always about information, but rather the embodiment of principles that create strong foundations of selfhood and choice.”
Education is not always about information, but rather the embodiment of principles that create strong foundations of selfhood and choice. Regardless of the sex education your child has received at school, the important thing to remember is that you are still a primary teacher and role model for your child and their choices in life. Maintaining a healthy and open relationship is the key to ensure they maintain trust in you.
A few tips for continuing the education at home in a positive and nurturing way:
- We loved this suggestion by Jill Whitney MFT: “Instead, ask questions that don’t demand answers, but that invite thought.Teens are very interested in romantic and sexual relationships. Their own feelings may be very strong; they’re immersed in a social world where sex and dating are prominent. They’re thinking a lot about it.”
- Maintain a non-judgmental and curious attitude when your child shares what is happening for them. If they feel safe, they will allow themselves to be more vulnerable and open with you.
- Rather than holding tight restrictions on their activity and choices, problem-solve with them, walking through scenarios and teaching them better decision making practices. If they have acted impulsively and it turned out poorly, support them by troubleshooting to avoid the same situation in the future rather than using shame or guilt to tell them “I told you so” or “never again.”
- You can share your hopes and desires for their life and their path, but don’t let your love and care for them be contingent on them following it. Acceptance and love for a teen, regardless of their choices, is the number one prevention for depression, anxiety and suicide.
- Teens have a developmental need to experience novelty, intensity and push limits. Create opportunities for them to do that safely through high intensity activities, sports and experiences.
Please stay tuned next month as we share about our visit with Sixth Graders talking about financial health.