Talking about sex with teens can be a downright risky endeavor. We try to act cool on the outside while our insides are screaming, "Am I doing this right? I hope he doesn't ask any questions! Oh I can't wait for this to be over." We radiate insecurity in a way that shuts down communication and often adds confusion to teen sexual development.
For Goodness Sex, by Al Vernacchio, is a wonderful book on sexuality, especially when dealing with teens. If you feel insecure about talking with your teen about sex, read it. If you feel pretty good about your conversations with your teen about sex, read it. If you want to improve your own relationship to sex, read it. Bottom line: we all need a little more education and depth in our understanding of sexuality.
Vernacchio says, "I decided a long time ago that my role as a sexuality educator isn't to get teenagers to have or not have sex-- that's something they'll decide as they grow to know themselves and their values more clearly. But I do see it as my job to get kids to think more thoughtfully about sexuality, to learn what it means to respect their bodies, and to offer them a positive and realistic framework for which to make sexual decisions."
Research consistently supports the idea that parents must be the primary sexuality educators of their children. Studies show that even teens want their parents to talk to them about sex, even though they will act disgusted. Making family values explicit is the best way to create ongoing dialogue and clear expectations for children and teens. "In moralizing, the goal is to instill the parents' values in their children. Value clarification, though, seeks to have a person develop a set of values that are uniquely their own and defendable." It is important that children and teens know both the family's morals and that they be given space to question those morals and define their own values.
Vernacchio gives a great, positive analogy for sex: pizza. He compares it to the traditional analogy of baseball and points out how destructive this model is. Check out his analogy via his Ted Talk.
In my experience, teens are often eager to heed advice that directs them to what they want. Vernacchio uses this skill to his advantage when talking about sex. Here is an excerpt of a class discussion about setting goals:
"'When you think about your future, you know, when you're (God forbid) as old as me,' I'll ask my students, "how many of you picture yourself working on your third divorce?'
Nobody raises a hand.
'How many of you want to live alone with a lot of cats?'
One or two wise guys raise their hands.
'So what do you want for your future?' I'll ask.
They'll blurt a few variations on the same answer: They want a relationship thats fun and sexy, full of support and pleasure, one that's stable and loving and that they can depend on.
'Keeping that long-term goal in mind, I want you to think about the path from here to where you want to end up. If you've mastered the hookup, that brings a certain set of skills, but does it bring you the skills to get to your relationship goal?'
'Part of the way there,' a boy with a goatee says.
'Sure,' I say, 'But if you want to be a good basketball player, why are you practicing on your skateboard all the time? At the end of the day, you'll simply be a good skateboarder who wishes he could play basketball.'
I let that sink in. Then continue: 'All of the relationships we have in life offer us opportunities to practice, to learn from our mistakes, and to grow. Relationships, whether friendships or sweethearts, don't just happen; they require work. The only way we can become more knowledgable about relationships- and thereby our role in them- is by being in relationships, and by being our authentic selves in those relationships."
Not sure how to start those awkward conversations? When in doubt, ask thought provoking questions such as, "What is a deal breaker for you in a relationship?", "What do you consider a virgin to be?" "What parts of your body do you like or dislike?" "Ever notice the gender role differences in toys?" or "That sex scene did not seem very realistic to me, what do you think?" When you ask questions, you are giving space for your teen to clarify his or her values, be comfortable with sexuality, and make more informed, intentional decisions. Sexuality is, after all, a very tender, but very good part of our selves.
With the world bombarding us with negative, competitive, and false information about sexuality, we need to shore up the truth about its pro-social, healthy and kind aspects. Our youth need it more than ever. This book could be a good start.
Stephanie Patterson, M.S., LMFT