The following is an excerpt from The New Age of Sex Education: How to Talk to Your Teen About Cybersex and Pornography in the Digital Age.
How do you talk to your child about sex? Many parents wonder what to say, how to say it and worry if they will mess something up by saying the wrong thing. In my experience, many parents don’t actually say anything to their children or they say very little too late. Talking to kids about sex was the topic of a 2014 survey conducted by the United Kingdom company, Lil-Lets.
In September of 2014, Lil-Lets published the results of a survey that asked parents questions related to talking to their children about uncomfortable sex education topics: everything from puberty to menstruation to sex. Unfortunately, the results of this survey line right up with other research findings and what I find in clinical practice. Parents are embarrassed.
The study surveyed 2,000 parents. Sixty percent of these parents stated that they have a hard time talking to their children about sensitive topics. This meant not just talking about sex itself but also the biology of puberty and sexual development. Half of the parents stated that they found talking about these topics embarrassing. Apparently “the talk” causes a great deal of anxiety for parents, some of whom reported worrying about having to have a sex talk with their child from the time their child was around four years old. A surprising finding from the survey was how disconnected the parents were from each other when it came to talking to their child about sex. Instead of working as a team and parenting together, 41% of the parents reported arguing with each other over which parent was going to talk to their child. Some of the survey participants even stated that they and their spouse had come to blows while arguing about the topic.
Teaching Sexual Health Beyond Using Media Examples
Using a “media intervention” can be a great in the moment way to talk to your child about sexting and/or pornography. However, an even better tactic is to proactively talk to your child about sex and sexuality before you find they are engaging in it themselves. In this, I found inspiration from a training session I attended in September 2015 given by Dr. Douglas Braun-Harvey. He is a clinician who works with out of-control sexual behavior. He introduced me to the World Health Organization (WHO) definition of sexual health. The WHO considers sexual health an inextricable element of human health. They define sexual health as “a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; It is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.”
Dr. Braun-Harvey shared that he breaks down sexual health into six sexual rights. These components of sexual health are: protection from STI’s, HIV and unwanted pregnancy, consent, non-exploitative, honesty, shared values and pleasure. Though all of these do not directly relate to cyber-sexuality, most do and all of the components are worth talking to your children about.
Sexual Relations and Consent
A key teaching about sexual health involves the concept of consent. Consent is a critical piece of healthy sexuality. Are both parties truly consenting to the sexual encounter? Many teens, and adults for that matter, have misconceptions about the concept of consent.
Consent is the most fundamental sexual health principle that should ever be considered. Without a truly consenting sexual encounter, we have sexual abuse. In my work with offenders, we teach the differences between coercion, compliance and consent. On the surface, consent appears to be the easiest concept to grasp. A person can truly only give consent if they are not drunk, unconscious, mentally impaired, asleep, etc.
Compliance is something that we often see in the context of relationships but can see in other encounters. Compliance is truly not consent. A person may comply with a sexual contact if they feel that there is a negative consequence to saying no. For example, a young man or woman may comply with a sexual request from a friend or partner if they feel the other person may break up with them if they do not engage in the sex act.
The concept of consent is very critical to sexting. The scientific literature tells us that there is a difference between consensual and non-consensual sexting. Consensual sexting is something that normally occurs between two adolescents that are in a relationship together. When sexting occurs in this context, it is a relatively “normal” part of courtship and relationship maintenance. In this truly consensual context, there really isn’t anything wrong with the behavior outside of the fact that it leaves the sexter open to non-consensual sexting at a future time.
Non-consensual sexting occurs when an image or video is sent to anyone other than the intended party. This can often be seen in high school sexting scandals when an image or group of images end up being forwarded and sent through a large number of the members of a class. This is non-consensual for several reasons. First, the sender of the original message did not intend for the message to be seen by anyone other than the intended receiver. The second reason that this is non-consensual is that the original receiver did not get permission to send the image and did so often without the knowledge of the original sender. Any discussion of sexting with your teen must include the concept of consent. Help them understand that any image they send leaves their control the moment it is sent. In the moment, they may feel that they are in love or at least very strongly like the person to whom they sent the image. However, relationships change and there are often social pressures on both parties. These general facts of adolescent life make any sexual imagery sent by a teen susceptible to being passed on to another
In summary, the bottom line is that you have to talk to your teen about sex and cyber-sexuality often and early. If you are waiting until your child is 15 or 16 years old, you are too late. Odds are they have at least seen online pornography by that time (average age of first exposure is 11) even if they have not actively searched for it. Start teaching aspects of sexual health early on. The concepts of compliance, coercion and consent are topics that can be applied not only to sexuality but to other social dynamics that can be taught to younger children as well. Use the news and media coverage of sexting events to your advantage. Have the dialogue about the story you saw posted on Facebook or Twitter with your child. Most importantly, just talk to your child. Don’t lecture. Just talk. Have a conversation where you are willing to hear his or her point of view with openness. A key to teaching sexual health to anyone is to talk about sex and sexuality without judgment.