Down With “The Talk”: Changing the Narratives We Tell Ourselves about Talking to the Kids about Sex

Americans are attached with Velcro to the idea that knowledge about sex is a big, big secret that adults keep away from children until they are “ready,” at which point, sweaty palmed and gasping for air, they spill the beans about where babies come from. Until we change that deep-rooted cultural myth, and other entrenched ways of thinking about “sex education,” we’ll continue to miss out on nurturing children and teens in the ways they most need in the 21st Century.

I’ve just published a 4-Part series on the Huffington Post explaining how these way-off-the-mark approaches evolved (see Part 1 in its entirety below) and describing the new paradigms we need for supporting kids in becoming sexually healthy children, teens and adults.

Part 1:

Changing the Narratives We Tell Ourselves About Talking to the Kids About Sex

Part 2:

Reclaiming Our Common Sense About Sex

Part 3:

Where Did I Come From is Not a Question about Sex

Part 4:

What Would a New Paradigm Look and Feel Like?

Down With “The Talk!” (Part 1): Changing the Narratives We Tell

Ourselves About Talking to the Kids About Sex

The publishing business surely has changed since I wrote my first book for parents about raising sexually healthy children more than a decade ago, after thirty years of teaching kids and parents. With a new book just out, I’ve spent weeks “on tour” in US locations from Boston to Baton Rouge, Seattle to Sioux City, and North Dakota to Arizona–all without packing a suitcase, putting the dog in the kennel, or making my husband unhappy. I only needed to make sure my land line was charged.

And oh what a trip it has been. Via dozens of radio outlets in American cities and towns of all stripes and types–urban and rural, “conservative” and “liberal,” traditional and trendy–I’ve had the chance, literally, to dial up America and find out what’s on her mind. And, here’s what I learned: in the most fundamental of ways, adults everywhere are stuck in the very same mud they stood in fifty years ago when it comes to talking to the kids about sex.

With the entire nation having come through an era marked by a virtual tsunami of scientific, cultural, social, and technological change, how is it possible that adults remain as tongue-tied and clueless as ever over delivering what in reality, let’s face it, are merely some pretty basic and mundane facts about life?

Americans are attached with Velcro to the idea that knowledge about sex is a big, big secret that adults keep away from children until they are “ready,” at which point, sweaty palmed and gasping for air, they spill the beans about where babies come from. That ideology is as basic to our thinking as the assumption that sky is blue, grass is green, and the earth isn’t flat. (And we all know how long it took for folks to accept that last one). As proof, consider the promo in one form or another that’s preceded nearly all of my interviews–irrespective of locale, type of station (from way right leaning to NPR), or genre of the show:

“The topic today is that dreaded conversation parents just love to put off. How and when, really, should you tell your kids about sex? And, oh, by the way, if the kids are in the room, you might want to send them out.”

After the first few times hearing this, I really got nervous. Unless I take that intro apart, I thought, how can I proceed without reinforcing (horrors) totally misguided frames that so completely miss the point and, furthermore, are precisely what keeps Americans so stuck in the first place? Until this set of wrong-headed assumptions goes, we don’t stand a chance of educating children about sexuality in the ways they need and deserve. What’s more, the default options of peers and media– in lieu of parents and schools–will remain children’s primary, as in first and most important, educators.

What the nation needs, I keep telling myself, is some kind of high profile event–a state of the sexual union address, we could call it–where the president calls everyone together to say, “Pay attention, America. We’ve got to start over from scratch on this one.” Or, better yet, where the Surgeon General of the United States goes on national TV to announce that all grownups should report to their local laundry or dry cleaner immediately and have their brains washed out. Not their whole brains, of course. Just the parts that store the narratives adults tell themselves about “The Talk.”

Since, alas, such grand scale public re-education is not likely to happen, we’ll have to take the grass roots approach, by deconstructing and debunking this epic mythology one point–and one person–at a time. So, everyone, please, listen up and then spread it around.

“The (Dreaded) Talk”

Just the thought of having the “this goes in there” talk with kids is enough to make some people sweat buckets. Actually saying the words out loud can give them apoplexy. At a talk I gave for parents not long ago, a woman told me that she’d just told her seven-year-old daughter about “sex,” and then promptly went into her bathroom and threw up. She’d come for advice on how to talk to her kids about sex, and keep her dinner down at the same time. That same evening, a dad reported that he became absolutely catatonic when his son recently asked, “But how does the sperm get to the egg, Dad?” The dad, stunned and dismayed by his own reaction, honestly wanted to know, “What was that about?”

Indeed. What was that about? How can we explain reactions so extreme they look and sound eerily like evidence of trauma? How did this bizarre association between dread fear–is terror too strong a word?–and talking to kids about sex come about?

I think it’s fair to assume that a belief system so irrational, yet so immune to rationality must be “caught,” not taught, pretty early in life. Young children, let’s remember, are exquisitely attuned to certain emotions, and anxiety, especially when it radiates from a parent or other trusted caretaker, is near the top of the list. It makes them feel unsafe and unprotected, because the person they look to most for safety and protection is noticeably feeling that way too, and it puts them on hyper alert until the anxiety dissipates or they receive an adequate dose of explanation or reassurance from the same or another trusted adult that, indeed, all is well.

Typically, adults project anxiety around the topic of sexuality in ways that are subtle and indirect–for instance, hardly anyone ever says, “Boy, talking about this stuff really makes me feel anxious!” When an adult grimaces, tenses up, stammers, evades or changes the subject, or abruptly goes rigid and silent with no explanation, children can only try to guess at the cause. If the threat and confusion persist long enough, or feels severe enough, it can foster in kids a pernicious and even dread (there’s that word again) sense that something in the family just isn’t quite right. And, once he or she figures out that the subject causing all this trepidation is “sex,” the “talking-in-the-family-about-sex-equals-danger-and-threat” association is set. It’s also a set-up, since uncorrected and unchallenged belief systems, based in unresolved anxiety from childhood, can and often do emerge almost instinctively in adulthood when the child becomes the parent.

If this makes it sound as if we all need therapy, well, yes, actually we do! But, not to worry, it’s of the very short-term kind. We adults simply need to identify and revisit the maladaptive associations we absorbed early in life and use our “we’re all grown up now” good sense and perspective to whack them apart.

Coming Next in Part 2 of Down With “The Talk”!: Reclaiming Our Common Sense about Sex

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“Surprised by Teens Who Order Prostitutes as Easily as Pizza? You Shouldn’t Be.”

Another good reason why parents need to talk to their kids about topics like pornography and prostitution…

“Surprised by teens who order prostitutes as easily as pizza? You shouldn’t be.”

By , Published: September 10

No parent should be shocked that five high school football players hired prostitutes while on a road trip to North Carolina last week.

Nor is it especially surprising that the little johns were from football powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville. Religion and prestige are rarely shields from temptation and stupidity.

What’s new in this old-as-time story is that today, thanks to smartphones and the nearly complete submersion of the sex trade into the digital swamp, ordering three prostitutes to your hotel room is as easy as ordering a pizza.

This teen boy fantasy is closer to “Weird Science” than “Risky Business.”

“The Internet is the new street corner, and I tell everyone that going down to 14th Street” — the street once known for prostitution in the District — “is nothing more than going to your browser now,” said Sgt. Ken Penrod, a vice detective with the Montgomery County police.

The bold step of ordering up a prostitute on an iPhone often begins as early as middle school, when legions of boys start downloading porn.

Remember when the quest for certain issues of National Geographic or the hunt for Uncle Fred’s Playboy stash used to define porn exploration?

Now that the family computer and its Net Nanny aren’t the only way to get online, the access to porn and paid sex is in the palms of our children’s hands, 24-7, giving the “Droid Does” slogan enhanced meaning.

Mobile porn has become so prevalent among teens that there is even a nonprofit group, Fight the New Drug, and a micro-industry of treatment camps aimed at teens who have a crippling addiction to it.

For teens ogling mobile porn regularly, the next logical step is to act out that fantasy and click on the many ads urging viewers to order up live sex.

As horrified parents, how do we stop this?

The 18 chaperons on the trip with the DeMatha team did bed checks at 1:30 and 4:30 a.m. They were almost as thorough as the Secret Service planning security for a presidential trip. Oh wait, scratch that. The Secret Service has its own little problem in this area.

The DeMatha boys evaded the best efforts of their chaperons by placing their order at 5 a.m.

Gonzaga boys soccer coach Scott Waller told The Washington Post that he confiscates laptops and cellphones when the team is on the road.

Get this: When Good Counsel coach Bob Milloy took 50 football players to Las Vegas for a game, they had 14 coaches, the school athletic director, trainer and strength coach plus two additional adults and two cops he hired just for the trip.

If anything happened in Vegas, it stayed there. But maybe the cops were the final defense keeping it legal. Wait, that is legal in parts of Nevada.

The simple fact is, keeping kids from doing what they want to do is tough.

And an online debate has been raging about the fairness of DeMatha’s punishment — kicking the boys off the team.

“They’re just teenagers being stupid teenagers. They should be suspended for a week, give them some community service in the school, and the coach should make them run some laps. Another case of the news media sensationalizing everything,” wrote T_Dubb, in the story’s comments.

That reaction mystified Penrod and others.

“It. Was. Illegal,” he said. It wasn’t just immoral.

If drugs were the issue, the debate about punishment wouldn’t even happen. And there would be no winks, no “boys will be boys” comebacks in online forums.

This isn’t a problem limited to DeMatha or an anomaly in any way. Parents who think their kids would never dream of downloading porn or hiring prostitutes are kidding themselves.

Penrod’s investigators see kids from all over Montgomery trawling the online prostitution sites. He remembers one kid who got stung in a case involving a sex worker, and police saw his profile pop up on a prostitution site the next day after he appeared in court.

The problem here isn’t only about limiting access. There are deeper lessons to address.

The illegal purchase of sex, the fact that most American prostitution is a result of human trafficking and the reality that the plastic, bleached and enhanced world of online sex is a myth that twists ideas of human sexuality and relationships need to be discussed here.

Parents cannot toss aside online porn as the equivalent of the curiosity they remember.

Porn is everywhere. You click on a link for “Cute Animal Videos” and bam! you get barnyard acts by naked humans (true story — happened to me with the kids on the iPad this summer). Any child of any age with a Nook, a Kindle or an iPad can go from Word Search or Angry Birds to graphic, violent, degrading sex videos in just two clicks.

And for older kids, not only are they awash in unrealistic, desensitizing images, but they are constantly being urged to take it to the next level, to go live.

Families who don’t have uncomfortable but honest discussions about sex, porn and prostitution are putting kids at risk for some scary consequences.

That sex talk won’t happen once or twice. It has to happen often, with a lot more detail today.

Deborah Roffman, a sex educator in Maryland for four decades and the author of “Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ ‘Go To Person’ About Sex,” said she talks to parents a lot about the conversations they have with kids. But recently, she has issued an ultimatum:

“I rarely say ‘parents must.’ But in the book I just finished, I said parents must talk to children about pornography.”

“You used to have to go to the other side of town to go to the video store. That was a statement by our society. There were a lot of physical barriers. And that’s all gone now, there are no physical barriers between the child and adult world.”

The DeMatha players betrayed the school’s strict moral code, humiliated their families, undermined their team and put their futures at risk.

We talk to them about saying no to drugs, drinking, and texting and driving.

But when it comes to talking about online sex, too many parents clam up.

Those days are over.


© The Washington Post Company

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How To Talk To Your Kids About Rape

As our kids mature, the built in antennae atop their heads seem to shoot up exponentially, and they begin to take in wider and wider worlds beyond their immediate experience. Something they’re increasingly drawn to are the hundreds and hundreds of new vocabulary words they inevitably read, see, or hear about from all manner of sources: peers, family, school, friends, TV, radio, movies, and the Internet. With the now 24/7/365 news cycle, and the alarming number of media and Internet outlets accessible even to young children, today’s parents shouldn’t be surprised by–or unduly alarmed by–almost any language children and teens ask about or use in everyday speech. All of it is rich fodder for endless “teachable moments.”

But, what if the particular word or concept at hand is one that’s so negative you’re afraid even to talk about it with your child, let alone explain or define it? For a lot of parents the word “rape” would certainly fall into that category.

There’s a very fast moving national news story unfolding right now ( over statements made by a candidate running for the US Senate in Missouri in which, among other incendiary remarks and factual inaccuracies, he used the phrase “legitimate rape,” thereby implying that there is such a thing as “illegitimate” rape. Politicians and other individuals and groups are weighing in on the issue in newspapers, online, and on TV and radio programs across the country. For kids seven or eight and up, and perhaps even younger, the word “rape” is going to be hard to escape.

So, your child hears the word rape on the car radio four times within one news segment and asks “What’s that?” What’s a parents to do? Explaining the concept of rape to your child right then and there would probably feel like jumping knee deep into Chapter Twelve when your son or daughter hasn’t yet even begun Chapter One!

But we want to get there first, right? And we want to be “open,” right?

As always, without being evasive at all, if we stop and remember to look at the world through our children’s eyes, rather than our own adult-oriented lens, and to take into account the child’s current level of cognitive development, figuring out what to say or do isn’t so difficult at all. I’ll pass on a great rule of thumb: the younger the child, the more general the answer, and the older the child the more specific you can feel fee to be. Here are some examples:

1. A very young child simply wants a place marker about new vocabulary words that are in their world but far beyond their true understanding. So, start with a concept your child can understand, and hook your answer to that. A good example might be: “That’s a word that has to do with breaking an important rule.”

2. Children ages 6-8 are typically capable of understanding the concept of “laws” and “crimes” (laws are rules our government makes that people are supposed to obey; a crime is a word police use when someone has broken a law). Here are some increasingly complex answers for kids 6-8, depending on their level of intellectual maturity.

  • Rape is a kind of crime
  • Rape is a terrible crime that hurts people.
  • Rape is a serious crime where one person forces another person to do something they don’t want to do.

3. Children ages 9-12 are often less satisfied their younger selves with general answers to topics they really want to know about. In other wards, they don’t just want “an” answer, they want a more specific answer that helps them understand what the word means. Eventually, they’ll be ready to understand intellectually that, unlike other types of crimes, rape has a sexual component.

To truly grasp the concept of rape, though, they’ll need a bigger and much more positive context to fold it into. In other words, adults will need to set the proper stage by front-loading conversations about healthy sexuality first. Here’s the backdrop concept that kids can grasp as young as nine or ten. It’s one that will take more than one conversation, for sure, but is well worth it as a basis for their understanding of healthy sexual development in all respects: “A sexual connection–which means when two people hug and kiss and bring their bodies close together in a special and unique way that gives them wonderful feelings of pleasure, called sexual pleasure–is supposed to be loving, caring, gentle, enjoyable, and something both people choose to do freely.” With that as background, an explanation of rape will come much more easily: “Remember when we talked about what sex is supposed to be about? Rape is very, very different from that. In fact it’s totally the opposite. Rape is when one person forces a sexual act onto another person against his or her will. Rape is always wrong, it’s very hurtful, and it’s a very serious crime.”

4. Children ages 13-22, and many 12-year-olds: Go for it! Read about this story from multiple sources, talk about it at the dinner table, and engage your children in conversation about its many complexities. And, for sure, remember to point out more than once that force is force, and rape is rape, no matter the circumstances or the nature of the relationship between the two people.





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Teens and Oral Sex

“More Teens Have Oral Sex Earlier Than Vaginal Intercourse” headlines a story–based on a 2007-2010 CDC study of teens and sexual behavior–posted at USAToday on 8/16/12. The only problem is that the headline gets a key finding of the CDC study wrong. In truth, the percentage of 15-17 year old teens who engage in oral sex significantly earlier in time than they eventually engage in vaginal intercourse (about 1 in 4) has remained relatively constant for the last ten years.

When you first read the headline above, did it generate fear or or some other emotion?

Beware!! Sex sells, and stories about teen sexuality, especially those that in some way seem frightening or “scandalous,” sell especially well. Given the frequency with which these stories and headlines appear, and the hype about teenage sexuality that media continually generates, most Americans would never guess, for example, that the percentage of teenagers in the US who have ever engaged in either vaginal intercourse or oral sex has actually declined over the past teen years!

There are some fascinating findings in this report, however, and the study itself is very worthwhile reading. Here are some interesting sound bites reported by USAToday, and by the New York Times (“Sex Life of Teenagers Is Subject of Study,” 8/16/12).

  • Two-thirds of teens and young adults (15-24) have had oral sex — about as many as have had vaginal intercourse.
  • Many sex researchers had believed that oral sex was being used to defer vaginal sex, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for most teens today.
  • Girls and boys in the study had given and received oral sex equally, a finding suggesting that the gender differences found previously no long exist.
  • Condom use is unlikely during oral sex, even though several STIs–sexually transmitted infections–can be spread this way).
  • The CDC findings suggest that educational efforts aimed at teens and young adults about the transmission and prevention of STIs need to be expanded.
  • In interpreting the relationship between oral sex and vaginal intercourse among teen couples, Dr. John Santelli, professor of clinical population and family health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, has said, “I think what kids do is get involved in a relationship, then at some point decide they’re ready to initiate vaginal sex, then probably engage in a whole repertoire of behaviors with that same partner.”

Two personal observations and thoughts:

1. Notice that the CDC research focused only on teens who were engaging in heterosexual behaviors. It’s important to ask why. Gay and bisexual teens deserve to be studied as well–so why are they so often left out of studies of “teens”? When we equate “teen sex” with “heterosexual teen sex” we deliver a powerfully negative message: if you’re gay, you don’t count, and we don’t care about or want to help you.

2. I understand full well why we need to focus on the worrisome problems of teen pregnancy and the transmission of STIs, and that’s why we need good data on who is doing what with whom and at what age. I am waiting for the day, however, when our culture and our researchers care just as much about the human components–the emotional, social, physical, intellectual, and ethical contexts in which teens are engaging in sexual behaviors–no matter the specific body parts they might juxtapose, or the genders they might be.

  • How well prepared do they feel for the experiences they are having?
  • To what extent are their experiences positive or negative, nourishing or destructive?
  • How are they feeling about what they are doing?
  • Why and how do they make the decisions they make?
  • How did or do they now feel about the other person?
  • What was the nature of the relationship between the two partners, and how did that matter?
  • To what extent were feelings of sexual pleasure and arousal experienced by each partner?
  • To what extent were their decisions made in an egalitarian way, and in the absence of coercion, pressure, or force?
  • What values did each bring to the experience?
  • How did each feel about their treatment of the other person, and how did each feel about the treatment he or she received?

If we want young people to think about and embrace their sexuality as a component of their whole selves, and as a central part of our humanity, we have to give up our obsessive and near singular focus on which parts are rubbing which.

Here are links to the articles:

Here’s information on accessing the CDC’s full report: “Prevalence and Timing of Oral Sex with Opposite-sex Partners Among Females and Males Aged 15-24 Years: United States, 2007-2010,” was published in National Health Statistics Reports (2012;56) and can be accessed by visiting]



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Interesting and Important Take on the Movie “Bully”

Academy Award winning film maker Debra Chasnoff has produced a series of excellent films for students and educators about gender role stereotypes and gay and transgendered issues, available at In this Huffinton Post piece, she echos what I’ve long thought about the current national attention on bullying and anti-bulliing programs: They don’t often acknowledge and speak to the myriad connections between bullying and gender.

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