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
Deborah Roffman, a former member of the National Advisory Council on Sexual Health, is the author, most recently, of Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids' Go-To Person about Sex. Her website is talk2mefirst.com.