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Down With "The Talk"!: Reclaiming Our Common Sense About Sex (Part 2 of 4)

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To shed anxiety-driven notions about talking to children about sex, we adults need simply 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.

So here goes:

What, exactly, is potentially harmful about caring adults providing basic information about an important subject to children? Nothing!

But they're not ready! Are we certain it's not the adults who aren't "ready"?

What if they keep asking more and more questions? Great!

Will the ceiling fall in, and will life as we know it cease to exist, if we say those scary words out loud? Not a single cave in over 40 years of teaching.

What if you tell them "too much too soon"? They'll get bored and want to change the subject.

Won't they want to run right out and "try it"? Nary a shred of evidence to support this mythology in decades of research.

But, I'm just too embarrassed! Fact: It is humanly possible to feel embarrassed, talk anyway, and probably chew gum, all at the same time. And, besides, adults don't get to take a pass on vital topics kids need to know about.

But, you know, it's all so personal and private. No, not really. The facts of life are most definitely public information, known to billions of people across the planet.

But what if they want to know if I do it? We do flatter ourselves. The last thing kids want to think about is anyone over 40 being sexual, especially if it's their parents -- Ewww! Gross!

If you read through that list as a parent, do you feel better already? Were if not for our upbringing, I contend, Americans would recognize and reject this common nonsense in a flash.

"The" Talk

It's amazing, isn't it -- the implication that an adult can teach a child all about sex in one 20-minute sit-down?

Suppose you really wanted your kids to understand the concept of marriage. Here's what you wouldn't say: "Marriage is when two people stand up in front of their close friends and family members and say the words 'I do,' then right afterwards touch the other person's lips to their own." How lame would that be? Absent context, the explanation is totally without meaning.

But, that's exactly how most Americans go about explaining "sex" to their kids: "Well, sex is when a man puts his penis in a woman's vagina." (Sidebar: Notice how we start them right off with the idea that sex is something men do to women; we could just as easily explain that penises and vaginas are just the right size and shape to fit together like puzzle pieces.) No wonder a kid's first follow-up question is likely to be, "You're making this up, right?"

Because saying these words to our kids is the hard part for us, having made it through "The Talk" alive and well often signifies to a parent that he or she has done something hard and done it well. Sadly, many think they're now finished with the subject entirely. I often hear parents say, "Sex? Oh, I taught them all about that when they were seven."

True, their children know about the juxtaposition of two particular body parts during one particular kind of sex -- sexual intercourse -- but they know virtually nothing about meaning, context, or the deeply human side of sexual intimacy. (That right there is the truly hard part.)

Years later, when I meet up with their children in class, what I'm struck by most is their near-total lack of capacity to think and articulate about sex in any terms that go beyond the physical. Sadly, here as well, many parents are convinced they've covered that part, too, when they made sure to tell their kids that "sex is about love." Not a chance. To a young child, love is about ice cream, hugs, ladybugs, Grandma, and getting a new toy. Cognitively, they can't possibly make the connection between love, sex, penises, and vaginas parents are aiming for.

There's more: By making vaginal intercourse the linguistic equivalent of "sex" from the start, we lay the groundwork for all kinds of confusion -- and even dangerous forms of denial -- when children become adolescents. If sex is vaginal intercourse and vaginal intercourse is sex, what then does that make anal sex, oral sex, passionate tongue kissing, or caressing another person's breasts or genitals? Not sex?

And, contrary to the silly jokes people still make about Bill Clinton, if we want to understand why teens don't think oral sex is "real sex," we'll need to hold up the mirror to ourselves. If whenever the everyday adults in kids' lives use the phrase "having sex" and it's clear each and every time they mean having vaginal intercourse, why wouldn't kids relegate all other sexual behaviors to the realm of the "unreal"? In fact, there are many kids today who truly believe that if they're only having oral or anal sex, they're actually practicing "abstinence," and thereby, "safe sex."

Finally, and this is so very important, by defining sex so universally as vaginal intercourse, what we end up saying to gay kids (and to straight kids about gay kids) is that they don't really exist, and/or that they're physically incapable of having "real" sex. Even though the message is subtle, and probably unintended, it contributes mightily to the painful feelings of isolation, stigma, and self-doubt so many gay kids already experience because of the more overt mistreatment and condemnation many endure.

I can't think of a better or more powerful example of why and how the specific language we use in educating our kids about sexuality really does matter. Language connected to sex (like "The Talk") is hardly ever neutral; it's richly embedded with values, beliefs, and assumptions that powerfully shape our children's worldviews. If we're not sufficiently attentive, the worldview they get, even from us, may be very far removed from the one we want them to have.

Coming Next in Part 3 of Down With "The Talk"!:
"Where did I come from?" is not a question 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.