I imagined her lying flat on her back, being fucked.
Thirteen years young and engaging in sexual intercourse. Physiologically old enough to get pregnant, emotionally unprepared for sex. I don’t hold firm ideas about ‘the right age for doing it’ but when I sat across from a young woman and her friend, to provide sexual health counseling, (she for the morning after pill, and her friend for birth control pills) I wished they knew more and felt more entitled. I wished they had said no. My job was to ensure that they understood what they were seeking and provide comprehensive information about it. But before dispensing the sought after pills and sending them on their merry way, I wanted to do more.
These two young women showed up at the Sexual Health Clinic as a team, much like girls head to the bathroom in pairs. I loved that they had each other as allies and was determined to be one also, even for just our brief time together.
I gently probed for information about consent and the way they communicated about their needs and interests left me confident that they had consented though perhaps not with great enthusiasm. I also determined that they knew very little about their own bodies, pleasure and what true intimacy looks like.
I pulled out a book and gave them a pictorial tour of female genitalia, describing how female bodies respond to arousal. They were unashamed and inquisitive as I pointed out the clitoris and explained the pleasure it can provide. They listened closely as I talked about the way the vagina lubricates when a woman is turned on. I spoke about how important being able to talk to a sexual partner is. How being able to say what feels good is one part of sexual readiness and a way for both partners to be actively involved in creating a fun and safe experience. Then they went on their merry way with pills in their pockets.
That was over a decade ago. As a parent, I think a lot about young women having sex before they are truly ready. There are a lot of reasons why they do it – maybe because they think they ought to, because their boyfriends are expressing an interest to get busy, because they let alcohol make them brave or sloppy enough to do things they would otherwise not do. So, for these young women, consent may be freely given but something rather important is missing.
I think many of us, as parents, want to say ‘stop’ and ‘wait’ to our kids. Maybe we even want to say ‘you’re not allowed’. Truth is, we need to better equip our daughters and our sons to do what is right for them. Another hard truth – even if they wait ‘til they are (fill in the blank), they are not guaranteed fulfilling and safe sexual liaisons.
How do we better equip our children? When do we start and what does it look like?
My ‘say more and say it earlier’ mantra holds true on this topic too. We need to:
- Provide our kids with tons of opportunity to practice good communication skills. Getting comfortable saying and hearing the stuff that’s hardest to say and hear is not easy. When kids are really young we help them interpret their feelings and find words to express them. Since feelings can become more complex, contradictory even, kids are likely to still need support to interpret and express their feelings.
- People, young and old, need to train in order to be good communicators. And given the shame we all carry around sex and sexuality, it’s not surprising that communicating about sex is particularly challenging.
- Young people don’t turn off their thinking switch just because they’re engaged in something new. It might look like it from the outside, but more often than not, there is an internal dialogue, a lot of guess work, and doing what we ‘think’ is ok rather than talking/listening to be sure it’s ok. Talk to your kids about internal dialogue and together see if there are tactics for helping them get brave and say their truth.
- Tell them about consent. Come up with scenarios that might seem ambiguous and require attention to subtle messages. Discuss with your kid how to best interpret the situation and how to talk about it with the involved parties. Help them see that consent ought to be enthusiastic which means not just saying or hear someone say ‘yes’ but saying/hearing ‘YES’, ‘I want this, I’m really into this’ ‘I’m an active participant and we’re both going to have fun’.
- Model thoughtful decision-making and talk to them about how it’s not always easy or clear cut to do so. We make decisions all day, every day but for some decisions, it’s not a bad idea to put a pro/con list together before moving forward. Especially important to encourage them to respect and listen to their gut. My blog post girls got schwing covered the different elements of decision-making that might be useful here.
- Lift them up when they feel different and are the subject of scrutiny. We need to remind our kids that being themselves is cool. Teenagers especially can be in a hurry to grow up and it can help to point out that there is no timeline that they are required to follow where sex and sexuality are concerned.
- Talk to them (not infrequently) about how they are worthy of pleasure, safety, comfort and understanding.
- Give them comprehensive information about bodies, sex, and ways to minimize risk. This includes helping kids see that kissing, dry humping, mutual masturbation (the list goes on) are great ways to explore sexually and are real life sexy situations for practicing open and honest communication. This is about helping our children understand that talking about sex is sexy and how ongoing communication with a partner while engaging in sexual activity encourages healthy dirty talk, playfulness and connection and ensures that everyone involved is REALLY there because they want to be.
Any of these bits can be covered in conversations here and there. It doesn’t need to be a special or especially heavy heart-to-heart. Chats about decision-making and consent can start super young and where it makes sense (based on age and circumstances) you can throw in an example as it relates to sexual decision-making. Then around puberty or as they reach 12 and 13, it is important to be explicit about how decision-making and consent relate to sex. To really shift the dial on theses issues, we need to talk about them openly. Take opportunities where you can – in the car, while watching TV, playing a video game or walking the dog.
Whether a person is 13, 23, or 33, they ought to be communicating with their sexual partner and be sure that they are engaging enthusiastically. The way we openly talk to our daughters and sons can help create that.