I think we can all agree that sex is intimate, personal and totally natural. And it probably doesn’t come as a surprise to hear that as long as people have been having sex, they’ve been doing it in creative ways. Despite all this natural but varied activity, we all hold shame around ideas of sex and sexuality. And that shame is something that we often unintentionally pass along to our kids.
There is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous. Brene Brown
North American culture is saturated in sexual shame. We develop it from our parents, family, community and society and it starts early. Some of it is overt and obvious but much of it is implied and rather subtle. We’ve integrated shame any time we feel uncomfortable, unworthy, or immoral about our sexual thoughts, feelings or actions.
Wanting to do whatever we can to minimize (or prevent all) sexual shame in our kids can be a great impetus for confronting our own experiences of shame. When we have the chance to consider our own feelings and ideas about sex, it can often shift our perspectives on what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to tell our kids. But confronting our own shame isn’t easy. It can be downright scary. Still, what better reason to confront that which scares us then our kids.
The following questions/brainstorms may be a starting place to confront your own sexual shame. It’s a chance to reflect on your sexual values and how they developed. Maybe you’ll find it instructive. I recommend taking some time to do this (not when you have to get the kids from school in 15 minutes) and suggest you write your answers down.
- Think back on your own sexual education.
- Who taught you about sex?
- What were the key messages? What were the circumstances in which the lessons were conveyed? Where were you?
- What were the manner and emotions of your educator?
- Were there conflicting messages?
- Did you have people you could easily approach with your questions? What questions did you ask and how were they answered?
- Were you taught that particular activities were wrong? Which ones?
- What were your misconceptions around sex as a kid/teenager?
- Brainstorm 20 or more reasons why people have (consensual) sex. Then consider which you think are good, bad or otherwise. Also consider which on the list can only be achieved through sexual activity. The idea here is to reflect on common experiences around sex. Sex can be fraught with all sorts of self-esteem challenges so the opportunity to see the good and not so good can help us focus in on the healthy reasons for engaging in a sexual relationship. With this, we are more likely to support our kids in making wise decisions for themselves.
- Return to your own sex education. Were things missing that might have helped you around your own sexual decision-making?
- Think about controversial subjects that are related to sex like prostitution, non-monogamy, pornography, SMBD, sexual orientation (gay, lesbian, bisexual), gender orientation (transgender), casual sex, sex by minors, teen pregnancy and abortion, to name a few. Can you articulate your position on each? Try to answer honestly and not judge yourself.
- Are there sexual activities that you wish you could explore? What would have to happen to dip a toe in? Are there things you regret having explored or done sexually?
- Consider what values and messages you would like to pass on to your kids about sex and sexuality. Are those values reflected in your positions on the controversial subjects?
Ok, When you’ve done some of that business, give yourself a little high five. I’m not being cheeky – lots of people don’t take the time to consider these things. We tell ourselves it’s frivolous (shame) unnecessary (shame) disgusting (shame) or perverted (shame). Remember that sexuality is a life long journey. You are in it too. It’s not just about your kids. (With that in mind, can you share your answers with your partner or a trusted friend? How might it feel to tell your story? Or reveal your values honestly to others?)
Now, though questions have been asked and answered, I assume some shame remains. I answered and still have some, damn it. Still, how do we take the learning and use it so that our kids don’t have to experience shame themselves?
- Find relevant information – Is there stuff that you just don’t know about but think it will inform you? Do some reading, check out websites, ask friends, watch documentaries and explore some of your own sexual boundaries. You don’t need to be an expert but dig in a bit. And know that it’s ok if you don’t have all the answers for your kids. In fact, your kid might appreciate that you are not all knowing and it can be a chance to seek out knowledge together.
I appreciate that most of us have to get a bit brave to talk to our kids about sex. So get brave. And when you do, remember to:
- Not focus on your own experience. Your sex life can remain private and you can tell your kid as much, if that’s required. Conversely, don’t expect your kid to share the ins and outs of their sex lives with you.
- Talk in the 3rd person to minimize embarrassment while keeping the discussion full of value. Talk about celebrities. About teens generally. About people.
- Try to withhold judgement. I know you want your kid safe but lecturing will likely have the opposite impact that you seek. Try to listen more than you talk. Even though you are ‘the educator’ your ability to learn what your kid needs and wants is critical to providing comprehensive sex and sexuality education. When you do talk, ask loads of open ended questions. Remember that you can’t make decisions for your kids but you can shape their values and empower them to make sexually intelligent decisions.
If you think it would be helpful, pull out the questions (and answers) in a year or two to see if things have shifted for you. Perhaps there are new insights and ideas that will guide how you communicate with your kid. The whole point is for them to be able to express themselves fully and live healthy, safe and pleasurable (sexual) lives, and you’ve got a hand in that, whether you like it or not.