A few weeks ago, I published a review of the new documentary, Let’s Talk About Sex, and I noted that it’s unfair of us to ask parents to take on this topic completely unprepared. As promised, this second part of this commentary has some of the advice parents might need to at least begin these conversations.
In the film, a young woman says something fantastic when taking about open sexual conversations with her mother. She voices that at first it feels very awkward, but that the momentary discomfort is worth it for the benefits that communication provides. Sex and sexuality are topics which most people, of all ages, have trouble communicating about, not just with youth and family, but with sexual partners, friends, and health care providers. Learning to communicate well about sex, and to get more comfortable with it, is a lifelong process for everyone.
As I often remind the young people I work with; parents are only people. They’re not gods, nor does becoming a parent magically bestow abilities and enlightenment that one did not have before becoming a one. I'm all about asking parents to step it up, but it’s important to be realistic in our expectations of all people, including parents, and not just to tell them what to do, but to help them find out how to do it, and how to do it well. We must also try very hard to empathize with their challenges, especially when we ourselves are not parents.
Being an adult or parent and doesn’t automatically come with knowledge and comfort about sexuality: would that it did! If it did, even when we only look at sexual outcomes and behaviors like unwanted pregnancy and condom use, we’d see very different statistics for adults and young people. Instead, they’re almost identical (actually, in the United States, teens currently have higher rates of condom use than adults).
A big part of learning to talk about sexuality well for any adult involves really unpacking our own sexuality, our own sex lives, and our own feelings about and conceptualizations of sexuality, and until we’ve done a good deal of that, being able to talk about it in high-stakes settings is often going to feel very precarious and challenging, especially if and when we feel like we need to be an expert or guide. That’s hard work, that unpacking and processing. It’s easier for some people and more challenging for others, since no matter where we grew up, our sexual histories, including the ways we were reared with sexuality, vary widely. It’s important work, whether we parent or not, or work with young people or not, because our own sexuality and relationships will benefit, and our culture will benefit. But it’s hard, it takes time, and it also involves learning to be able to see sex and sexuality outside our own, often very limited, lens.
In much of this film, it was, I felt, easy to see areas where the filmmaker hadn't himself done that. For example, I had a hard time understanding why someone who worked as a photographer who creates the kinds of images he took big issue with right at the start of the film didn't examine his own role in that. In fact, only once, briefly, does this issue even come up; Dr. Santelli mentions that adults are limited by our own poor sex education. Saying what people need to do and should do, and showing why, is important. But if we don’t also show people how (save moving to the Netherlands), that message isn’t very useful.
I think many parents are in the spot Kelsey's mother was in in the film. She knows she should be open about it, and does her best to be so, but doesn't know how to do it well. While she likely has the best of intentions, she's without guidance in how to do so in a better way. Guidance would have helped her understand the importance of not presenting her own sexual choices in a way that her daughters hear them as an ideal they’re expected to meet, and which, if they don’t, they will need to keep secret from her so as not to disappoint her.
Doing sex education and sexual communication better also involves thinking about and leaving lots of room for how things are different for other people than they have been or are for us, or than we may perceive them to be for others. These differences are not just based on what nation someone lives in, but on things like gender, sexual orientation, embodiment, ethnicity, economic class, our smaller communities, and generational divides. It involves cultivating an awareness of our own double-standards, blind spots, and limited views, and working to expand those views and the behaviors and words that can stem from them. It also involves learning to listen to young people and to respond to what they’re really saying, not just what we want to hear or what they say that supports what we want to think or believe.
I'm sorry to say that, overall, I found that the film failed to do this well. In failing to examine these difference, the film not only doesn’t show the how to communicate about sexuality well, but may even inadvertently enable some of the ways people do so poorly.
No one lives in a vacuum, and we don’t all live in the Netherlands. Excellent teachers here have lost their jobs trying to provide quality sex education. Sex education for youth as a whole has a shortage of male educators in large part because it’s not uncommon for them to find themselves accused of having ulterior motives; some of us who provide it here as women are often presented as slattern. The young man in the Netherlands who feels comfortable displaying his collection of 170 condoms and his family live in a different place than a mother who, in 2001 in Baraboo, Wisconsin, gave her teenage son, who had become sexually active with his also-teenage girlfriend, access to condoms. When her son, acting responsibly, sought to get tested for STIs, she found herself facing criminal charges for providing him those condoms. I've heard from progressive parents over the years who have gotten all manner of hell from their own families or communities for doing what I'd consider very right by their teens around sex and sexuality.
By all means, those kinds of outcomes are not what happens all the time, but they add more reasons for adults to feel very afraid of communicating to young people well about sex, and to take the kind of approaches validly applauded in the film.
Parents and other allies can't change our cultural environment just by talking to teens, and our environment can create real barriers to that communication. So, it’s not just parents, churches, or schools who have to radically change; it’s our whole culture. Where we’re at with all of this right now isn’t something that happened because of media and the Internet or parents over the last decade or two. It’s something we’ve been cultivating since before the United States was established, with only a few brief times in history where we seemed to make some positive headway, only to lose ground again. For sure, it’s all a bit chicken and egg, but in this case, both have huge impacts.
It’s acknowledged in the film that talking about sex isn’t easy for parents. It also isn’t easy for teens to do with partners or other adults, or even with each other. It’s not easy for anyone, really, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned and more. I have talked with teens about sex and sexuality almost every day for over a decade, and you’re still never going to hear me say it’s easy or without a lot of challenges. It’s not easy and it is very challenging, even when you literally practice with thousands and thousands of young people over many years with training and education to do so.
Lest I not put my money where my mouth is, I want to offer up one starting place for parents (or filmmakers) who don't know where or how to get started talking about sex—it’s just one simple phrase. Getting a little Zen here, I suggest cultivating a beginner’s mind. That phrase is, simply, “I don't know.”
Expecting anyone to be an expert about sexuality who isn’t one (and is anyone, really?) is expecting too much, and can easily incline people to back away from even trying to take about it because it’s so intimidating. Expecting anyone to be greatly skilled at good communication, period, let alone about some of the toughest things we can talk about, is expecting a lot; many people, if not most, are not great communicators, in large part because no one has taught us how to be. Expecting anyone to know how to start talking about sex just because they know they should is neither a fair nor a realistic expectation.
But it’s okay not to know where to start. It’s okay not to know what to say, what to ask, or even what’s factual and what isn’t. It’s okay to be the parent or the adult, but not to be the expert. It’s especially okay when the other person you’re talking to doesn’t know a lot either, because setting up an environment where neither of you are expected to know it all, direct it all, or supply it all alone, but instead can find and figure it out together, is exactly the best kind of environment for both good communication and healthy sexuality. "I don't know," is a great place to lead to the next best step, which is "So, let's find out together."
For instance, together you can use the Internet, go to the library, or contact your community health care provider to seek out information on sex and sexuality, including things like what new methods of contraception are available, how condoms have changed since you last used them, or how any of this is or isn’t different for queer youth or youth of a certain gender. You can also do some media literacy work while you’re at it, learning and teaching how to sort out credible information from bunk or entertainment. You can seek out family therapy to get help from a pro about communicating better about difficult topics like sex, and to get any mediation you may need to improve your communication on the whole. You can find out together about the curriculum a school uses for sex education, and look at and discuss it together. You can contact sex education experts like you saw in the film, people like myself, or people at organizations like Planned Parenthood to ask for help and resources: I’m always delighted to hear from parents who want some help and happy to take a few minutes to connect them with helpful books and online or local resources. You can watch a film like this together, because even if you find the same flaws I did, they’re all great things to talk about.
And you can—and should, as we all should of one another —ask each other (with the given you’re asking because you don’t know and can’t know without asking) what each of your experiences have been, what your sexual ideals are, what each of you wants and needs, what’s hard, scary, or challenging for each of you at any time about sex or sexuality, and how you can try and deal with it all well as a family, including just doing your best to assure that none of the ways you’re talking are more likely to create barriers to good communication and sexual well-being, rather than inroads.