I talk to my kids about sex all the time. Lest you think we’re oversexed monsters — let go of those pearls, Carol — I don’t mean we talk about sexual intercourse constantly. I mean that, in my house, sex isn’t some giant mystery we sit our kids down and discuss all at once, bada-bing, bada-boom. It’s an ongoing dialogue about sex and how it works, about ethics and consent and masturbation and human sexuality and everything in between.
And that’s how it should be.
I never got “the talk,” unless you count two units in school, one in fifth grade that featured a movie with a mom making pancakes in the shape or uteri (I wish I were joking), and another taught by a strict Catholic school virgin who fervently wished we’d bring back corporal punishment and said we’d automatically fail the unit if anyone giggled at the word “penis.” This one went a little more in depth about sperm and eggs and penises and vaginas but never quite made it to penises being inserted into vaginas, let alone address other types of sex. Needless to say, these “talks” weren’t exactly accurate or healthy.
This led to a lot of confusion, sexual experimentation, and frantic late-night googling.
I swore my kids would get better than that. So from the time they were very, very small, we talked about sex. We forget sex doesn’t just mean penis in vagina. Sex isn’t limited to sexual intercourse. It means all kinds of things: oral sex and masturbation. Rape and consent. It means LBGTQ-positive language — especially for us, since one of my sons has shared that he could marry a girl or a boy when we asked (we take that seriously, like any parent should).
It means all kids of sex, and it means consent. We taught our sons very early: “No one has the right to touch you in a way that you don’t want to be touched.” That’s part of an ongoing dialogue about sex, and a really important part. It sets boundaries about their bodies, and about other bodies as well. My sons will not grow up to be Brock Turner, full stop, if I have anything to do with it.
We also talk about masturbation. We don’t use the word, since our kids are still prepubescent. But that doesn’t mean they don’t grab themselves. And rather than freak out, we calmly say, “When we want to touch ourselves there, we do it in private.” Note the use of the word we. This demystifies and removes the shame of it. Our kids aren’t some weird freaks. Everyone does it. It’s another part of this ongoing dialogue about sex. You don’t sit your kid down and say, “THIS IS MASTURBATION.” You bring it up bit by bit instead.
We also joke about body hair a lot, mostly because my husband has a lot of it. “You’ll have it one day,” he tells the kids. And the other day, my 7-year-old asked, “When?”
“Oh, when you go through puberty,” my husband told him.
“When’s that?” my 9-year-old asked. My husband explained it. “YOU MEAN MY VOICE WILL GET DEEP?!” my 9 year-old asked in disbelief, and laughed. Just another part of the ongoing conversation about sex. It happened to come up. So we explained it. Then life continued, as if we’d discussed lizards or toads.
I also get very bad periods — debilitating ones. For at least one day a month, I’m couch-bound. When my kids ask why, I don’t lie. I say, “I’m on my period.” Usually, the younger ones have forgotten and ask, “What’s that?” So I explain that it’s when the lining in my uterus, which is meant to support a baby, doesn’t have a baby to support, and comes out of my vagina. Sometimes a lot of it comes out at once and it makes me tired and crampy. They just nod and go on about their day, now knowing about periods, menstrual cramps, and the suckiness thereof.
They also watch a lot of animal documentaries. They know what mating is. So when they ask how people mate, we tell them the truth. “Oh, it’s when a guy puts his penis into a woman’s vagina,” one of us said. I don’t remember if it was my husband or me. “Oh,” one of the kids said, and it was so long ago I don’t remember which one or how old they were. “Okay. I wondered how that worked.”
Conversation over, next topic. No embarrassment. No weirdness. No “OH MY GOD I JUST TOLD MY KID ABOUT SEX AND IT WAS SO MESSED UP.” Just part of the ongoing conversation about sex, just part of the dialogue.
Sometimes it’s funny, like when they say their penises look different than certain adult males who shall not be named because they’re uncircumcised and he isn’t, and we have a conversation about circumcision. Or when they accidentally bust in on me changing my diva cup, and we have to have a conversation about Bathroom Privacy. Or when, after sex, my 9-year-old wandered out of his room and said, “Is mama okay? I heard noises.” And he clearly knew what was happening, that little bastard.
We’re also careful to talk about LGBTQ issues: what it means to be gay, people we know who are gay, that you can marry people of the same gender. We also talk about how sex means different things for different people, and not just penis in vagina intercourse.
Opportunities to talk about sex in a healthy and natural way come up all the time. My 9-year-old and I once started talking about the The Kinks’s son “Lola,” moved to David Bowie’s gender-bending sexuality, and ended up weeping at the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. This in one conversation. The opportunities for this dialogue are everywhere. You just have to look for them.
I’ve also casually asked, while talking about being gay, if they thought they would marry a girl or a boy. Two of my sons said girls. One of them said a girl or a boy, maybe. Okay then. What an amazing thing: my son was that unafraid to tell me that. I cry when I think of that moment of unabashed, unafraid openness, whether or not he turns out to be bi. He was comfortable enough to say that in front of both me and his brothers. And no one thought anything of it.
But all these are chances for that ongoing dialogue about sex to happen. And happen it does. Not that my husband admitted we were having sex. But he did say, “Mama’s fine. We were busy.” Good answer without being a lie, and without traumatizing the kid, who we thought was dead asleep (and I wasn’t being loud, Carol, so let go of those goddamn pearls again).
This is what kids need. It demystifies sex. It allows for a flow of information, so when the kids have questions, they ask them. It’ll pay off when they’re teenagers. Sex is part of who we are as people. Why treat it like something weird and strange and removed from the rest of life? That doesn’t mean your toddler needs to know the intricacies of sexual positions. But it does mean that hey, maybe he should know that humping his stuffed animal is okay if he does it in his bedroom alone. It’s not dirty or weird or shameful, it just is. If sex squicks you out, that’s your problem.
Your kids will pick up on that squick.
Do you want to raise kids who grow up squicked out by sex, then suddenly develop raging hormones and don’t know what to do with them? That’s how chastity rings and teenage pregnancies happen. It’s how college girls end up frantically googling “can I get pregnant on my period?” It’s why boys can’t put on a condom and twelve-year-olds think the ingrown hair on their balls comes from excessive masturbation.
Don’t do that to your kid. They deserve better than that.
The more you talk, the more you open up, the more you keep an ongoing dialogue about sex, the better your chances of raising an adult with healthy attitudes about sex.
Which, in the end, we’re all aiming for.
So let go of those squicks and start talking.
This article was originally published on