The Sex Issue

Has ‘The Sex Talk’ Become Obsolete?

Our kids have evolved past it, and I’m OK with that.

by Penelope
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock

Welcome to Ask A MWLTF (Yes, that’s Mother Who Likes to F*ck.), a new monthly anonymous advice column from Scary Mommy. Here we’ll dissect all your burning questions about motherhood, sex, romance, intimacy, and friendship with the help of our columnist, Penelope, a writer and mental health practitioner in training. She’ll dish out her most sound advice for parents on the delicate dance of raising kids without sacrificing other important relationships. Email her at askpenelope@scarymommy.com.

Dear Penelope,

I recently received a notice from my daughter’s school that her seventh-grade health class would soon begin a sex-ed unit. The message encouraged parents to talk to their kids about what they’d learned and to use the unit as an opportunity to start their own dialogue—in other words, “the talk.” I asked my daughter how the class went. “Boring,” she answered. Apparently, she already knew most of what there is to know about human anatomy and reproduction, STI’s and safe sex, the importance of boundaries and consent, the difference between gender and sexuality, and the importance of privacy. She’d apparently picked up most of what she felt she needed to know from TikTok and her group of friends. When I asked if she knew she could come to me if she ever needed information or advice, she looked at me with an air of affectionate indulgence, as though she’d sooner dust off Grandpa’s Encyclopedia Britannica to work on a research paper. I felt old. And a little sad. But also strangely relieved. My daughter and her friends seem so much more confident and comfortable in their bodies and better informed than I was at their age—still, should it concern me that all this confidence and information hasn’t come from me? In the age of instantaneous information and constant connectivity, has “the talk” become obsolete?

—A slow-on-the-uptake mom

Dear slow-on-the-uptake,

Before I respond to your question, I feel compelled to respond to the right-wing, culture-war pundit in my head. (No idea how it got there.) “See!” I imagine this pundit snarling. “Parents can’t even educate their own children on matters as personal and private as sex these days.” Oh, hush. Take a few cleansing breaths and imagine your happy place—a Munich beer hall in the 1930s. For anyone who’s missed it, nothing seems to get ideologues panting more quickly than the question of who should get to talk to children about sex. The conservative line, which you allude to, imagines “the talk” as a sacred right of passage between parent and child, a moment when a father takes his teenage son fly-fishing and, as they wade out into the river, gently alludes to those new feelings he might be having about the fairer sex. For daughters, the matter is even more delicate. It is a mother’s duty, but it will invariably lead to hushed voices and ample blushing. The underlying assumption beneath this nostalgia is that children are fundamentally innocent and ignorant of all sexual knowledge (Freud be damned), and that it is a parent’s, and only a parent’s, sacred right to guard this ignorance from the world that would corrupt it. That’s the fantasy. The reality, as you’ve observed, is always more complicated.

At the start of the pandemic, my daughter and I decided we’d raise a few chickens and ducks in our backyard. She was 10 at the time, obsessed with all things animals. A friend tried to warn me about the ducks and their lively mating rituals, but we’d already brought them home and filled up the kiddie pool, and I was thinking, how bad could it really be, when my daughter called out to me from the porch that Donald was holding Chamomile under water and having sex with her and it was very different from the kind of sex the chickens had. What followed was an hour-long discussion in which I, like you, discovered that my 10-year-old did indeed know what “sex” was, the parts involved, the basic biology, the importance of privacy and consent. Chamomile did not seem to be consenting, which disturbed my daughter and led us deeper into a philosophical discussion on the moral imperatives of being human. Also, she told me about a girl in her class who got in trouble for posting racy pictures of herself on Instagram. In that hour, I learned a lot about my daughter’s fears and feelings about her body and other people’s bodies, and how these fears and feelings were playing out against a constantly shifting landscape of social connection where everything that once was private is now public, and everything that’s public is a competition. I guess you could say that was our “talk,” but really, she was talking just as much as I was, or maybe more. I was doing a lot of listening and learning and observing. What I observed most keenly was how little shame my daughter had when talking about these things. All I could remember from being her age in the 80s was shame. Shame about my body, my feelings, my awakening sense of being a sexual being in the world. I’ve been writing about sex and relationships for years but I still blush just remembering.

These days, except those living in cloistered religious communities without broadband, our children are going to know things and see things and talk about things we think of as being beyond their years. It’s gotten harder than ever for parents to remain gatekeepers (or wardens). The change raises problems, sure, but also opportunities. One thing I’ve always hated about that term, “the talk,” is the implied power differential. Parents are the ones who know. Children are the ones who learn. We know what’s what and it’s our job to tell them how it is. Really? My mother talks about a boy she still remembers from middle school who was bullied to the point of suicide for being gay. When I was in middle school, there was no vocabulary for things like slut-shaming or harassment. Young people, innocent or not, seem more open and curious and sensitive about sex than anyone I knew growing up, so maybe our being slow on the uptake is okay, and all our talks can be more like conversations.