Paul Ingles Talks with Dr. Kathryn Stamoulis, educational psychologist, Hunter College
PI: Kathryn Stamoulis, as someone who works in the field of counseling young people and parents, when you see a rash of news reports like we’ve seen on sexual harassment, do you think of ways a societal problem like this can be addressed early on in the sexual education of our children?
KS: I think that we don’t do a good job of talking sex with children, talking about bodies. I think that’s the biggest thing that we could be doing as a society and as parents and educators; talking about bodies and talking about sex and relationships, not just a one-time “birds and bees” conversation. It has to be an ongoing culture in the home and hopefully the schools where it’s just commonplace to ask questions, to talk about the issues that are going on.
Why that is so important is because sexual harassment, sexual assault thrive in a culture of silence. That’s how predators get away with it and that’s often times what they’re looking for in victims; victims that they know will be embarrassed or ashamed or don’t have an adult that they can talk to about it.
When it’s just such an open topic in the home, a child is much more likely to say, “Hey, at school today, someone said this about a body part or something that they wanted to do with me and it made me really uncomfortable.” It’s not going to be like, “Oh my god! I’ve never heard anything like this from you” and the parent starts crying or gets upset or freezes up because it’s awkward for them because there’s already this comfort level when talking about issues like this.
PI: So Kathryn, I’m 61 and when I was 13 I did get the birds and the bees conversation from my dad. He handed me this little thin green book that explained the basics of sex, but that was about it.
I’m curious why, with all of the progress (I’ll call it) on openness around sex, the sexual revolution some call it, why does it seem that parents still struggle or seem to rely on the one conversation approach to informing their kids about sex? Why is it so hard for them to keep a conversation going on sex?
KS: Well, I think parents look at their kids and they see these innocent, sweet little children and they don’t even want to think about that part of their job is to help them grow up into sexually healthy adults. They want to hold onto that cuteness and that innocence and enjoy childhood. They’re probably not thinking about having to talk about these issues until, like you said, you were 13, so puberty hits and okay, now we have to talk about it. I think that is part of the problem. I’ve also seen studies where there is a concern amongst parents that if we bring up these topics, then we’re going to corrupt our child, we’re going to steal their innocence.
PI: Well, that presumes that sexuality is not a vibrant, beautiful part of a person’s life like anything else would be that you would actually want to be introducing your child to.
PI: One thing I do remember about what my dad said was him saying that sex can be a beautiful thing. I really appreciated that because with all the secrecy around it and the lack of continuing conversation about it, I think it’s still a taboo subject that feels mysterious and maybe dirty. What I hear you saying is that parents need to stay committed to having that conversation in the household.
KS: Yes. I love that your dad said that to you, that sex is a beautiful thing. One of my concerns about how we teach children about sex and sexuality, in specifically sex education, is that we lie to kids and we’re not telling them that sex is pleasurable. We’re saying, “Be careful, there are risks attached to it, you could get pregnant, you could get an STI or your feelings could really get hurt,” but no one is really saying “Hey, sex feels good and that’s why people do it.”
Why I think that’s important in this context of what’s going on in our culture right now is that we’re teaching boys that sex is pleasurable, but we’re not saying that to girls, so then when girls get into these situations where someone is touching them or saying things to them that are uncomfortable, those bells aren’t going off because they were never taught that yes, sex is supposed to feel good or any kinds of romantic interactions are supposed to feel good.
PI: I’m guessing there is a moment at a certain age when it’s very typical for teenagers, just at the point where they may be becoming sexually active in fact that they tend to shut down from their parents. They don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to talk about anything really. Are there best practices for how to keep an open line of communication on all topics? Is the key starting early and establishing a pattern that can somehow overcome that individualistic withdraw that is so common in the teen years?
KS: Yes, most teenagers don’t want to talk to their parents about sex. Most adults don’t want to talk to their parents about sex and that’s totally understandable, but if it has been part of the family system, they’re going to be more comfortable. However, I think it’s important for parents to keep talking, even if they feel like their kids don’t want to listen. Like you said, that’s exactly part of the teen years. It’s very normal, but talking to them, even if they don’t respond doesn’t mean that they’re not hearing you. You don’t have to be so direct like, “Have you done this or has this ever happened to you?” but you talk about things you see on TV, you bring those up as talking points. You can say, “Has that ever happened to anyone at your school? Really? How did that go down? How do you feel about that?” You can find little ways throughout the day to bring it up that’s not confrontational.
You can do good modeling and what I mean by that is if there is someone that you’re with or you see on TV and someone is calling a woman a slut or a derogatory term, say, “That’s not cool. We don’t say that in our house. This is degrading. This is putting down a woman’s sexuality.” Yes, your teenager is probably going to sit there totally silent, but that’s okay, they’re probably listening and if you do it so many times, it’s going to sink in and they’re going to get the message that my parents don’t like this. This isn’t how they’re raising me. We still have to keep talking to teenagers, even if they’re not talking back to us.
PI: Kathryn Stamoulis, what about the “back in my day” style of conversations when you’re not really asking questions of your teen, but you’re being honest about your own story of, in this case, sexuality, the successes the failures, the mistakes, the beautiful moments. Do you think there is some value in that?
I bring this up because one hears mixed opinions about the drug conversation for example because there are parents who did experiment with drugs, but they’re afraid to talk about it openly with their kids because they don’t want to endorse the experimentation that they did when they were young. What about that comparison?
KS: I think it’s individual. I don’t think you want to give your children a full rundown of your sexual history. I think that’s too much information.
KS: Because there should be some component to privacy. I think that you can talk about lessons you learned. I’ve heard a lot of stories, especially now of mothers talking to their kids about their own “me too” moments and that’s been really powerful. They’ve talk to their daughters, they’ve talk to their sons about it and specifically why they didn’t tell their own parents and how that has hurt them and that they hope that their children will come to them. I think that’s really a positive way of talking about personal experience with your kids.
It’s individual. It’s based on the dynamic of the relationship between the child and the parents. Too many specifics – you have to see what is your point of telling them. But talking about general feelings of being confused or wishing you had some support or not understanding options in terms of protection. That sort of thing can be really important.
PI: Kathryn, I’m guess that six, seven or eight-year old’s might be old enough to be paying attention to the news on television or radio and would be full of questions about sexual harassment and unwanted advances. How would you talk to kids about those questions when they come up? How would it be different between boys and girls?
KS: I think six and seven-year old’s definitely are having questions. I’ll get to the gender breakdown, but actually I don’t even know if we need to be having different conversations with boys and girls at that age.
I think it’s important and helpful to talk to kids at that young age about sexual harassment in terms that they can understand. A term that they can understand is bullying. That’s something they’re learning about in school and that’s something parents tend to be talking about. Sexual harassment is a form of bullying. We can tell them that this is a form of bullying. Adults can bully other adults. Specifically, this is bullying to make someone feel embarrassed, humiliated or uncomfortable. Often times it’s comments about body parts and that’s something that can make it embarrassing and sometimes hard to talk about, but as a parent, I want you to know that you should never feel embarrassed if someone touches you or bullies you in that way because it’s not your fault at all. The bully is the one that should feel embarrassed because they’re the naughty one. They’re the ones doing something wrong.
I think at that age, six and seven-year old’s will probably be okay with that at that level and I don’t know that they need to know much more than that unless they’re asking follow up questions.
PI: It seems to me that the conversation with young boys would, at some point, not at that age, but at some point would have to steer a little bit more to a specific conversation about the use of sex as a bullying tool. How would imagine those conversations going?
KS: Why I initially said you might not have to bring down gender is because a recent study came out saying that there is not actually a big gap in terms of boys and girls who are sexually harassing at school. Forty-two percent of perpetrators are actually girls. That’s somewhat shocking, but still the majority are boys.
I think we have to tell boys that this is not okay. “As my son, this is not okay for you to do this. This makes people uncomfortable, humiliated.”
In a recent study from the Harvard School of Education actually asked teenagers why they sexually harass other people. The majority said because they thought it was funny. About 44% said that they didn’t think it was a big deal.
We have to tell boys yes, this is a big deal. It’s not funny. This is how the victim can feel. We’ve asked victims how they feel. They feel humiliated, they feel embarrassed. They have difficulty sleeping when they’re victims of sexual harassment. A lot of them start cutting school because of it.
I think, with boys, we have to teach empathy and try to get them to see the victims’ perspective and again go back to the conversation of what is healthy sexuality and sexual expression. It should be reciprocal. It should make you feel good and it should make the other person feel good. If you have the sense that you’re not making another person feel good, then that’s bad behavior and you need to stop that.
PI: It seems to be though that you also have to drive home the point and model the point, as we’ve been talking about, conversation freely in the home about these topics. The conversation has to flow freely about potential sexual partners in school situations. I’d like to hear you say a little bit more about how to encourage young people to do that, to explore their own curiosity about sex, to start to talk about the idea of consent and things like that.
KS: Yes, we don’t teach consent in school. We absolutely just don’t do it.
PI: When you say, “we don’t,” do you mean there is no sex education conversation about that?
KS: Yes, in a full and comprehensive way. Some schools will talk about sexual assault or rape, but they’re not telling kids about how to gain consent, how to give consent and how to even figure out what you want sexually. They’re absolutely not doing that unless they’re in an extremely progressive school, but this is just not part of the curriculum at all.
PI: That suggests that parents have to take the lead in that, is that what you’re saying?
KS: Absolutely, because there is no one else. No one else is doing it. What that leaves kids is to figure it out amongst themselves, to ask their buddies, ask their friends and that’s not –
PI: That doesn’t work.
KS: That’s not information, exactly.
PI: That’s not going to help.
KS: Exactly. There are some workbooks and things like that where you can have kids answer questions and write down thoughts about things that they’re comfortable with sexually, things that they might be interested in, what their hard lines of things that they don’t want to do are. I get that that’s uncomfortable for parents. They don’t have to be walking their child through those activities, but it’s a good idea for them – this is more for teenagers, to say, “These are questions that you should be considering because then, when you’re faced with a partner, you have more confidence. You don’t have to things about these things in the heat of the moment.” That’s really important.
The other thing we don’t do is we don’t do a good job teaching consent at all. I work with college students too and the questions they have about consent I think would shock a lot of people, especially in New York City, you think these kids know everything, they grow up so fast here, but they have a lot of questions. They don’t fully understand how to get consent, who can’t give consent, for example if someone is intoxicated, if someone is passed out sleeping, they can’t consent. These are things we really need to be very clear about in teaching children.
Paul Ingles Talks with Dr. Jennifer Weeks, founder and director of Sexual Addiction Treatment Services and author
PI: Jennifer, when a flood of inappropriate sexual behavior stories spilled out in earnest in 2017, what were your first impressions given the work that you’ve done with sexual addiction for so many years? What were you thinking right off the bat?
JW: To be very honest, my initial response was that I was surprised that so many people were surprised if that makes sense. There seemed to be this great sense of shock and awe that so many people had been exposed to sexual harassment or sexual abuse and that there were so many people who had perpetrated such abuse. I think that myself and those of us in the field were not shocked at all. We were like okay, finally this is coming out that this behavior is so common, and some victims are finally having some voice.
PI: As I’ve told listeners, our goal in many programs in our series is to take a clear societal conflict and ask, “Where does all this really begin?” If we go upstream and ask the question, “What can be done to reduce our present-day problem with …” fill in the blank; sexual harassment by adults, unwanted sexual advances in the workplace, people with power using sex as a tool for intimidation. What could or should we be doing in raising our children that might result in much less of this kind of behavior in adults? I want to start with the one or two things that you think might do the most good to curb the bad later.
Let’s talk first broadly about kids in general, no matter what the gender and then I would like to split it up and ask for your comments on boys and girls. In general, what do you think are a couple of things that we need to put our attention to to really do some good on this issue?
JW: I think there is a global thing that needs to happen and that is that parents, in particular, because that is where children get or should get most of their information, parents or caregivers, should very simply just talk more to their children.
We live in a world where we can see sex everywhere and we can joke about sex, but no one ever talks about it. I think a very general answer to that is that caregivers, parents should be speaking to their children about sex, about sexuality, about consent, about what sexuality is in a very holistic way and how it is a private thing. Part of those conversations also then move into ways we don’t interact with others sexually, if that makes sense.
PI: Yes, what I hear you saying is that kids hear it and see it long before many parents think about it’s time to talk to them about it.
JW: Absolutely. When you look at pornography exposure, and this is old data at this point, that points to the average age of exposure to online pornography for children is about ten. Since that is old data, it’s probably much younger. It’s probably around eight. When you talk to parents about that, they’re like, “Oh no! My son or daughter doesn’t do those things. They haven’t seen those things.” Well, of course they have. It has unfortunately just become a piece of our culture and with everyone’s access to the internet, the kids are seeing things that would probably cause their parents great alarm way before the parents think they’re exposed to it.
PI: That suggests that the old school idea, like I was telling our other guest, my first conversation about sex with my father came maybe when I was 13. For boys and girls that just needs to start much earlier?
JW: That needs to start much, much earlier. If you think about the differences, I don’t know how old you are, but I’m in my mid-40s.
PI: Sixty-one on this end.
JW: Okay, our generations didn’t have internet. We didn’t have ease of access to sexualized material. If we were exposed to pornography or if we were exposed to sexuality, it was generally, not always, at a later date. So, that 12 or 13-year-old discussion with a parent or with a caregiver about sex, the birds and the bees talk, might have been appropriate then, it’s not appropriate now. By 13, we’ve missed the boat.
PI: You’ve appropriately mentioned several times that we’re in a new age from when you and I grew up where pornography is very easily available online for people as young as six, seven or eight.
What specifically in that realm of the conversation comes to mind about preparing young people to understand what they’re seeing and to tell the difference between what is helpful and what is harmful?
JW: There is actually starting to become a lot more research about this the longer it has been around in terms of when young minds, these are kids who are starting to watch pornography at 10, 11, and 12, are consuming large amounts of online pornography. This is not your kid who sees it once in a blue moon. It has an effect on their behavior and it has an effect on their views.
Kids who view a lot of online pornography tend to objectify women more and this objectification is something that can lead to behaviors that are degrading or abusive because if we objectify someone, we dehumanize them and it’s easier to treat them as less than. Consuming a lot of pornography tends to make both boys and girls actually objectify women more, which can be problematic.
Kids who are watching a lot of online pornography, they’re trying things that that they’re seeing in pornography. They’re assuming that that’s normal, sexual behavior. Again, this is a realm where we need to talk to kids about that. Pornography today is not like pornography 20 years ago, it’s a lot more violent. They call it “gonzo porn.” It’s a lot more violent and a lot more degrading to women, kind of by design, how they produce it these days. There’s a lot that kids need to know about pornography.
One of the biggest things I think they need to know about online pornography that we have to talk to them about is that’s not what real sex looks like. When we’ve got real sex, and I don’t care the genders, a man and a woman, two men, two women, real sex between two partners does not look like what pornography looks like. It can give kids an altered sense of sexuality, performance issues, self-esteem issues. There is a lot that gets wrapped up into consuming a lot of highly stylized, pretty violent and degrading to women pornography that’s out there today.
PI: People always misunderstand this when I ask a question this way, but I’ll just be honest, when I was growing up and nobody to talk to about sex, in my era of the 1960s and ‘70s, men’s magazines was where I had to learn anything about sex. I liked to think that, over time, I got an understanding about what was the helpful end of that or what was the harmful end of that and the difference between domination and all that stuff.
PI: Is that part of the conversation as well? I can imagine the curious youngster in a position of trying to learn anything they can about something that is very much a part of their humanity.
JW: Absolutely, and I think that is a big piece of why a lot of kids initially look for online pornography. They have hormones, they’re raging, they’re curious and all of that is totally biologically normal, it’s just what they’re exposed to. Their brain is not ready for what they’re exposed to. I do think that has to be part of the conversation; if you have a child who you find out is looking at online pornography, part of that conversation is “why?” Are they looking for information? Do they want to learn? Do they want to come to understand things? If they are, that’s a great way to give them accurate information because what they’re getting is not really accurate as to what real life sex looks like.
PI: Let me ask you to parse it out though in terms of best practices speaking with youngsters, specifically, what do you think we could do in raising boys to steer them away from misogyny and inappropriate behavior to women from an early age and on through their teens?
JW: I think one of the things that we can do is to, as adults, model non-sexist behavior, to model equality and to model just good treatment to all human beings. Children very frequently learn by what we do and not necessarily by what we say. We can have all of these great talks, but if they hear mom or dad speaking about someone in a demeaning way or if they hear other people speaking about others in a degrading or demeaning way and an adult doesn’t do something about it, they internalize all of those messages and they’ll end up following behavior more than “Don’t do this.” I think what we really need to do is be careful with our own behavior because we are modeling to young children and to our own children what is appropriate and what is acceptable behavior.
PI: Let me slow that down a little bit because that suggests a real conscious and thought out approach that let’s say two parents have to talk about ahead of time and get on the same page on and agree on that’s important. The conversation before it happens with the kids seems like it has to happen in detail, ideally before the couple has kids, but certainly after they’ve had kids saying, “Okay, four or five years old, we need to agree why this is important and what the modeling looks like How are we going to do it?” don’t they?
JW: And truly what values you’re going to raise your children with, yes. I think that a lot of parents don’t think about that obviously because there are a lot of other things to think about when you’re planning a family or starting a family, but it does have to be a decision that is made ahead of time or at least by the time the child can consciously process behavior.
In today’s world, we don’t always have a traditional family. We have split families or single parents or we have a mom and a dad that are divorces with partners, it complicates things because we’re got to get more people on board. Ideally, in my idealist bubble, everyone would be modeling this really good behavior, but it gets very complicated.
PI: I want to be very specific about having the conversations that will really address the adult issues that we’ve been talking about so much later which, in 90% of the cases involves men abusing power, taking advantage of the secrecy around these issues, taking advantage of the syndrome that, starting in their teen years or their sexually active years, always seem to label girls who have sex as loose or sluts while boys who have sex are studs or kingpins or whatever. This seems like the relationship around which all of this turns.
PI: I’m wonder either in counseling teens or counseling parents you have ideas about how to help both the boys and the girls on either end of this alarming association.
JW: I think one of the best ways that that has played out in today’s youth culture is with sexting. There is a lot of research that girls receive an enormous amount of pressure to send nude images of themselves to mostly boys and they face a conundrum because if they do it, they are then labeled sluts or some other disparaging name and if they don’t, then they’re prudes. Girls are in a lose-lose situation and the boys, what the research shows is that they get that player status; “I can get a girl to send me a nude.”
Sexting is starting as young as seven, eight, nine, ten. There is already a very clear divide between how culture views sexualized girls versus sexualized boys. That’s key.
PI: If you daughter comes home ten or eleven years old and says, “Tommy is trying to get me to send him a nude picture. I’m so upset.” How does that conversation sound that puts it in context and helps with your daughters’ self-esteem?
JW: It’s a little variation on that, but I can give you an actual conversation. A friend of mine’s daughter in the fifth grade, so that’s 11 years old. She had come home from her first day of school on the school bus and observed her friend take a picture of her breasts and send it to the boys at the back of the bus. My friend has a beautiful relationship with her children, so her daughter came home and said, “Mom, what do I do? This happened.” It prompted a lot of discussions.
First was the discussion about what our bodies are. Our bodies are our own. It should be our choice who we share them with and that should be free of coercion. I can get into the different types of consent later. That’s a discussion; it’s your body, it’s your choice as to what you do with it.
Another piece of that discussion is what happens to that image in this sexting type of situation once you send it. You send that picture, you lose control. Maybe Tommy is your boyfriend today, but what if Tommy is not your boyfriend tomorrow? Tommy can send your picture somewhere else. That’s another piece of this information.
The interesting twist in this situation was that it wasn’t just the discussion about our bodies and choosing what we do with them and what happens with those images, it was also the social piece. What happens to my friend’s daughter if she tells on her friend? What happens to her social status in school? Because now she is a snitch. If she says something to the boy, what happens to her social status there? It’s more than just about your child and your child’s sexuality and their body and consent, we also have to take into account what goes on socially in a school because again, bullying is an enormous problem and if a child is in a situation where other children will bully them, then that has long-term mental health ramifications down the road and it’s very difficult to navigate.
PI: I guess early on you have to present the reality of saying you can tell the truth and still be bullied. You have to establish some higher value to the long-term strength of telling the truth as opposed to the perhaps short-term – sometimes it can be long-term. You can get scarred in this world.
PI: But if you “Hang your scar on the truth,” as Martin Luther King would say, then that’s better than telling a lie or not telling the truth.
JW: Or giving up our own moral values in order to achieve status or a role in society. Really what that conversation is about is integrity as well. What’s our personal integrity? Do we do what we believe in because it’s our truth and it’s our integrity or do we cave into the peer pressure that the society in her school was pushing for.
PI: You mentioned earlier that you wanted to touch on certain levels or definitions of consent. Could you talk about that a little bit?
JW: Absolutely. This is one of the things that comes from my work with offenders. We think of consent and it used to be “’no’ means ‘no’” and now you hear people saying “’yes’ means ‘yes.’”
What we do when we’re teaching, it used to just be in the offender population, but now it’s where we’re teaching any kind of sexuality that we’ll talk about compliance, coercion and consent. I think everyone knows what completely non-consensual sexual contact is; indecent assault, rape, things like that. Compliance and coercion are a little more sticky. Coercion for example is when someone is sexual with another person, not because they necessarily want to but because they’re coerced into it; “If you love me, you would do this,” and those kinds of things. “All the other girls are doing it and if you love me …” that is being coerced into a behavior that you don’t want to engage in.
PI: Or “If you want to keep your job.”
JW: That’s a little more of what we would call compliance; engaging in something not because I want to, but because if I don’t, there are consequences; do I want to keep my job? And you think of all of this stuff going on in the media; do I ever want to work in movies, television, radio, politics, whatever it may be, again? I do this not because I want to but because there are serious consequences to me if I don’t. A lot of people would say, “Oh, just get another job.” We all know that life is not that simple. It’s a lot more complicated.
In a marriage or in a committed relationship you can have these things happen where maybe one partner is engaging in behavior they don’t really want to, but they do it because they’re afraid of losing their partner or she’s afraid that if she doesn’t do a behavior, her husband will cheat on her.
It looks perhaps like they are engaging in this behavior because they want to, but it’s really not. It’s an unspoken threat over their heads. Sometimes the threat is actually verbalized.
PI: You did cover all three sides of consent.
JW: Consent gets a lot easier when we’re more open about sexuality and we understand our own sexuality more and we talk about it. That’s “Can I?” “Can we?” “Do you want to?” types of behaviors. The compliance and coercion are not truly consent, but I think a lot of people confuse that or they think that they are.
PI: Well, when your 15-year-old daughter comes home, and she has a good open relationship with her parents and she says, “My boyfriend wants to. How do I know if I should say ‘yes’ or ‘no’?” What’s the litmus test?
JW: I think the litmus test is to have a conversation about it if you can and if she’s willing. How does she feel about it? Does she really want to do it?
Is there any fear if she doesn’t do whatever behavior the boyfriend wants her to do? If there is fear there, there is obviously an issue. There shouldn’t be fear in sex. If people are into things in the kink community that have fear, that’s very consensual and a whole different piece.
If your 15-year-old daughter is coming home and saying, “My boyfriend Johnny wants to do X because he saw X happen in pornography,” how does she feel about it? Does she want to do it? If she doesn’t, how does she express that? What is she worried about or what is she afraid of if she says ‘no’?
PI: Right, and we’ve had this conversation without really speaking about the mandatory discussion about pregnancy and avoiding pregnancy as being an important part of the conversation beyond “Do you want to?” or “Do you not want to?”
JW: Absolutely, and I think part of safety and security is also disease transmission. Part of healthy sexuality as we teach it is very much taking care of ones own health; physical health, emotional health. A lot of that is around the physical health piece; if you are going to be sexual, if you’re going to choose consensually be sexual, how do you do that safely so that you do not end up with a disease or you do not end up with consequences that you didn’t ask for.
PI: On one of your blog postings online, you talked about why parents are reluctant to talk to their kids about sex and you’ve touched on some of these reasons, one that parents think their children will learn about healthy sexuality in school. We know that that’s not guaranteed.
PI: You’ve mentioned that a lot of parents are simply in denial that my kid is not sexually active or they couldn’t possibly be interested in this. You lead off with saying that a lot of parents don’t talk to their kids about sex because they really don’t know about sex themselves. They don’t know enough about it. I want to explore that a little bit because there is a presumption that if a couple can have sex and produce a child, that they really understand it enough to be able to be, what sounds like, often the lone person responsible for passing along the mystery and science of sexuality to their children, but that can’t be presumed, can it?
JW: I don’t think it can be presumed. I think if you’ve had a child, you know something about the actual biological mechanics of making a child, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you know anything about teaching sexuality or healthy sexuality. I think there’s a big difference. To assume that just because a parent has had a child that they have the skills, the capability or the desire to talk to their child about sex and sexuality is not a good assumption.
PI: It doesn’t guarantee either that they have experienced the whole rainbow of experiences that are available in sexuality.
JW: Absolutely. When we talk to parents, in my very non-clinical way, I’ll say, “What’s your stuff?” I want to know how they learned about sex and sexuality because it’s going to inform what they share with their children. If they never learned from a parent or a caregiver or they got minimal sex ed in school, what information do they truly have to pass onto their child.
If the parent has a sexual abuse history, obviously there’s going to be a lot of baggage that they hold around sex and sexuality, justifiably so, that might influence how they do or do not talk to their child about sex and sexuality.
There are multiple other pieces that can go into why a parent is so uncomfortable talking about sex. Maybe it’s shame. Maybe their religious upbringing caused shame for them around sex or sexuality. There are a million different reasons that can make parents uncomfortable talking about sex and sexuality to their children.
Again, if they don’t know what healthy sexuality is, you can’t teach what you don’t know.
PI: I think I know the answer to this question, but I’ll have you take a crack at articulating it. In your blog post you say you need to go out and learn. How does a parent really do that completely if they’re serious about it and really want to do it right and well?
JW: I think there are a number of ways to do that. I think there are some great books out in the world both about human sexuality and how to talk to children. Off the top of my head, there is a book called The New Naked, and I do not remember the author, but it talks about human sexuality for adults. It’s sort of like a sex ed book for adults.
There is an organization called Educate and Empower Kids that prints an amazing series of books about how to talk to your child about issues about sex and sexuality. That starts very young. It’s just these little conversation primers about how to start a conversation with your five-year-old about boundaries, not even talking about sex, but about boundaries because these are things that prime those conversations later.
It’s books, it’s blog posts, it’s reputable websites and really gathering information.
PI: How about before your kid is verbal, that you invest at least in your own therapy if you haven’t been there yet.
JW: Well, I would think that would be wonderful, but my profession probably makes me a little biased. I think you don’t get through humanity without having baggage, so it would probably be best for all of us to work some of that and try to present the best person that we are to the universe and to our children.