As you may know, I lecture around the country on various aspects of sexuality: from how couples can have better sex, to how therapists can work with issues such as infidelity, to innovative public policy.
I love presenting “Talking with your kids about sex,” which I do for various parent groups—including at Catholic high schools.
Except right now, Catholic high schools think they have too much going on to bring me in. And if they want a speaker about sexuality, they think they need something focused on exploitation, consent, and recovering from trauma.
More than ever, right now Catholic high school parent groups—like every other high school parent group—need my usual talk on the subject. “Talking with your kids about sex” is just about the most effective way to keep kids safe, and to encourage good sexual decision-making at every age.
So what do we need to tell kids about sex, and why is that more important than focusing on predatory priests or others who want to exploit them?
Because most kids won’t be victims of sexual exploitation. But all kids need to deal with their sexuality.
We need to teach our kids, no matter what their age, to relate to sex the way they relate to other important things—to be smart, to plan, to know what they want; to communicate clearly and not just go along with peer pressure or gossip; and to ask adults questions when they need to.
Yes, kids, there are people out there who may want to hurt you or take advantage of you—and not just sexually. So let’s talk about that. Fortunately, most people aren’t like that.
Of course, these goals will be different depending on a kid’s stage of development. “Be smart” for an 8-year-old might mean not giving a stranger your phone number, while for a 15-year-old it might mean not making out with someone who’s drunk.
If you help kids clarify what they want; if you support kids’ self-esteem, and teach them that they have more value than just their sexual value; if you teach kids to expect respect from everyone they meet, and how to respond when they feel disrespected or bullied; if you teach kids that their bodies are fabulous and wholesome, and a source of pleasure when they create the right circumstances; and if you teach kids that males and females are not opposites but people who are far more similar then different; then you won’t have to scare the hell out of them about predatory priests, teachers, or strangers.
And to motivate them to take care of themselves, you won’t have to tell them that sexuality—their own, or others’—is dangerous.
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These days every parent is concerned about porn. Professionals are always urging parents to talk with their kids about it (which parents too often translate into “Porn is crap and it will damage you; stay away from it”). But if one of the key messages we want to give kids is “porn isn’t like real sex,” we need to tell them about real sex—first.
And not just once—many, many times. That’s what we do with every important issue, such as nutrition, bike safety, and study habits. As kids get older we talk about the same subjects again and again, each time in a more sophisticated way. That’s what we need to do about sex.
And then, when it’s time to talk to your kids about porn, you already have a vocabulary in place, and the norm that in this family, we talk about sex. You can include some pretty grownup stuff, such as “Many adults enjoy sex more when they feel really close to the other person.” You can tell kids “Porn isn’t made for you, and you’ll probably find some of it confusing. It may look like real sex, but it’s made by paid actors following a script, pretending to be someone they’re not. And their characters do stuff that a lot of people simply don’t do.”
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As for the sexual scandal in the Catholic Church, it seems clear that whatever ideas they’ve been rigidly peddling for centuries simply don’t work. Catholics—and everyone else—should worry less about following others’ rules about sex, and focus more on sexual decisions and behaviors that fulfill noble values such as integrity, honesty, responsibility, and consent.
If you care about God’s judgement of your sexuality (which somehow almost always leads to guilt, shame, and secrecy), try living up to those values. It’s hard to see the point of following a bunch of rules promoted by an institution that apparently can’t live by them itself.
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To help you talk to your kids about sex or porn, I’ve created two enjoyable 70-minute video programs. To either purchase or download them, click here.