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YFCS July Blog: We Need to Talk

The Youth, Family, and Community Sciences (YFCS) graduate program publishes a monthly blog written by students and alumni sharing important topics and helpful resources related to the field of family science. The latest post is written by current YFCS master’s student Rhonda Peters.

While most people in intimate relationships dread hearing the words “we need to talk,” Americans REALLY do need to talk! Specifically, we need to talk early, often, openly, and, most importantly, in a sex-positive manner with children and youth of all ages.

While many toddlers have books like “Love You Forever” and “Goodnight Moon” on their bookshelves, how many do you know that have “So That’s How I Was Born” or “Miles is the Boss of His Body“? Although more parents are talking with their children about sex, many are still uncomfortable and lack the knowledge or resources to tackle critical issues.

Optimal sexuality development does not come through a one-time “birds and the bees” conversation or through the school’s mandated sex-ed class, but through ongoing dialog between youth and parents, teachers, and others trusted adults. This type of sex-positive communication actually helps teens make more responsible decisions.

So, what prevents sex-positive communication?

Mona Malacane and Jonathan J. Beckmeyer identified the following factors to be prohibitive in sex communication:

  • Limited Sexual Health Knowledge – being afraid their children are going to ask a question they don’t have the answer to. Research shows that when parents are confident in their sexual health knowledge and communication skills, they are more likely to communicate appropriately.
  • Perception of Adolescents’ Readiness for Sex – believing their children are too young or not engaging in intimate/sexual relationships.
  • Parental Comfort with Discussing Sex – When parents allow their feelings of embarrassment or discomfort to get in the way of the conversation, they shut down the lines of communication, effectively eliminating an important and reliable source of information and family values.
  • Demographic Factors Also Play a Role:
    • African American families talk about sex more than other minority parents, specifically Asian American and Hispanic.
    •  Asian families talk the most infrequently and discuss the fewest sexuality topics.
    • Mothers of all backgrounds discuss sex more often than fathers but discuss it more often with daughters than sons.
    • Politically conservative and religious families emphasize the negative consequences of sex more often than their liberal, less religious counterparts.

Are parents the only ones having a hard time communicating about sex?

The short answer is definitely not. Although sex education is required in public schools in every state in America, Williams and Jensen report that many teachers are highly uncomfortable with this role for many reasons.

  • Some teachers receive little to no formal training in sex education instruction.
  • Some have personal views that conflict with what they are required to teach, as with abstinence-only-until-marriage vs. contraception, which leads to feelings of inauthenticity.
  • Some have concerns about their job security.
  • Some fear angering their organizational stakeholders.

Some instructors respond to these issues by teaching exactly what is mandated- and nothing more. Others abide by their district policies but provide out of class resources and support (on their own time). Still, others teach their personal convictions and hope they are not called out for it.

Clearly, sex education is multi-faceted and difficult. Are there any stories of success that we can emulate?

First, it is important to know the difference between sex education and sexuality education. To be most effective, we need to concentrate our efforts on teaching and supporting all aspects of sexuality development (including gender identity, sexual diversity, consent, assertiveness, and healthy relationships) instead of just the mechanics/anatomy of sex and pregnancy/infection prevention.

In the Netherlands, comprehensive sex education begins as early as age 4. The program’s underlying principle is that “sexuality development is a normal process that all young people experience, and they have the right to frank, trustworthy information on the subject.” Saskia de Melker has documented the success of the Dutch model:

  • On average, teens in the Netherlands DO NOT have sex at earlier ages than their European or American counterparts.
  • Nine out of ten Dutch adolescents used contraception during their first sexual experience.
  • Dutch teens are among the top users of the birth control pill.
  • The teen pregnancy rate in the Netherlands is one of the lowest in the world.
  • Rates of HIV infection are five times lower than those in America.

Remember, if you can’t change the world, you CAN still make a difference in your own home and your community.

As a parent, take time to determine your family values. Educate yourself through the multitude of community, government, academic and virtual resources that are available to support you. Follow Lea Grover’s example, and start the conversation early, and have it often. Vary your messaging as your children grow so you can reach them in age-appropriate ways. Assure your children that if you don’t have the answer, you will find it, and encourage them to come back often for continued connection and support.

As a community, reach out to other youth who may lack strong family or social support. Reach out to other parents to share information, support each other, or just to laugh and cry together.

As curriculum planners, advocate for comprehensive sexuality education that starts at very young ages. Provide programs that target increases in parental knowledge AND comfort. Include everyone, but make a specific push to target Asian Americans and other minority families that research has shown to need the most support.

As a society, demand comprehensive sexUALITY education that encompasses not just prevention measures, but all facets of healthy relationships and sexuality including self-image, respect, communication and consent, diversity, sexting and pornography education.

Because when it all boils down to it, whether we are at home, school, places of worship or elsewhere in the community, we REALLY do need to talk – to our children, fellow community members, our school officials, and to our policy makers. But we really just need to talk.

For further information and support online, check out:

This post was originally published in Online and Distance Education News.