When Emily Smith’s phone alerts her to a new text, she admits there is a good chance it is gossip of the sexual kind. “There is a lot of ‘He is so into me’ or ‘Did you hear who hooked up with who?’” says the Oakville, Ont., teen. But when it comes to real discussion about sexual issues, most of her ideas, she says, come not from her parents but from her friends and the media.
“We know that as teens get older they get less sexual health information from their parents,” says Meredith Thomas, the volunteer coordinator of Teen Programming and Health Services at Planned Parenthood Toronto (PPT). A 2009 report by the organization, which surveyed youth between the ages of 13 and 18, found that more than half of the teens surveyed said they were more likely to seek information from friends.
“Teens think and talk about sex a lot. Some think about it more than others,” confirms Cory Silverberg, a Toronto-based certified sexuality educator. “It is absolutely developmentally predictable.” But what if you want to get in on the conversation and be a primary source of information? What is the best way to do that?
What They Want to Know
According to the PPT report, the top sexual topics teens already had knowledge about were sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy and birth control. What they wanted to know more about was healthy relationships, HIV/AIDS and sexual pleasure versus sexual health education, says Thomas. “We know that teens don’t just want or need information about the ‘plumbing’ or concrete aspects of sex,” agrees Silverberg. “They want to know how to get in and out of relationships. They want to know why they should even bother with something that at once feels so important but is also so much work.”
Talking About Sex
Natalie Stanley* is shocked that more parents don’t have discussions with their teens about sex. The Toronto mom sat down with her 15-year-old daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend to discuss the importance of birth control, the dangers of STIs and also some of the relationship issues that come with sex. “We know from experience that feelings and relationships are complicated. We have the wisdom to be able to talk about it. Kids don’t have that. So who do you want them turning to?” she asks. Stanley doesn’t believe it is just embarrassment that is stopping parents from talking with their teens. “Some parents believe if you have the discussion with your teens, you are giving them permission to have sex. That is ridiculous,” she says. “As a loving parent, it is important to move past your own uncomfortable feelings and fears to do what is best for your child.”
Both sex educators say the most important thing is to be approachable and non-judgmental. “Once they hear judgment from you, the discussion will end,” says Thomas. “Be available for questions. And be willing to provide the information they need to make the best choices for them.” Parents can also use movies and TV shows to prompt discussions. Stanley’s daughter, Andrea*, says Glee has given her and her mother a lot to talk about.
Sex and Technology
Despite being bombarded with sexual imagery in mass media, dirty talk is not dominating their conversations either online or off, say experts and teens themselves. One recent U.S. study of 1,500 kids aged 10 to 17 found the number of teens sexting or sending sexual images of themselves may not be as high as previously believed. Of those surveyed, less than 10 percent said they had either appeared in or created nude or nearly nude images or received such images. But ask your kids questions about what they have seen, says Silverberg. “If you hear something that sounds either outright risky, like disclosing personal information, or something that they may regret later, like sending naked or semi-naked pictures, then talk through it with them. Don’t simply say no or immediately take away the technology. Help your child understand your concern and give them a chance to respond. This isn’t just an opportunity to teach rules; it’s a chance to teach them how to think critically.”