April 3, 2012

Why Don’t We Talk To Our Parents About Sex?

Part 2 of the interview with Cory Silverberg, sex educator, writer, and consultant.

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Cory Silverberg

Cory Silverberg

Kinsey ConfidentialWhy do you think adults can often talk about sex with each other, but not with their parents?

Cory SilverbergThis is something I think about all the time. I don’t have a great answer. But every year I communicate with thousands of people about sex, and if you had to ask me for one common thread, I’d say that almost everyone I encounter is, to a greater or lesser extent, repulsed by the thought of their parents having sex. Now I don’t think that people need to like the thought, or that they should be giving much time to it, but for anyone who was born as the result of two people having intercourse, shouldn’t they have a little bit of tolerance for the fact that it happened?

My serious answer is that in our society the people who are allowed to be sexual, those who are socially sanctioned as sexual beings, are not parents. They are young, thin, white people. They are, in truth, people who are not having as much sex as the rest of us.

KC: I have spoken with many teenagers who are repulsed by the idea of their parents talking about sex with them. At what age may it be too late, if ever, to have open discussions about sexuality?

CS: It’s NEVER too late!  But it’s true that the longer you put it off the bigger a deal “the talk” seems. My book, What Makes a Baby, is geared to kids pre-school to age 7 or 8. Obviously it isn’t very detailed sex education but it explains the basics of what makes a baby, which is really all kids of that age usually want to know. But I wrote it for a young age because I feel like that’s the time to start the conversation.

KC: What would you say to parents who have difficulty talking to their children about sex, or if they try, it feels awkward or embarrassing?

CS: I’d remind them that doing anything new feels awkward and sometimes embarrassing. I might ask them to remember how they felt the first time they changed a diaper or their own first day at school or at a new job. If you think talking about sex should be easy then you aren’t giving yourself a break. Most communities have strict sexual rules and all of us carry some shame and embarrassment about sex. So it makes sense. But your job is to deal with it, so you can give your kids the information they need.

What does “deal with it” look like?  Well maybe it’s practicing with your partner or a friend. Or maybe it’s reading a good sex education book for adults that will give you some information and comfort with the topic. Or sometimes it’s just forcing yourself to do it a few times because usually it gets easier.

The other thing I’d say is that most kids don’t want to know that much, and most will tell you when they are bored or disinterested.  In my experience with parents the fear about communicating is always much worse than the actual communication part.

KC: Some parents seem to do a pretty good job talking to their kids about sex, while others do not. What makes the difference?

CS: I’ll look more to what’s happening around parents in society than to the parents themselves. Most parents I meet are working very hard and honestly they all have times where they struggle to keep it all together. Even though there is a lot of social pressure to multiply (or if you’d rather I get all formal, to reproduce) there isn’t actually a lot of support to parent well. This is true I think for all parents, but the pressures on single parents, parents who are lesbian, gay, bi, parents who are trans, parents who have adopted or are fostering, parents who are from racialized communities is much greater. Such is the nature of systemic oppression, and I think that makes a huge difference.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t talk to my parents (or, really, remaining parent) about sex because I don’t trust them.  I grew up in an environment where it was not okay to be gay or bisexual, and as an adult I just don’t see the mileage in working through it with them. 

    A lot of us have good reason not to talk to our family about sex — it’s not just squeamishness or prudery.  I have no problem accepting that my parents have a sex life; they’d have a much bigger problem accepting mine.  

  • Thank you for the comment @theblackleatherbelt:disqus. I am glad you brought up this point. Without a SOME amount of trust or felt security in the relationship, or a sense that one’s parent is bigger than the problem is, it seems pretty clear why any topic that they might not be able to handle is avoided.

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