The “me too” movement originally kicked off back in 2006. Its founder, Tarana Burke, intended to ignite a national conversation regarding sexual violence within minority communities and society at large. In 2017, things went viral. Today, the phrase has been hashtagged across Twitter more than 19 million times and sparked a long overdue examination into the ways which we handle consent, bodily autonomy, and the gendered dynamics of sex.
“#MeToo and the Kavanaugh allegations have made us all aware of sexual pressuring, consent, and how things can go wrong,” says Jill Whitney, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of the blog Keep The Talk Going. “None of us want our child to be the victim of a sexual assault, nor to commit an assault because they’re unclear about proper consent.”
Of course, this is tricky territory to navigate. And that’s coming from an adult. Imagine trying to wrap your mind around it all while handling hormonal spikes and a still-developing set of genitalia. Puberty is never easy. Especially not for kids today.
Which is why it’s important for the sex talk to be more than it once was. More than just have a simple conversation about birds and bees, parents and mentors need to have a constant conversation with their kids about sex, walking them through their questions about the biology, yes, but also about such issues as consent and sex. Family members should assume duties pertaining to the younger generation’s understanding of sex, and all that it entails. Particularly when other institutions simply haven’t delivered on the job.
In the United States, 37 states require that information on abstinence be provided when sex education is taught in schools. 27 of those states require abstinence be stressed. 18 states require educators emphasize the importance of having sex within the context of marriage. 13 states require educators hit on information about the negative outcomes of teen sex and pregnancy.
That seems like a pretty narrow curriculum to put together for something as complex as sex — and it is. As such, the United States has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, half of the 20 million new STI cases reported each year occur among young people between the ages of 15 and 24.
If parents want to see any kind of drop in these statistics, they’re going have to take on the issue themselves. And that will require a different approach to explaining sex — a regular conversation that goes far beyond the birds and the bees.
“As soon as they ask, and certainly by age seven, kids should be told the basic mechanics of sex and conception,” says Whitney. “For young kids, there’s no sexual charge about this; it’s just facts about how the world works.”
From an early age, she adds, kids need to know proper names, not silly ones, for all their body parts — including reproductive parts. “Treating those as somehow different from other parts by using vague or cutesy names for them conveys that there’s something shameful or unspeakable about them,” says Whitney. “That makes kids less likely to ask questions. It can also cause feelings of shame about their bodies or sexual feelings, which can interfere with healthy sexuality for decades.”
According to Whitney, there are two points in particular that parents seem to struggle with: pleasure and penetration. Though, she says, it might be worth introducing these subjects sooner rather than later. “If you get that out of the way when they’re young,” she says, “it’ll be easier to return to it later.”
Of course — and as the #MeToo movement has made obvious — conversations concerning sex and intimacy need to expand beyond the realm of pregnancy and disease.
With younger kids, the core concepts you want to teach about consent are what you’re likely already teaching in general: Treating people kindly, taking turns, not grabbing something they want, not hurting people. “These are underlying concepts of respect and self-restraint,” says Whitney.
The other piece to add specifically about consent, says Whitney, is bodily autonomy — the fact that each person gets to say when, how, and by whom they want to be touched. “If someone doesn’t want to be hugged, tickled, kissed, roughhoused with, or whatever, no one else should force them to,” she says.
Whitney suggests parents lean on demonstrative techniques to help hammer that point home. That means not pushing them to hug someone they don’t want to, even if that someone is Uncle Kevin. Instead, she says, in such circumstances suggest some other way to make a polite connection, such as a handshake or high-five. Whitney adds that teaching consent also applies to situations, when, say, you’re having a pillow fight and your kid says to stop, you stop, even if it’s obvious they’re really having a good time. “Explain that people’s words and actions have to be saying ‘yes’ for something to be okay,” she says.
Of course, different parents will introduce “the talk” in different ways. Some will frame things in terms of gender. Others will highlight the importance of pleasure. There are those who will lean into a more anatomical approach, and there are those who will throw their focus behind the social aspects of sex. The point is there is no one way to have “the talk.” What matters is that we do our best to check all the boxes the #MeToo movement has helped bring to the surface.
“If kids are old enough to ask, they’re old enough to know,” Whitney says. “There’s no harm in them having facts and there can be real harm in keeping them ignorant or making them feel ashamed.”