My earliest sex education didn’t even mention that sex felt good. I was reassured that it was all right to say no, but never offered a script for arriving at yes.
Recently, I wrote an essay about dating older men when I was still in my teens. I was shocked, though I shouldn’t have been, by how many women, both friends and strangers, reached out to say they related to my experience. So many of us are living with regrets and even trauma because we began our sex lives with no real idea what the hell we were doing. Sure, everyone makes mistakes in their youth, but in this case, I think something greater than adolescent recklessness is at work.
The sex education I received in school—which wasn’t officially abstinence-only, but basically boiled down to “don’t”—did little to prepare me for how I would feel about sex and the choices I would need to make about it. My earliest sex education didn’t even mention that sex felt good. I was reassured that it was all right to say no, but never offered a script for arriving at yes. I had no idea how to initiate sex, or even that that was an option. Instead, I waited for men to pursue me, and since guys my own age were every bit as awkward and uncertain as I was, most of my pursuers were men older than 20.
I needed context and empowerment to express my own desires, but in a country where sex education is so focused on “don’t do it, and if you absolutely must do it, don’t get pregnant,” there was no chance to learn any of the things I needed to in any other way than through trial and error. I don’t know when we decided to give young people as little information about sex as possible, so they can make every available mistake and have plenty of opportunity to do emotional and physical harm to themselves and others, but I really don’t want that to be the attitude I pass along to my children. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ll say to my children (one of whom is negative two months old, and the other of whom hasn’t been conceived yet—I like to plan in advance) as they approach sexual maturity.
When I anticipate talking to my kids about sex, it’s with the knowledge that they will one day be adults with sexual desires, and my job isn’t to keep them innocent children forever. It’s to make sure they’re empowered to make thoughtful, safe, age-appropriate choices about sex. That includes talking to them not just about preventing sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancies, but about consent, communication, and—yes—desire. I don’t want my kids to fear sex, but to understand that it can be joyful, healthy, and empowering.
Of course, I want my children to understand about consent, and that any sex act requires the enthusiastic consent of every person involved. I want them to know that it’s never OK to have sex with someone if you aren’t a hundred percent sure they want to have sex with you. I also want them to know how to communicate their own boundaries and how to remove themselves from a situation where those boundaries are being ignored. I want them to know how to say “no” and how to listen to and respect someone else’s “no.”
But that isn’t enough. I also want them to feel prepared to say “yes” when they want to say yes—when they’re with a partner they desire and trust, when they’ve discussed safer sex practices, when they feel safe to say “no” if and when they want to. I don’t want them to feel silenced by the impossibility of voicing desire or restricted by seeing themselves only as objects of pursuit. The opposite is also true: I don’t want them to see their needs as more important than other people’s.
The choice to have sex is an important one, and it’s important every time it happens, not just the first time. Sex carries physical and emotional risk, but we take on that risk because it also carries the potential for incredible pleasure and joy. Sex education that leaves out the second part does not prepare young people to make wise sexual choices. If my own adolescence is any indication, it actually does the opposite, allowing teenagers to be caught totally unaware by the onset of desire and do really stupid things while swept up in the excitement of it all.
Sure, sex can be dangerous. So can driving, but we deal with that danger by teaching teenagers how to operate cars responsibly. We don’t tell them to stay far away from cars and hope they’ll magically become good, safe drivers without any guidance. Failing to give kids adequate information about sex doesn’t mean they won’t have it. It just means that when they do have it, they’ll do it badly and hurt themselves or someone else. And until comprehensive, scientifically accurate sex education is the standard in classrooms across the country, it’s up to parents to have these conversations with their kids.
I want my children to know that it’s OK to make mistakes, OK to change your mind, OK to want sex and OK to wait. I promise I’m not going to embarrass myself and everyone else trying to be a “cool mom,” but I really want them to know that making good choices about sex doesn’t always mean saying no until you’re married. Sometimes it means saying yes to what you want. Sometimes it means saying “I’m not sure, but let’s give it a shot and see how it feels.” Sometimes it means acknowledging that you’re nervous. Sometimes it means having an honest conversation about birth control. And, yes, sometimes it means figuring out how to deal with an unintended pregnancy or an STI, because those are things that happen, not punishments sent down by God because you’re immoral and unclean.
I want my kids to understand that for most people, sex is a normal, healthy part of life, and I want them to be prepared to embrace it and learn how to do it safely. Sex education should mean open and frank discussion of the range of available choices, and in my house, it will—no matter how awkward that is for me and my kids.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer writer who lives in Denver with her partner, an ever-growing collection of books, and a very spoiled cat. Her first book will be published by Plume in early 2016.