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Why discussions about sex should begin at home, not Google

Matthew still remembers THE talk — mostly because it was so awkward. He was around 11, and his dad took him to the basement to chat.

“Do you know what sex is?” his dad asked. Matthew didn’t.

After a very clinical definition, some new, undefined vocabulary and the closing comment: “Let me know if you have any questions,” the talk was over.

“It more than anything just kind of ramped up my curiosity,” said Matthew. “Now I was like, ‘I kind of knew what would happen, but I didn’t know how.'”

Matthew — who asked that his real name not be used as the Deseret News has reported on his struggles with pornography — and his growing curiosity about sexuality was nothing new. But 25 years ago, teens couldn't take their questions to the Internet, like they do now, to find a plethora of "educational" words, photos and videos.

Experts across the ideological spectrum say parents still remain the best defense against false and even harmful information about sexuality and encourage parents to take their roles as their children's primary sexuality educators more seriously.

That parental involvement requires proactive and repeated lessons about not just biological facts, but more importantly family values, media literacy and relationship skills, experts say, to help adolescents navigate an increasingly sexualized world and prepare them to live a healthy, fulfilling sexual life as an adult.

“Young people really want their parents to talk with them about these topics,” said Nicole Cushman, executive director of Answer, a program of Rutgers University dedicated to providing and promoting access to comprehensive sex education. “Parents are the most important influence on young people’s decisions regarding sexuality, dating, relationships (and) they feel like they’re not hearing enough from their parents. They want to hear more.”

A family conversation

In the United States, messages about lowering teenage pregnancy rates and decreasing risky sexual behavior almost always target teens, whether through PSAs, school curriculum or doctor-office interventions.

Those are good approaches, says Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, a professor of social work and global public health at New York University, but they overlook parental input.

“There’s so much evidence that when young people are making really important decisions in their life about things like sexual behavior, they really, really want guidance from their parents,” Guilamo-Ramos said. “Yet in many ways, the message that we’ve given parents is, ‘(You) aren’t necessarily the most influential.’ And that’s really not true.”

Studies have shown that kids are less likely to have sex if parents taught them to say no, and even if they do, they delay it, use birth control and practice safer sexual behavior.

In Guilamo-Ramo's program, Families Talking Together, parents learn to start conversations about delaying sex and reducing risky sexual behavior — often getting this instruction one-on-one from a social worker instead of just waiting in the waiting room at their child's doctor's office. One of the most important things parents learn to say is that because they want what's best for their child, they want them to wait.

“People sometimes think, ‘That can’t possibly be effective,’” Guilamo-Ramos says. “(But) just that alone has a huge impact (if parents) are being clear about it.”

Along with asking kids to wait and mentioning negatives like unplanned pregnancy and STIs, parents also need to discuss the positives their teens think about — like increased popularity, a deeper relationship or added maturity.

And this approach really works. In one controlled trial of the program in the Bronx, New York, researchers found that nine months after receiving the FTT intervention, only 6.8 percent of the 11- to 14-year-old kids reported having had sex, compared with 22 percent of kids in the control group.

Broaden the discussion

When Sister Kieran Sawyer gives community and church presentations, the 81-year-old nun often begins with the line: "I think about sex all the time."

“I always get a big laugh, because that’s not what they think I think about,” Sawyer told the Deseret News.

But it’s true. For the past five decades, Sawyer has thought about how to better explain such an important topic through family-based sex education, which teaches a deeper understanding of love and that "talking about sex is really about talking about relationships."

That approach has been embraced by other sexuality education experts. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States is trying to shed the traditional "sex ed" label in favor of "sexuality education," with less focus on bodily functions and preventing disease, and more discussion about sexual health and relational well-being.

"Where we see a critical gap when it comes to sex ed to young people … is how to think critically about the messages that are in society around sexuality, gender, consent, stereotypes," said Jesse Boyer, interim president and CEO of SIECUS.

Boyer and others want comprehensive sex education to include more discussions of healthy relationships, communication skills, body autonomy, positive self-image, proper boundaries and especially what it looks like to give and get enthusiastic, ongoing consent.

For Sawyer, a conversation on love is aided by a Venn diagram with three circles: family, friends and romantic love with the individual in the middle.

“I’m so convinced the only way we learn to be loving persons, (is by) learning to love in those three circles,” she said. “And we fail in all of them. The kids are failing so badly in the third circle because no one is teaching them the right way to do it.”

Through her LoveEd program, which parents and kids can watch on DVD and then discuss, they learn that the "right way" means treating people with kindness and respect, and that their interests must not overpower the interests of others. They also learn that while sexual love is exciting, it can quickly become exploitative, because "if sex isn't love, it's using," Sawyer says.

"This is a talk about sexuality, and sex is only three letters in that nine-letter word," says Cordelia Anderson, author of "The Impact of Pornography on Children, Youth and Culture" and a speaker on pornography and sexual violence. "Our kids need, in fact, less on sperm and eggs and fallopian tubes and a lot more on love and intimacy and 'how do I understand these feelings?'"

Getting over fears

But for some parents, beginning these conversations about love and sexuality feels awkward, embarrassing or even hypocritical, if they had a past they wouldn’t like their teen to replicate.

In fact, far too many parents can't even talk about their own sexuality with their spouse — and teens sense that discomfort, says Jackie Pack, a certified sex-addiction therapist who has worked in the field of addiction and trauma for more than 20 years.

"I think that discomfort they feel gets in their way of really seeking out those conversations" about sexuality, she says.

In addition to parental discomfort, teens are also struggling with their own embarrassment, blended with curiosity, which makes them desperate to know but determined not to ask. Which means parents must take the lead on these important, albeit difficult, conversations, experts say.

And if starting directly with sex or pornography is too drastic, experts say parents can start with less uncomfortable topics, like body image or how to set boundaries.

Then, if parents still find themselves squirming, Pack encourages them to talk with their spouse or trusted friend, and practice asking and answering difficult questions they might get from their children.

Because some embarrassment may never fully go away, honesty is especially important, experts say.

"(Tell your teens)," Pack says, " 'I'm going to feel awkward around it … but I think it's important that we have open conversations about this.' "

Porn is not sex

Matthew knew his parents would have happily answered any of his questions, but he wasn't comfortable asking them. And when they never brought up sex again, he went to his friend. When his friend didn't know much, Matthew turned to Google.

He knew he shouldn't just type in "sex," so he typed "bikini" instead.

(His mom had installed filters, but they caused problems with innocent searches, so she took them off — something she says she still regrets.)

Immediately his screen was flooded with images ranging from somewhat indecent to salacious. As he tried new search terms, he eventually ended on a hard-core porn site. After a few videos, he finally shut down the computer and sat there, shaking, feeling like he'd been ripped in pieces, he says. The memories of that day are still hauntingly vivid.

For two weeks, he stayed away from searches. Then he began Googling again, feeling less awful each time he watched videos.

“I thought, 'Well, people like this, so it’s got to get better,' ” said Matthew.

Without a correct understanding of sex and healthy sexuality, Matthew, and countless other teens, have difficulty separating pornography from healthy sexuality, which is why parental silence on the topic is so damaging in today’s porn-saturated world, experts say.

"Pornography is even more harmful when we have no way to make meaning of it," says Anderson. "(When a teen has heard) nothing else about sex, gender, healthy relationships … (porn) is going to have a very different impact than someone who has really solid information about sex and sexuality, gender and relationships."

Pornography confuses teens because it so often fuses sexuality and violence by showing women enjoying being hit, slapped or called names.

"There are a lot of people who think it’s harmless, helpful to sex, and it is only sex," Anderson says. "That is absolutely not true, and what that means is people can get hooked on porn because it’s easier than relationships."

Teens themselves acknowledge that porn is affecting their views. In a survey of 500 teens in the UK, the Institute for Public Policy Research found that 70 percent said "pornography can have a damaging impact on young people's views of sex or relationships," and 72 percent said "pornography leads to unrealistic attitudes (about) sex."

Matthew even found himself wanting his future relationships, at least the sexual aspect of them, to "be similar to what I had seen in porn," he says. "After a session of watching porn, I think back on some of the thoughts that I had while using and I’m revolted by my own imagination. I’ve never had sex, but when I do, I don’t want it to be anything like porn."

How to begin

Breaking down media messages is a great way to start these crucial conversations, says Elizabeth Schroeder, Ed.D., and a nationally recognized sexuality education expert.

When her son was young, she would watch his TV shows with him. When two characters had their first kiss, they talked about it.

"When should two people kiss? What does that mean? How were they treating each other?"

Commercials, billboards, radio songs, news events — almost anything is a “teachable moment” and a chance for parents to convey values, she says.

As her son grew, Schroeder continued to ask about what he was hearing and seeing at school, while also trying to answer some of the questions she knew would come with puberty. As a teen, she asked about his friends, a less invasive way to get information.

She taught proper vocabulary for body parts, helped him recognize sexist language in media, and nurtured an open atmosphere where he knew no discussion or question was off-limits, even if she didn't have all the answers.

“If there’s one thing I want for my kids, I want them to be able to ask me anything,” said Dina Alexander, founder and president of Educate and Empower Kids, who acknowledges that their family has had some pretty interesting dinner table chats.

Alexander and others emphasize that talking to kids about sex and sexuality will not push them into it — yet, ignoring their growing curiosity will send them elsewhere for answers.

“We need to take shame out of the conversations and help (kids) understand that curiosity is normal … but we have standards, rules and this is the direction we need to go," she said.

For Alexander, this started three years ago when she read an online article about the pervasiveness of porn and was incensed. Her children were 13, 10 and 7 at the time and instead of feeling like she was too late, she sat them down after school and shared what she had read and how she felt.

“There was nothing eloquent in what I said, nothing special about that conversation,” she said. “But my kids knew I cared about them.”

Matthew is quick to praise his parents for their love and support, especially as he deals with his ongoing pornography problems, but he wishes they would have talked more about such a crucial topic.

"Even though it gets more difficult and more ackward as your kids know more about sex, I just feel like more education is required," he said. "If (parents) don't explain it to them, they're taking the risk that porn will explain it to them, and that's never good."

Helpful websites to begin talking today: