From the therapy room: how learning about sex in childhood can influence you as a parent
In How To Have Open & Honest Sex Ed Conversations At Home, psychosexual therapist Kate Moyle – founder of the Thought House Partnership and herself a mother – talked to Outspoken director Yoan Reed in her 30 June Sexual Wellness Session on Instagram Live.
Here Kate discusses the messages about sex that parents can give their kids, how talking about sex can bring up anxiety and how adults can still be haunted by playground banter…
ON COMMON CONVERSATIONS ABOUT FORMATIVE SEX & RELATIONSHIPS EXPERIENCES
One of the conversations I find most important as a therapist is finding out how people learned about sex and what messages they received. It’s not what’s said but it’s about how it’s said, and children pick up on a sense of discomfort and unease.
Parenting is based on modelling – and parents themselves didn’t have these conversations when they were growing up. Sex was never talked about, or those talks felt awkward and embarrassing.
Lack of conversation is one of the things that speaks a lot louder than words. People often tell me: “I never heard my parents say the word ‘sex’.” That sent them a strong message.
Many parents are scared and nervous about talking with their children about sex – it brings up anxiety. I’ve heard from people the fear that talking to children about sex will sexualise children or makes them want to have it earlier or be more interested – but research suggests the opposite.
We’re trying to help parents not to avoid, be afraid of or shy away from conversations but to have them differently.
ON LEARNING ABOUT SEX
A lot of people I work with as a therapist have held onto playground banter or horror stories about sex that made them think: “That must be what sex is like – it must be horrible.” If they’d had a reference point that came with that story or a way to check out that information, their relationship to sex as a concept would have been different.
Learning about sex from porn is like learning to drive from Fast & Furious! Porn is designed to arouse. It’s not an education resource, and it wasn’t designed to be one. We objectively understand this, as adults, after we’ve had sexual experiences.
Don’t wait for your children to see porn – get there first before they experience sexual content so that when they see it they have an understanding of porn’s role in sexual wellbeing and that it’s not representative.
I’m not saying that porn is bad. I’m saying that you as a parent can play a role in your child’s relationship to it.
ON TALKING OPENLY
If adults don’t want to have conversations, children are curious about why not.
Children are incredibly curious. There’s always been playground banter or looking at magazines. Even though sexual materials are more accessible, and out of control, the nature of that relationship isn’t that different.
If we empower adults to have conversations we are also putting them in charge of the information that children get ahold of.
Instead of the “birds and bees” talk we should have hundreds of those sex & relationships conversations. We should integrate these topics into our conversations all the time – then it’s not a big deal, that fear factor. Talking about body parts should be like brushing our teeth.
A common misconception is people saying “vagina” when they refer to the vulva – but the vulva is the external female genitalia and the vagina is the internal canal. We say: “Do try and use the correct body-part name and don’t be afraid to name it. This will help children feel empowered and identify what’s happening in different parts of their bodies.”
Also we shouldn’t shame children for masturbating. We know that sexual development starts from when they’re born, and at age 2 they’re identifying differences between girls and boys, realising that touching parts of their body feels good.
Some body parts you use privately, some publicly, so you’re telling your child that there are boundaries not just about being touched on their genitals but on all body parts. It’s about consent and helping children make informed decisions.
ON STARTING THE CONVERSATION
There’s a responsibility on adults to know all the answers – and parents fear not knowing the answers. But it’s OK for them to not know and to not be an expert.
Parents are scared of getting it wrong. It’s not about right or wrong, just about introducing the conversation so children and young people know it’s allowed to happen, that it’s on the table. It’s about being age and stage appropriate.
Sometimes parents are scared or nervous, thinking: “If I start the conversation, where will it go?” But they can also ask their children: “What do you want to know?”
If your child asks you a question, as a jumping-off platform you can reply: “Is there a reason you’re asking?”, “I’m curious about where you picked that up from” or “Did you hear that at school?” Don’t shut them down but open up the conversation. The tone and the way you say it speaks a lot as to how that conversation can go.
ON SEXUALITY & SEX ED
Working with adults, I help them to make informed choices about sexuality, how they manage it and their relationship with themselves. There is this misunderstanding about sex and sexuality. Sexuality is something we are, not something we do.
Schools historically have made the focus of sex education mostly about reproductive health – but consent, pleasure and relationships are a big part of it.
To make sex ed inclusive we should include talking about people of the same sex. It’s also about asking questions and allowing the conversations to be there.
There’s an expectation about who we’re meant to be – but there’s no magic formula for sex. So young people should know that they get to make different choices and that their tastes might change. This will help them make informed choices and understand informed consent. They’ll have more information when talking with friends or having sex further down the line.
We know that sex ed hasn’t kept up at the rate the world is changing with the internet, iPhones and people’s access to seeing sex online. Parents didn’t have satisfactory sex ed themselves, so the model they’re working on isn’t modern – they’re starting from minus.
A lot of people who come to psychosexual therapy would struggle less if we talked about all of this more.
Watch How To Have Open & Honest Sex Ed Conversations At Home – Kate Moyle’s Instagram Live interview with Outspoken director Yoan Reed – here
Read what Yoan had to say during their conversation in the Outspoken blog post Home truths: teaching your child sex ed