Getting over ourselves – overcoming the embarrassment of talking with kids about sex
Sex Clinic star Dr Naomi Sutton – who, we’re proud to say, sits on the Outspoken Sex Ed Advisory Board – has lots to say, both as a consultant physician and as a mother, about the embarrassment and shame around talking openly at home. In the 14 October interview Dr Naomi Sutton Talks Sexual Health, she tells author/entrepreneur Anne Welsh how she got it “dreadfully wrong” in answering the question: “Mummy, what’s a condom?”
Anne Welsh Sex is not a subject that comes so easily for parents to talk about. For my mother it was: “Let’s delete that subject and you figure it out as you go along.” But what if you run into problems along the line and then you’re not quite sure how to solve them?
Dr Naomi Sutton Historically parents don’t talk to children about sex. There are a lot of misconceptions. Parents are worried if they open that box because: 1) they don’t know quite how to answer the questions but also 2) sometimes they feel: “If I talk about sex, my kids are going to go out and have lots of sex.” But look at how Sweden and places with better sex education have much lower rates of teenage pregnancy.
I would encourage you: don’t make it into “a chat” with your children. Have the chat all the time, like you talk about food and exercise and work. Bring it into everyday conversations, and then your children won’t find it a difficult subject.
So my daughter, who’s 9, knows that her “private areas”, for want of a better word, are called a vulva and the vagina is the tube. I’ve got a son, aged 11, who knows the word testicles and hopefully will get all the prizes in his sex ed!
Throughout their whole upbringing, if my kids brought up a question I tried to answer it as well as I could in their language. Sometimes I do it dreadfully wrong! For example a couple of years ago my son said: “Mummy, what’s a condom?” and I was like: “Oh, where did you hear that?” He said: “You!” I said: “Oh. It’s a bit like a plastic bag that goes on the end of a penis and collects the seeds.” And then he looked at me, horrified, and said: “What – I shoot seeds out of my penis?” I think he was thinking apple pips!
So we can all get it wrong – but have a giggle about it.
I was brought up in a family that didn’t talk openly about sex. My mum had “the chat” with me about periods when I was about 13 and I’d already started them, and it felt awful because it was such a big deal.
Examine why you’re feeling embarrassed: think about why and “Is that right?”, because often it is a cultural or a societal thing. They’re our bodies and we should be talking about them.
I want my son and daughter to have a good sex life. I want them to have the vocab and the understanding to be able to talk to me – and with their partners or someone else – if they do have a problem.
Anne Welsh I see you’re on a mission to reduce the stigma surrounding sexual things.
Dr Naomi Sutton I am on a mission! I’m nosy – I think that’s why I love my job. The E4 show The Sex Clinic has been a real success in getting people to talk about things. I’m so passionate about what I do that I forgot there were cameras in my face.
Going on TV was hard but I would say the hardest thing for me was having children, without a doubt. There are no guidelines for having children. There are guidelines for what I do at work, so I can look them up on the internet, but with children it’s the dynamic between all those relationships and juggling work, social media, school trips, their happiness… For all human beings, the hardest thing we do is relationships in all aspects of life.
Anne Welsh I feel you on that. My son is 11 and my daughter is 3. Managing who they are – there’s just no manual…
Dr Naomi Sutton Don’t rely on sex ed at school, because it’s so variable. They’re your children – you know them better, you know when to answer their questions. Children develop at different rates, they’ll want information at different times, they might not want it in that lesson and they might want you to chat about it.
I would say for any parents struggling to talk to their children and to understand how to open up those conversations there’s a really great group called Outspoken Sex Ed that are trying to get parents talking. They have lots of advice and blogs and things on their website – and they have a newsletter you can sign up to for free. It just expands parents’ knowledge.
It’s good to keep on top of what’s going on. Because I think it is a frightening subject and children now ask more difficult questions than when I was younger. I think it’s very daunting.
Anne Welsh That’s helpful. It’s something I hadn’t even thought about, that conversation. You feel: “Don’t ask me that difficult question – I’m not ready!” But eventually you have to start…
Dr Naomi Sutton Part of why we’re so shamed about talking about sex is because it’s a taboo subject. But it’s never too late.
If children come to us with “Mummy, what’s a condom?” or whatever they’ve asked, if you go: “Ooh, why are you asking that?”, instantly they shut down because they then see it as something wrong and taboo. So you’re creating the same cycle that we’re in as an older generation.
Obviously it depends what age your kids are, but if they ask you about something that shocks you, try and hide your reaction. Try and not be aghast.
Also if you’re unsure or embarrassed about how to answer, don’t plough in. Say: “Oh OK. Interesting question. Not quite sure how to explain that to you at the moment. Mummy just needs to do a bit of research. Can you give me half a day and we’ll have a chat about it…” or whatever.
There’s loads of great resources out there to help, so don’t feel you have to do it all alone.
Anne Welsh Someone like my son would absolutely shut up and he would not come back to me again asking that question, because my immediate reaction would stay with him for a long time. You have to know your kids. They might think: “Mum’s embarrassed about that. I’d better not ask her that question again.” Finally, what would be your hope for the future?
Dr Naomi Sutton Educational things like this that help people. Some people like watching things, others like reading – but accurate, friendly, open chats can only ever help.
We all need to work on our own inner shame. Shame is a big, big issue that comes from lack of education or from the culture. I’d love to see shame and stigma got rid of.
I want that not to be involved in sex. Sex is a joyful thing. We all do it because it’s fun and intimate and bonding. There are so many benefits to sex. Sex should be about pleasure.
Shout about vulvas, vaginas, penises, whatever – let’s say the words and not with any strange, shameful feelings. We should be just talking. Just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk!
This is an edited excerpt from the 33-minute interview in the Painless Universal series. A consultant physician at the Integrated Sexual Health Service at the Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust, Dr Naomi Sutton is an ambassador for the Eve Appeal and Saving Lives – follow her on Instagram (drnaomisutton) and Twitter (@DrNaomiSutton). Follow Anne Welsh on Instagram (ladyannewelsh)