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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jewett

“She rolls her eyes at me…”: how to talk positively with kids about sex

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

Intuitive, down to earth and empathic, Jonny Hunt is a rare breed: he’s a man who talks sex ed. A lecturer in Applied Social Sciences (Childhood & Youth) at the University of Bedfordshire who is doing a PhD on pornography and young people – and the author of the new book Sex Ed For Grown-Ups – he’s spent years teaching kids and reaching parents through his relationships and sex education (RSE) consultancy Going Off The Rails.

Watch Jonny in action in our entertaining and informative Outspoken / Speak Out video Having positive conversations with kids about sex.

Meanwhile here is more of what Jonny had to say about talking openly about body parts, flicking the switch with the word ”nice” and jumping on the furniture…

If children get the idea in their head that sex should feel good, then when they are having their first sexual relationship and things don’t feel quite right… BOOM! A little hand grenade can go off and spark the thought: “It shouldn’t be like this…”

I hope that when my daughter is ready to have sex, she already understands her body and is brave enough to tell her partner what she likes… I want her to feel safe. For sex to be on her terms. For her to have fun and enjoy the sex she chooses to have. That is my idea of sunshine and rainbows

– From Sex Ed For Grown-Ups by Jonny Hunt

Girls, boys and body parts

In primary school we teach little ones the correct names for private parts from a safeguarding point of view. If a child can name their private parts and know the PANTS rulesPrivates are private / Always remember your body belongs to you / No means no / Talk about secrets that upset you / Speak up – someone can help, they’re less likely to be abused.

That also involves explaining about when we can be naked and when we can’t, and when things are appropriate – you know, children learn not to pick their noses at dinner or to fart in front of Grandma. We teach those things quite easily, and this is just another part of that.

With the song Head, Shoulders, Knees And Toes, there’s this gap between the shoulders and the knees that we don’t talk about. If you can’t name or label something, it becomes taboo.

Little boys start school knowing they have a penis – it’s been talked about and it’s there in front of them. But most little girls don’t know what they have. Parents tend to not label girls’ genitals, or they’re given a cutesy name of like a foof, tuppence, noo-noo or something. So it’s like the Voldemort of body parts: she who must not be named.

It’s really odd that we make girls’ genitals both taboo – “It’s a precious flower” – and also icky and dirty. And we wonder why girls feel out of touch with their bodies.

drawing of girl's pants on a carpet with discharge
“Your vagina cleans itself, which is fantastic”: (Image: Ella Byworth/Metro)

I used to work on a website as an agony aunt, and we got so many questions from girls about discharge, because nobody tells them: “During puberty you’ll produce discharge. Your vagina cleans itself, which is fantastic. This is what it looks like.” We’re creating problems by not telling everybody about something that happens to 50% of the population, and we make it dirty and weird.

With puberty lessons boys are taught about erections, ejaculation and wet dreams – it’s all about sexual responses. And girls get tampons and periods, and later contraception. We build this weird thing where sex is good fun for boys while girls get responsibility and pain.

I spend a lot of time in class unpicking attitudes to sex – the social scripts we have – and we talk about how boys buy into the idea that sleeping around is how you get your lad points, how the language is kind of violent and trophy based (“What’s your body count?” is the worst one. What are we – serial killers?) and how there’s pressure on guys to be good at sex and be in the driving seat. We should stop seeing sex as something that you do to somebody and see it as a team sport where you work together to have a good time.

It's really sad that lots of girls are having sex but don’t know about their bodies. That is ridiculous. How on earth can you be safe, sexually active or take control of your body if you don’t know how it works?

Once in a session with 17-year-old girls, someone asked: “How often do you change your tampon?” and a girl answered: “Every time I have a wee – or else how would I pee?” Half of the group was like: “Do you really not know that you pee through a different hole?” and the other half was: “That makes sense.”

In another session we were talking about erections and moved on to: “How do girls’ bodies get ready for sex?” And a girl said to her mates: “Girls don’t get turned on, do we?”

Big Mouth cartoon of a teacher showing a diagram of ovaries that looks like a sheep's head
The classic sheep’s head (Image: Big Mouth/Netflix)

In class girls get the diagram of the baby-making kit – the ovaries that look like a sheep’s head – but they’re rarely shown what a vulva looks like, which is the bits that have got all the pleasure. We don’t talk about the outside, and that’s bizarre.

I rant about this a lot. Sorry.

So what is sex anyway?

We still have a very conservative view about teaching young people that sex is penis-in-vagina sex between a woman and man who love each other in a marriage. We need to widen that definition.

When I talk with kids, even from about age 8, I might say that sex is something that grown-ups do because it can feel nice – it’s the closest two people get to each other when they really like, love, fancy or care for each other. They might kiss and get undressed and stroke each other all over.

Two things: 1) if we say sex is something adults do, that puts it in the future and distances everything and 2) it’s talking about intimacy and closeness, which most people want.

Being positive about sex and bodies

When you tell 7- or 8-year-olds “Sex is something grown-ups do, it feels nice” they react with: “Ugh – why would you even kiss each other?”

If a safe adult says that sex should feel nice early doors, just that word “nice” might flick that switch for young people when they have sex for the first time to think: “Oh yeah, they were right.” Or: “This is supposed to feel nice – why doesn’t it?”

Sometimes the worry is that if you talk with kids about making babies, they’ll want to do it – but there’s no evidence for that. The earlier we have these conversations the later young people end up having sex, and the more likely they are to do it safely and not regret it.

A key message is: “Your body is amazing. It’s the best piece of kit you’ll ever have. It’s better than the latest iPhone; it’s cooler.”

You can build up body positivity from day one. When you’re bathing your toddler, don’t whisper: “Now wash your privates.” Use the correct words for body parts and say: “Now we need to wash outside your vulva” or: “We need to wash your penis.” If you’re hesitant and embarrassed, then you put that onto your child. But if you practise saying the word vulva out loud, you’ll normalise it for you and your child. You’ve got to just take the hit and get over it.

The Doing It checklist

Teenagers are told: “Only have sex with people you love, and wait till you’re 16, because that’s the law.” But you don’t blow out the candles on your cake the day you turn 16 and say: “I’m ready now.” I tell young people: the only person who knows you’re ready is you.

I’ve got a Doing It checklist for young people: “Have I got condoms and do I know how to use them? Are we on long-term contraception? Is there somewhere safe to have sex?”

Before that there’s: “Do I know how my body works? Do I know what feels nice for me?” Because if you don’t, you’ll be having sex to please somebody else.

Hopefully what we want for our teenagers is for them to have sex because they think it’s amazing.

As parents we’re trying to protect our child, but what from – having a good time? Instead we often prevent them from enjoying or taking control of sex.

We don’t really like thinking about our teenagers as sexual beings. They’re still our little ones. It’s a challenge to think: “However uncomfortable it makes me, they’re ready to experience the world.”

Discussing sexting and porn

Teachers used to say about sexting: “Don’t send nudes; it’s bad.” But this perpetrates this idea that if you share images it’s your fault. Whereas if we say: “These are the reasons people might send nudes. These are things to be worried about. What’s negative is sending without consent” then we’re shifting the blame from the person who consensually shared intimate photos with someone they’re infatuated with over to the people who shared them without consent.

Young people are learning about pleasure from porn. Porn is a bad place to learn from as an only source, but for some young people it can open doors into who they really are and what they want.