“One day you’ll have sex…”: how to talk with children and young people about pleasure and consent
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
Consent and pleasure: two of the most important and interrelated sex and relationships topics to talk about with your kids – and one of my top sex-ed interests.
It’s disheartening that in a culture that teaches us to judge girls and women on their looks and desirability, girls can ironically be so out of touch with their own body that many don’t feel OK about discovering what their sexual anatomy looks like or what feels pleasurable.
Pleasure is such a no-go area for parents that talking about it can be more daunting than talking about porn.
But in talking as openly as we can at home, we can help girls to become less dissociated from and critical of parts of their body. How can we do this? Luckily relationships and sex education (RSE) consultant Yoan Reed – my wise, wonderful, insightful Outspoken co-founder – isn’t fazed by these topics. She encourages parents to encourage their young, tween or teenage daughters to – when they are in a private space and feel comfortable – take a small mirror and look at their vulva. The message: don’t be afraid to see and appreciate what you look like, because every body is different – and it is OK to explore yourself with your fingers. “That,” Yoan says, “is how girls and women find out what feels good for them.” Watch her in action in the first of our Outspoken / Speak Out videos for parents. It’s 17 colourful, captivating minutes including animations from the amazing short film Le Clitoris. Meanwhile here is more of what Yoan had to say about boys’ questions about girls’ pleasure, how she talks to girls about exploring their body and what you can do to feel more confident in talking openly with your child about sex, pleasure and consent…
LEAH JEWETT I come from America, which maybe partly explains why I’m direct and love hearing people open up. Having grown up in Denmark, you’ve always felt at home with nakedness, bodies and talking openly…
YOAN REED I was taught from very early on that bodies are natural and normal. You’d see people naked, for example, when you were changing to go swimming. It made it easier for me to work, first as a midwife and then in sex education, because I come from a place of feeling comfortable in and assertive about my own body.
So how do you define consent?
With a young child, it starts at the very basic level of sharing and asking for permission. If you want something, you agree on it. It’s about: “This is what I would like to do. So I need to be aware of my needs and the needs of the people I want to share with.” That is a very early fundamental thing to teach your child: how do we share and how do we share safely? It’s important as a parent to understand that to teach our children what consent is, we need to honour their wishes and experiences. If you say to your child when they’re older: “I’d like to speak to you about sexual development” and your child goes: “I don’t want to talk about that”, you can’t just plough on, because you’re crossing a boundary. Your respecting them is also a good way to model consent.
Be the boss of your own body: illustrations by Kai Kwong from Yes Means Yes! by Elaine Tai
How can parents talk to older kids about consent?
What we hear and see in the world around us and in the media is a perfect way to start talking about sexual consent. If there is a story on the radio about sexism or rape, for example, you can say: “What do you know about this? How do you talk about it with your peers? What are you learning about it at school?”
So asking for their thoughts is not so much about teaching them what sexual consent is – it’s about engaging them in conversation, listening to their experiences and then sharing your views and experiences with them.
We often hear about the importance of emphasising “enthusiastic, ongoing consent”. What’s your take on that?
It’s important. Consent is not permanent. It is a conversation that keeps going. Consent can be given and it can be withdrawn.
Pleasure is really important to put into our understanding of the concept of consent. You can only give consent if you really know yourself. The message should be that with consensual sex, not only are you enjoying it but you should recognise how and if the other person is enjoying it. So consent becomes much more than a “yes” or ”no” – actually it’s an ongoing conversation: what you’re doing feels right because it feels pleasurable to me and to you. But in 10 minutes’ time, when we do something slightly different, maybe it won’t feel so good anymore.
Lots of young people say to me: “But it takes away the joy and the excitement if you have to constantly verbally give consent to each other.” So it’s really important to say: “There are lots of ways you give consent or not, and you need to be able to read that language too.”
Young people need to learn to recognise the signs, non-verbal cues, body language and messages they get from their partner so it becomes reciprocal and not a one-way street.
It can be tricky because women generally are conditioned to defer to men, prioritise men’s pleasure and let them take the upper hand with things. So sometimes women aren’t able to verbalise their feelings because they’ve been socialised not to.
That’s about skills, and skills need to be practised. Articulating your needs is an ongoing thing that we should teach and practise from a very young age up to… well, it’s a lifelong process. I continue to learn – and why shouldn’t we? Similarly, sex education is not just for teenagers who are ready to face the world of sexual relationships – it’s also lifelong learning.
After you ran a mother-daughter workshop, one mum wrote: “I was happy with all the information until you mentioned the word pleasure.” Why is it so hard for people to talk about pleasure?
When we start talking about the sensual body, we become very protective of children because we immediately think that it’s got to do with sex and we don’t want to sexualise our children.
But we forget that children have experiences of feeling pleasure on their body. An infant enjoys the warmth of our skin and being stroked, hugged and held. That is a pleasurable feeling.
We don’t teach our kids that pleasure is important for their sexual development. We discuss sexual development in terms of safety, risk aversion and consent. We forget to talk about the importance of entering the sexual world, when they’re ready, being mindful of pleasure.
Talking to children about their bodies and boundaries is really important. Most people are good at that – but we can extend it into talking about sexuality if we dare. One reason we don’t is because, again, we don’t have the skills. Most of us didn’t have the teaching or didn’t feel comfortable discussing it when we were young. Most of our sex education was full of maybe shame or danger or protection rather than about realising our own worth or about our feelings of pleasure. Engaging with this topic is one of the biggest gaps for parents.
So we need to be courageous enough to open up that conversation. For example, with a teenager who we know is becoming attracted to other people, you can say: “If you feel comfortable about your own body and you know what feels good for you, then you’re much more likely to be able to assert that when you are engaging sexually with another person.”
Once, in teaching a group of boys, instead of saying: “When you have sex one day, think about contraception” you asked them: “Do you want to be good lovers one day?” And all those boys said yes, which is brilliant. That was your way into talking about communication and healthy relationships. I also like your three-part approach: discover your own body, then share your body and take joy in sharing someone else’s body…
That three-phased approach is very helpful to children and young people in understanding what sex is. Other than the physical act, there are so many parts to sex that are important.
We need to engage young people in understanding their body and give them the knowledge that it’s OK to explore their own body. Because once you understand what feels good for you, then you’re much more likely to be able to give consent to pleasurable sex and to be able to recognise what feels good for another person.
Presenter Sandi Toksvig wrote: “Let’s talk about the clitoris because good heavens, no one else is going to!” It’s something that people find hard to talk about. It doesn’t even exist on some anatomy diagrams, which is unbelievable in this day and age. This is the only organ in the human body whose sole purpose is to generate pleasure. In class, boys sometimes know more about the clitoris than girls, and you’ve said it’s surprising that girls aged 13 or 14 don’t know about their anatomy. They’re dissociated from their bodies and how they work.
It’s easier to talk about the male sexual anatomy because it’s visible. Female sexual organs are not on display: they are folded and hidden and not talked about. Typically people refer to the female sexual anatomy as one organ – the vagina – which it is not: it is the vulva. The vagina is the tube from the vulva that leads to the uterus. We have to label all of girls’ private body parts with the correct terms, and it’s important that girls – and boys – understand their function.
Actually the head of the penis, the glans, is made up of the same structures as the clitoris – they’re the same kind of very hypersensitive part of sexual anatomy that’s really important for pleasure and for enjoying sex one day. So you can talk about how the clitoris is not just a little button that you can may be see on the outside of the vulva – it extends around the vagina on the inside and it is sensitive all along those two legs that form around the vulva.
Then people understand: “The whole of the vulva is sensitive, and the experience of a penis inside a vagina, if that’s the way that people have sex, is pleasurable on the penis for the man and pleasurable on the inside and around the vulva for the woman.”
It’s important for schools – and for parents – to understand that this is a much bigger picture. We can start to talk about why people have sex. It’s not just to make a baby – it’s to feel close and intimate and safe and enjoy each other’s bodies.
We can talk about the right to have a positive sexual life. In thinking about human rights, children have a right to be educated effectively and positively about themselves. And that’s where sex education becomes a human right. It’s a lifelong right for everyone regardless of who we are. So talking about the clitoris – one little organ that is actually much bigger than we think it is – can start a conversation about gender equality, sexual pleasure, sex positivity.
It helps to always question our culture and think about how things like ads, films and art are geared towards the male gaze and being arousing or erotic for men. So question that with girls and ask: “What if we walked down the street and were besieged by billboards that were making us sexually provoked the way guys are?”
Absolutely. We live in a time where lots of social taboos, especially around sexuality, gender and equality, are being challenged. We need to use that positively and start talking about it in our peer groups and with our children, our partners and everyone around us.
I learned so much from asking my sons about how they see things. If I’m challenged by what they’re saying, it’s healthy for me to say: “From a female perspective, this is what I feel or think.” Being able to ask questions of your kids, engage in their world and seeing how you can start a conversation on the back of that is one of the building blocks you need to use.
A few years ago I was shocked to read that an American professor said some of her female students came to university never having masturbated or having had an orgasm. Rarely do we talk about girls and masturbation, but it’s OK to joke about boys and masturbation. How can we get girls to accept their bodies, even to look at themselves – which is sometimes hard – and to enjoy their bodies and figure out what gives them pleasure?
Even when I have segregated classrooms, I still find it harder to engage girls in talking about pleasure and masturbation even though when they’re going through puberty most will start to think about their body as being sexual. With boys, it’s an easy conversation to have – they talk about these things in their peer group, not always in a healthy way, but it’s part of masculinity and male sexuality. With girls, I’m always met with red faces, maybe shame and guilt.
I think it goes back to how we view the female and male body from when they’re very young.
Little boys have erections; they happen automatically. As parents we’re used to dealing with that. Who hasn’t opened a nappy on a baby boy and their penis is erect and they may even pee on us, you know? And we’re used to the idea that males will eventually be sexual beings. Whereas with girls, we are very protective of them and maybe don’t engage with explaining and laughing about female sexuality. So it becomes much more taboo and secret.
If we don’t love and understand our own body, if we can’t name our body parts, if we don’t feel we have permission to explore our own body, then entering a sexual relationship is going to be difficult and maybe full of pain and worry. So in my teaching children, especially as they’re reaching puberty, I explain: “You may not be comfortable talking about some parts of your body because you’ve always been told that maybe it’s naughty or: ‘Oh, be careful, don’t share it.’”
The way I like to open the conversation with girls is: “You have these body parts; they are really important; let’s name them, including the clitoris. One day you’ll have sex – you’ll have enjoyable sex that feels really good – and to understand what that feels like, you need to explore your body when you feel comfortable.
This is about self-discovery and bodily autonomy. This is about owning your own body and making sure you understand how it feels for you. And once you have an idea about how you feel, you’re much more likely to have a really good experience when you’re ready to share your body with someone.”
From left: Glitoris (Alli Sebastian Wolf), Cliteracy (Sophia Wallace), Skateboard vulva (Shane LaVancher)
Surprisingly, it can sometimes be easier for adults to talk to kids about porn than about pleasure. Dr Emily Setty, an expert in young people and sexting, says some boys aged 13 and 14 who’ve watched porn often want to learn: “What do girls really find pleasurable? How can I understand?” In porn women are so performative when it comes to orgasms, and consent doesn’t even enter into it. So tell us about how porn influences both girls and boys.
Children and young people access porn mainly for education – in the early stages to understand what sex actually is – but of course there’s also their natural curiosity about sex.
We need to bring up the subject of porn in education and make sure young people understand that mainstream porn is a commercial product. Lots of young people don’t really think about that. Porn is not built on consent and pleasure; it is built for the male gaze. Once you start to unpick porn and help young people understand the difference between fantasy and reality, you can start to engage them in a better understanding of what sex is and how we make it consensual, safe and pleasurable.
Interestingly, I recently did a relationships and sex education (RSE) needs assessment with some 13- and 14-year-olds. Boys put porn and pleasure as top priorities to learn about – and girls put consent and safe relationships. It was such a picture of what’s going on at the moment. Whereas boys are interested in sex and not just in porn but also in pleasure, girls are still very protected and protective, so for them it’s much more about how to keep safe and how to engage in the conversation of consent. Those results say everything about the education those groups need around safe relationships, porn, consent and pleasure.
You once said: “If a mother can’t mention the word pleasure and talk to her daughter about pleasure, what hope has that girl got to be empowered to have a pleasurable sexual relationship? She’s not going to put that first, is she?”
I still stand by that! Just because parents tend not to have received adequate relationships and sex education, it doesn’t mean that we can’t re-educate ourselves and empower our children to have really good experiences.
It doesn’t matter what background the parents I speak to have – their child’s right to have a pleasurable and loving relationship with someone is really important to them. They all want their children to have good relationships.
So how can parents get over their own obstacles to talking about pleasure and consent?
It does demand that we look at our own experiences and our perceptions around pleasure and sexual activity. If you are full of shame and guilt about pleasure in your own body, then you are unlikely to be able to project a healthy relationship to it when talking to your child.
Educate yourself. That’s a good grounding for speaking to your child. Start with wondering: