how to talk positively with kids about sex
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 rules – Privates 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.
“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?”
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.
Finding out who you really are (Image: The Outsiders/Pinterest)
Studies show that porn is one of the only places that gay young men can learn about how to have sex. In sex ed lessons we don’t talk about same-sex experiences, so if you’re gay hearing about STIs is useful but hearing about contraception and reproductive sex is: “Nothing to do with me.”
Porn is not a sex instructional manual. It’s entertainment for adults. The actors are stunt performers; sex scenes are choreographed just like fight scenes. But we need to be careful not to say that that porn’s unrealistic while TV and movies are realistic. In mainstream films two people make out for a few seconds up against the wall, bashing the furniture around, and then suddenly he goes straight inside her and they both orgasm within 30 seconds. That’s really unhelpful information on how to make sex pleasurable for you or your partner.
If we’re worried about young people learning about sex from porn, what we really need to be asking is: what are we not teaching them and how could we teach it?
A big problem is that young people can’t talk about porn because there’s this barrier of shame. If you see something on EastEnders that bothers you, you go: “Mum, what’s this?” Nobody’s ever gone: “Hey Mum, I was just watching porn. Can I talk to you about it?”
We need to have conversations with young people around: porn is not how sex really works, but it’s over there and we can talk about it.
Consent and jumping on the furniture
In a bubble: practise consent and you’ll be creating muscle memory (Image: Mount Sinai Medical Center)
Helping your child make decisions, giving them choices and saying: “It’s OK to say no” are skills you have to practise. We’re good with small children about going: “Don’t snatch. Don’t hit. Ask first. Play nicely.” They’re all lessons about consent.
How we teach children to cross the road is by doing this weird miming performance of: “Look left; look right” and creating muscle memory around it. Parents need to do that with how we touch children. If you ask: “Would you like me to tuck in your shirt or can you do it?” and “Should I hold this for you?”, that models asking for permission – and we’re creating that muscle memory in ourselves and in them.
Before you drop your 7-year-old off at a birthday party you say: “Remember your please and thank yous. Be respectful. Have fun.” And “don’t jump on the furniture” is one that I used to throw in there.
A how-to guide: the great Consent Explained To Children downloadable poster at EliseGravel.com/en/
But we’re not very good at talking about good manners in the bedroom. When we drop our teenager off at a party, we might tell them not to drink but we don’t talk about how to treat people. There’s no conversation about: “Remember your please and thank yous.” That’s completely about consent, isn’t it?
The rules are the same. But jumping on the furniture is kind of the point of it – you’re going to go have sex with your partner, and that’s what sex is: jumping on the furniture together.
Sometimes I’ll ask students: “Have you talked with your parents about going to university?” Usually they have. Then I ask: “How many of your parents have talked to you about what you want from sex? And what it should feel like? And what kind of values they have around it or how to enjoy it or how to do it safely or how to treat people?” They’ll say: “Oh no, we don’t do that.” It’s interesting how much emphasis we stick on our career path – but our personal relationships are just as, if not more, important. We need to build sexual citizenship – the life skills of how to negotiate intimate situations.
A girlfriend/boyfriend in the house
When I was 17 and asked if my girlfriend could stay over, my parents said: “No, not at ours.” It was weird that it was not OK. We wouldn’t be having sex, because my bedroom was right next to theirs and that would have made us uncomfortable. So she couldn’t cuddle with me in bed because that was intimate, but my parents knew we were having sex when they weren’t in the house. What was the message – that sex is something you do in secret? But then you’ve got two teenagers sneaking around trying to find some privacy, and that can lead to having sex in places with no adult supervision.
One of the worst things about having to hide things from your parents is that if anything goes wrong you can’t pick up a phone and say: “Can you come and get me – I’m stuck.”
If teenagers can sit on your sofa watching Netflix while you’re there and kiss and cuddle – well, we don’t want to look at it, but it’s better it’s happening there than at the bus stop or in the park. If your teenager’s first sexual experience is drunk at a party, you haven’t got the same sort of power to say: “Stop – this doesn’t feel right.” The music is loud; there’s no one around to support you.
I would rather my daughter has her first sexual experience in her bedroom, where it’s her space and she’s safe, than at a dodgy party.
Keeping the door open
Let’s Talk About Sex: the 2019 Channel 4 show with (from left) Ulrika Jonsson, Jeff Brazier, Danny Dyer
At parents’ meetings all kinds of parents will ask: “How can I make my child talk to me?” Well, certain people you talk to openly because you trust them and they’ve earned that right. They’ll listen; they won’t be judgmental; they’ll tell you if you’re being daft. If a girl shares an image on a TV show and you go: “How stupid of her”, why would your daughter come and talk to you if she’s done the same?
Instead my wife and I do a lot of talk at the dinner table, and yes, it is a bit pantomime-y: “What would you do in that situation? If only they had a dad they could talk to…”
As parents we often approach topics that make us uncomfortable by slamming a door hard in our child’s face, which says: “We can’t talk about that. We’re judgmental about that.”
Early doors (Image: Drawing Now)
By having little conversations you can prove you’re a safe person and be earning Brownie points all the time:
• Be non-judgmental. When you’re watching telly, listening to the radio in the car or talking with other people about something in the media, show that you’re OK with it
• It’s all about: what’s the message of what I say and how I behave? The more you can model good things, the better – even if you have to fake it till you make it. At the supermarket, go down the feminine hygiene aisle and say: “Look at this product” in front of people, like it doesn’t matter and you’re not embarrassed. If you hide it under the salad in your trolley, that tells your child it’s shameful
I don’t pretend I’ve got the answers. My 13-year-old daughter rolls her eyes at me and tells me to shut up, because I’m her dad – but it’s about her knowing that she can talk to me.
I don’t want to shut any doors. You can’t make someone talk to you, but what you can do is keep your door open for when they want to.
Jonny Hunt is the founder of Going Off The Rails and author of Sex Ed For Grown-Ups: How To Talk To Children And Young People About Sex And Relationships (Routledge, £18.99). Use discount code JH20
Read what Jonny said about answering your child’s questions, even if they’re personal and it’s awkward, in our blog post Confidence tricks – how parents can talk about sex ed topics
See Jonny in action and hear more of what he has to say in our Outspoken / Speak Out video Having positive conversations with kids about sex