There are few parent-child interactions more dreaded than the infamous “birds and the bees” talk. Eighty-nine percent of American parents think they can influence when their kids have sex by talking about it, but 39 percent feel their own discomfort is an obstacle, according to a 2010 study in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. The feeling is mutual: Kids’ disgust at their parents’ sexuality is a common sitcom trope, and walking in on your folks is considered scarring. But why is it that we find sex an especially uncomfortable topic when our families are involved?
Many of us first learn that sex is a taboo subject from our parents, either directly, through their use of euphemisms for sexual acts and body parts, or through their complete silence on the matter, says Elizabeth Jeglic, a licensed psychologist and professor of psychology at John Jay College in New York. People who didn’t receive “the talk” from their own parents may not know how to have it with their children, making this silence a self-perpetuating cycle, adds D. Joye Swan, chair of the department of psychology and social sciences at Woodbury University in California.
It can also be weird to think of our family members as sexual beings for the same reason it was weird to see our teachers outside of school. When someone plays one particular role in our lives, we have trouble imagining them outside this position, Swan says. Children come to think of their parents as purely their caregivers, she explains, and parents think of their children as perpetually innocent, wondering, How can someone who can’t clean their room be old enough to have sex?
When the disgust is directed toward family members of older generations, we may have ageism to blame. “It is not just 'aw mom!' It is 'y'all are too old for this!'" says Liberos founder and sex researcher Nicole Prause. “Younger adults are less likely to realize how long adults tend to stay sexually active.”
Aside from cultural influences, some psychologists think disgust around family members’ sexuality could be ingrained in our DNA. The human aversion to incest is almost if not completely cross-cultural, Prause says, which may serve to help us avoid inbreeding. “Genetic similarity increases the risk for expressing recessive, potentially pathological, traits and abnormalities,” she says.
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Obviously, talking about sex with our families is not akin to incest—but our brains may perceive it that way. “There is quite a bit written about over-perception of sexual interest,” Prause explains. “Mom talking about sex does not mean she wants to have sex with her kid, but it might kind of nudge that feeling of 'incest disgust.'”
Wherever it comes from, there are benefits to working through this particular brand of discomfort. A recent University of Montana study found that college students who learned about sex from their parents had a more positive learning experience than those who received this information from peers or via sex ed. So, the talk is more important than a lot of people think. A wealth of research has shown that people who get comprehensive sex education are less vulnerable to teen pregnancy and STIs, but not everyone can rely on school for this information. Only 18 states and Washington, DC, require schools to teach students about contraception, and only 12 require lessons addressing sexual orientation, according to a recent Guttmacher Institute report.
Children whose parents seem uncomfortable talking about sex may not come to them with vital questions, Jeglic says. They may even stay silent if they experience sexual abuse because they don’t feel comfortable confiding in them. “We are inundated with sexual images,” Swan says. “Girls are taught in the media that their self-worth is tied to their looks and being desired, and boys are taught that they are supposed to want sex all the time. So, in some ways, children can’t escape sexual messages.” But they can learn healthier, less toxic ones—and that learning process just may have to start at home.
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