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Parents Still Suck at Talking to Their Kids About Sex

But the internet may soon help.

America is not great at sex education. According to reports by organizations like the sexual health–focused Guttmacher Institute, many schools at best focus on abstinence and the risk of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). But they skimp on basic issues like birth control and consent, much less navigating the complexities of idiosyncratic sexualities, desires, and relationships. Unfortunately, American parents haven't traditionally been great at filling in these gaps. For decades, "the talk"—one conversation in which a parent awkwardly breaks down "the birds and bees" with their kids—has been ingrained in our culture and parodied in films. Oftentimes, it isn't very effective and probably, alongside our prudish and sclerotic sex ed system, goes a long way toward explaining our high rates of teen pregnancies and STIs relative to other developed nations.

Sexual health and parenting experts, to their credit, have advanced promising and well-supported ideas for years on how to engage kids on sex and sexuality to help them have safe, consensual, and ideally pleasurable sex if and when they choose to become sexually active. Blogs and expert advice columns now urge parents not to have just one "talk" but many conversations about sexual topics with their kids, often from a young age. These resources extol parents to go beyond sexual mechanics, offer straightforward information rather than euphemisms and not shy away from any topic to slowly build up a wide body of awareness as well as parental trust and an open channel of dialogue. But it's unclear how much of an impact it has made on American society at large. Even for those who are open to changing up the way they talk to kids about sex, it can be hard to overcome internal barriers, or to figure out when and how frequently to bring sex up, how to frame those many tiny conversations, and what to cover within them.

Dr. Dalmacio Dennis Flores III of the University of Pennsylvania took an interest in parent-child sex talks while working as an HIV/AIDS nurse over the past decade, as he realized the role anemic sexual dialogue had played in many patients' lives. This year, he completed a meta study compiling the results of 116 studies conducted between 2003 and 2015 on child-parent sexual communications in the US. VICE recently caught up with Flores to see what he learned about whether new advice has changed the way we talk to kids about sex in recent years and how parents can actually practically move toward more nuanced and constructive conversations.

VICE: What does "the talk" look like for most American kids today?
Dr. Flores: There hasn't been much change. These are one-time conversations… or several conversations. It's funny: Parents tend to report they've had multiple conversations, but children under report it. What qualifies as sex conversations for parents is sometimes missed by kids. [Maybe] kids just weren't in the mood to listen, so even if it was concise and clear conversation about sex, they just blotted it. You also have parents who feel like even giving a look to a child when they're watching TV and something sexual comes up, to them, that's communicating.

What exactly are most parents actually communicating these days in their sex talks?
Instead of providing a conversation that's not steeped in emotion, the majority [fall] under the heading of "you'll get in trouble if" or "these are the things you do so you don't get in trouble." Conversations that involve pleasure or desire… sex positivity is just not rising to the top yet.

What should parents focus on in sex talks that they aren't right now? Are there different ways to approach these talks at different times, for different families and contexts?
It's not just about coitus or body parts. It's about sexuality and how one expresses themselves physically. It's also about relationships and knowing one's boundaries. How, during puberty, an adolescent manages emotion—when you have your first crush, how to deal with that. It all falls under the umbrella of sex communication. Which is why this one-time idea is such a disservice.

It's not the big parent being an expert bequeathing the child with knowledge. Ideally we'd like there to be equal air time to the children and parents, for there to be feedback. And sometimes there is that… but not as much as there is the awkward "just trying to get done with the process."

You consider the topic and how you can frame it to meet their cognitive needs. It also has to do a lot with prior conversations you've had. A dad sitting down his son the night before prom and showing him what a condom is will not fly when there have been zero conversations beforehand. But if a mom has been gradually engaging her children in conversations about genitals, cleanliness, and [the importance of protection], you can build on preliminary conversations. It's more than just checking off ["the talk"] for the parent of the year award.

How does a parent figure out when to actually initiate conversations?
Teachable moments. It sounds corny, but that's a convenient way of bringing up issues. A four-year-old asking how is my baby brother going to arrive? That's a teachable moment initiated by the child. When you [get] vaccinations [done], you can have a conversation on what they are and segue into STIs. The same thing with watching TV. Salacious behavior regarding public officials has been shown to trigger talks at the dinner table. Even picking up a child from middle school, when you have them captive in the car. These have been reported consistently as opportunities. It's a matter of normalizing that conversation. There's such a hang-up about sex in this country. Getting comfortable with sex, that this is not a shame-filled behavior or topic [is important].

But like you said, kids might just not be open to hearing things sometimes. So how can parents pick their teachable moments to have the best chance of having an impact?
The sex advocate in me would say if there's an opportunity to discuss it, go ahead. But one consistent barrier for parents is that they feel they didn't receive adequate education so there's concern about the validity of the information they possess. So even if a teachable moment comes up and they know they should capitalize on it, there's still [that] factor. And that's a product of their generation. The story of sex education in America has been passing on minimal information about it generation after generation. So they still have this handicap, even if their intentions are good. 

Yeah, and teachable moments are so off-the-cuff, so how do parents prepare for them?
There's no such thing as over-education. The opportunities for millennials to start providing sex education for their children are coming up in the next few years. Parents provide information based on their own experience, so coming of age facilitated by the internet—it'll be interesting to see if they change the narrative from what their parents provided them.

If you met a millennial who'd just had a kid and wanted to provide solid parental sexual communication for that child down the road, but maybe didn't have a great parental or institutional sexual education themselves, how would you tell them to approach this topic?Figure out where your roadblocks are as far as discussing sex. If you can't have an assessment within yourself of how you perceive sex, then how can you imagine communicating about that with a child who is at such a different developmental place than you? It's not about having the knowledge or the skills, but figuring out [your views]. If they're based on religion, shame, or whatever, take the next steps to address those. Then you can start communicating with a friend, a spouse, and figure out what points you want covered with your child. It's not such a sexy answer, but it starts with [that].

Is there anything you think is especially important for parents to start focusing on more?
I'm looking at how we can make sex communication more inclusive, because same-sex attracted youths have some of the highest outcomes for HIV and STIs. It's such an afterthought [for many parents today] that "my child may not play out this role I had for them when I was born." You'd like to start planting the idea with new parents not to assume heterosexuality. I would like to come up with an approach [for] an inclusive and successful sex talk that encourages consensual, disease-free, and pleasurable encounters for these same-sex attracted youths, but I'm not there yet. I'm a few years away from that.

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