One question we get a lot in schools is about when children are ready to learn about sexuality.
Times have changed since we were all young and we now live in a world in which our children are exposed to sexualized images from a very early age. With this, comes the idea that their body and their appearance is a commodity – and that they must look and act in certain ways to be pleasing or even just accepted.
This means that these crucial conversations cannot happen too soon.
Start to look at the media your young person is exposed to with a critical eye to see what I mean. Open a magazine and you will see an advertisement – many of which are highly sexual. In fact, many guest presenters who come to speak to younger year levels about porn and sexualization start with an examination of the messages of simple fashion spreads.
Pay particular attention to advertisements aimed at teens, and examine how they are portrayed in films and movies. You will see that what is being presented as normal to them in terms of behaviour and appearance is a far cry from what we may have experienced in our teenage years.
And this is long before we touch upon what they have at their fingertips on the internet, and what their friends may send to them via social media. All too often we see the results of young people who have been exposed to highly sexualized images far too soon – and are left with serious misconceptions about how adults behave towards each other in intimate situations.
So we need to use open, honest conversation to prepare our young people to navigate a world full of sexualized images, of sexual behaviour and confused expectations. To do so, here are some topics you might like to bring up.
Body Image and Appearance
This is a crucial talk to have with both boys and girls. The normal body is not perfect and we have to hold ourselves to a different standard that the images in advertising, movies and sadly, porn. Some of these bodies may have won what some call the “genetic lottery”, and others are the result of editing, plastic surgery and hours spent in the gym that are unachievable for those of us with a full-time job or full-time study.
Make sure your young person is exposed to normal bodies and understands that health is more important than “perfection”. Help them also to appreciate beauty in a wide range of forms, so they don’t promote unhealthy standards not only in themselves but also in others.
While the media may promote the idea that teens are sexual beings – many young people are not at all ready for this. What a relief! But this means we need to give them permission and empowerment to say no to acts that they may see on TV, read in books or see online. We need to ensure they understand they do not have to meet anyone’s expectations except their own. What is in their level of comfort is all they need to consider. Anyone who suggests otherwise is not allowing them to be themselves.
When I talk to young people about consent – and this is consent to any kind of physical intimacy – I tell them that unless their feeling is a “hell yes!”, then they should definitely say no. Be sure, or avoid the situation. This may be a useful line for you as well. And a useful line to promote respect for.
Gender and Sexual Orientation
Another conversation might be around how their gender/sexual orientation is presented in porn, and how this neither reflects normal sexual performance or normal intimate relationships. Porn is often impersonal, sometimes aggressive and certainly focused on the visual gratification of the viewer, rather than the connection and comfort of the individuals involved. This is a very worthy topic to discuss.
Also, if you can, talk to them about the challenges of the opposite sex. It is easy to focus on the issues facing young girls if you are parenting them – but helping them to understand that young men feel pressured to be seen as sexually confident may assist them as they get older to navigate their relationships with them. This will be crucial if your child is heterosexual – but a growing percentage of youths are same-sex attracted or elsewhere along a gender and sexual spectrum. They will struggle to see healthy and loving images of people together in a way that reflects their emotional needs.
All we can do is reassure young people that their feelings are normal, and that normal loving relationships can be found everywhere. You might talk about your own relationship if you are in one, or find texts (films, books etc) that help them see healthy relationships with characters who look, feel and experience the world like them. A bit of research may help with this, so might asking your school librarian or English teacher.
Photo by Zen Chung from Pexels