Let’s talk about sex

Locals debate the best way to handle the family birds-and-bees talk

Illustration By Paul Hoppe

Do you want the street terms or the medical terms?

This was my dad’s opening line for his classic—and dreaded—“sex talk.” I was 16, wildly in love for the first time and mortified to hear my dad expounding on the joys and dangers of sexual relations.

“But dad,” I protested indignantly, “I’m going to wait till I’m married to have sex.”

“That’s what you say now …”

OK, so he called my bluff. But he got the message across: If you want to make the god of love and lust laugh, tell him your plans. And in the meantime, he added, “Talk to me if you need birth control.”

For most people, sex education in the home falls into one of five categories: the throat-clearing, eye-averting, squirm-inducing sex talk that realistically addresses safety concerns (see above); the Dr. Ruth-inspired, open-forum dinner-table discussions (“Pass the penis—I mean peas!”); the stumbled-upon sex book or secret porn stash (The Joy of Sex or The Devil in Miss Jones?); the post-sex (i.e. “caught in the act”) sex talk; and, perhaps the worst education of all, the sex-education-by-omission (“Don’t ask, don’t tell”).

So how do we communicate about the act that both thrills and terrifies us, without our own hang-ups getting in the way? I decided to interview locals to find out what works and what doesn’t when families talk birds and bees.

“I don’t think anyone my age is really open with their parents,” says Garrett, a 17-year-old senior at John F. Kennedy High School.

Garrett was in seventh grade when his single dad first tried to talk to him about sex—“tried” being the operative word.

“It was really awkward. We both decided it would be better if we ended the conversation.”

His school experience of sex education wasn’t much better. In fifth grade, “They showed us really cheesy 1980s movies about puberty and your body. It was more like, ‘I got a boner the other day, what do I do?’ Then in eighth grade, they brought STDs into the picture.”

Originally designed to educate World War II soldiers about venereal diseases, sex education still focuses largely on the biological aspects of sex. While the graphic, full-color photographs of herpes and genital warts are certainly helping to reduce the rate of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, this stomach-turning approach has its drawbacks.

What’s too often missing from sexual dialogue, both in the home and at school, is discussion of the emotional experience of sexuality.

Daniel, a 33-year-old Auburn resident, said his Mormon father “opened up his scriptures and started reading about how having sex out of marriage was second only to murder” when he learned that 15-year-old Daniel was having sex.

“There was never any talk about the emotion or about what sex is supposed to mean in relationship,” Daniel said.

Karen, a 52-year-old resident of Placerville, relates a repressive reticence around her early experiences of sexuality.

“When I was 17, I had been going with a guy—my first love—for a year or so. I said to him, ‘Are we ever gonna, you know, do the thing?’”

Their illicit and ill-fated sleepover led to her first official sex talk with her mother.

“There was a whole bunch of shame wrapped around it,” Karen recalls. “Not a whole lot was said in my generation. Most of us heard about sex from our peers. I think that [parents talking to their kids about sex] is a response to promiscuity. What I’ve gathered from any generation prior to mine is that it was taboo to talk about. Everybody was doing it, but nobody was talking about it.”

When it came time to educate her own daughters about sex, Karen was determined to do it differently. She and her husband initiated discussion during family dinners, but “it was always really awkward and weird,” says her daughter Shannon, now 25.

Shannon’s “real sex talk” occurred when she was in seventh grade and was caught getting frisky with a boy under the bleachers.

“I had to get a sex talk from my dad. But it was actually a really good experience. The biggest thing he said that stuck with me forever was, ‘Your body is really the only thing in your whole life that you tangibly possess.’ He encouraged me to make good choices and choose someone I care about and who cares about me.”

Yet despite her parents’ progressive attitudes toward sex communication, “There were mixed messages,” Shannon says. “My mom would say ‘Bodies are beautiful,’ but she certainly didn’t seem to think her own body was beautiful.”

It wasn’t until Karen asked nervously, “If you needed birth control, would you ask me?” that Shannon, who had been in a serious relationship for two and-a-half years, felt free to openly communicate about her own sexual experience.

“That’s when I took a deep breath and said, ‘Mom, I’ve been on birth control for two years.’”

Even though this information sideswiped her mother, Shannon remembers “being so relieved when it was finally out. I could never come out and tell her because I knew she didn’t want to know.”

Shannon’s self-sufficiency is commonplace among today’s teens. In addition to having open conversations about sex, “Kids look out for each other,” says Garrett. “Going to Planned Parenthood, that’s just something kids will do together.”

However, one issue that is frequently overlooked in school and home education is same-gender-loving sexuality.

“It just isn’t brought up” was the most common response from my interviewees, even though, according to Garrett, “it wouldn’t be an issue” if one of his friends was gay.

As far as educating the next generation of kids, the unanimous ideal is for open communication from the start.

“I think the key is for parents to be responsible for their own sexual energy,” says 26-year-old David, Shannon’s husband. “Yes, talk about sex—this is all sex in a way—but there’s a huge responsibility and a maturity that comes with sexuality. And that can be safely bestowed to our kin, as the kids’ curiosity prompts dialogue.”

Daniel plans to “prepare a script” so that when the time comes for him to talk to his own kids, he isn’t caught with his pants down. Garrett, though he professes no need for such openness with his own father, intends to “absolutely be honest” with his kids about sex, and “know what’s going on in their lives.”

Shannon, while hoping that there’s “a natural way to keep that communication open” with her children, also expresses a respect for kids’ privacy.

“When it comes time, my hope is that I will have done enough work myself to feel comfortable with my own sexuality, and allow them to have their own experience.”

Shannon’s aspiration to “do her own work first” acknowledges a fundamental reality behind any sex-related interaction: the fears we harbor about our own sexuality, if not addressed, are likely to be passed on to our kids. Whether parents have explicit discussions with their children or remain Puritanically tight-lipped, kids pick up on their parents’ attitudes and values about sex. Which means that, in addition to having an open-door policy on communication, the best way to raise kids with a healthy respect and understanding of sexuality is to model these behaviors ourselves.