Let’s be real. Talking to your child about sex, pleasure, and masturbation can be daunting. Even for those of us who are more open with our partners and friends… It's a different story when it’s your kid. While it’s normal to feel a little awkward and uncomfortable, it’s also so important to be honest and vulnerable because the dialogue that you start when they are little can be extremely beneficial during their teenage years. To learn more about the topic and get some tangible tips and tricks to use with your little ones, we spoke with Dr. Karen Rayne.
Karen has worked in sexuality education for the past two decades with an expertise in parenting, comprehensive sexuality education, curriculum writing, and training. She is the author of GIRL: Love, Sex, Romance, Being You and Breaking the Hush Factor: Ten Rules For Talking with Teenagers About Sex as well as a wide range of curricula and other professional resources. Rayne has worked with the UNFPA, UNESCO, The Center for Sex Education, Girls Inc, and other organizations to bring them best approaches to sexuality education. She is frequently sought out to share her expertise through training professionals, school consultations, articles, radio and print interviews, and speaking with parents.
Lora: Hi Dr. Rayne! Please, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Dr. Rayne: Well, I live in Austin Texas. I have a couple kids, a couple dogs, a couple chickens. No cows!
I do comprehensive sexuality education. So that means that I work with people directly, I write curricula and other associative materials that people might use in the sex ed classroom, and I train people on how to become really good sex educators. Also, I am the co-founder and Executive Director of UN|HUSHED — a nonprofit that strives to stay on the cutting edge of really high quality sex education.
Lora: Why is it important for parents to talk to their kids about sex, pleasure, and masturbation?
Dr. Rayne: Why isn’t it important?!
Really, there are so few places where kids are getting this information. Yes, it can be a bit scary and overwhelming. Especially because most parents didn’t get this information themselves, so they don’t have a blueprint for how to explain sexuality well. But, if parents aren’t going to do it, then they can’t trust that their kids are going to get that information from a reliable source. We, the parents, need to be the ones that step up. If we just can’t do it ourselves, we need to make sure that another adult is.
Kids should also be getting this information in some sort of moderated environment (like a classroom or some kind of after-school activitiy group) by the time that they are 12 or 13 because they need to learn how to talk to their peers about sex as well.
Lora: What is the best age to start the conversation?
Dr. Rayne: I usually say that by age eight, kids need to have had a conversation started by an adult in their lives. There are some parents who are like: I will never be that person. I just cannot. I will never say the word ‘penis’ in front of my child. It will never happen. So for those parents, it’s about finding a different adult to be that person.
The conversations that start at age eight in age-appropriate ways about reproduction, puberty, relationships, consent, etc. can create a beautiful conversational baseline. So that by the time these kids are teenagers, they feel comfortable coming to you if they need advice or if something has gone wrong. At the age of eight, you can start having conversations about things like:
- Penis’s and erections.
- Vulvas, vaginas, and discharge.
- The clitoris and how it can provide pleasure.
- How there’s a cell from people who have penises, and a cell from people who have vulvas, that come together to create life and those cell structures develop in the uterus.
If you wait too much longer to start talking about these topics, then kids start getting a little weirded out by it all. But at the age of eight, they can perceive it as theory — so it’s a little easier for them to digest it.
Lora: Why has it been normalized to have “the talk” aka only one conversation about sex with your child?
Dr. Rayne: Some people think that as a parent, your responsibility for talking about sex is one big talk that explains reproduction — and then you can bounce out. Like once you’ve said how babies are made, you’ve done your due diligence, and let the rest happen however it happens. However, that’s not really the way that a child’s brain works.
What a child remembers at eight about reproduction (even if you tell them a lot) is not going to be the sum total of what they need when they start having sex. As they get older, they are going to need more information about consent, communication, body image, body language, contraception, STI protection, etc. So you need to keep the conversation open throughout the years.
Lora: How do you keep the conversation open and ongoing?
Dr. Rayne: We should just remember that sex is a natural part of life, and it can just flow in and out of conversations in that way. So whenever we’re watching a movie where someone gets pregnant, or has an abortion, or has an uncomfortable stalking moment where someone is paying too much attention to someone else, and then it turns into a romantic comedy where stalking is romanticized — let’s talk about those things!
It’s also important to make sure you don’t ask too many questions. In my book 10 Rules For Talking With Teenagers About Sex, one of the things I say is you get one question. And if that question doesn’t get a response, then you have to just wait. We have to let kids set their own boundaries, which is what we want teenagers to be doing developmentally. We need to let them know that we won’t be weirded out by talking about sex, but we don’t do that by pressuring them into conversations.
If you go to their door and they just slam the door in your face, you need to keep standing there (metaphorically speaking). They’re going to keep slamming that door because they trust that you’re on the other side. The minute that they need something, they will open that door and you need to be right there, ready to have that conversation. Even if they slam the door everyday for a year and you keep showing up, this shows them that you’re going to be there for them no matter what. And that has the potential to make the difference in life-saving situations. So while it’s exhausting, we just have to keep being present with our teenagers.
Lora: What is a book or TV show that could help to educate your child on the topic?
Dr. Rayne: While there are lots of shows that have mostly good conversations about sex and sexuality (some examples include "Glee," "Sex Education," and "Everything's Gonna Be Okay"), I don't recommend this as an approach to learning about sex and sexuality. Instead, these provide a fertile ground for parents to draw on to begin conversations with their teenagers. There are a handful of books that are great for teens, including the ones that I wrote (GIRL and TRANS+ - I'm co-authoring DUDE now!) and anything by Heather Corinna. Parents should always read the books first before giving them to their teenagers. But ultimately, what teens really need, is in-depth, connecting conversations with their parents coupled with structured classes with their peers.
Lora: Should you ensure that your child has condoms and proper contraception?
Dr. Rayne: YES. Contraception saves lives! Not only should everyone have access to it, but it’s also incredibly important to have the knowledge and capacity to use it correctly every single time. The vast majority of failure around contraception has to do with incorrect usage, so if they don’t know how to use it correctly, it doesn’t matter. People who have the potential to get pregnant also need to be on some kind of long-acting contraceptive if they’re having the kind of sex that would result in pregnancy. There shouldn’t be any stigma about accessing that.
There’s always new contraceptive options out there and finding the right one that works for you and your body can be a bit hazardous. Ideally, a teenager should have either a parent (or someone who’s comfortable talking about contraceptives and sex) with them when they go to the doctor so that they can discuss their goals and be specific about their bodies and hormone levels. I cannot stress enough how important it is for kids to have access to contraception.
Lora: Should you talk to your children about buying a pleasure product?
Dr. Rayne: I think this can be a little weird. I don’t think that looking at vibrators together is an appropriate level of intimacy between a parent and a child. However, high quality pleasure products are often outside of the range of teenagers’ budgets. If they want to buy one then maybe you could say something like: I’m happy to drop a couple hundred dollars in your account or give you a gift card so you can make sure you get one that is safe for your body. But that’s how I would encourage parents (and non-parent adults) to be involved — at a distance.
Lora: What is your best advice for a parent whose child is leaving for college / university for the first time?
Dr. Rayne: I think that it’s really important for college kids to know that the primary drug used to coherce someone into sexual contact is alcohol. The most common way that someone lowers another’s inhibitions and takes advantage of them is with alcohol. So being smart about alcohol is really, really important.
Having consumed alcohol before and knowing what it does to your body and decision-making skills before you go to college is a really healthy thing for young people to do. This can be practiced in a safe environment with their family, intimate friends, etc.
It’s also important to create a dialogue by saying something like: I want to hear all of the good things and all of the bad things about college. Call me and tell me everything. Text me, snapchat me, whatever your preferred method is. Just let me know what’s going on with you and know that I love you and support you no matter what you tell me.
Lora: What is missing from typical highschool Sex Ed programs?
Dr. Rayne: Identity, pleasure, joy… literally anything related to joy! Teenagers know that they’re supposed to be getting joy from these things. And yet, our sex ed is so focused on abusive relationships, assault, STI diagnosis, unwanted pregnancies—just a barrage of negativities without giving any representation to healthy relationships. Who wants to sit through that?
Thank You Dr. Rayne!
We hope you enjoyed this conversation, and are feeling a little more ready to open the conversation about sex, pleasure, and masturbation with your little ones. Always remember that talking about sex and sexuality isn’t a one-off conversation that you have to get exactly right. It’s a conversation that continues and evolves as your child grows up! You've got this.