“The talk” – a draft

No one ever had “the talk” with me. My parents were, in many ways, quite up front and comfortable with sex and sexuality. In others, not so much. Early on, I knew the basic mechanics of penis-in-vagina sex. (A good friend and I made a fair sum from our second-grade classmates by winning a bet about how babies were made.) It wasn’t until my late 30s, though, that I had even the beginnings of a clue as to how sex and desire really work.

I’ve been thinking a bit about “the talk,” and about just what my talk should go like, what I wish I’d been told, what I think I might say. I’ve watched (and previously written about) Julia Sweeney’s hysterical account of her talk with her kid. [ted id=856 lang=en]

My own thoughts here are somewhat unformed. This isn’t so much a proposal or a plan as a brainstorming session – not so much the outline of a talk as the outline of the basic points I hope to get across as a parent. But I’m curious – have you had “the talk” with your sons/daughters? What’d you say? How’d it go? How did your parents’ talks with you go? What did they say? What do you wish they’d said? Have you read good things on the subject? Where? By whom? (I asked this question the other day and was sent lots of great links, and thoughts, by readers, both in the comments and in back-channel e-mails – thank you all. I’ll follow up with some thoughts on those links in a separate post.)

Here are the points I’m thinking I want to get across as a parent, to my child:

I’m not so interested in talking about the mechanics of reproduction. You know them, in broad brush terms. You’ll learn the more detailed anatomy and mechanics in biology, in sex ed, as it should be. Honestly, I don’t know that stuff all that well – teachers trained to teach you should teach you. What I hope to communicate about is desire, about the meaning of sex, and about the power of sex.

1. What is sex, really?

When I was growing up I was told sex was “when a man puts his penis in the vagina of a woman he loves.”

And this certainly is one kind of sex. But the truth is, sex is much more than this. Sex isn’t one act. Sex doesn’t require two people (nor is it limited to two people). People have sex with themselves (usually first, and usually more than in any other format over the course of their lives), they have sex with another person of the same or another gender, and some people, sometimes, have sex with more than one person. Sex doesn’t require a penis. It doesn’t require a vagina.

To me, sex is simply this: any activity in which we engage primarily for sensual (bodily) pleasure, pleasure which typically, but not always, is centered around our genitals, but which often features other erogenous zones including the entire rest of our bodies, and especially, the insides of our brains.

2. Why do people have sex?

One reason people have sex is to reproduce. But this is not the main reason people have sex.

I mean, it may be the main reason from an evolutionary perspective, but humans evolved, unusually (but not uniquely) among species, to have sex for fun and pleasure, and not just for reproduction.

Mostly, when people have sex, they hope very much it won’t result in reproduction. Like almost every person I know, I can’t possibly count the number of times I’ve had sex. But I can count on the fingers of one hand – actually, in my case, with just one finger – the number of times It’s resulted in reproduction.

Almost all of the time, then, most people have sex for fun. We have sex because it feels good, and/or because not only does it feel good, but it’s something really fun we can do with another person (or people) – and fun is almost always more fun when we share it with others. And when another person isn’t available, or interested, it’s something we still can do with ourselves. And we do.

3. With whom (other than myself) should I have sex? When? Why?

My parents told me sex is something people do “with someone they love.” But this, too, simply isn’t true a lot of the time. Maybe most of the time. Most people spend most of their young lives having sex with people they know, people they like, and occasionally, people they love. And sometimes, with people they can’t stand. Or people whose approval they want. Or people they’re scared of.

You should have sex with yourself when you can do so discreetly, and when you want to. (No one other than a sexual partner wants to see you masturbate, or even to know explicitly that you do so. This doesn’t mean it’s shameful or embarrassing. It’s just private.)

You should have sex with other people when you want to, and when they want to, and when you and they both are aware of and comfortable with the risks and rewards of sexual activity (see below).

In general, good sex happens when people have it with people they communicate well with, with whom they feel comfortable saying what they want, what feels good, what feels bad. And most important, with people they trust – people they trust not to hurt them, not to use them, not to abuse them. (Except to the extent those are things they actually want to happen – more on that in a moment.)

But there’s more to it than this: good sex often happens between people who want similar (or complementary) things. Because sex is so complicated, there are so many different ways to have sexual fun, it matters what you want. It’s important to learn what you want, what you like, so you can be sure that the people you have sex with want similar things.

4. What if what turns me on is gross, or bad?

Desire is funny. We don’t pick what turns us on, what gets us excited. Gay people don’t choose to be gay. Straight people don’t choose to be straight. As you get older, you’ll find all sorts of sexual practices on the internet (and that’s fine – look around, take it all in, in private, away from the prying eyes of others). You’ll see people doing things that disgust you, and people doing things that you’re surprised to learn excite you. (More on internet and other pornography in a subsequent post/talk.)

Listen to your desire: not every desire needs to be fulfilled, but if you try to deny that you feel something, nothing good will come of that. Some desires definitely shouldn’t be acted on. But you are not what you want. Your desires happen to you. Don’t judge yourself – or anyone else – on the basis of what they want, what they like. And learn to fulfill those of your desires that you can, consensually, to the greatest effect.

Don’t be surprised that surprising things may turn you on. Some people are excited by feeling pain, some by inflicting it. Some people are turned on by dressing up like babies. Some, by pretending they’re animals. There’s literally no end to the wild and crazy things that turn people on, and there’s nothing wrong with any of it.

The only things that are bad, sexually, are things that hurt other people, or that are done to them without their consent, or without their ability to consent meaningfully. So sex with people much younger than you, sex with people whose judgment is impaired, sex with people who, for whatever reason, can’t say yes (or no) is much more risky, is nearly always bad.

5. What are the dangers of sex?

Well, the biggest, worst danger of sex is that it can be used as a weapon. Having sex with someone against her or his will – or interacting sexually with a person without her or his explicit consent – is a bad thing. It can leave serious physical and emotional scars, and it’s just a shitty thing to do. Never do it, and, if anyone does it to you, be sure to tell someone you trust right away. It’s bad enough to be sexually assaulted; it’s worse to live alone with the aftermath of a sexual assault. While assaulting someone sexually is an awful thing to do, there is no shame in having been assaulted. Sadly, it’s happened to lots and lots of people – some people say as many as a third of women have been assaulted sexually, and though a smaller number of men have been assaulted, it happens to men, too.

The second biggest danger, in my opinion, is that sex often leaves people feeling bad. People often find themselves regretting things they’ve done sexually because they did them for the wrong reasons (see above). People have sex because they hope that by doing so, they’ll make someone like them. Or because they hope that by doing so, they’ll feel better about themselves. Or because they’re just scared not to. These sorts of reasons almost always leave people feeling worse than they did before they had sex, and my advice to you is, the only good reason to have sex is because you want to. If you do that, if you have sex when you want to, alone or with people you want to have sex with, and who want to have sex with you, you can’t go wrong.

The third biggest danger, and in some ways the most important, is the danger of pregnancy. Pregnancy and reproduction are wonderful. Unless they’re not what you’re trying to do. In which case, pregnancy can be, in a best-case scenario, an expensive pain in the ass for the pregnant girl/woman, and in a worst-case scenario, a life-altering error. It’s not a bad idea for any heterosexual having vaginal intercourse to talk through how they imagine they’d handle an accidental pregnancy, should one occur. (This may not be realistic, but, as a parent, I’d like to imagine it is.) And for God’s sake, if you’re not trying to cause a pregnancy, be sure that you know that contraception is in place.

And then, the danger that people spend the most time talking about? Disease. This one seems fairly simple to me. It is true that sex is one way people transmit diseases to one another. The vast majority of sexually transmitted diseases are no big deal, treatable by antibiotic. A few are more dangerous, chronic. Sometimes even fatal. Do your research. Read up on the various diseases you need to be aware of (HIV, HSV, HPV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, pubic lice/crabs*, for starters). And practice safer sex practices.

There’s no single collection of practices that are universally agreed upon here. The policy that has worked for me (and most people I know) all my life has been always to use a condom for vaginal or anal intercourse except when I’ve been profoundly comfortable that the person/people I’ve been having sex with a) are HIV-negative, and b) are not having unprotected sex with anyone else. Beyond that? Do what feels right.

But other than that? Sex is wonderful, and fun. Think of it as a playground –  a tremendous place to enjoy yourself, where you have to be mindful that you don’t hurt yourself, but where risk is, for the most part, rewarded with fun.

Enjoy it, above all else!


* Do people even get crabs in these days of shaven pubes?


  1. Ok, I agree with most what you said, even like it! I have had the talk a couple of times already, even though none of my kids are sexually active, at least not as in having sex with anyone other than themselves. And I’m lucky that I know this because my kids feel confident enough to talk to me about these things.
    I need maybe to reinforce the fact that having sex with someone if you don’t really *want* to, do things you’re not really ready for, doesn’t generally feel good in the end.

    However, I have to say something about the anatomical and sex ed education aspect. You say that you leave it to the experts to teach your kid about this.
    I don’t know if your kid goes to a public school, and I don’t really care. Let’s say that for the sake of your readers, I just want to reinforce that in a wide majority of States, sex ed doesn’t have to be medically accurate
    “Despite widespread public support, particularly
    from parents, only 20 states mandate sex
    education and HIV education, only 18 states
    mandate the provision of information about birth
    control, only 12 states mandate instruction about
    sexual orientation, and only 13 states mandate
    that instruction in sex education and HIV
    education be medically accurate (Guttmacher,
    excerpt from this website http://www.plannedparenthood.org/files/3713/9611/7930/Sex_Ed_in_the_US.pdf
    Or maybe, for a less controversial source, see this http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-policies-on-sex-education-in-schools.aspx
    “All states are somehow involved in sex education for public schoolchildren.
    As of July 1, 2014:

    22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools teach sex education (20 of which mandate sex education and HIV education).
    33 states and the District of Columbia require students receive instruction about HIV/AIDS.
    19 states require that if provided, sex education must be medically, factually or technically accurate. State definitions of “medically accurate” vary, from requiring that the department of health review curriculum for accuracy, to mandating that curriculum be based on information from “published authorities upon which medical professionals rely.”

    May I draw your attention to the fact that only 19 States require medically accurate information be taught to students. Which means less than half!!

    Personally, I find this appalling! I’m lucky that I have the knowledge to teach my kids the medically accurate things. But I pity all those kids whose parents cannot teach them anything because they are not too sure they understand it themselves, or have a lot of misconceptions.

    1. Thankfully, I live in a part of the world in which this insanity is irrelevant. Schools where I am do as good a job of teaching about sex and biology as they do of teaching about everything else. I have confidence in them. But I agree – in many places, people aren’t as fortunate as we are.

      1. I hope you really mean in a part of the USA… because the problem is not just in such part of the world as Nigeria or Iran or India. No, the problem is that legislature allows states to not provide accurate information. I find that appalling that in a country that wants to be the leader of the world such things could still exist… Ok, political rant over 😉

  2. Oh, I forgot to say. I think it’s best not to have “A” talk, but to be available when your kid wants information. “A” talk can be scary. You may also give out more information that your kid is ready to hear. So basically, instead of “giving” a talk, ask him/her to ask questions and answer them. That way, they will only get the information they are ready to process. And knowing that you are available for them to talk about this topic as well as others is good, because then they know that they can come to you with any question in the future.
    And if at any point your not comfortable to talk about something, you are allowed to say it. “This makes me feel a little uncomfortable, but I’ll do my best to answer your question.”. It’s always better than to let them think that there are taboos and things that are too dirty to discuss.
    Well, considering your thinking about talking to your kid about fetishism and such, there may not be much you are not ready or comfortable to discuss with your kid. But maybe the “Have you ever had sex with more than one person” may come up… Especially if you talk to them about that possibility 😉
    Good luck with it all 🙂

    1. I totally agree on the “a talk” vs. “ongoing conversation/s.” And yes, in general, answering questions is better than offering information. I think what I’ve been trying to do here is to lay out the things I hope to transmit, through some conversation of affirmatively offering it, embodying it in our interactions, and answering questions.

      1. And I really like what you’ve done here.
        I like your approach to sex and sexuality and the way to teach it to your kid. I’ve just read your new post. I agree with you on the fact that we in no way can control our kids’ sex lives.
        I’ll go leave a comment there now 😉

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