Breaking the Hush Factor: Ten Rules for Talking with Teenagers about Sex
You may have heard about my book, Breaking the Hush Factor, and this post is to give you some more information about the theoretical underpinnings that support the ten rules in the book. Recently, my friend and midwife Christy Tashjian and her wife Jenni Huntly interviewed me for her blog. What follows is a re-post of the interview.
Interview with Dr. Karen Rayne, Sexuality Educator and Author of “Breaking the Hush Factor: Ten Rules for Talking with Teenagers about Sex!”
Karen Rayne, PhD, sexuality educator, is publishing her first book!
Breaking the Hush Factor: Ten Rules for Talking with Teenagers About Sex! will be released on June 14th. Karen has been teaching sex education with all ages for several years and is a great resource for helping parents work through our own thoughts, beliefs, and feelings around sex and relationships.
A few days ago, Karen come over to our house to chat about her book, we also fed her some delicious baked pears…it’s always nice to feed someone when you really want them to talk! The following is a paraphrased retelling of our conversation….
Jenni: Is the book an accumulation of teaching classes for middle school or is it more related to the individual counseling you do?
Karen: This book is not content oriented at all, it is really about helping parents become familiar with their own feelings around sex so that they can be open to discussions with their teens in an authentic way. I discovered there is much less information out there in the literature about practically addressing your (parents’) own issues.
Christy: My sense is that a parent’s ability to talk to their children and/or teens about sexuality depends mostly on relationship building throughout parenting. It is a gradual process of becoming more and more comfortable discussing things that feel very intimate.
Karen: The context of the relationship is really important and coming to the conversation without any of your own baggage around what is going to happen in the context of that conversation is very important. There are kids who actively come to a conversation about sex and want to engage with their parents and there are some kids who absolutely do not want to talk with their parents about sex. But the ways that the parent should approach each of these kids is within the same framework of honoring and trusting your kid to bring you what they need. They may bring you the need for lots of discussion about sex or none at all; the important thing is to remain open to the dialogue however much or little that is.
Christy: I have been amazed over the years when I didn’t think my kids were listening, I later learned they were taking everything in and remembering it!
Karen: That’s something I do talk about it in the book a lot, about how much your kids do listen to you and how well they do know you. By the time they are teenagers, they really know you AND your reactions very well. Now it is your time, as the parent, to listen and get to know them really well. It’s important to spend a lot of your time listening and really hearing what they are saying, being a sounding board for them to process and assess where they are, thus helping them move forward in beautiful ways.
Christy: What came to me listening to you just now is that we can and should give our kids credit for knowing more and being capable of figuring things out more than we might think.
Karen: It’s a transition, right. When our kids were three, we clearly knew more things about their bodies and how they work and what their needs might be, but as they get older it’s a process of them learning and knowing their own needs; the adolescent years are when this self knowing and transfer of power happens most dramatically. In many ways our culture sees it as a lack of innocence if you know about sex, and even if you don’t buy into that it can be a little bit shocking when your kids start to talk about sex. Cards Against Humanity is a really interesting point of discussion around this. Most of my high school students have played it and some of my middle school students have.
Christy: I feel like middle school age is a little inappropriate for playing Cards Against Humanity but I actually think it would have been a great game for me to play in high school. I was so naïve and broadening my world would have been helpful, I think; shocking and a little embarrassing, but helpful. So I have not tried to stop my high schooler from playing it, but I have encouraged my middle schooler to wait till she gets a little older.
Brief digression here but moving on….
Karen: Kids do generally think their parents are stricter than they are. And I think this comes from a place of kids really, really caring what their parents think. Especially with something like sex, kids may think their parents are particularly less open-minded than they are. Take my classes for example, some of my students say, “my parents would never be OK with me talking about this.” And I say, “well, your parents know the entire curriculum for this class and they pay me a lot of money to discuss this stuff with you!” And they say, “ooo….”
It’s like an impulse or reflex that the students respond this way to some of the things we talk about in class. So what I am trying to do with the book is to help parents help their kids get out of that reactionary place by suggesting that they [the parents] stay interested in what their kids are saying and engaged with their kids at whatever level the kids are bringing the conversation to. This will help the kids understand that their parents really want to be there with them, listening to their thoughts, emotions, and feelings, considerations and worries, instead of the parent leading the conversation. It’s a definite conversation power shift that helps kids discover their own sexual paths.
Jenni: That speaks to the individuality of sexuality, that we are all dramatically different from each other, so that makes a lot of sense to me.
Karen: I think there is an element of kids needing to separate from their parents in some way, and sometimes they tell the parent and sometimes they don’t. Every kid in my class talks about their parents. It’s like their parents are over their shoulder, there with them. Sometimes the kids are arguing with them, sometimes agreeing, sometimes trying to figure their parents out, but they are always there, figuratively present with the kid. It’s about how as a parent to be supportive of their kids finding their own identity, whether this matches what the parents want or expect.
Jenni: Even when you may not have figured it out for yourself… (laughter)
Karen: Yes, and that’s what the first four chapters in the book are about, the parent figuring themselves out enough to be present in the conversation about sex with their kids.
Please check out Karen’s indiegogo campaign and think about buying her book, especially if you have teenagers
Seeing as we are midwives who get lots of questions about sexuality and relationships, our discussion with Karen moved along to sex during pregnancy and the postpartum months. She facilitated one of our group prenatal sessions last year, and talking about that experience is where this conversation picks up again…and then organically moves back to talking with kids, very cyclical….
Christy: People expect their sexuality and sex drive to remain the same in pregnancy and postpartum and most often it does not. That change can be pretty sudden and can catch both partners off guard.
Jenni: And then there is this notion that when people become pregnant they have to put aside their sexuality and/or some people have trouble figuring out how to be a parent and a sexual being at the same time.
Christy: Yes, when one has a lot of different hats to wear it’s hard switching back and forth between them quickly.
Karen: What’s normal? What’s right? I think that is where people’s questions really are. People have a fear of cross-mingling sex and babies/children.
Christy: I also think one thing pregnant people are really surprised by is how low their libido is in pregnancy and/or the postpartum months. Some people worry, I think it’s a common fear, that they will never feel like having sex again in the way they did before having a baby. I think it is totally normal and it’s a helpful thing to point out that they may not have sex for a very long time but that the desire will come back. Of course, some people have a very high libido in pregnancy and enjoy it very much! I want to help people understand that libido is very fluid over a life span; sex drive varies greatly at different times in people’s lives. That’s something I don’t remember hearing about or talking about when I was pregnant or just postpartum: that sexual desire is so up and down over one’s lifespan.
Karen: I think that is one thing that is really missing in abstinence-only sex education. So when we are talking about abstinence in my classes with young people, I always say to them that there are times over their entire lifespan that they will be deciding not to have sex, for a variety of reasons — maybe they don’t have an appropriate partner, they or their partner may have some kind of STI, they may have other physical health concerns, maybe they’ve just given birth to a baby, there are lots of reasons, they may be on a spiritual journey where refraining from sexual contact is what seems best at the moment… During their life, whether they’re married or not, whether they have a partner or not, there will be times in their life when they will choose to refrain from having sex… Really honoring the space that abstinence provides is something not just for teenagers; because, firstly, I think that teenagers can hear it more easily if it’s something for everyone, and also they are then able to carry that into their future lives where they are able to respect a decision or feeling inside themselves to refrain from sexual activity. It’s important for people to know that choosing abstinence at all different times in their life is a respectable decision and a respectful decision as part of the life process.
Christy: I think that the common approach to abstinence only birth control does teenagers a big disservice. This description you give providers a more holistic view of what abstinence can look like in an empowering way.
Karen: When coming to a conversation with your kids about sex, the key is to identify your own issues so that even if you don’t resolve them, you at least know what they are, and if your kid starts to mention something [difficult for you], you know where the trigger is coming from. This will help you know when to take a break in the conversation, because you’re having a reaction that’s about you and not about them. But part of that process is ideally learning to just sit with where you are sexually at any given moment. It may be a time of a lot of arousal, and a lot of desire, and a lot of sexual activity, and a lot of orgasms, or it may be just a place of a lot of desire, but not a lot of arousal or sexual activity. There are a lot of variables at play here, and I think that just letting your body whisper to you where you are and following it and respecting it, and not feeling the need for it to be different is a huge gift to yourself and for your kids. The painful parts of sexuality are when you end up with sexual activity and even orgasm, without the arousal or the desire. That’s what we really want to avoid.
Jenni: And that can be tricky if you are partnered, with all the potential discrepancies between partners. And often, as a parent, I imagine you are trying to figure out where you are at, and that’s influenced by your current relationship or non-relationship. So then it’s influenced by your partner’s desire or interest in sex.
Christy: So, it could be that the sexual desire of both partners could go for long periods of time never matching up; that kind-of stinks. And then they have to navigate that within the relationship.
Jenni: I can imagine that affects the conversation with your kids; trying to figure out what to say to them when you are figuring out your own relationship makes it much more complicated.
Karen: So much more complicated! And if you have all these emotional reactions to sex because of what’s going on in your relationship right now, then talking to your kids about it, without having any of your own emotional reaction around the topic influencing the conversation, is really, really hard.
[Pause in conversation, which is unusual for us]
Karen: That’s how it can be talking to kids. It is a process of trying to negotiate your response, because in some ways that is a public face, rather than a private face. Your private sexual life is not about your child and they don’t need to have any part of it or know anything about it, in terms of concrete details for sure. But how do you negotiate your public face in those conversations while still being authentic, because if you’re lying your kids are going to pick up on it. You have to be honest to a degree, saying things such as “You know this conversation is really hard for me right now, but I know it’s important so we’re going to have it anyways.” Owning up to that weirdness is important. One of the things that I cover in my book is that [as a mature adult] you use the other adults in your life to talk with about sex or other issues before you talk to your kids. Work through some of your own stuff with your peers, or a therapist, or whomever is appropriate for you.
Christy: I think that’s a good place to end it, especially since our kids are such great mirrors of ourselves, helping ourselves ultimately helps them.