When a colleague asked me recently what I was working on, I said I was finishing a short book on talking to your kids about sex. She replied that she had never had "the talk" with her daughter, who is now three years into college.
This colleague is a distinguished professor at a major university, and a good bit of her work has been in gender studies. Like me, she's a feminist who believes that sex should be as safe, respectful and pleasurable as possible for all concerned. So how is it she never had a conversation with her daughter about sex?
It occurred to me that my colleague was probably suffering under a common misconception — that there is one "the talk" that you either have with your child, or don't. According to cultural conventions, it's a short monologue about plain vanilla intercourse between "a man and a woman who love each other very much."
In other words, it's inadequate, unrealistic and ineffective if your goal is preparing your child for sex in the real world. No wonder parents avoid "the talk;" many reasonably assume that it isn't going to "work," anyway, and they feel like they're fibbing when they give it.
But if we don't talk with our children about sex, they will end up getting their information from sources that might not care about them as much as we do, including producers of adult sexual material. Sure, schools generally cover a bit of sex ed, but often that's not nearly enough to understand sexual feelings and how to manage them. (Knowing how to put a condom on correctly is not enough for safe sex; people also need to know how to communicate with a partner before and after.)
Last year I was shocked when I attended my son's high school sex ed class. In our Michigan public school, my son and his classmates were taught by "guest educators" that you can't trust condoms and that "the girl who says 'no' is the girl you want." The overriding message was that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is shameful, miserable and dangerous.
So how do you talk to your kids about sex?
First, you have to admit to yourself and your children that human sexuality is complicated and sometimes confusing. For example, you have to recognize that people vary in their sexual interests, that people's sexual desires sometimes don't match their sexual behaviors, and that even happily married people fantasize about (and in some cases have) sex outside of the relationship.
You also have to get past the delusion that your kid will only start engaging in sex when she or he is fully prepared, and that your child won't suffer the same judgment-clouding you do. Kids need to hear from us that desire, like alcohol, can cause us to make bad decisions. (For instance, taking inadequate precautions against disease transmission.) "Just say no" is proven not to work; we have to talk with our children about how to minimize the chance we'll hurt ourselves or others when we seek pleasure.
There's a ton of information about sex that needs talking through, so you'd better get cracking. The next step is looking for natural opportunities to engage. Good news: these are plentiful.
With young children, you can expand moments when you're helping them understand their bodies in terms of, say, health and nutrition to also understand their sex anatomy. With my son, my husband and I used a book that had drawings and explanations of the human digestive, respiratory, circulatory, and reproductive systems, and we went through them all regularly. Naming children's parts as you help them wash can indicate that there is nothing shameful about sex, or talking about sex: "This is your nose, your hands, your belly, your vulva (or your scrotum and your penis), your knees."
A white wedding dress can present a chance to talk about the history of the assumption that women would not have sex before they got married, and how that's changed. A child remarking on a pregnant friend's belly can be an opportunity to talk about how pregnancy usually comes from a man and a woman having sex, but that often sex is had just for pleasure, and that sometimes people use methods other than intercourse to get an egg to a sperm.
References to abortion, birth control and rape on the news will always raise questions in children's minds, which you should address head-on whether or not the child asks. These are some of the most important issues for our children to understand, yet we avoid them out of a misguided desire to protect them from harsh truths.
As children reach their teen years, you can talk with them about the sexual relationships they are seeing around them, whether on TV or in real life. This includes conversing about the ways people signal a desire to be noticed sexually (how we dress and act), what meaningful consent looks like, and how responsible people take care of their sexual health and the health of their partners. (I've talked with my son, for example, about which birth control I've used and why I got the HPV vaccine.)
Maybe my colleague actually did all this with her daughter — and what she meant was that there was no one formal "the talk." I hope so. Because as I've learned in my own parenting, talking with your child regularly about sex creates a fertile ground for talking about just about anything together. After all, what's harder to talk about than sex?
Alice Dreger is the author of "The Talk: Helping Your Kids Navigate Sex in the Real World" and "Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar's Search for Justice."