Let’s talk about sex

Sexplain that!

Raising sexually intelligent kids in a culture that’s changing at warp speed is a job for parents


Sexplain that!

Marnie Goldenberg is the Sexplainer. She is a sexual-health educator who is teaching parents how to communicate with their kids about sex.
When I told my son that I was going to a gettogether of parents to talk with an expert about how to talk to our kids about sex, he flashed me the kind of look you would expect from a 12-year-old boy.

A mix of horror, revulsion, and something else I couldn’t quite identify. Curiosity, maybe? “Why are you looking at me like that?” I asked.

He struggled to find the words, finally settling on these: “It’s just that I think you moms are a little bit naive.”

Armed with that assessment, he was dispatched to spend the evening with a friend and I set off to find out just how naive I was.

Marnie Goldenberg launched her Vancouver “Sexplainer” salons after making a career switch from lawyer to sexualhealth educator. Now she’s offering sexual-health education for parents, aimed at helping them raise “sexually intelligent kids.” In the casual atmosphere of private homes, parents get together, split the cost – about $300 for an evening – and have a facilitated discussion focused on how to communicate effectively about sexuality with kids of all ages.

“Educated kids are safer kids,” says Goldenberg. “I want to give people skills, and empower them to be proactive.”

Goldenberg is tapping into a growing need. Parents want, and need help navigating conversations with kids that are growing up in a culture of sexuality that is changing at warp speed.

Recent studies show kids are exposed to an average of 38 hours a week of media through computers, TV, video games and music, and social media.

Sixty-eight per cent of that contains sexual material, a jump in just two years from 56 per cent. Another study showed that 93 per cent of boys and 62 per cent of girls under the age of 18 had viewed online pornography. Many parents are grappling with just how to manage something they didn’t experience and have a limited understanding of.

Roberta Stuart, a Vancouver parent of three teens, says wryly: “When I was growing up, exposure to information about sex was limited. Now it’s gone the opposite way. On the positive side, there are more educators and more aware and willing people, on the negative side there is the pornography thing.”

Stuart addresses it casually with her kids, never saying “if you see Internet porn,” but “when.”

“I do think you can’t be shaming them and hassling them and giving them a hard time for being naturally curious.”

She’s become as comfortable and casual with her older kids about what they might be exposed to online, (“Hey, this is not what it really looks like, don’t get fooled by it,”) as she once was talking about the basic plumbing of the body when they were younger.

For the rest of us, there’s Marnie Goldenberg.

“Life has changed in the 25 to 30 years since we were teens,” says Goldenberg, a mother of two. “People are sexual, but there continues to be shame around the topic and most people don’t have the skills to pass information on.”

Joanne Norris, mother of a 13-year-old boy and a nineyear-old girl hosted the salon I attended in east Vancouver, says: “I am really interested in raising sexually intelligent children. I’m not completely comfortable about knowing the right things to say to my kids to have a good conversation.”

At the salon, Goldenberg sits cross-legged in jeans and a T-shirt on a funky chair in a colourful home in east Vancouver. Wine and appetizers help create a convivial atmosphere among the moms. After a bit of chatter, we all settle in for “the talk.”

Except it’s anything but that. Goldenberg asks us – about 12 moms with kids ranging in age from eight to 13 – to share what and where we first learned about sex.

A physician’s daughter recalls textbooks left open casually. Another recalls her older sister dragging her down to the basement for a dramatic announcement: There is something you have to know.

Most of us came of age during the freewheeling ’80s. The pill was readily available, and the sexual revolution had already happened: we were expected to have sex and enjoy it, and not just for the purposes of procreation.

But now that we’re adults, we’re less than sure about what to pass on – and how – to our kids in a world that’s changed so fast and so much. It’s not our world anymore, it’s theirs, and the most naive assumption would be to imagine we see it in the same way they do.

We can only view it from a distance and through the filter of our imaginations. How do we sort reality from urban legend? Are rainbow parties real? Are all the girls twerking? What about those stories of teens whose innocent sexual experimentation leads to online blackmail? The problems seem so much bigger than STDs or getting pregnant, and the messaging is overwhelmingly negative: youth and sex go together in a big box marked “Danger.”

Nagging questions

At the salon, one mom of two young daughters wants to know how to deal with crushes. Another confesses she doesn’t even want her Grade 6 daughter to go to a community dance with her friends. Not yet. Finally, the mom of a 13-yearold boy plunges into darker waters. “How do I talk to my son about Internet porn?” Murmurs erupt. We are suddenly talking about all the dangers, developmental, psychological, social, and none of the pleasures of sex. Goldenberg navigates all this deftly – she wants parents to be confident imparting all that is wonderful about sexuality so kids don’t have unrealistic fears.

Goldenberg offers up strategies for dealing with everything from biology, to the nuts and bolts of finding the right moment to discuss something as challenging as porn.

“There are three major issues that come up,” says Goldenberg, of raising kids in the changing cultural landscape: “hypersexualization, Internet porn and social media.”

She shares vocabulary and models dialogue. Stitching sexuality into everyday, casual conversations takes away the pressure of “the talk.”

“Given that sexual messaging is everywhere, how can we open our children’s eyes to these issues and contribute to raising righteous sexual citizens who are informed, who question the messages they are getting, who would be comfortable approaching you when they click on a button inadvertently on the Internet and porn comes up?”

Start with the everyday stuff. When you’re watching a ridiculous movie together, you can question how the female lead is perpetually half-dressed, but the male lead is always clothed. While listening to a song on the radio, ask if they know what the lyrics mean. Direct them to a parody of Miley Cyrus that smartly sends up her Wrecking Ball video (which, whether you like it or not, they’ve probably seen). Talk about what “sexy” means to you – (smart, confident, engaged, funny). Get them while they are captives in the car. It’s a skill. The aim is to simultaneously acknowledge what they are experiencing and exposed to, without shaming them, all while equipping them to not internalize and blindly accept what it represents. Phew.

Gone are the days of whispering excitedly about taboo subliminal messages in advertising. Nothing is subliminal anymore.

Goldenberg encourages parents to think about their values, and how they want to impart those values to their children.

When personal values collide with something in the broader culture, it’s our job as parents not to deny what’s out there, but to manage it.

“We live in a progressively liberalized culture where sex and sexuality is concerned,” says Goldenberg.

“For kids who are questioning their sexuality, there are more role models, more acceptance. With all of that growing more liberal, there are positive parts, but there is also the not-so-positive part like the proliferation of Internet porn. The world I want to live in has the first and seeks to manage the other.”

Since the advent of free Wi-Fi and the proliferation of smart phones, parental controls are next to impossible. Goldenberg’s message is simple: “Parents need to get in front of the information their kids are being exposed to through pop culture and online.”

The salons are about giving tools to manage the messages. Goldenberg says: “I want people to walk away seeing the world through their kids’ eyes, to be able to put on that sex lens where their kids are concerned.

Your kids are seeing stuff, they are hearing stuff. How do you think they are interpreting it?” Back to the elephant in the room: Internet porn. Goldenberg startles us by suggesting we openly talk about it with our teens. “Kids will be curious. I want my kids to know that it’s there, and to know, really explicitly from me what they might see, and that it is a fiction. It’s not real.”

Recent studies show that boys, as well as girls, can be negatively affected by unrealistic representations in porn: gigantic penises and inflated breast implants. “Tell your kids those actors are hired because they have very unusual bodies. Not all men are that big, and not all women are that shape, and it’s all about camera angles and lighting and not really about sex at all. It’s acting.”

As they get older, you can mention websites that “culture jam” porn myths, like makelovenotporn.tv.

But isn’t all this focus on sex going to harm them? Wouldn’t it be better to keep them in the dark? “For kids, the lights are on all the time,” says Goldenberg. If anyone is in the dark, it’s us.

In a recent TEDx talk, Goldenberg reveals how she struggled when her alert nine-yearold son asked about two teen boys convicted of the rape of a drunk and unconscious teenage girl. He heard about it on the radio. Suddenly, she was grappling with a nest of difficult issues. She considered brushing it aside. Keeping him “innocent.” But he piped up with another question. Had they murdered her? “I realized that my kids are learning all the time with or without me.” She had to address it.

“It’s heartbreaking that my baby knows about rape and murder. But it’s less heartbreaking when I’m the messenger. And it’s certainly a lot better than someone that has little connection and even less commitment to my child to fill his mind on such important issues.”

Most important, and often forgotten in all of this, says Goldenberg, is to reinforce positive messages. “Sex is wonderful.” Sex is also complicated and requires care, but kids need to know it’s a powerful life force that is natural, good for us, feels good, teaches us about ourselves and bonds us with other people.

Seize the moment

Flash forward a week and I am in a car, taking my son and two of his 12-year-old friends to a hockey game. His friends both have iPhones, and are giggling in the back seat. One of them says he is going to download Snapchat.

“It’s an app where you can take pictures and send them and they disappear after 10 seconds.”

I grip the steering wheel hard. This is a teachable moment.

“Actually,” I say, lightly, “someone can still take a screen grab of a Snapchat photo and send it to someone else.”

“Really?” the boy asks. “Well you better not send anything inappropriate,” another boy says.

“That’s right,” I chime in. “You wouldn’t want a photo of you with a giant booger hanging out of your nose to be on some website when you’re trying to get elected prime minister.”

They giggle some more. I feel like I’ve done my job. Emboldened, a few days later when my son comes back from a school dance, I joke: “So, were all the girls twerking?” He looks at me, horrified.

“Of course not.”

Then, as he sweeps out of the room on his Razor scooter, “I was the only one twerking.”

Maybe I was naive.

dryan@vancouversun.com For more information on the Sexplainer salons and how to raise sexually intelligent kids, go to www.Sexplainer. com

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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