How to Raise Sex Positive Kids (And Why It’s So Important To)
I will never forget the time I found my eight-year-old watching porn. I was in shock at first and had no idea how to handle it, but I swallowed my inhibitions and used the opportunity to open the lines of communication around sex, which went really well.
Unfortunately, many parents are not as likely to do the same. It’s just the world we live in. But that needs to change.
There are few topics as stigmatized as sex. By extension, the term “sex positive” is highly misunderstood. So what does sex positive mean? It is merely what it sounds like: having a positive attitude toward anything relating to sex. It’s a simple enough concept, yet most fail to grasp it. In fact, if you mention anything remotely sexual in a conversation, people will often laugh, get uncomfortable, feel awkward and usually make jokes. But it’s no laughing matter.
When there are teenagers going to jail for throwing babies in trash cans and dumpsters to avoid admitting to their parents they had sex and got pregnant, it’s not funny.
When there are young members of the LGBTQ+ community who would rather take their own lives than face another day of bullying, it’s not funny.
When there are children expelled, suspended, even arrested, for sharing explicit images of their “peers” on social media, it’s not funny.
When the young people in those images are cyberbullied and slut-shamed to the point of contemplating suicide, it is not funny.
We are living in a society where many still cling to yesterday’s toxic, close-minded ideals. The outdated school of thought behind everything from female anatomy to gender identity is simply not going away fast enough. So what do we do? It’s up to us as parents to break the cycle and teach our children how to think openly, be accepting, respectful and understanding of others, and to make the right decisions for themselves and their own sexual health.
I sat down with Melissa Pintor Carnagey, sexuality educator, licensed social worker and founder of Sex Positive Families, an organization that helps foster healthy attitudes toward sex in young people. Melissa believes that all children deserve holistic, comprehensive, and shame-free sexuality education so they can live informed, empowered, and safer lives. Her website is a wealth of knowledge for families, with information on a wide array of topics and tips on everything from puberty to pornography. She also hosts interactive virtual workshops for tweens, teens and their trusted adults.
I reached out to Melissa to learn how parents can begin to break the generational taboos and misconceptions around sexuality. She broke it all down for us with the points below.
Sex positivity is not sexualization.
Me: Can you define the term “sex positive”?
Melissa: There’s a misconception about what sex positivity even means or is, and some people can think that it just means being completely permissive about sex or not having limits or boundaries about sex, or that it’s about being very sexual or very erotic, partially because a lot of our media is about sexualizing and erotisizing bodies and sex.
Sex positivity really is about having an open, shame free, honest way of looking at bodies, sex, relationships, all these very human things, and taking away the taboo around it. Being sex positive doesn’t mean that you’re just having lots of sex and that that’s what defines your sex positivity. It’s not just about a person’s sex life. It’s really about making sense of your own choices and your own decisions and also respecting those of other people as well.
Start young. It’s not The Talk; it’s many talks.
Me: When should you have “the talk” with your kids?
Melissa: A lot of parents might think you need to discuss it all at once, but no. It’s definitely a series of conversations, a lot of teachable moments that happen over time. We are sending our kids messages about bodies, about identity, about relationships, about consent or lack of consent, gender identity literally from the time they’re born. So when we realize that we’re sending them these messages, we also understand that we’re creating the constructs of all of these things in our homes, in our families, and in our communities. It’s to our benefit to recognize the influence that we have and that it’s early. And then we can just get intentional about what we want to help foster with our children and that it really can be a collaboration.
Melissa: It’s so important that we normalize talking about periods, about where babies come from, and not just, staying in taboo and promoting fear around sex or seeing these things as inappropriate. Sex is how most of us get here. And kids at a young age often wonder, Where do babies come from? They see their teacher or family members that are pregnant and they have questions about that. That’s an opportunity to plant the seed that ultimately helps to foster comfortable talks about sex so that as they develop and their worldview starts to change and evolve.
But if you keep it silent, if you say, don’t ask that, that’s for adults, or you’re not supposed to talk about that, you’re not supposed to know about that, or if they can see you’re visibly uncomfortable, you shut down and you don’t open that back up to them. That’s a learned taboo. They learn, oh, I’m not allowed to talk about that. I don’t know why. But now I’m not going to ask and I’m not going to be curious. Then when you try later on, when you realize there’s a situation that comes up, and they’re like 13 or 14, and you’re trying to talk to them, they’re going to be uncomfortable because every other message that was sent, either direct or indirect, up to that point, told them that this is not okay to talk about. So they may find other unhealthy ways to learn about it.
It’s not just about sex. Early conversations should include bodily autonomy.
Me Where do you even start?
Melissa: So from the beginning parents can ask themselves, how can I be intentional or just aware of what messages I’m sending? What are my kids observing? And that it isn’t just something that’s hormones and puberty and teenage years – hopefully by then we’ve already sent them a whole lot of messages.
If we want to help foster openness around sex, then the talks might start early with consent, helping young people understand their own bodies, giving them accurate names for their body parts, especially the genitals. Help them understand safe and unsafe touch, and who is allowed to help them when they may still need help. Whether it’s going to the bathroom or bathing or changing their clothes, or at their medical appointments; these are some of those teachable moments. When they’re greeting others in the family or even in your own home, are those interactions forced, or are we inviting or asking? Are we giving options as opposed to saying go give your grandma a hug, even if they don’t want to. Bodily autonomy is a foundational aspect that ultimately will support their understanding of sex and healthy sexuality.
It’s important for parents to break the cycle instead of passing it on.
Me: How do parents overcome their own issues stemming from being raised in a non-sex positive world?
So many of us weren’t taught these things. They weren’t modeled to us. And so we may have been confused as we were experimenting with sex or relationships along our own journey. We may have actually had experiences that are abuse or trauma as opposed to sex, because sex should always involve consent. And that consent should be ongoing and clear. There are many of us that have had interactions that were not consensual, or that were coerced in different ways. And so a lot of that that is taking a look at our own understanding of these topics, how well do we know our own bodies, especially people that have vulvas, people that have vaginas and uteruses because our education system is so patriarchal and taboo and stigmatized when it comes to anything related to sexual health. There are so many of us that didn’t get the education that we needed and deserved to understand how our bodies actually work.
It’s never too late to start the conversation.
Me: What if your kids are already tweens or teens and you’ve never talked about sex with them or you weren’t as open to begin with?
Melissa: We’ve got to take the brave steps to be vulnerable and be honest and so that could sound like ‘I realized that I have not been as open as I could have been with you about bodies, about sex, about puberty, about relationships, whatever it is that you want to talk about and that’s on me. But it’s important that we learn about these things and that you know who you can turn to. So I want to change that. I would love for us to start having conversations or start you know, talking more openly about these things.’
And then that little piece opens up empathy. For many of us, it can just sound like, ‘when I was growing up, I didn’t have anyone that I could talk to about this. It wasn’t normal for us when I was your age, so then I didn’t know how to handle it as you’ve been growing up. But I’m learning. I’m learning a lot of things now and I want to make sure you have support. I want to do that differently for you. It might feel awkward, it might feel uncomfortable. That’s okay. This is something that we can work on together.’
And then you just kind of weave it into everyday moments. It isn’t about staring your kid face to face in a confrontational, high pressure kind of way. Maybe you make time to go on a walk together or you build something together or you go have an ice cream date together something that says, this is time for us. And then in the midst of that time, you naturally kind of move into something. And the more you have those one-on-one times, especially when you have more than one kid that’s really important because then they can feel special. The more that you have that you integrate that, the more you might notice that they bring up things about what’s going on in their worlds.
Self-exploration is encouraged for all genders.
Me: How do you approach the topic of masturbation with your kids, and how important is it?
One thing that I teach about when we talk about masturbation, and particularly when we talk about the clitoris, is that we need to help our kids understand and normalize what may feel good to them. This is so that they can know what does not – which ultimately helps keep them safer before they invite anyone else to play with their body. It’s important for them to understand for themselves, and that helps them establish their own boundaries, their own limits.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen for so many of us. There are so many people with a clitoris as adults that are deep in their adulthood and still never have experienced orgasm. We can trace that back to a major lack of body literacy. There’s been no foundational understanding. But interestingly, people with penises don’t seem to have that same problem. Why do you think that is? It was 1998 when scientists discovered the full body of the clitoris. Wow, why did it take them so long to realize that this is a full body part and not just this little tip? So this is all a part of us changing this narrative on a broader level, and it starts with these conversations that we can have with our young people so that they know yes, that’s your clitoris, and yes it can feel good because it has thousands of nerve endings. Just like the penis has thousands of nerve endings. Those two body parts are homologous which means that they are made of similar structure. Just like you might explain why the heart beats or how hearing works or all the things that they learn about in school – but these things that are so vital to their safety and their well being as humans, are conveniently left out of the conversation.
You might say to your child ‘I love that you’re getting to know your body. And this is not something that we do in the living room while people are around or at the dinner table or at the grocery store. That’s something that we do in private so that you can get to know your body. These parts are really sensitive. That’s why we were clothed to cover them so that they stay protected. And no one else is allowed to touch your clitoris, your penis, your anus.’ All of that can happen in these little teachable moments.
So it’s just us getting comfortable with a new way of helping them understand – helping a new generation understand – their bodies and their rights to their own bodies.
Never punish or demean. It’s okay to be curious!
Me: I caught my child watching porn at a young age and it was stressful. How do parents handle this situation?
Melissa: The world places a lot of responsibility on us as parents, like, don’t raise a perpetrator, don’t raise a victim, all of these messages about how perfect we need to create our children’s lives. And there are going to be things that are going to happen that we may not be able to prevent – like our children finding easily-accessible porn on the internet.
I avoid words, like ‘catch them’, because then that sends that message that like oh, I caught you doing something bad. So if we find out our young person has come across porn or has been shown porn, or has been actively searching, we need to recognize that our children are not bad, they’re not demons, they’re not scarred forever. This is really an opportunity, not a threat. We can get a better understanding of what happened in the situation, not from a well ‘Why were you looking at that?’ stance. It’s important that our reaction isn’t shame-based or accusatory or punishment oriented. It’s our job as a family to help keep all of us safer. We know porn is not for children or education. It’s made for adult entertainment. So we say to them ‘It’s okay to be curious. It’s okay to be curious about bodies. It’s okay to be curious about sex. When you have questions about these things. Here’s what you can do, instead of going to Google or looking at porn, we can talk about it. You can ask me any questions you want.’ And then that goes back to whether you are truly creating a space that feels safe for them to ask, because kids will go to Google or porn or friends if they’re curious when the home isn’t feeling safe from punishment or shame.
If you simply say ‘Don’t watch porn’ it’s likely to just push them back towards it. We need to be more thoughtful and smarter about treating our young people like the whole humans that they are. Give them more credit than sometimes they’re given. They’re more likely to listen to what we have to say if they feel respected, and if they feel heard. And they know that we’re on their team, that we’re not just looking for an opportunity to punish them next. So you can say ‘ I want to make sure that you have reliable information about bodies and about sex because you deserve that. One day you’re going to make choices about sex. And I want you to feel ready when that time comes. Watching porn can send confusing, unsafe and mixed messages.. So what questions do you have about sex? How can I help you understand these things? It’s okay to be curious.’
Understand that others might have different perspectives.
Me: What do you do if your child’s other parent has a different attitude toward sex that is not as positive?
Melissa: There is often the reality that there’s a whole other person we can’t control, someone who has whole separate values, triggers, traumas related to all this stuff. It’s healthy for our kids to see and know that there are different perspectives. What you can control is, when they are curious with you, how you show up for those curiosities. Never approach them with negativity or blame or shame. You can acknowledge it like ‘ you might hear some different things about a topic, so tell me what you’ve heard about that? That’s interesting. What do you think?’ Because sharing your perspective is helping them to shape their understanding of their perspective.
Want to learn more (trust me, we barely scratched the surface) about raising sex positive kids? Sex Positive Families’ interactive workshops are held virtually and open to tweens, teens, and their trusted adults. You can also order Melissa’s book, Sex Positive Talks to Have With Kids, a bestselling comprehensive guide that helps caregivers create the kind of bond that keeps kids safer, informed, and empowered in their sexual health.
Pssst…. Check out Gender-Affirming Care for Kids: What Parents Need to Know