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Can We Have a (Sex Positive) Talk?

By Rachel Lynn Golden, PhD

So many caregivers and teens dread “the talk” about sex. Teens may feel that caregivers are out of touch with their lived experience, or they may feel misunderstood or that their privacy is being invaded. In turn, caregivers’ own discomfort with aspects of sex and fears about the risks of teen sexuality may get in the way of presenting helpful information—or talking about sex at all.

Ninety percent of teens in the United States will have sex by the time they turn 19. When caregivers do not talk with teens, young people often end up misinformed and without the tools to reduce risky outcomes, such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). This means it’s important that caregivers provide consistent, age-appropriate support for adolescents’ sexual development.

This might seem counterintuitive, since most discussions about teen sex emphasize abstinence. But adolescent sexuality doesn’t have to be an inherently “bad” thing. The brilliant Dr. Kathryn Paige Harden, a behavioral geneticist at University of Texas at Austin, proposes using a sex positive framework to talk about adolescent sexuality. This means stepping away from the assumption that all teen sexual activity is “bad.” Instead, sex positivity embraces sex as a natural part of being human—so long as it’s safe and consensual.

But how can caregivers talk about sex and sexuality in a balanced, effective way?

Caregivers play a crucial role in providing their teens with the tools and knowledge they need to have consensual and safe sexual experiences. Here are some scientifically informed steps that caregivers can use to start a conversation about sexuality that can promote healthy outcomes.

1. Inform yourself.

There are great websites such as Scarleteen and Planned Parenthood which provide accurate information about the risks and rewards of sexual behavior. You can also check out Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center’s blogs. When you are informed, you can then tailor information to match your adolescent’s developmental maturity and level of comfort. Talks about sex can also be tailored to match your family’s values and beliefs, while reflecting accurate information about reproductive health.

2. Don’t rely on scare tactics.

Often, caregivers hope adolescents will not engage in sexual behaviors if they are scared away from them. But people are more likely to disregard important information if it presented as the only way to view something. In addition, abstinence-only education and virginity pledges are related to higher rates of sexually transmitted infections.

3. Think about a comprehensive approach.

This means talking about enthusiastic consent, the importance of pleasure, the proper use of condoms and birth control, and how to access STI testing and treatment.

4. Consider the different aspects of your adolescent’s identity.

Sexual behavior is just one part of the experience of sexuality. Caregivers must also consider adolescents’ experience of their gender identity and sexual identity.

5. Emphasize consent.

For an example of what enthusiastic consent means, try this video comparing consent to tea. We also talk about common misconceptions about consent here.

6. Help your adolescent gain access to the appropriate tools to navigate their sexual and reproductive health.

All STIs are treatable and most are curable. If it feels too uncomfortable for you and your adolescent to access reproductive healthcare together, help your teen get to a provider on their own.

7. Be brave.

Some conversations get easier with time. The earlier you talk about age-appropriate sexual behavior, the more chances you’ll have to help your teen make healthier decisions throughout their life.

8. Be gentle with yourself.

You don’t have to get it right every time. Remember, you are learning too.

These are just a few of the possible conversations to have with your teen about sexuality. What sex positive talks would you add to the conversation? If you’re unsure of how to answer some of your teen’s questions or help them with a specific problem, they can come to Mount Sinai Adolescent Center for free, confidential, comprehensive health care.

Rachel Lynn Golden, PhD is a Psychology Intern at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center and holds a Doctoral Degree in Clinical Psychology. She utilizes social science to promote allyship and inclusive practices across family, school, and business settings. Her research explores sexual development across the lifespan and aims to promote safe and healthy sexuality and reduce barriers to care. Clinically, she provides evidenced-based, gender affirming therapy to individuals across the lifespan with a focus on the treatment and care of adolescents and adults. You can find her website here.

The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.

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