Sex positive parenting si grossly misunderstood, which can lead to some raised eyebrows and judgmental looks. However, all it's really about is understanding that our kids are autonomous people who will (if they choose) grow up to be sexually active, and making sure they have the knowledge and confidence they need to engage in healthy, consensual sexual activity when they’re ready. Fortunately, there are lots of little things we can do every day to model sex positivity for our kids. It’s on us to raise kids who know how their bodies function, and who respect themselves and other people enough to be decent partners.
Being a sex positive parent can definitely be confusing or awkward at times, especially if we didn’t grow up in sex positive households ourselves. Unlearning body shame and all that goes with it is a lifelong process, which is one reason why it’s so important not to teach body shame and sex negativity in the first place. When we enforce the idea that sex is inherently "wrong" or "bad," what we're really telling our children is that their bodies or their feelings are "wrong" or "bad," and that's not something sex positive parents can get behind.
Still, it’s understandable that some of the funny, frank, and weird questions and situations our kids present us with will (occasionally) make us feel a bit at a loss for words. Remembering that being sex positive is not about promoting all sexual behavior, least of all to children, really helps. It's about giving guidance and information, just as you would for any other aspect of their lives, and modeling respect for their and other people's bodies, so they can make good choices later in life, when they're ready and willing. So, with that in mind, here are things you can do each day to model sex positivity, like:
Speaking Calmly About Body Parts And Their Functions…
Recently, my stepdaughter found a little tote bag with a “Peace, Love, and Nipple Butter” slogan on it at our house. She shouted out, “Nipple butter?!” so I took a moment to stop and explain, calming stating, “Yeah, a friend got that for me when I first gave birth to your brother. In the early days of breastfeeding, your nipples can sometimes get sore and cracked, kind of like lips do sometimes. That balm makes them feel better.”
“Oh, cool.” she said. No. Big. Deal. Kids pick up on other people's (read: grown up's) discomfort when they talk about bodies, especially when they don't spend all of their time with their progressive parents and guardians. Calmly explaining what's going on helps put body stuff back in its proper perspective.
...And Using The Correct Terms
When we make a big deal or use euphemisms for certain body parts, we make it seem like they should be a secret. So no, babies don’t come out of a mom's “vajayjay,” and daddies don’t use their “pee-pees” to pee (that’s just confusing). Vagina. Penis. Vulva. They're just body parts, like arm, leg, or ear. They're not shameful, they're not weird, and they don't need super secret, alternative words to describe them to children.
Asking Permission Before Being Physically Affectionate
Asking, “Is it OK if I give you a hug/kiss?” or gesturing that you are thinking about being physically affectionate (like having your arms outstretched with a questioning face, or cheek extended in anticipation of a kiss) models that we should always seek consent before touching someone else’s body, and that we can use verbal and nonverbal cues to figure out whether people want to touch or be touched. Also important? Demonstrating that it's OK to decline. If they say no, the answer is a simple “OK, that's cool.” No pouting, no whining, no complaining about feeling unloved, even in jest.
Distinguishing “Private” From “Shameful”
Whenever bathroom talk or similar things come up in conversation, reinforce the idea that while there's nothing inherently wrong with what bodies do, some body parts and some activities require more privacy than others. The parts covered by our bathing suits are more sensitive and vulnerable than other parts, so, in turn, we treat them with more care. Privacy is about protecting and respecting those body parts, not shame.
Questioning Sex-Negativity In The Media Aloud
I’m always a little surprised to see how much sexualized chatter is present in shows that are intentionally targeted to children, largely because most of that chatter reinforces and normalizes rape culture. When a teenage character on a show my stepdaughter was watching ogled another teenager’s breasts, clearly making her uncomfortable, my partner and I both took the time to discuss it. “That’s awful! Why would he openly stare at her in a way that’s clearly making her uncomfortable?” I asked. “I don’t know,” my partner responded. “If he likes her, he should treat her with more respect. It’s OK to like how someone looks, but it’s not OK to be rude.”
Actually Answering Questions About Sex
It may be easier and less awkward in the moment to let some questions pass with a, “You'll understand when you're older,” but saying that reinforces the mystery and shame that clouds sexuality. (It also leaves our kids vulnerable to the possibility of turning to porn or equally-confused peers to assist them in understanding whatever they asked you about, and that's terrifying.)
Instead of deflecting, take a breath and answer in a simple, age-appropriate way. Or, if you need time to think about your answer, just say so. “You know, that's an interesting question. Let me think about it for a minute and get back to you.”
Keep An Eye On Pretend Romantic Play
Most kids play pretend with romantic partnerships at some point, whether it's making their dolls kiss or pretending to be the mommy and daddy during a game of "house." Pay attention to the dialogue they create when they do that, and ask questions or redirect them as needed. Make sure they all know to stop if someone isn't comfortable with the game anymore. Encouraging kids to have a code word to stop play that everyone agrees upon in advance is a good idea, too.
Clarifying What “Inappropriate” Means
Sex itself isn't bad. However, coerced, forced, or other unhealthy behavior related to sex, definitely is. If you're having a conversation with your kids because they need to unpack something they saw, experienced or did that involves sexual behavior, make sure they understand that consensual sexual behavior between people who are old enough to consent is OK, but doing anything to someone without their consent, isn't.