Forward Thinking: What Would You Tell Teens About Sex?

Libby Anne and Dan Fincke have been running a project called Forward Thinking. Prompts are proposed, and bloggers can respond. Every two weeks a roundup of links is published.

The most recent topic is what we should be telling teenagers about sex. Being as I was a teenager a very short six months ago, I have Thoughts and Feelings about this. Lots of them. My own sex education (in Texas) wasn’t all so hot. Like, seriously, I would have thought abstinence-only education would be all about asexuality–“Some people don’t really think sex is the most interesting! See! It’s not worth trying!”–but nooooo. So, this is what I’d tell teenagers about sex and relationships. 

You don’t have to know who or what you like right now. But if you do, you get to feel exactly that way and anybody who frowns or corrects you or says its stupid or gross or weird should be frowned at the way you frown at your feet when you step in dog poo. Because that’s actually gross, and loving people isn’t.

Speaking of which, you don’t actually have to love everybody you do sexy things with. I’d like them to be people you trust and people who know what consent is and like communication, but you don’t have to love them. Kissing is fun and bodies are nice and hooking up with people who have especially nice bodies or brains or who are just friends with exactly enough time and singlehood on their hands is fun.

Condoms break. Getting Plan B is scary. Sometimes the pharmacy is out or closed or the person at the counter looks like the math teacher who was always cranky. Just buy some ahead of time, so the two of you can just fish it out of whomever’s nightstand and take a deep breath.

Just like some people prefer pistachio ice cream, you can have sexual preferences. You can like fat bodies, thin bodies, muscly bodies, femme men, femme women, women who like to be tied up, and people who only have sex in missionary. But it’s worth considering if the only reason you like pistachio ice cream is because that’s all the shops have been telling you is worth buying. Because that doesn’t mean some genius somewhere isn’t making brilliant raspberry sorbet that you could realize is five times better, if only you examine your pistachio conditioning.

Anyone who describes any part of your body as gross doesn’t deserve to see you naked. They don’t get to negotiate this.

The baseball metaphor sucks. Not only does everyone disagree on what each base actually stands for (your euphemism is a failure when you have to argue about what every part means), but it ranks things. Some people can take or leave P-I-V–or, you know, their partnerships don’t include one penis and one vagina–and some think oral sex is the best thing ever. And some people would actually rather be playing baseball.

Shaming people is stupid and uncreative. This applies equally to shaming people for all the sex they are having, and shaming people for all the sex they’re not having.

Monogamy is not required, but honesty and communication are.

Mostly, I want teens to know that adults aren’t always right–and one of the ways we’re very good at being wrong is in talking to adolescents about sex. This is also perhaps the first time that your beliefs and actions can be something your family considers morally wrong, repugnant, or unnatural…and that’s really scary. Luckily, if everybody is consenting and legal, you’re probably in the right.

Which leads me to the last thing–consent. This is actually the most important thing, and I’m okay with you rolling your eyes and ignoring my too-old-to-understand advice if you listen to this.

More of my female friends and acquaintances have been assaulted, coerced, or raped than not. I’m not estimating–that’s the reality that this college student sees. One of my friends rapists still lives in this town. I run into him frequently. He hasn’t, and probably won’t, suffer any consequences for his actions.

You must get consent for everything, every time. I don’t care if it’s painfully awkward to ask if they’re into it, if they want to go further. If a little bit of blushing is scary enough to move you from Consensual Sex-Haver to rapist, you shouldn’t be doing anything with anyone.


Also, despite everything I ever heard…you can also write about sex on the internet without the Earth exploding.

What would you tell teens?

Forward Thinking: What Would You Tell Teens About Sex?

23 thoughts on “Forward Thinking: What Would You Tell Teens About Sex?

  1. 1

    I have told my 13 year old daughter, if you are having sex with a male, use a condom. First time, every time. Until you are an adult and in a relationship where you are confident about sharing your health history.

  2. 2

    I was very frustrated with the lack of statistics about STI transmission in lesbian and gay sex. That was a major frustration point for me. There was also nothing about safe-sex for women who have sex with women. That was very frustrating. I understand it is a minority group in the classroom, and perhaps I was an outlier since I came out at the end of grade 7 to my friends, but it was very annoying. I don’t remember much sex-ed, excepting learning how to put a condom on a banana.

    1. 2.2

      Wow, we mostly pretended condoms were useless and didn’t work. #texasproblems

      But yeah, I actually know literally nothing about non-heterosexual STI transmission.
      I’m going to immediately go try to learn about it.

  3. 3

    I would discuss condoms and the various barrier methods for other forms of sex, and the various forms of STI and the importance of discussing such with potential partners. But that would only be part of it. Condoms are good for reducing disease transmission, but lousy in terms of contraceptive effectiveness (as you noted).

    So hypothetical future offspring would learn about the more effective options. Right now, those would be implants, IUDs and pills in decreasing order of effectiveness – assuming the kid ovulates. Ideally, by the time my wife and I would need to deal with this, some of the more effective reversible male contraceptives now in trials will be widely available, resolving the asymmetry.

    Sex ed in St. Paul circa 2001-2002 covered contraceptives, long-term as well as emergency, and the use of condoms. But it was light on how to prevent disease transmission from non-penis-in-vagina sex.

  4. 6

    Very good answers.
    I hope that my children will know that I’m approachable and won’t freak out when talking about sex.
    I hope that they might want to hear my advice on whether sex with person X is a good idea if they know that I’m not opposed to the idea of them having sex in general.
    We are trying to give our children a positive idea about sex and their bodies by setting a good example, like no body shaming and no freaking out over naked bodies. We don’t have sex in front of them, of course (which would be totally off), but we don’t hide condoms and lube like they’re something we need to be ashamed of.

    Talking with your teen about sex is 10 years too late.
    Children are sexual beings and you need to discuss certain things way before that, like what the sexual organs are, that you can pleasure yourself (wash your hands kid and don’t do it during lunch in kindergarten) and that nobody is allowed to touch you there against your will except for medical exams.

  5. 7

    I wish someone had told me about orgasms. Not ejaculative orgasms, which get talked about plenty, but the kind that one has when one is AFAB. I’d liked to have known that there’s different kinds, that many AFAB bodied people cannot have an orgasm through PIV sex and not being able to have one that way doesn’t make you a failure or broken or weird. I also wish someone had told me that sex with AMAB people was not just about their ejaculation-as-goal and that my pleasure was important, too. And nodding to the poster who mentioned masturbation, someone needs to tell kids that girls masturbate too, and there is no shame in it.

    I had a very thorough for its time (1980’s) sex ed class, but it was still quite male plasure oriented and heteronormative, and where girls were concerned there was some good info but also way too much focus on “don’t get pregnant” and not nearly enough focus on “here are other ways to have sexytime that do not include penile penetration and ejaculation.”

    1. 7.1

      Oh yes, that.
      TMI ahead.
      I somehow assumed that the pleasurable feeling I got from PIV were orgasms. And I was kind of wondering what the big fuss was about it. Until I “accidentially” had an orgasm. Then I understood what I had missed out on all those years. I’m trying to catch up now…

      1. Moar TMI…
        I didn’t know what the big O was either. I thought I was broken or that I missed something because I’d never had one from PIV and I thought I was supposed to. Sex with others didn’t feel at all like sex with myself, which was waaaay better but was also my shameful, dirty little secret. Then one day at just the right angle I had an orgasm along with PIV and it was like a light of realization shone itself into my brain, “Ohhhhh, that’s what the big deal is!” Ding, lightbulb, shame (mostly) gone. Before then I thought orgasm in hetero sex was when the woman made a bunch of noise to get the guy to come faster so the boring ass shit could be overwith already, or maybe that I was frigid and other women felt stuff I couldn’t feel so that that’s why they made all those noises. Had no clue I’d been giving them to myself for years and wasn’t “broken” after all.

        In short, this stuff needs to be part of sex ed class. Srsly. My (unfortunately heteronormative) class covered all the different stages and types of relationships from platonic to familial to romantic* and everything that anyone anywhere has ever called by the word “love” inbetween, talked about every STD on earth and spent like a frikkin week covering ejaculation, but never once touched on the topic of AFAB orgasm? For shame.

        * This also needs to be part of the conversation, very badly. All the myriad of ways that humans make interpersonal connections with each other, what is appropriate under each circumstance and what is not, all the different levels of attraction like crushing and lusting and all that. <— this helped me SO MUCH to figure out my own needs and feelings in relationships you have no idea. Before I'd been winging it, after I had something like a script, or at least a lens by which I could examine my sexy/lurve feelings and put them into categories of "potentionably actionable" or "wait on it and see" or "yeah, that'll pass quickly."

        1. I remember that in my sex-ed class our teacher read us a page that he’d written and fotocopied (those times, handwritten).
          He didn’t look at us but I’ll always remember the sentence “the man inserts his penis into the vagina of the woman. This gives both of them pleasure FULL STOP”.
          All the rest of sex-ed was centred around the science of reproduction, organs, contraception (yes, we got decent information on that) and gestation.
          Me finally getting to know my body at 32(!) has enriched both of our sex-life enormously. So, win-win!

  6. TB

    First time commenter here (I’ve lurked this blog and other FTB blogs for awhile, but have never commented before).

    You mentioned pretty much everything I’d say (and more). I really only have one thing to add:

    Some people develop a sexual attraction to objects, body parts, or activities that are not usually considered sexual. These people aren’t “broken” or “weird”, they just have a kink/fetish. Kinks and fetishes are nothing to be ashamed of, and they can be a positive aspect of your sexuality. It is okay to tell your partner(s) about your fetishes, and it’s okay to explore your fetishes with them too (so long as you do it safely, you have their fully informed consent, and you stay within each others’ boundaries).

    I really wish someone had told me this back when I was a teenager. I spent the entirety of my teen years (and my first few years as an adult) thinking I was an unlovable freak and a monster for having developed a fetish for an object.

  7. 10

    I have an advantage. I volunteer and teach sexuality education to teenagers using the Our Whole Lives curriculum. It’s not what I would tells teens about sex – it’s what I’ve told teens about sex. And what I will tell them again.

    You are person of worth and your decisions can and should support your self worth; sexual health means that you are physically and emotionally healthy and your behaviors improve your sexual health. Sexual health doesn’t just imply that you are free of diseases it also implies that your behavior comes from a place of emotional good health.

    You have the right to health expression of your sexuality, for adolescents there is such a thing as healthy expression of your sexuality – for you that may mean handholding, it may mean kissing, it may mean dating lots of people or dating very few or dating no one. You need to be responsible – that means thinking through your actions, understanding the consequences and making appropriate choices for you. Finally, avoid double standards – if it’s okay for guys, it’s okay for girls, if it’s okay for straight people, it’s okay for gay people, if it’s okay for young people, it’s okay older persons.

    Sexuality is more than sex – it includes your physical gender, your gender identity, your gender role, your sexual orientation, your physical self and the things you experience physically; sexuality is sensuousness, it is emotional sharing and caring, and it is about relationships. Sexuality is also intimacy – emotional and physical. It’s okay to be intimate without having sex. Intimacy can be sharing, holding one another, or just sitting on a couch with each other.

    With your partners or potential dates, communicate communicate communicate and then do it some more. Don’t be afraid of talking and shaing. Ask for what you want, give what you can. Sexuality is kind of like ordering a pizza – it involves negotiation and everybody should have a chance to ask for it be how they want it to be, it is best when shared and best when everybody enjoys it.

    Sex and love aren’t the same thing. As long as what your do is mutually agreeable and agreeably mutual, that’s okay. Don’t be afraid to talk about contraception and condoms. Don’t be afraid to talk about them before you are ready to have sex.

    You have the right to have your questions answered completely and accurately and in an age appropriate way.

    You have the right to your own ideas and values about sex and sexuality and it’s not okay if other people try to pressure you to change them.

    Information is helpful not harmful.

    Sexuality can be abused and that is not okay. Every person has the right to have their personal physical and emotional integrity respected and honored by other persons. If you have been or are victimized, that is not your fault and you are still a person of worth and value.

    Last and not least, you are a sexual being from birth to death – young persons, adolescents, young adults, adults and our elders are all sexual beings with sexual needs and rights. That is healthy and normal.

  8. 12

    That pretty well covers it. Also “don’t be afraid to ask me anything. I will do my best to not judge or laugh – even if it’s really funny – and you can hit me if I do.”

  9. 13

    “Anyone who describes any part of your body as gross doesn’t deserve to see you naked. They don’t get to negotiate this.” I don’t understand the purpose of this piece of advice. Some parts of my body arouse revulsion in my mind. I don’t see this as a problem, and wouldn’t mind if others felt the same way. This wouldn’t factor into my decisions regarding sex with them. I assume what you meant was, when people tell you that your body is unsatisfactory you should disagree with that, and correct them. I doubt somebody who found my body unsatisfactory would want to have sex with me, but if they did it wouldn’t factor into my decision.

  10. RH

    I would make communication the first AND last thing discussed.

    I would add:
    a) It is ok if you do not feel any sexual attraction to anyone.
    b) While sex is not the same as love it is ok if your preference is to have an emotional connection with those you have sex with.

    c) Here are specific things you can do to avoid a bad situation…. Even if you don’t do any of those things, and even if you agree to some sexual activity, if someone else crosses the line IS NOT YOUR FAULT. And it is NOT ACCEPTABLE no matter what the circumstances. (see communication being important) The converse is also true.
    Here is specifically what to do if something happens to you….

  11. 15

    What I told them as teens was exactly what I’d been telling them from about age 4. Every year, same curriculum, but in gradually increasing scope and detail. I note that the principles involved in all the points in the blog fit nicely into that approach.

  12. 16

    […] “You don’t actually have to love everybody you do sexy things with. I’d like them to be people you trust and people who know what consent is and like communication, but you don’t have to love them. Kissing is fun and bodies are nice and hooking up with people who have especially nice bodies or brains or who are just friends with exactly enough time and singlehood on their hands is fun.” ~ Kate Donovan […]

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