Things are heating up at the TELUS World of Science this summer, where the Science of Sexuality is on until September 2. The touring exhibit from Montreal, which is suggested for youth aged 12 and up, covers everything from reproduction to attraction, condom use to orgasm. Local sex educator Marnie Goldenberg says anything that gets parents and kids talking about sexual health is a good thing, and that programs such as this help get those potentially uncomfortable conversations started. She says that to avoid awkwardness, the sooner parents start speaking openly about sex with their children, the better.
“We need parents to be more comfortable talking to their young kids and practising conversations about sex and sexuality at very early ages so that when kids hit puberty and enter adolescence and their decision making isn’t always as thoughtful as we’d like it to be, they know that we’re allies,” Goldenberg says in an interview over coffee. “We can give them early lessons in respecting your body and respecting other people’s bodies. If we can have those conversations when they’re two, three, four, and five years old, when it gets trickier they’ll know that we’re here for them and that we want to answer their questions.
“Culture, beliefs, and values hugely impact our experiences of sex and sexuality, and it’s that intersection that makes talking to our kids so hard,” she adds. “We need to equip our kids with good information and knowledge about their bodies and keep them safe.”
To help adults navigate the world of talking to their kids about sex, Goldenberg started a blog called Sexplainer.com. A mother of two and former lawyer, she says she was fortunate to have grown up in a house where talking about sex was no big deal.
“I had a sex-positive mom with a background in sexual health, so she had a real understanding that sexuality was something that’s healthy and a vibrant part of human development and well-being,” Goldenberg says. “We had normalized conversations about bodily changes and family conversations about what sex is; she always spoke about it really calmly.”
She acknowledges that while people are generally more comfortable talking about things like premarital sex and safe sex now than in the past, parents have an especially difficult time explaining the good stuff about sex to their offspring.
“We don’t do a terribly good job talking to our kids about pleasure,” she says. “We warn them about all the risks and teach them how to keep themselves from harm. We often don’t bring that around to the fact that sex is this awesome thing that feels good and makes us understand our bodies and makes us feel close to people and intimate.”
So how do adults go about making sex just another topic of conversation at the dinner table? For starters, use words like penis and vagina.
“We need to teach our kids about our bodies,” Goldenberg says. “What other body parts do we give euphemistic names for? We don’t think up names for the elbow; it’s maddening that we’d do that. That’s one of the earliest lessons parents can give their kids. Call the vulva the vulva—and distinguish it from the vagina. One’s the face and one’s the nose. We don’t call the nose the face.”
In fact, kids who know proper anatomical names for their body parts are less likely to be sexually assaulted. According to a 2010 study in the journal Child Abuse Review, training parents to teach their young children proper names for genitals and other reproductive organs can help increase youths’ empowerment to resist sexual abuse or disclose it to trusted adults. It can also reduce shame, stigma, and self-blame for youth who have experienced sexual abuse.
Spouses should also talk to each other and clarify their values around sex and sexuality so that when they do talk to their kids, they’re on the same page, Goldenberg says. She also suggests buying some age-appropriate books.
“Going to the library and borrowing books is fabulous, but it’s good to invest in them and have them sitting around,” she says. “Pull them out and read them together or leave them lying around in easy-to-locate areas.”
Some of her picks for preschoolers and Grade 1 kids are Meg Hickling’s Boys, Girls & Body Science: A First Book About Facts of Life and It’s NOT the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends by Robie Harris. For those around the ages of seven to 10, she likes Harris’s It’s So Amazing!: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families, and for those aged nine to 12, she suggests It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, also by Harris.
Then there’s porn, and the fact that there’s no avoiding it. Again, Goldenberg urges parents to chill out when it comes to chatting about it.
“Most kids have first access to porn at 11,” she says. “I want to lead my children; I don’t want to take their lead on this. It’s not going to be easy. But we need to explain what it is, who it’s for, and what its purpose is. It’s for adults. Its purpose is to titillate, not to educate. And it’s quite limited as to what real and healthy sexuality looks like.
“[American sex therapist] Marty Klein had this analogy for porn: it’s like the highlight reel of sports,” she adds. “If all you ever see is the highlight reel of a hockey game, you’re going to think that’s what hockey’s like. Then when you go to a game for the first time, you’re going to be like, ‘This is boring’ or ‘This is terrible.’ We need to help our kids contextualize what they’re seeing. It’s about leading them with open eyes.”