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How to talk to your teens about sex

Sex education is not just about explaining the physical act of sex. It is also about discussing emotions, consent, and gender dynamics

A lot of sex education happens in conversations between parents and their children—and it's not just about giving the medically accurate explanation. (iStockphoto)

By Shweta Sharan

LAST PUBLISHED 17.10.2023  |  01:00 PM IST

My daughter turned 13 this year. Before this, apart from the customary talk on puberty and menstruation, I had spoken to her about sex very briefly. I had not, however, explained it in detail. The time had come to sit down and have a serious conversation with her about it.

Recently, the Akshay Kumar starrer OMG 2 finally talked about crucial topics like sex education and masturbation, conversations that are normally stifled in general discourse for young people in India. 

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While it was a welcome change to see this in Bollywood, the movie placed the onus on schools to carry out these conversations. A lot of sex education, however, happens in conversations between parents and their children—and it's not just about giving the medically accurate explanation. Here’s how you can talk about sex to your child in a meaningful way.

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Take an open and pragmatic approach with your teen

What is the right age to talk about sex? Niyatii N. Shah, a certified sexuality educator and intimacy coach, believes that a parent can talk about sex in general terms at any age, and whenever the children are curious. Shah is also the founder of Averti Education, a collaborative learning platform that educates parents and children on human sexuality and relationships and produces a free newsletter called ‘The Growing Ones’, which comes with printables, tips, games, and information on sex education. 

“If you are taking about sex to a younger child, it is easier for them to accept it because they come to you with fewer biases," Shah, also the author of ‘When Boys Grow Up’ and 'When Girls Grow Up,’ two books on puberty and sex in the Indian context, says. “You can explain it to them the way you would explain the life cycle of a frog or a butterfly," she says, adding later: "Understand how comfortable your child is in talking about it and talk about sex in stages, including what attracts a person physically to another and different types of sexual activities." 

However, when you want to talk about sex in terms of relationships, safety and exposure, Shah advises that you can start after they turn 12 or 13.  "This is when they experience physical attraction. You can start with simple topics such as what attraction means and you can build up it to these conversations slowly over time," she notes, adding that when we talk about sex, we should not make a big deal out of it. The conversation ought to be done in a matter-of-fact way, talking about how pregnancy happens and the idea of safe sex and the use of contraceptives, as well as being open to answering all questions as honestly as possible.

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Discuss relationship values, consent, and safety

When Bengaluru-based parent Anwesha Ghosh sat down to talk to her 13-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son about sex, she realised that she could not do it without talking about meaningful relationships and values. 

This is in line with a study conducted in 2015 by Nicole Haberland, a senior associate at the Population Council, found that when adults also talked about gender and power dynamics in the context of sex education, it encouraged better choices and greatly reduced teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

In her experience, Ghosh says that these conversations tend to get awkward but says that she is also learning as a parent. “Personally, I believe that sex is between two people who are strongly connected and committed to each other, and I did express that to them very clearly," she says. “But not everyone holds the same view and I respect that. My kids and I spoke about examples of people they admired, like Pablo Picasso or composer Frank Liszt, who had multiple sexual relationships," she says adding that she did not want to force sexual purity on her children nor did she want to judge someone’s choices. 

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Additionally, Shah notes that there ought to be an open discussion on red and green flags in a relationship—this includes first understanding what they are comfortable with and/or ready for sexually, and consequently dealing with any possible pressure from a partner on this front. “Talk about the reasons why human beings engage in sexual intercourse," she adds. This includes pleasure, the need to connect and bond more intimately, as well as to reproduce.

As a mom, I find it great that unlike the past, sex education today also asks us to value pleasure. It does get tricky though. I read an article in The Guardian where Alice Hoyle, a relationships and sex advisor with Durex Do, talks about how pleasure is important but then this leads to many girls who believe that “sex positivity has been mis-sold to them. They’ve done things to please men and not themselves." 

However, when we constantly examine all sides of the debate and use our instincts to parent our kids through tricky topics and trickier times, our kids can take a positive approach to their sexuality.

Shweta Sharan is a freelance writer based in Mumbai.