How Our Families Influence Our Ideas About Sex
Originally Published: August 4, 2016
Revised: November 3, 2016
“How do males sit? Do they always sit on their own penises?” This is just one of the questions I remember hearing during my high school health class. I was shocked to find out how little some of my classmates knew about basic anatomy and sexuality in general. Even though many of them could write entire reports on the negative effects of alcohol or tobacco, some did not know that much about things like contraception methods or the LGBTQ community. Many of the questions asked covered topics that—in my opinion—should have been taught at a younger age and most likely stemmed from a lack of comprehensive sex education.
Growing up, I didn’t have consistent or reliable sex ed at school. I watched a short video about males and puberty during elementary school and then never had sex ed for more than two to three classes per year as part of a larger health class during middle and high school. In these limited classes, we never really covered any topics other than the physical changes associated with puberty. I actually learned about sex from my family.
The open communication between us helped to reduce the shame and stigma often associated with the topic and made it easier for me to talk about sex in general.
Reducing Shame and Stigma
All in all, my family created a very open and safe home environment. Instead of avoiding the topic of sex, they were direct when answering questions, so I was able to learn that sex is a normal and natural part of life. At an early age, I was taught about “the birds and the bees.” My parents used proper anatomical terms and after the talk, I had a much better understanding of how reproduction occurs. The open communication between us helped to reduce the shame and stigma often associated with the topic and made it easier for me to talk about sex in general. For example, I was never afraid or embarrassed to talk about sex when it came up during English or debate class.
But I’ve noticed that even some adults become embarrassed and tend to veer away from anything related to sex. Even in some of the electives I took involving the human body, my teachers would skip over the chapters covering the reproductive and urinary systems.
Michael, 16, of Berkeley Heights, NJ, says sex always came up as “sort of a taboo subject” that he never talked about with his parents. He says, “My parents themselves never really had sex ed until college. I never had the conversation with them about sex.”
There can be stigma surrounding the topics of sex and sexuality. But like math and English class, sex ed covers many topics that are important. To be honest, it is probably more relatable to teens’ everyday lives than some core subjects taught in school. Moreover, proper sexuality education can actually help address many important issues, including sexual abuse and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Our parents’ views of sex can have an impact on us in so many ways. Jaquetta, 18, of Aulander, NC, had a somewhat similar experience to Michael, although there were also clear messages communicated about sex:
“As a child, I wasn’t given ‘the talk.’ My mother kind of let me find out things on my own through sexual education classes, the Internet, etc. My mother always made sure to tell me to ‘be careful’ when it came to sex and made sure to answer any questions I had. In my household, sex was viewed as something sacred—something extremely special and that is the view I’ve held on to.”
Physical and Emotional
During puberty, my dad helped prepare me for the upcoming social, emotional and physical changes. He explained how I would get taller, grow hair on other areas of the body, experience voice cracks and wet dreams and develop attractions. He taught me how to shave. My mom also emphasized the importance of personal hygiene; I remember getting deodorant, acne cream and oil-free lotion to prevent further breakouts.
Julianna, 16, of Berkeley Heights, NJ, also received some sex ed from her parents. She notes, “My family taught me to respect myself, but I wish they warned me about the emotional impact of sex. You always get taught how to have safe sex physically but not necessarily emotionally.”
Like Julianna says, there is more to sexuality education than just the physical behaviors and changes. My parents and I discussed the importance of communication and healthy relationships. From them, I learned that “only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’” and silence does not equal consent. I also learned to respect others’ personal space and not to judge based on appearance or sexual orientation. Everyone is unique.
Other Family Influences
My older sister was also a vital part of my development. Being only a few years older, my sister could easily relate to my middle and high school experiences. She helped me separate fact from fiction and correct the many rumors and myths I heard in school, such as how it’s possible to spread HIV through kissing. In addition, she helped me understand what certain slang terms actually represented so that I could better understand music lyrics and movie scenes.
Later, when my sister was on the Sex, Etc., teen editorial staff, I became interested in following in her footsteps. There were topics my parents weren’t as familiar with, and I wanted to write for Sex, Etc. to increase my knowledge of various types of birth control and to better understand sexual orientation and gender identity. My relationships with my family eventually led me to start advocating for more comprehensive sexuality education and to begin working at Sex, Etc.
It’s important to have a trusted adult you can go to for advice and guidance. If you have any questions, try speaking to a parent, doctor or guidance counselor. I am thankful for having such candid family members to answer my questions. Their openness helped me develop into the person I am today. It had a positive impact on the way I view myself in terms of sexuality and boosted my self-confidence. I learned not to obsess over body image and instead appreciate what I have. Also, talking about sex comes naturally to me now since I was raised to talk about it openly. I am sure the openness I experienced with my family will transfer to my future relationships and make me more open with my partner and my own kids.
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