Sex Talk: Why Do Parents Say “Do as I Say, Not as I Do (Did)”?

(Dad, don’t read this post.)

First some facts: I find the Guttmacher Institute’s reporting about American teens’ sexual activity very reassuring. In the wake of all the hullabaloo about Plan B (the contraceptive pill) and all the 13-year-old girls running out to get it so they could have sex — which REALLY conservative pundits? We’re going right there?? — some fact-based reality is nice to grasp.

Just to throw some stuff out there:

“Only 6% of teens have had sex by age 15.”
“On average, young people have sex for the first time at about age 17.”
“Among sexually experienced teens, 70% of females and 56% of males report that their first sexual experience was with a steady partner.”
“Teen sex is increasingly likely to be described as voluntary.”

So, okay. Why is this stuff important when you’re talking to your kids about sex?

1. Not EVERYONE IS DOING IT. Even among seniors in high school, despite the bragging, not even half of the teens are regularly engaging in sex. This should help take the pressure off our kids to fit into the perceived culture.

2. It’s not inevitable that all of our kids are going to be sexually active before they reach adulthood. So treating teen sex like something that’s just going to happen may not be the go-to strategy to adopt.

These facts help me to breathe a little easier when I think about my children making decisions about sex. Talking to children about the importance of “saving sex for marriage” is not to say “only bad people have sex outside of marriage”. That is certainly not the message I intend to send (because HELLO), but to give my children some strategies for delaying sex until adulthood if possible (after 18) and for making it part of a longer term relationship (something else their mom didn’t bother with for the most part).

My buddy Carpetbagger pretty much addressed a lot of the questions I am constantly asking myself about talking to my kids about sex as they get older. I’m just reproducing some of his comment here.

“…Do we tell kids ‘do as I say, not as I do (did)’ because…

a) it’s a religious teaching that most of us ignored, but nevertheless, it’s still a religious teaching?

b) premarital sex damaged our souls and we don’t want to see their souls damaged likewise?

c) we are scared to death of our daughters getting pregnant, or our sons getting girls pregnant?

d) we don’t want them catching things?

e) we consider our premarital sexual experiences to be huge mistakes that we regret, and we are trying to spare them that kind of remorse?

f) all of the above?”

Let me start out by saying that, in my opinion, children don’t need to know all the details of their parents’ sex lives. That doesn’t mean I’m going to lie and tell them I was a virgin when I got married — although I’m not going to tell them that any time soon. It’s none of their business. I have no intentions of giving them a blow-by-blow account of my sexual past. Which I think I can safely avoid while still not lying outright. (I may be proven wrong on this. Time will tell.)

So, to run this down:

a) Yes, I am doing my best to teach my children what the Catholic church teaches. I will expect them to have doubts and ask questions, and I pray hard for the guidance to help them explore these things. There are a lot of issues I have with the Catholic church. I expect when my kids are adults, it will be easier to talk about the questions together. In the meantime, I’m going to mouth the party line. Not because I think it’s the end-all-be-all of answers for all time. But for now, it works.

b) and e) Yes and no? I had pre-martial sex, and not just a little of it. For awhile, I treated sex as very pleasant exercise. I was also very careful (duh). Do I regret having premarital sex? Yes, some of it. Not all and every instance; the premarital sex I had inside of committed relationships was vastly superior to one-night stands or short-term sexually-based relationships. And sex in marriage is, in my experience, hands down, the very, very best. This is kind of the version of my sex life that I plan to share with my kids if I have to.

Using hyperbole, which the Catholic church tends to do — i.e. Tom’s example of “damaging our souls” — is likely to inspire plenty of eye-rolling from teens. However, talking in terms of remorse — i.e. I’m not really proud of my sexual past, I do have some regrets — I think that is honest, and I think kids respect honesty.

c) and d) YES! I don’t want my children to become parents before they are ready. I don’t want them to catch herpes or (God forbid) HIV. As much as I will tell them why saving sex for marriage/LTR is important spiritually, it is even more important for their emotional and physical well-being. I have some resources outside of school-based health classes that I plan to use as my children get older. I’m going to take my daughters to a midwife or gynecologist (something my mom never did) when they are 16, if not earlier. I’m going to teach my kids about their bodies and in as much as I can about the power of sex.

If my children decide to have sex before they are married, which is fairly likely, I want them to be able to come to me without fearing punishment. I want them to come to me about birth control and sexual health. I don’t want them coming to me when it’s “too late” as it were. So I have to start having these conversations. I’m trying not to freak out about it, because that will close off communications.

Once they are adults? I doubt they will talk to me about their sex lives. I will have to hope that I can give them the confidence to know what they want, to know that waiting for a mutually loving and respectful relationship is superior to anything else, that they will have the tools to remain safe. I don’t think sex is bad or dirty, I don’t think bodies are bad or dirty, and these lessons more than anything, are things I want my kids to internalize.

I had sex because I was curious, because I didn’t know any other way to explore my sexuality, because I had problems with authority. Losing my virginity at 18 wasn’t all that fantastic; it was something I did to get it over with. That’s kind of screwed up. I don’t want my children to have sex for the first time just to not be virgins. Granted, sex got better; I learned more about my body (confession: I had started masturbating as a teen), and had the confidence to ask for what I wanted. I didn’t get in situations where I was in danger. I had the further confidence to insist on condoms. And when I did get into an LTR, I went on the pill, and discovered that sex in an LTR was better than hooking up.

Well, got that off my chest. I have a few years to see how all this thinking plays out in real life, I suppose.

4 thoughts on “Sex Talk: Why Do Parents Say “Do as I Say, Not as I Do (Did)”?

  1. Here is my problem with “wait for marriage” meaning “wait as long as possible:” You cannot tell them to wait for marriage without carrying the inherent underlying message of “Good girls don’t.” So, what ends up happening is a lot of fear and guilt and shame if they DON’T wait. And certainly no dialogue with you and Dan. (Says the woman who was WARPED by a Catholic view of sex ed – which I know makes me have a bias.)

    If that what you truly want – waiting for a long term relationship – then, in my opinion, that’s what you should say. That was kind of the point of my comment yesterday. If you’re going to take the honestly route, BE HONEST about what you hope for your children instead of using “you should wait for marriage” as a way to manipulate them into it.

    Obviously I know that your faith is incredibly important to you and raising your family in that faith is also incredibly important. I can COMPLETELY respect that. But how do you reconcile the clearly divergent teachings (yours and Catholicism)?

    Also, I can tell you from experience that if you don’t FRANKLY discuss with your children what safe sex is and HOW TO ASK YOUR PARTNER FOR IT, they are going to have no idea how to approach it. This will lead to risky sexual decisions.

    This is all based on my own personal history and I know that others differ. I guess I’m just trying to show you the other side of the coin – what can happen even with the best of intentions.

    • But, Cari: I never internalized “only bad people have sex outside of marriage”. And that was with growing up hearing at home and at school “Sex is for marriage only”. So, you’re right, I have the best of intentions (as I’m sure my parents did, too, and decided to not talk about the morality of sex or birth control altogether). And I don’t know how I reconcile my beliefs about sex outside of marriage and the Catholic teachings about sex outside of marriage. Hence these blog posts.

      When a 16-year-old Kate to me comes to me and says, “Mom, I want to be on birth control because Jack and I want to have sex” I think I will have a better answer to this question. And the answer can’t be “You can’t have sex” or “You *shouldn’t* have sex” or “Sex is bad” because truly I don’t believe any of those things. It’ll probably be, “This is what *I think* about you having sex. Here are some risks you have to be willing to accept. Also, let me make an appointment with my midwife. Because if you ARE going to have sex with Jack, I’ll be damned if you’re going to get knocked up or get diseases that will make future sex more complicated.”

      But I can’t not talk about it at all, because I DO want to have that conversation with Kate if it needs to be had. I want my kids to come to me to talk about difficult things like sex (and bullies and grades and drugs, and hell, hard science questions that I have to look up on the Web). That’s the groundwork I’m laying here.

  2. I hear what you are saying. One thing I had a hard time with growing up was being told what to do. So if someone had said to me, “You can’t have sex,” guess what I’d be doing that night? I had a long term boyfriend in high school. We were together over 2 years and he was older than me by 2 years. He never once pressured me. We did do *some* things, but it wasn’t that often and truth be told, it made me all uncomfortable.

    That said, I didn’t feel like I could really talk to my mom about it. Or even my sister. Sex was so *hush hush* with all my friends, they were such prudes that they barely even kissed boys. I really felt alone in that aspect.

    What I learned from my own experience leads me to believe is that I’ll be open and honest with my kids and not be so clinical. One thing I’m proud of is the fact that I did wait until I was 18 to lose my virginity and it was with a guy I was head over heels in love with, and we were both virgins. That was good and bad, because good no diseases! And bad because we had no idea what we were doing. But we laughed the whole time and in fact, it’s a fond memory. But now, I can be honest with a 16 year old Claire and say, “Yah, I waited and here’s why.” Doesn’t mean that she has to or will, but at least I know with certainty that I did what felt right for me at the time and I hope she (or any of my kids) go with their gut and what feels right for them. Because that icky, not so good, uncomfortable feeling pretty much told me that I should wait until I was older. And I did. And that’s what I’ll convey to my children. Listen to your gut and do what’s best for you.

    It’s all we can hope for.

  3. I love to add my comments to your posts when I can, so from a conservative dad (with an open mind).

    First, my wife and I just had “the talk” with our oldest daughter, we want to talk to her before she entered middle school. This was not a planned talk at this point, but something we knew was coming soon, the opportunity was right for the talk and her younger sister was not home.

    One of my concerns is the numbers that you presented, I have read in the paper way to many times about sexual activities being performed at younger ages which scares the sh$t out of me as a father. We talked to her about what sex is and the dangers of it, now I consider oral sex to be sex; we also talked about other things boys will try to get girls to do. (I know, I am a boy!, boys are icky I tell my girls).

    I can’t lie to my children about premarital sex, my daughter was in our wedding and we have photos and videos of her there in a beautiful dress in her stroller. As I have said I am open minded, I just want them to wait for a long term relationship, expecting them to wait till marriage is naive I feel in the society that we have built.

    But, back to the talk. It was a great conversion with all three of us talking, asking questions and re-enforcing that we love her no matter what. We also talked about rape and molestation and explained that it is not the victims’ fault. There was a lot of blushing between my daughter and I during the talk, but the point of the talk was that we love her and that we want to give her the knowledge and morals to do what she feels is right in her heart.

    I dreaded this talk for a long time, but I have to say it went very well and I was proud of her for asking questions and we answered honestly.

    Great Post!!

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