If you’re wondering about the right time to talk to your son about sex, then recent research has some recommendations for you: don’t. Don’t talk to your son about sex. Instead, talk to him about relationships. Talk to him about romance. Talk to him about those funny feelings in the pit of his stomach and how that certain person turns his brain to mush. Talk to him about what a healthy relationship looks like, talk to him about mutual respect, and, oh please, talk to him about consent. Talking to him about sex? It doesn’t appear to be working. So, y’know, don’t.
The majority of sexual education in schools is based around contraception, pregnancy, and avoiding sexually transmitted diseases. The problem is that these programs aren’t answering the kinds of questions school kids have about sex and relationships. The programs assume girls are the gatekeepers of sex and pitch lessons towards them. They underestimate the emotional capacity and interest of boys and, tellingly, these programs just aren’t working.
In America, 66 percent of 12- to 25-year-olds report regretting their first sexual experience. However in the Netherlands (proud owners of a relationship-based sexual education program that begins at age four), the same age bracket reported "wanted and fun" first experiences. Interestingly, states that run abstinence-only programs have the highest rate of teen pregnancies.
By focusing on the facts surrounding sex, we’re missing the relationships component and our kids know it. Teenagers are confused about relationships and sex, and they aren’t finding the answers in the classroom. This is where parents can step in, but don’t have "the talk." Have lots of talks, and have them early and often. Because all the things we know about boys and sex? None of them are true.
Is it romance? Or is it boobs? Research says it's connection. We are all aware of the culturally sanctioned stereotype of the sex-obsessed teenager: the boy who places his friends at the center of his world and uses and discards sexual partners like takeaway coffee cups. This notion of toxic masculinity does teenage boys a disservice. While some may focus on living up to this unfortunate standard, research suggests that teenage boys need and want information about relationships much more then they want tips on picking up.
A study conducted on 105 10th grade boys found that the vast majority preferred and were seeking out meaningful relationships rather than sexual activity. This research appears to be consistent across the life span, with a comprehensive study on adults finding that the most commonly wanted sexual behavior was romance and affection. These most-wanted behaviors included things like kissing, cuddling, and saying sweet things to each other.
The assumption that boys only care about sex renders them invisible in discussions regarding the emotional components of relationships. As it turns out, this is information they sorely want and definitely need. Which leads us to: where are they actually getting their information?
Boys already know all about sex, right? They learn from their friends (who know everything right?), and general society, and sometimes even from pornography. The problem with their current sources of information is that their friends are relatively clueless, society lacks the depth needed to navigate the murky waters of positive sexuality, and pornography rarely portrays healthy sexual relationships. All of these sources of information are inadequate and can reinforce the negative stereotypes regarding teenage boys.
People who are working with adolescent boys report the same finding over and over – they want to know what to do about emotions. Professional mentors and youth workers have found boys need permission to talk about feelings, otherwise they won’t. They follow the expectations of their gender and don’t talk about how they feel. This leaves boys with fewer outlets for emotional development and impacts their chances of healthy romantic relationships.
However, when they’re given the expectation that emotions are valid and anticipated, then they’re all over it. The things boys were interested in? How to ask someone out, what to do if they liked someone, how to let someone know they liked them, and what to do if someone likes them. Relationships were the basis of their concern.
Pornography is a poor teacher about relationships. Even if boys are using sexualised language, this doesn’t mean they understand sexuality or that they have the tools to cope with it. Polly Haste, a researcher on sexuality and relationships, found that even 12-year-old boys (who had already seen pornography), were concerned about the availability of porn and the view of sexuality it offered. They were also highly aware that adults often thought of them as "experienced," so they were hesitant to reveal the extent of their inexperience or insecurity regarding sexuality.
When boys don’t anticipate being taken seriously by adults, they don’t talk to them even though their concerns regarding sex were still there. Teenage boys know that they’re not getting the information they want; what they need is a mentor or parent to fill this role. Parents and mentors need to talk to their boys, and adolescence is too far along for boys to learn about healthy relationships and sexuality. This conversation must start early, with the expectation that boys are capable of having rich emotional lives and making good choices. This doesn’t mean talking to a four-year-old about sex, but instead about love and relationships.
It becomes easier to talk about sexuality when you think of love as the basis of it. Talking about how we show each other love every day can be a great conversation starter. Asking your kids questions like, "What makes you feel loved?" and "How can you be a good friend?" can help them make good relationship decisions later on in life.
Problem solving and decision-making skills are imminently transferable. By learning these skills early in life, children are already on the road to making healthy romantic and sexual decisions. Talk about what kinds of intimacy make you feel safe and what kinds don't. Talk about having feelings and how fantastic it is to be a man and be emotional. Talk about what consent means and how they can practice. Model consent with your children. When playing wrestling or tickling games make sure you have your child’s full "Yes!" rather then a lack of "No."
Parents can also model great relationships, and model respect for other people’s bodies and emotions. By gaining an awareness of their own boundaries and the kinds of friendships they value, boys can use those decision-making skills when they start entering the world of romantic relationships.
Teenage boys are inherently capable of having rich and mutually fulfilling relationships. They want to know about love, they want to know how to show love, and how to be loved in healthy ways. When boys are told it’s okay to talk about their feelings, they talk!
They are also very aware that their current sources of information are failing them. This is where parents and caregivers can step up. Talking to boys about sex rarely involves talking to boys about sex. Instead, talk to your sons about love, that’s what they’re actually looking for.