Talking About Sex

It continues to amuse me to read about the need for sex education for children and young people and to not read of the equally dire need for courses on sexuality for adults.  A recent survey found that most adults exhibit embarrassment and awkwardness around the subject of sex and that most schools are not implementing the department of education course on relationships and sexuality.  What is heartening in the survey’s findings is that young people very much want to know more about sexuality and sexual orientation.  However, the problem is that they find it too embarrassing to talk to their parents about it and teachers find it too embarrassing to talk to them about it. 

I totally agree that sex education is necessary, but the nature of what is provided often leaves a lot to be desired.  Courses tend to focus on the biological act and give dire warnings about unwanted pregnancies and acquiring sexually transmitted diseases.  I recall once saying to a group of parents and teachers that what young people need to hear about is the joy of sexuality.  There was a shocked silence as if such an approach would have all our young people rushing out of homes and classrooms to have sex.  Coupled with the celebration of sexuality and the joy of exploring their own bodies and the potential to pleasure another in a respectful and equal way, young people need to be introduced to responsible sexual behaviour.  Young (and older) people need, too, to be acquainted with the strength of the sexual drive and how to take charge of it.  Responsible sexual behaviour is about caring for self and caring for another and ensuring that no threats are present to the well-being of either party.  It also means being fully aware of the need for contraception and the responsibility to not bring a child into this world until the coupling pair are ready to take on parenting responsibilities.

Young people also need to be supported to see how emotional vulnerability and low self-esteem may drive them to say ‘yes’ to sexual contact when they really want to say ‘no’ or ‘not yet’.  Young people, like adults, want to be loved and sometimes young people believe that providing sexual favours will gain them that attention.  The reality is that it will reap some regard, albeit short-term, but it is not the deep regard for which the young person craves.  Sex as a substitute for real love and regard only brings pain, hollowness and feelings of rejection.  Love is seeing and celebrating the person for self; it is in the fullness of the relationship that sexual intimacy is most fulfilling.  I’m not suggesting that all sexual contact has to reach the peaks of a fulfilling relationship, but it is wise that young people be acquainted with the effects of low self-esteem on their sexual behaviour and the potential for great hurt that lies therein.  Sadly, it is still the case that the line between many a male’s heart and their penis is severed.  It is disturbing to over-hear young males talking about ‘having a good shag’ or ‘a good ride’ or calling girls ‘a slut’ or ‘a whore’ or an ‘easy ride.’

Sexual and emotional education will do well to attempt to re-connect young men to their hearts so that their sexual behaviour is more heart-driven than penis-driven.  Most girls, on the other hand, bring their hearts to sexual intimacy and, sadly, they often get deeply hurt by the unfeeling and uncouth responses of some males.  This difference between males and females is a source of considerable pain and requires urgent addressing.

As alluded to above, sexual orientation emerged from the survey as a major concern for young people.  The fact that children as young as six or seven years threaten each other with the labels ‘gay’, ‘queer’, ‘faggot’ is of grave concern.  Clearly, children (and adults) are not aware that as human beings we are born sexual, not heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual, bi-sexual.  This is similar to the reality that we are born with a food appetite; we’re not born carnivores, vegetarians, vegans.  The development of a sexual orientation is a complex emotional/social, physical and cultural process and whatever particular orientation emerges has important meaning for that person.  Both adults and young people need to be enlightened on this so that the sexual polarisations that still dangerously exist be resolved.  Many young people go through considerable trauma when their sexual orientation is different to their peers.  It is also a fact that attraction to both sexes is common among adolescents; but young people rarely talk about his.  This tends to be transitory unless there are deeper issues going on, and eventually the person settles on the orientation with which they feel most comfortable.  Identity confusion is very common among adolescents and so is sexual confusion.  The need to talk with adults who have a mature, open and enlightened approach to sexuality is critical to young people’s sexual and emotional wellbeing.  However, it would appear that we need first to aim sex education courses at adults.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of Leaving The Nest.