I don't know how to talk to my teen son about safe sex

·4-min read
midults - Illustration: R. Fresson / A Human Agency.
midults - Illustration: R. Fresson / A Human Agency.

Dear A&E,

I have a 16-year-old son who is just getting into the usual stuff: parties, beer and… girls. He’s at that stage where sex is taking up a huge proportion of his waking (and probably sleeping) hours. He’s a lovely boy and I’m very keen to make sure that he understands how to approach sex and girls with respect, but without being crippled by fear. Basically, I need to have a proper conversation with him about consent and how to start engaging with girls sexually while making sure that he doesn’t cross boundaries. It’s all so different now – where do I begin? – Concerned

Dear Concerned,

Congratulations for gearing up for this series of conversations. Talking about sex doesn’t have to be complicated or awkward. Sure, a teenage boy is likely to feel embarrassed talking to his mother about sex, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel uncomfortable too. If you can stay centred about this, he will know you are the steady side of the pool and he can swim to you for help when the water feels treacherous.

He’s 16, which means he has been exposed to so much already. A survey conducted last year by City, University of London found that 78 per cent of 16- and 17-year-olds had watched pornography. The disturbing part is that they often turn to porn as an educational tool because sex education in schools is more about contraception and STIs than the basics of what to do.

You know, and we know, that watching porn to learn about sex is like trying to learn to drive safely by watching The Fast And The Furious. So you need to explain that to him: porn is not sex. It’s porn. And, more often than not, it is violent, full of female subjugation and peppered with a very dubious sense of consent. Porn is misinformation about sex and actively unhelpful in terms of supporting the development of a healthy sex life. That said, saying “Don’t watch porn, it’s evil” may only serve to mythologise it and shame your son. Explain rather than forbid.

You are right to want to protect him and arm him with sexual competence in terms of readiness, communication and consent on both sides. For everyone who shrieks: “Leave them to it! This is political correctness gone mad! If we carry on like this, no one will ever have sex again!”, we would direct them to Everyone’s Invited, an online space where survivors of sexual assault can share their stories. That initiative only serves to prove that teenage girls all over the land are still being regularly assaulted, raped, hurt, choked, spiked, humiliated, threatened, blackmailed and coerced by male contemporaries, including in their schools. It is a cultural epidemic. (And talking of political correctness, the Houses Of Parliament are regularly referred to as Sex Pestminster. A male MP watching porn on his phone at in the Commons? Honestly.)

Sex education is – slowly – moving on to encompass the concept of continuous consent which is, of course, excellent, but, according to Sophia Smith Galer, author of Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century, “a lot of it feels full of negatives”. She says: “It might make someone feel nervous rather than empowered with knowledge. It can be all, ‘Don’t get pregnant or make someone pregnant; don’t get an STI; don’t do things without consent.’ It isn’t always very inclusive or sex-positive.

“Ask your son what he thinks it would take for him to feel happy and healthy about dating. Once he’s answered that, ask him want he thinks it would take for a girl to feel happy and healthy. It’s only when you have figured that out that you ask him what might upset him and what might upset her.”

Many of us wonder about our pasts now we are older. Some women are still disturbed by certain sexual experiences and ask ourselves, “Did I actually make that decision or did something just… happen to me?” Equally, some men find themselves wondering, years later, “Was she too drunk? Was I too insistent?”

This should not happen today. Continuous consent (by which we mean checking that both parties are happy with what is happening, or may be about to happen) doesn’t have to turn us into robots and kill the vibe. It can be … sexy. It can be part of the ongoing sexual conversation that is the glue in most romantic relationships. It can help to protect your son and his partners.

Tell him this. And know that taking this step to teach your children to communicate about sex with the person they are having sex with is the foundation for a sexually fulfilling future.

Well. Done. You.

More from the Midults:

What readers advised in response to last week's problem: I've forgotten how to have fun, it's making me even more miserable

Anne Sandford: IMO having fun and being happy are two different things, the latter being the longer-lasting.

I have found that the old mantra of 'count your blessings' is really true, and the root of happiness for me.

Just being grateful for what I have instead of looking at what I don't have, or thinking I'm missing out, has made a truly happy person - and much nicer to live with!

S Vince: I guess as I’ve got older fun has been replaced by contentment which admittedly lacks the youthful adrenaline rush of fun and excitement, but it’s the best this older body of mine can muster these days.

Would I rather be 21 again? probably, but just for a week or two.

What would be your advice for our reader? Tell us in the comments section below

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