Talking to your teen about sex matters – here’s how to do it

More Australian teenagers are sexually active and one in three has experienced unwanted sex. Experts say talking to your kids about teen sex is non-negotiable.

According to the most recent national survey of Australian secondary students and sexual health, 69 per cent of Year 12 students have had penetrative sex, and so have 43 per cent of students in Year 10.

If you’re a parent, statistics like that are just one of the reasons why talking to your teens about sex sooner rather than later needs to become one of your golden rules.

“Kids are getting sex and sexuality education every day from advertising, online gaming, TikTok, pornography and YouTube, whether we like it or not,” sexuality educator and Talking The Talk founder Vanessa Hamilton says.

“But that’s not the education we want them to have because evidence tells us that children who’ve had age-appropriate, accurate, comprehensive information and education about sexuality throughout their life have much better outcomes when they start having intimate partnerships and relationships.”

When to start conversations about teen sex

While the legal age for consensual sex varies between 16 and 17 across Australian states and territories, the average age that young people first have sex is 15.

“That tells us it’s typically expected behaviour of young humans to start experimenting sexually around that age and parents need to catch up with providing accurate information,” Vanessa says.

“When I ask parents, ‘Who do you want to be the provider of information related to sexuality, respect, relationships and consent?’, they always say they want it to be them.

“So my next question is: ‘When do you need to get in first to absolutely make sure it’s you?’

“Kids need good, accurate information well before they’re 15 years old.”

In fact, Vanessa says, conversations about human sexuality should start when children are toddlers.

“It begins age appropriately with naming body parts accurately and in a shame-free way,” she explains.

“And then conversations move on to protective safety behaviours and body safety as they go off to kinder or childcare, (and) progresses to knowing about puberty and their reproductive capacity before it happens to them.”

In reality, Vanessa says, many of the conversations about sexuality have little to do with actual sex.

How do you talk to teens about sex?

Read about teens and sex

Sheena Callaghan is the education lead at True, an organisation dedicated to improving reproductive and sexual health and promoting safe, respectful relationships.

She says books can provide parents with the language to use about everything from contraception to consent and pleasure.

“Many parents we talk to have come from families who didn’t talk about sex and they want to do things differently with their own children but aren’t sure where to start,” Sheena says.

“Books can be a great resource.”

Take children’s questions about sex seriously

“Answer every single question your child has,” Sheena says.

You don’t need to be an expert on teen sex and you don’t need to have all the answers, she notes, but you do want to be approachable.

“If you’re unsure, you can say, ‘You know, that’s a really good question – what made you think about that?’; this can give you more context,” Sheena says.

And if you need time to get some information or work out how to frame your answer, she suggests you tell your teen that you will get back to them.

“Just make sure you always do go back to them,” Sheena says.

Look for teachable moments

“For example, turn on the radio and use the lyrics of a song to call out disrespect,” Vanessa, who authored Talking Sex: A Conversation Guide For Parents, says.

She suggests saying something along the following lines: “Why would he think that about his girlfriend? He’s making out he’s such a great lover but that’s not really what you’d do in an amazing, wonderful and pleasurable partnership, is it?”

Use inclusive language about sex

“Children and young people may be transgender, non-binary, gender diverse or same-gender attracted, but are only just working out who they are,” Sheena says.

“So as a parent, you never want to assume anything, which makes using inclusive language essential.”

How should you discuss pornography with your teenager?

“Very, very specifically,” Vanessa says.

“When we look at the harmful messages that pornography gives teens about what sex is – for example, that sex involves violence – we need to counteract that because our kids deserve better than being educated by online mainstream porn.”

Sheena agrees: “We need to help teenagers critically analyse that when they see things on the screen if they’re looking at porn, it’s not real life.”

While the average age that teenagers view pornography is 13, Vanessa says the conversation should begin when they first have access to the internet.

“Of course you don’t tell a four-year-old about pornography, but you do say that if they get their protective safety early warning signs from something they’re looking at on the iPad, (to) turn it over and come and get (you) – and stress that they won’t ever be in trouble,” Vanessa says.

“And the conversation continues to grow from there as they get older.”

Where can teenagers learn more about sex?

Body Talk, which is developed by Family Planning NSW, is a great resource.

Welcome to Sex by Dr Melissa Kang and Yumi Stynes is also an excellent book for young people, Vanessa suggests, adding that there has never been a more important time to help teens navigate this life stage.

“In light of the gender-based violence in our society, it couldn’t be more vital for parents to take responsibility for the education, health and wellbeing of their children in regards to sex and sexuality,” she says.

“It’s never too late to start, and don’t stop – young people need this guidance until they’re 25 because information about respectful relationships is often so lacking.”

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Written by Karen Fittall.