The sex talk is one of the rites of passage of parenthood-and one that some parents meet with a bit of trepidation. Even if the topics and questions my daughters approached me with sometimes made me blush, I've always presented them with honest information and as many facts as I could muster.
But when one of your kids comes out as LGBTQIA+, that may present a new challenge-especially if you're a heterosexual person whose school didn't exactly cover LGBTQ sex back in the day.
If you live in states like New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, and California, LGBTQ sexual health is covered as part of the sex ed curriculum. But in many other states, that's not the case-and a handful of states, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, and Michigan have laws that prevent schools from presenting any affirming LGBTQIA+ information.
"The lack of LGBTQIA+ sex education in schools erases those identities from the curriculum and leaves an already vulnerable population without the sexual health information they need and deserve," says Daniel Rice, executive director of Answer, a national organization that provides inclusive sex education information to students and teachers. "Research has shown that also including non-heterosexual identities in the curriculum can decrease feeling of isolation and depression in LGBTQIA+ youth and can lead to lower instances of homophobia and transphobia in the school community."
Talking about sex honestly and openly with your kids is the best way to ensure they grow up to have healthy, happy relationships, no matter who they love. Here's how to make sure your conversations with your child about sex are inclusive and supportive of them.
"Data indicate that the vast majority of parents never talk to their child about sex-or not until adolescence at the earliest," says Ritch Savin-Williams, professor emeritus of developmental psychology at Cornell University, and author of The New Gay Teenager. "Even then, it's usually a discussion from a 'it's dangerous' point of view-'don't do this, don't do that.'"
Starting early gives you a chance to add onto the conversation, starting with body parts and the basics of where babies come from early on to more grownup conversations as they get older.
You don't have to have all the answers to have the talk
Can't tell the difference between bisexual and demisexual? Not sure exactly why a lesbian teen should still be encouraged to use protection? Then this conversation can help you both find common ground and become more informed. If a question comes up that you don't know the answer to, suggest that you and your child look it up together to find information-especially when researching sex terms on the internet can lead to some pretty questionable content really quickly.
Keep it gender neutral
Try to talk in more neutral terms, especially early on-use the word "partner," for instance, instead of boyfriend/girlfriend or husband/wife. "Try not put it in an assumed heterosexual way-leave the pronouns neutral, describe things from both a girls' perspective and boys' perspective in terms of parts," Savin-Williams says. "Keeping gender neutral is even more important as your child gets to be 10 or 11 or 12, when you might need to really consider that your child could be not straight."
Be LGBTQIA+ inclusive, even if you think your child is cisgendered and heterosexual
Even if your child has expressed preferences for the opposite sex, providing positive LGBTQIA+ information can help them support friends and classmates who are LGBTQIA+-or feel more comfortable coming out to you if they've been hiding that part of themselves.
"One of the most common mistakes parents make when talking about sex is assuming their child is cisgender and heterosexual," Rice says. "This can lead to many other assumptions, including the types of contraception or protection against STIs that they may need, the pronouns they may identify with, their future plans around marriage and having children, and much more."
Being inclusive can help ensure that your child doesn't engage in some risky sexual behaviors without having the information they need to stay safe, and ensures that you aren't left in the dark.
"Parents sometimes think they're protecting their child by not talking, but they're actually putting their kid at greater risk," Savin-Williams says. "Your child is going to be driven by hormones, curiosity, and their friends. It's not like kids don't have access to information-they can Google it, and the Internet becomes the sex educator. You're not hiding anything from your child."
Share your values-in an inclusive way
As you talk about sexuality, you might start to delve into your own belief system about sex and relationships. You might have conversations about which types of acts you might want your child to reserve for a committed relationship or marriage, and which might be OK as they start dating.
"Most parents-regardless of their child's sexual orientation-usually don't want child to be sexual with anyone until they leave home," Savin-Williams says. "That kind of a conversation is difficult. As your child approaches adolescence, the parent could say, 'these are the kinds of activities that are off limits, but these are the kind of activities we could talk about.'"
Don't out a child who's not quite ready to come out
Even if you suspect your child may be gender fluid or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, you shouldn't assume that-or push for them to share the information with you. "Parents should never pressure their child into coming out or putting a label on their sexual or gender identity," Rice says. "Each person needs to have control of this process in their life and should get to choose when, who, and how they come out."
Keep in mind that gender is part of the equation, too
"With this generation, gender has become really important topic of conversation-how comfortable they are in their gender, and what gender feel they are," Savin-Williams says. "Gender nonconformity or behavior-those kinds of things are visible to parents, so some become frightened by what it means and begin to impose more 'appropriate' gender behavior for their child."
Rather than pushing traditional gender roles or appearance, Savin-Williams recommends just talking with your child. "You might say something like, 'I noticed you seem to feel comfortable with both genders.'" Then ask what kinds of feedback they get from other people to help open the conversation.
Make sure this isn't just a one-time-or one-way-conversation
The sex talk isn't a one-and-done kind of thing. Continuing to talk about it with your child, and to listen to what they have to say, gives you some insight into how they're feeling and what's going on with them, and allows you to add more detail and nuance as your child gets older.
Look for opportunities to bring up the topic. "Look for teachable moments in television shows and movies where you can bring up the topic of sexual identity or gender identity," Rice says. "Open the door to the conversation, then let your child do most of the talking while you listen. If they're not ready to talk about the issue, that's OK-don't pressure them into having the conversation. If they do start sharing their thoughts, it is important to listen in a non-judgmental manner, and after they have shared their thoughts, then share yours."
Having smaller talks over the course of years ensures that you continue to be a guiding force in your child's life, as they start navigating the world of romantic and sexual relationships.