Do you remember the first time you learned what sex was? If you're anything like James Deen, Courtney Stodden, or the other notable folks we asked about that milestone discussion, your (well-meaning!) parents didn't offer that much help.
There's a "communication breakdown" in the way teens and parents talk about sex, according to a survey recently commissioned by Planned Parenthood, Family Circle magazine and the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health (CLAFH) at New York University: half of all teens feel uncomfortable talking with their parents about sex, compared to just 19 percent of parents who feel uncomfortable talking with their teens.
But most people we know didn't learn about sex and sexual behavior from their parents. Instead, they got the dirty on what "Like a Virgin" was really about or what was happening during that Titanic scene from their friends, siblings, and various television sitcoms. Is it possible that parents just think they're acing the "sex talk" portion of parenting?
In honor of "Let's Talk" month, we asked a range of people how they remembered their first ever "birds and the bees" talk — or how they struggle with teaching their own kids about sex.
Tavi Gevinson, Rookie Magazine Editor-in-Chief/16-year-old superhero:
I never got the talk, but my parents didn't really monitor the TV my sisters and I watched. I think Friends, That 70's Show, King of the Hill, and various MTV reality shows of the early aughts all pieced it together for me at some point in elementary school. I once talked about this with my best childhood friend, and she said, "I never got the talk, either. My parents just sent me to your house." I swear my mom and dad are really great and responsible though. We turned out OK.
Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair columnist and author:
My mother was always trying to have "the talk" with my sister and me. We would be in the bathroom and she'd pop in, ambushing us in the bathtub. The only escape was underwater. When I was a teenager she'd give me Our Bodies Ourselves — which I about memorized. Before that though there was the groovy How Babies Are Made, illustrated with paper cut outs. The first image was of a rooster mounting a hen. I didn't know chickens even had penises and wished they'd shown it because kids at school claimed chicken nuggets were peni and I wasn't entirely sure they were kidding. Although they did appear proprortionally rather large, but what did I know? Maybe poultry were really hung.
What I remember most about the sex chat was my mother stressing that "sex is only good with someone you love". Although she insists now that she said, "Sex is best with someone you love."
In sixth grade, my best friend and I wanted to see a movie that was on TV — The Night They Raided Minsky's — which my friend's mother said we weren't old enough to see because there was sexual content. We said we knew everything there was to know. The deal was that we'd write down everything we knew about sex and if we were right, we could watch it. My friend had older sisters, so I took her assertion that one way women got pregnant was by taking a bath right after a man. You could also get pregnant from swimming in a public pool. Needless to say, we weren't allowed to watch the movie. I wish I had that paper.
I probably believed in my friend's impregnation by bathtub idea because my grandfather used to keep Playboys in the loo for "bathroom reading" (Eegads, I find that distasteful even to type.) It would seem that those girls fell in love quite a lot.
Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America:
Having been a mom for 25 years, one thing I've learned is that parenting is as much a practice of repetition as it is of love. It's so crucial for parents to have ongoing conversations with their kids about sex and relationships – and to let our kids know these are safe topics to bring up and talk about.
That's not to say it can't be awkward! My most awkward moment as a parent was when at a young age my son brought an unrolled condom to the dinner table and asked what it was! But it was a great teachable moment...If we want to help our kids to make healthy decisions, we have to take every opportunity to impart accurate information and be clear about our values and hopes for them. It's not always easy, but it's so important.
Jennifer Weiner, writer and television producer:
I have two daughters and, so far, have never had to deliver anything close to resembling The Speech. Whenever I start with my nine-year-old ("Ahem. You may have started noticing some changes in your body," or "Maybe you're wondering about where babies come from,") I get the tell-it-to-the-hand pose, accompanied by an eye-roll that would do a teenager credit, and a shouted, "Ma! I KNOW ALL THAT ALREADY!") So I've stocked her room with every well-regarded book I can find on the topic (she keeps shoving them into the bottom of her toy chest, along with discarded Cinderella dolls; I keep fishing them back out), and letting her know that I'm here to talk when she's ready. (Although I admit that, sometimes, when her little sister is bugging her and she says, "Mom, I need to talk to you," I will say, "Oh! Do you want to talk about YOUR CHANGING BODY?" I'm not sure this qualifies as good parenting, but it makes her giggle). My almost-five-year-old has gotten the "when a daddy loves a mommy, he plants a special seed" speech. She does not seem at all interested in where the seed comes from, how it gets planted, or whether the putative mommy and daddy need to be married for any of this to happen. She has, however, commented, "Mommy, you have very big boobies." And, "When I grow up, will I have a big tushy like you?" Maybe I'll just give her books, too.
Anyhow, there was one speech I did have to deliver. Lucy's third-grade class was learning about the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (did I mention she goes to a progressive school?), and I, over breakfast, was trying to explain homosexuality. "Some boys like girls, and some boys like boys, and some girls like boys, and some girls like girls, and all of that is okay, and no matter who YOU choose to love, your dad and I will always...."
"EWWW!" hollered Lucy…as, not ten feet away, her grandmother and her grandmother's life partner Clair, wearing hers-and-hers boxer shorts and oversized Beefy T's, were making eggs-in-a-basket and coffee.
"Lucy!" I said, shocked and embarrassed by her blatant lack of tolerance. "You know gay people." (Seriously. In her class, there's a girl with two dads; in her school, there's every kind of family: single mothers, multi-generational households, kids who were adopted, moms who used donors…you name it, they've got it).
"No, I don't."
"Yes, you do! There are gay people in this house right now!" (It's the parental version of, "The call is coming from inside the house.")
Lucy looked around, eyes narrowed. "Where?"
Granny Franny and Clair raised their hands. Lu looked at them, horrified.
To be fair, I don't think her horror had anything to do with a same-sex relationship…it had to do with sex, period. Let's face it: nobody wants to think about their parents getting busy…and, it seems, nobody wants to think about their grandparents bumping bits, either.
Courtney Stodden, "Model, Singer, Actress, Reality Star, Animal Activist, Hostess, Dancer and Doug's girl" (as told by her "momager," Krista Keller Stodden):
First of all a funny story, when I spoke with her I said "birds and bees," she thought I was talking about chapstick. [Ed. note: We assume she means Burt's Bees?] She was wondering why do they want to know about chapstick? This conversation just happened today, we both got a great laugh out of it. I hate to tell you but we still have not had that talk yet. I think she figured it out on her own...It just was not at the top of our list.....
James Deen, porn star:
The way I got "the sex talk" was actually from my sister. She was in 5th grade when I was in kindergarten. The two of us used to walk home with a pair of sisters who were the same age as us, one in kindergarten and one in 5th grade. The older girls had just received sex ed and were giggling about it. Naturally us younger kids pried until we got the two older girls to explain to us what they had just learned. When I was around third or fourth grade, my parents noticed I was saying things that were sex related and so my dad took me aside one day and we started "the talk". Due to the fact that I knew so much already from either media, movies, tv, and the basics from my sister, there wasn't much to talk about. The conversation was basically my dad verifying I knew what was going on, and reminding me that if i had any questions then i shouldn't hesitate to ask.