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A Sex Ed Update For An Internet-Enabled Generation


OK. For the next few minutes, we are going to talk about sex, specifically how to talk about sex with tweens and teenagers. So if you're listening with kids and you don't want to start that conversation at this moment, maybe switch over to some music and come back to us in about 10 minutes or so. For the past year, NPR's Anya Kamenetz and Cory Turner have been helping parents as part of NPR's Life Kit podcast. They've explored how to help kids with anxiety, how to teach them the fine art of kindness. And recently, they have been interviewing researchers, doctors and parents about what teens need but are not getting when it comes to sex ed.

Corey and Anya, great to have you here.

COREY TURNER, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: In this episode, you guys say that sex is like algebra.


CHANG: Can you please elucidate that?

TURNER: Yes, please. I...


TURNER: I love that line. It's something we got from a sex educator named Daniel Rice. And what he meant is that being sexual with someone is a complex process that really requires that we've already learned several other fundamental skills. So when we're talking about sex, the addition and subtraction is really about, like, what a healthy relationship looks like, how to know what you want, how to know what someone else wants, how to act when you don't get what you want. And Brittany McBride - she's another sex educator we spoke with. She told us that parents really should not assume that their kids are going to be learning this stuff in sex ed or, really, at school at all.

BRITTANY MCBRIDE: There's a lot of things that, sometimes, I believe folks believe sex ed will kind of do for us. But because we haven't set the foundation, it's nearly impossible to kind of cover within, like, 45 minutes on a Wednesday.

KAMENETZ: So unlike algebra, a lot of this is in the hands of us, parents. And while you're thinking about laying that healthy foundation, that addition, that subtraction, also recognize that puberty can kick in earlier than you might think, as early as eight or nine years old, especially for girls.

CHANG: I have to say, though, that my algebra class was nothing like sex ed. I'm just going to put it out there.


CHANG: All right, so in all of your research, what is the biggest thing that you guys found that really changed for kids going through puberty today?

KAMENETZ: Well, probably the Internet. Porn and sexual media online is standing in for sex ed for a lot of kids, especially when we, as parents, don't take up that charge. And that is a problem because, you know, often, in porn, obviously, there's unrealistic body types. There's no consent, no contraception, very little conversation. And so one of our experts, Heather Corinna of Scarleteen.com, says parents really need to get out there and help kids decode what they might be seeing and understand, whether it's bikini models or on Instagram or on commercials on TV, this is really a media literacy issue.

HEATHER CORINNA: Think about how people look in cleaning commercials - when you talk about, why is that person looking so happy from something we know does not make most people happy, right? Later, there's conversations you can have about that with pornography, like why does that person appear to be having an orgasm from something we know almost no one has an orgasm when that happens?

KAMENETZ: So these conversations, obviously, can be super awkward, but they really work. There's a study that I love. It comes from Texas Tech University. And it found that when parents had a critical conversation with their middle-school-aged children sharing their own family's values around pornography - so that could be a religious critique; it could be a feminist critique - that critical conversation really had a lasting impact. And those kids - when they got older, they were less likely to have a harmful relationship with pornography in their own lives.

CHANG: So it's very clear that these conversations are super delicate. And I was struck by something that you guys mention in this episode, which is you say, sex feels good, and it is OK for kids to know that. Why did you feel it was important to say that out loud?

TURNER: Because it's something that we hardly ever say out loud to kids.

CHANG: Yeah.

TURNER: You know, in the U.S., sex ed is often really just about teaching kids why they should absolutely fear sex - disease, unwanted pregnancy. It might hurt. Here's Brittany McBride again. She helps school districts all over the country with their sex ed programs.

MCBRIDE: I often thought like, well, why would anybody want to do this? This sounds miserable and horrible. And, like, there's not a lot of benefits until you finally realize, like, oh, now I get it. It's pretty wonderful. And not having that conversation doesn't feel particularly honest or accurate when we want to talk about sex ed.

TURNER: And it's not honest. I mean, Ailsa, we know that the reason consenting adults have sex most of the time is because it feels good, and it's a great way of connecting with someone you love. But, you know, many adults just don't feel comfortable talking about that. We heard something really interesting from several different experts because, obviously, this is awkward or it could be awkward, depending on the relationship you have with your child. Several experts said a great time and place to have this conversation is in the car.

CHANG: Really? Why?

TURNER: Yeah. You're driving. Your child is in the backseat. There's just less awkward eye contact.

CHANG: (Laughter) That's genius.

TURNER: And I know it may sound weird, but I tried it. And it worked really well.


TURNER: (Laughter).

CHANG: All right, so we have talked a lot about what parents should say when you're talking about sex with their kids. But is there anything that parents should not mention at all?

KAMENETZ: I love this question, Ailsa, because as a parent of a tween, you should never miss an opportunity to shut up and listen, right?


KAMENETZ: Just shut up and listen because, you know, we really want our kids - at puberty, they're going to be coming to us, hopefully, with all kinds of things. It could be heartbreak. It could be a gender identity issue. It could be, you know, a sexual identity issue, and, you know, we need to be able to listen, to love and to be humble.

CHANG: Yeah.

KAMENETZ: Right? And, you know, even if we're not ready for something that they're saying or we don't have all the facts, you know, Heather Corinna told us the best thing to do is just admit it up front.

CORINNA: The biggest message that can just be said is, you know, we love and accept you. And then you can follow that up with, we don't get it, right? (Laughter) And we need to find out more about this.

TURNER: And to be clear, we don't get it is not the same thing as we don't believe you. Dr. Cora Breuner at Seattle Children's Hospital - she told us if a child at puberty is exploring, say, a different sexual or gender identity, according to the latest research, it's not likely to be a phase, so it's really not helpful to say to your child, oh, you'll grow out of it.

CORA BREUNER: My generation of physicians was taught that, which was wrong. And so the likelihood of somebody growing out of it is extremely low.

TURNER: So both Dr. Breuner and Heather Corinna say, you know, the follow-up to I love you may be, let's find out more, or, how can I help? Really, honestly, what we heard from everyone is teens, first and foremost - they want to be seen, and they want to be validated.

CHANG: How much I wish I had conversations like this, like, decades ago.

KAMENETZ: Mmm hmm.

TURNER: (Laughter) You and everybody else.

CHANG: Totally. That is NPR's Corey Turner and Anya Kamenetz. They are education reporters at NPR and co-hosts of the parenting episodes of NPR's Life Kit podcast. You can find that at npr.org/lifekit.

Thanks to both of you so much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ailsa.

TURNER: Thanks, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONIC YOUTH SONG, "TEEN AGE RIOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
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