Even for the most prepared parents, “the talk” is an unpleasant experience — mildly uncomfortable at best, painfully awkward at worst.
And that’s when they already know what they’re talking about. When they’re talking about sex that doesn’t line up with their own orientation, the conversation can be that much harder to pull off.
That’s the conclusion of a recent report from Northwestern University’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing, which highlights the struggles parents and their LGBTQ children face when talking about sex. The study, published March 26 in Sexuality Research and Social Policy, surveyed 44 parents of LGBTQ children ages 13–17, most of whom said they felt especially “uncomfortable and unequipped” broaching sex with their LGBTQ kids. Though a small sample, it’s progress in an area of research that’s been historically overlooked and underfunded.
“I have no idea what sex is really like for men, especially gay men,” one mother said. “All my sex talks were about how not to get pregnant and how babies are conceived,” said another mother, who relied on a lesbian friend to talk to her bisexual daughter about sex: “I felt challenged that I’m straight, my daughter is dating a gal, and I didn’t know anything about that.” Others expressed a desire to discuss sex with their LGBTQ children, but said they were afraid to offer incorrect advice, and unsure where to get the right information to pass on.
There are three main issues that the study highlights. First — and most obvious — is that many parents don’t know how to talk to their children about sex when it isn’t focused on reproduction. Of course kids, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, need to learn how babies are made, in addition to the various kinds of birth control (after all, birth control is for much more than just contraception). But “at the most basic level, the mechanics of sex differ, and parents, assuming they’re heterosexual, most likely don’t know much about those mechanics,” says the Northwestern study’s lead author Michael E. Newcomb, an assistant professor of medical social sciences at the university. “If LGBTQ teens are unprepared when they start having sex, they may be more likely to engage in unsafe behaviors.” That means covering not just safe sex practices and STD prevention, but sexual violence and consent.
And beyond the “mechanics,” a lot of parents don’t know how to talk about sex as intimacy, pleasure, and self-discovery. “So many adults still think they have to communicate to children about sex in terms of conceiving and not conceiving. Sex is about enjoyment, not just conception,” says Lori Duron, author and founder of Raising My Rainbow, a blog about raising a “gender creative” son.
The healthiest conversations, then, are ones where parents avoid setting strict boundaries about what they will and won’t discuss. “Just say, ‘I want to talk to you about having agency over your body.’ That applies no matter who your kid is having sex with,” says Ellen Kahn, director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Children, Youth, and Families Program. “It’s about what feels good, [and] it’s exciting and normal. I implore parents to just keep an open mind to all possibilities and to create a culture for your kids to be able to safely and authentically explore without fear.”
Second, parents who are in the dark about how to create that culture often stay that way; many of the study respondents revealed that they didn’t know where to go to learn about LGBTQ-specific sexual health. This one, though, is easily remedied: “Get online!” Kahn says. “That’s how your kids are learning, too.”
But with the wealth of information on the internet, it’s essential that parents rely on sound sources (Planned Parenthood, PFLAG, GLSEN, The Trevor Project, and Scarleteen are a few). “While the internet is a great resource for finding information, there’s also a lot of misinformation out there,” Newcomb says. Community health clinics can be a great resource, too, though Kahn notes that “not all kids have access, and even if they do live within proximity [to youth centers and support groups], they’re afraid to be outed. So online resources are especially important.”
Third is that ever-present awkwardness factor that comes with tackling “the talk” at all. There’s no way around this one: It’s a parent’s duty to power through. “It’s critical that parents and guardians of LGBTQ youth, as well as all parents and guardians, see themselves as a primary sexual-health educator for their children,” says Becca Mui, education manager at GLSEN, which aims to improve the K–12 experience for LGBTQ students.
Rachel Q. Lyons, whose school-age son, Finn, came out as transgender a year ago, seconds this. “If you’re uncomfortable with any of these topics, it comes across to your kids. So I’d say, get comfortable with it” — especially because schools aren’t going to fill in the blanks for parents who shy away from tackling their kids’ sex education. Sex ed is generally dismal in American schools, but it’s even worse for LGBTQ-identifying students: In a 2016 GLSEN report titled “From Teasing to Torment: School Climate Revisited,” only 14.4 percent of teachers surveyed said that their school taught LGBTQ-related topics in any curriculum, and just 5 percent of LGBTQ students said they saw positive representation of LGBTQ issues in health class.
“There are very few examples of comprehensive LGBTQ curriculums, so it’s going to fall on parents and other caring adults to fill in what’s missing,” Kahn says.
Parents don’t need to have all the answers, but they do need to be willing to do some legwork. “We’d rather our sons’ questions be answered by us instead of Google or a classmate,” says Duron, who has an 11-year-old LGBTQ, gender non-conforming son and 14-year-old straight, cisgender son. “If we don’t have answers to their questions, we’re honest and tell them that we’ll get answers and get back to them as soon as we can.”
Most importantly, kids need to know that parents are safe to talk to. The language parents use is a critical part of this, Kahn says: “Don’t gender everything. Think about your assumptions, think about your pronouns. That’s what tells kids that you’re a safe person to talk to.” Instead of asking about boyfriends or girlfriends, parents can use “crush,” or ask more generally about relationships. Instead of using him or her, they can say, “whomever you choose to have sex with.”
“Let kids know, even in early, preliminary talks, that they can ask anything they want,” says Daniel Summers, a Boston-area pediatrician and writer for the Outward column at Slate. “If they have feelings that they need to share about how their bodies are changing, [they need to know] that parents will love and support them no matter what those feelings are.”
“Let them know you’re open to talking and that it doesn’t have to be a big deal,” agrees Meg Descamp, whose two daughters identify as gay and bisexual. “Make sure your kids know you love them unconditionally and always will.”