How Do I Talk to My Kids About Sex?

Educator Rachel Lotus answers all your awkward parenting questions.

Illustration: Clara Kirkpatrick
Illustration: Clara Kirkpatrick

Recently I learned, through no fault of my own and without wanting or trying to, that one of my own progeny — I won’t say which, to protect his last shred of dignity — thought that the balls were the part that went into the vagina, during sex. He had been reliably told this, he informed me, by one of his fellow young elementary-school-aged boys. He had not thought to question it. And then, unfortunately for me, I had to figure out how to tell him why that not only wasn’t the case but just wouldn’t work, which was actually the most difficult part (note that I did not say hardest). I went out the next day and bought It’s So Amazing!, which is the book that freelance sex educator Rachel Lotus recommends for his age group, because at this point I’d do anything Rachel tells me to.

Lotus is a warm, approachable 41-year-old with a cute haircut and delicate upper-arm tattoos who radiates the kind of affirming un-shockability that you’d expect from someone who regularly fields questions from 11-year-olds about the meaning of the word cum. She runs the Talk NYC, a series of ongoing after-school classes for kids as well as workshops for their befuddled parents, who may not be sure how to talk to their kids about sex and sexuality at all. Some people or indeed some schools may balk at the idea of paying for freelance sex ed, but as a parent, I’m grateful that people like Lotus exist. No matter how open and honest your relationship with your children is, it’s great to have guidance when it comes to, let’s say, explaining the ins and outs of IVF, or why suck is a bad word. Lotus herself is the mother of three, all born after she decided to leave her career as an NYC public-school teacher. She loved the classroom but hated the bureaucracy. After she returned from maternity leave and launched the Talk, she found a grateful audience for a kind of sex ed not taught in the school system. The workshops take place at schools or Lotus’s house, or houses that parents make available. Her services for youth start as low as $150 and go up to about $500, comparable to other after-school activities like soccer or gymnastics (she charges schools a higher range of prices for the workshops they invite her to host). Notably, she tries as much as possible not to use gendered language at all, leading to locutions like “the person with a vagina and ovaries” and “the person with a penis and sperm.”

I asked Lotus to answer some crowdsourced questions garnered from parents with kids of all ages, as well as some questions of my own.

Emily Gould: What are the most common questions from elementary-school-age kids?

Rachel Lotus: “Am I normal?” questions. Especially from fifth-graders, it’s everything from, “Is it normal that only one boob is growing, or one boob is growing faster than the other? Is it normal that I already have hair down there or I don’t have hair down there? Is it normal that I feel lots of moods in different moments, rapidly changing?”

And then there are “what does X mean” questions. Words that kids have heard, and they’re not sure what they mean. “What does 69 mean? What does blowjob mean? What is sperm? What is semen? What is cum?” There are questions from fifth-graders that I think would be somewhat surprising to many parents, especially parents of younger kids.

From people with vulvas and ovaries, the most common questions have to do with periods, lots of anxiety about, “How do I know when I’ll get my period? What are some signs that my period is coming? What do I do if I get my period in school or at camp or somewhere where I don’t have stuff?” There’s a lot of that. And other than that, “Why does puberty happen?” is a really common question. “What the hell is the whole point of this thing? Why can’t we just skip over it?” That’s a big one.

EG: There’s a lot of fearmongering about what “sex ed” means for kindergarten-age kids. What’s the main focus at that age?

RL: We use the phrase sex ed, which implies that in kindergarten, we’re talking about sex. And that’s not the case at all. It’s kind of a misnomer. And I think if it were rebranded with better language, more accurate language for what it actually looks like at that age, parents, educators, administrators would feel a lot less fear and wariness about it.

Really, at that age, we’re not talking about sex at all. We’re talking about body boundaries, using the correct names for your body parts, being able to articulate what your own personal boundaries are, not just about your body, but emotional boundaries as well. The language of consent, teaching kids to respect other kids’ boundaries as well. Talking to kids about different family structures, and offering them windows into other people’s worlds that they may not have at home for themselves. And we’re also talking about what healthy friendships look like, what healthy relationships with your caregivers or teachers look like. That’s what we’re doing in kindergarten.

EG: So what would you call it?

RL: I have to give this one more thought. It’s almost like … body ed.

EG: We’ll keep workshopping it. Here’s another crowdsourced question, a fun one: “For how long will little boys be interested in their penises, or does this obsession continue into adulthood? My 4-year-old is constantly touching his penis, taking it out, making jokes about it. Thankfully mostly at home, but sometimes in public. I know it’s normal, but I’m just curious about how long this phase will last.”

RL: That’s really funny. It’s incredibly common and normal for people with penises to be interested in them, to want to touch them, to want to talk about them, look at them. It’s brushing against things and reminding them of its presence all the time. And during puberty, when hormones kick in, it’s even more interesting. It used to behave this way, now it behaves in these new ways. How fascinating and cool! I think what changes is an ability to understand privacy, boundaries, appropriate context for playing with said penis. It’s perfectly fine to encourage some privacy and boundaries in public places. You can do that without inducing shame, if you do it in a way that both recognizes and normalizes the impulse to do it: “There are places where that’s completely fine to do. But because that’s a private part of your body, you need to do that in a private place like in the bathroom or in the bathtub, or when you’re going to sleep, rather than on the rug at story time, at school, or when we’re shopping for underwear at Target.”

EG: “What do you teach kids about gender and sexual orientation, and how do you cover transgender issues, and pronouns independent of sexual orientation?”

RL: I try quite hard to use gender-neutral language whenever possible to talk about changes that happen to people with certain kinds of bodies, rather than using language around gender identity or gender expression. I’m trying to meet young people where they are already, and honor the preferences and requests of youth and respect pronouns that people ask me to use, names that people ask me to use. And to be as sensitive as possible to each unique kind of journey, because everyone’s on their own.

I think we as a culture have, in this political climate around gender, forgotten that adolescence has always been about exploration of identity. For many young people, sexual and gender identity are part of what they are playing around with and exploring. For some, it will continue to be part of their identity forevermore, and for others, it will be something that they play around with and then pass through. So to keep in mind a little bit as adults and parents, that it is entirely normal and it has always been what young people are supposed to be doing.

EG: “Do you teach kids about asexuality, and introduce them to the idea that not all people experience sexual attraction?”

RL: Probably not in fifth grade, because we’re not talking about sex specifically in fifth grade, we’re talking about how bodies are changing, and how that relates to reproduction, and how babies get made and things like that. And then later on we’re talking about sexual identity, and how there is a whole broad spectrum of how people identify sexually. I usually use language like, “People may feel attracted to other people or they may have sexual feelings. Strong sexual feelings may develop as a result of puberty and hormones, and for other people, they may never feel sexually attracted to other people. That’s also completely within the realm of normal.”

Part of the reason it’s so important to name it and talk about it is because if you say nothing, then a child already feeling that way might think, “I’m obviously not normal. Because here is this person talking about this range of sexuality and sexual identity, and I don’t see myself in that, so something must be wrong.”

EG: So this is a very specific question, more in the realm of the kid who was really interested in his penis. “My son, who will be 11 soon, asked me how I became pregnant with his soon-to-be baby sister. In the past, I’ve given him a completely non-factual scenario, and I haven’t figured out how to transition that conversation in a child-appropriate way. He semi-understands that the sperm meets the egg, but I haven’t gotten into how the sperm gets there.”

RL: When I talk about it with kids of that age, I am very direct and clear, as a parent or as a teacher. Books can be incredibly helpful, because they give you a visual tool to show what the anatomy looks like and how the pieces fit together. I would use language like, “There are these two ingredients that have to get together somehow. And there are actually a couple of different ways that can happen. The person who has the ingredient of sperm is a person with a penis, and the person who carries the eggs is a person with a vulva and a vagina and ovaries. And they can put their bodies together. The penis actually can be inserted into the vagina.” You’re explaining that these two ingredients come together, and the sperm can swim out of the penis and up until it finds the egg.

After you’re done explaining that the sperm swims until it finds the egg, and when they join together, a baby can form, you’re then also talking about other ways that babies get made with the help of doctors, or sometimes people even doing it independently talking about artificial insemination, IVF. These are obviously complex concepts, but a kid of this age is 100 percent ready to know about them. And in fact, sometimes that’s part of their own story, or the stories of other people in their lives.

EG: “When is the best age to talk about self-pleasure? I know young kids below 5 years of age might stumble upon this, and do things like hump their stuffed animals. If we don’t happen to see our younger children engaging in self-exploration, do you suggest a certain age to start bringing it up casually? I’d hate for my kids to learn about this from peers because I didn’t bring it up first.”

RL: With very young kids, masturbation is more of a self-soothing behavior than an erotic behavior. It’s not based on any kind of sexual fantasy at that age, it’s just something that feels really good, and it calms them down. Preschool teachers will always talk about how common it is when they do quiet time, or nap time, for kids to be sticking their hands down their pants, or turning over on their stomachs to … whatever. So say something like, “That part of your body feels really good to touch because you have all these really sensitive spots in that part of your body. But that part of your body is also a private part. And so that’s something you can do when you have time to yourself.” You can even play a little game with your kid: Would it be okay when you’re falling asleep at night? Absolutely. Would it be okay when you’re at Johnny’s house for the play date? No, because that’s not a private place.

I know this parent said, “What if you don’t see it, at what age should you bring it up?” For people with vulvas, puberty usually starts somewhere between 8 and 13. For people with penises, it’s a little bit later, it could be 11 to 15. However, those at that age when hormones are kicking in, and for some kids, not for all, sexual feelings are starting to accompany that behavior. So around those ages, I would say something like, “When your body starts to change, when you’re going through this process called puberty, not only will you notice things happening like hair growing, and getting taller, and mood swings. You’re also going to notice a lot of changes in the way you feel. And sometimes you can have really strong feelings for other people. And when you were younger and you had crushes, if you had crushes, they might have felt like butterflies, or you were excited to be around that person, you felt a little silly maybe. As you get older, you might start to notice that those feelings also start to happen in your body. You might start to feel really intense feelings like sexual feelings in your body. But at your age, you’re still too young to be doing anything physical with another person. So what do you do with those feelings? One really cool thing that you can do is to explore your own body.”

“You can explore what it feels like to touch your own private parts, your own vulva, your own penis, anywhere on your body, because your body belongs to you. And at that age, you’re the only person that should be touching it, in fact. It can give you a lot of information about what feels good to you, what doesn’t feel good to you, what you like, what you don’t like. And then someday when you are ready to be with someone else, if you choose to do that and you feel like you want to, you will be able to say, ‘I like this, I don’t like that. Please touch me like this. Don’t touch me like that.’ It’s really super cool and empowering to know your own body before anybody else does.”

I would also say, “There’s a word for touching your own private parts. It’s called masturbation. It is a perfectly healthy, normal way to explore those sexual feelings if you feel them, and to get to know your own body.” That’s what I would say.

EG: You’re so good at this. I feel like … re-parented.

RL: Oh my God, Emily. It is one of my favorite things to talk about because for me it was such a source of shame and secrecy, and just wanting to just hide and die. And I think about it all the time, how different it might have been. Especially as someone who has a vulva and identifies as a woman.

Going back to that earlier question, a penis is very accessible. There’s not a lot of mystery there because you can see it, and feel it, and touch it. Not the case for vulvas. There’s a lot going on that you can’t actually see just by glancing down. I think it’s pretty remarkable how many young people get to an age where they might even be menstruating already, and they have never seen what their own vulva looks like. Many young people do not know how many orifices they have, what each one is responsible for doing. They don’t know what a clitoris is or where it’s located. Maybe they’ve been lucky enough to stumble upon self-pleasure just because, and great, if they have. But there are plenty more who have no idea what’s happening. I can’t remember what it was on, but remember the viral video with that reporter going around asking men, can you pee with a tampon in? Hilarious, but not really that hilarious because there are plenty of people with vulvas who don’t know the answer to that either.

EG: Oh, yeah. I mean, that part is tragic, but I actually personally educated a 40-year-old gay friend that you can indeed pee with a tampon in. He just had no idea. Okay, I think that’s it for the crowdsourced questions, but I wanted to ask my own question.

I have a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old. This question is obviously more about the 8-year-old. He has a cousin who is also biologically his half-brother. Three years before he was born, my husband donated sperm to his sibling’s then-wife, and they got pregnant with my son’s cousin. We’ve been having conversations that I think are age-appropriate about the situation for basically, as long as he’s been a sentient person. This is an important person in his life. I still think that his grasp on the mechanics of sexual intercourse, just in the regular way, are so tenuous, that explaining what an IUI is, et cetera, seems like it would make his eyes glaze over. He understands his relationship to this person is a little different than cousin, and that actually they are half-brothers, biologically speaking. I feel totally at sea about how to talk to him about this in a way that doesn’t make him either feel like, “Okay, this is so alien and boring that I’m tuning out,” or I don’t know, freak him out in some way. He doesn’t easily freak out, but I think he sometimes privately feels strange and anxious about things like this. What’s the wording here? What’s the book for this?

RL: The best book that I could recommend to help support this conversation is It’s So Amazing! When I go to schools, I bring a whole stack of books, and the book that the kids fight over the most is this one. It’s actually from a series. You’d be hard-pressed to find something that isn’t covered in these books. There’s a lot of text, but the text is written in child-friendly, age-appropriate language. It’s meant to be read either alongside your child, or for them to even explore and read independently if they’re literate. Because the book has so many helpful accompanying graphics, I think it actually is a very straightforward explanation for kids even at that age. Visuals really help! I teach fifth-graders about reproduction, and I think every kid would say that this is the most memorable day in the whole six-week workshop: We do a reproductive play. Everybody gets a little piece of paper taped to their chest. So, one person will be the sperm, I’ll have a couple of ovaries. We have fallopian tubes, a uterus, the whole thing, and then they actually physically embody the different parts and follow the journey of egg, sperm, baby, birth. It kind of brings it a little more to life.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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