Tips for teaching kids about non-heteronormative sex

9 01 2011

I’ve observed that some parents who are open-minded about sexual diversity still struggle to talk to their children about non-hetero sexuality. From what I see, the typical pattern is to teach them about “normal” sex first, because it’s assumed that this will be unproblematic to the children, and to wait until the kids are older to broach the topics of lesbian and gay sex. Bisexuality doesn’t seem to even be on the radar very often (big surprise). And, unless there is a trans person in the family, I’m fairly sure that most children don’t even hear any related terms until they’re in high school. In this post, I’m addressing sexual orientation. Discussing trans issues with children will come in another post.

While the intention of parents is probably to avoid confusing children, this “waiting” approach may do more harm then good and may lead to more confusion in the long run. By waiting until children ask specifically about same-sex sexuality, chances are the children will be exposed to damaging stereotypes and prejudice before the parents have the change to teach them anything positive. For children who may eventually come to question their own sexual orientation, this may cause them unnecessary anguish since they will have internalised, at a tender age, that their own sexual desires are “abnormal” or taboo. For children who wind up being hetero, this may contribute to their maintenance of ideas that may lead them to exclude or even bully non-normative kids.

I’m not saying this is irreversible! I’m sure that parents can still contribute to changing homophobic in kids later on. Indeed, many queer activists and allies were raised in homophobic households or households where it just wasn’t discussed. But ultimately, if more and more children are raised to see sexual diversity as the norm, fewer and fewer children will grow up thinking that non-hetero relations are weird and taboo. Fewer and fewer people will feel awkward about introducing “that gay aunt or uncle” or “that bisexual cousin.”

I’m sure there are lots of tips out there in books and on the net. I have to admit I never read them. I just went with my own gut instincts when I started talking about sex to my son. I found that making same-sex sexuality “normal” was largely a question of deconstructing what sex was to start with. I eschewed the traditional “this is how babies” are made premise, which in and of itself excludes same-sex relations as “unnatural,” and favoured a definition of sex that had to do with sharing pleasure. I explained that sex is when people touch each other in a way that gives them pleasure but that it was different than the way parents and children touch each other (so that he wouldn’t think that cuddling with mommy or daddy on a couch was having sex.) I also told him that some people like to have sex with women, some like to have sex with men and some like to have sex with both. Finally, some people have sex with only one person and some have sex with more than one. For an initial discussion, I left it at that. He was only about 6 years old so I felt that was enough information for him to digest at that time.

Later on, he started asking questions about more specific sex acts. I would answer those and give a bit more information. I always made sure to include all gender combinations. For example, when he asked me how babies got into a mother’s belly, I explained that often, a man puts his penis in her vagina and sperm comes out, which mixes with an egg she had in her belly and make a baby. But I also told him that sometimes people choose to get sperm from a place that stores it and they get it placed in their medically, or that they can mix a sperm and egg together outside the woman’s belly and then put it in so that it will grow in the belly. This is an option for women who want to have a baby without a man because they love women or because they want to raise a child themselves. I also told him that some people, like me, went from being girls to being boys, but since they still had girl parts inside their bellies, they could sometimes still have babies. So even some boys can be mommies. Like his (although I gave birth years before transition).

When he accidentally spotted a picture of a woman licking a man’s penis, he asked me why she was doing that. I explained that it’s one thing some people like to do when they’re having sex. Then he asked me if some people lick vulvas. I said yes, some people do. There are all kinds of body parts that people like to lick. Now, some might argue that this knowledge is too graffic for a 10 year old. But if it’s OK for a 10 year old to know that men put penises inside women’s vagina’s, why is it not OK to know that some people lick each others vulva’s, penises, butts, breasts or whatever?

Bottom line: I want my son to internalise the idea that sex is not automatically about making babies and that having babies does not have to involve sex. This dislodges heterosexuality is THE norm, an idea that is propagated by the hegemonic link between sex and reproduction of the species. Emphasising diversity also makes it clear that same-sex sexuality does not threaten heterosexuality and is not a hindrance to reproduction.

Of course, exposure works miracles as well. My son has grown up knowing people of all sexual orientations. He’s seen me kiss women when I was a woman, he knows that his uncle is practically married to his male partner, he’s seen men hold hands with men and women hold hands with women. So deeply is it internalised that all this is “normal” that when he saw a female friend with another woman, he asked her if that was her girlfriend.

Now, he’s already expressed that he likes girls better. And he does have an eye for women in bikinis as some friends will attest to. On the other hand, he kissed a boy on the mouth when he was in kindergarden. Regardless of his own orientation, I’m fairly sure that he will see all kinds of relationships as legitimate and worthy of respect, which is what I want. Of course, this is an ongoing project. He’s not in high school yet and I’m sure I’ll have to keep an eye out for things he picks up there. I’ll also have to keep countering media imagery that is counter to the ideals of inclusion. But I feel that he at least has a basis.

So what are YOUR tips for explaining sexual diversity to kids? What do you do to counter homophobic stuff they wind up learning at school? If you decided later on in your kids’ lives to start talking about it, what was your approach? What worked and what didn’t? What would you recommend to parents who are just starting to think and talk about sexual diversity?



4 responses

9 01 2011

I’ve always found that ‘Books are a parents friend’. They’re also a good way of bringing ideas into a childs sphere of thinking without having any of those forced or awkward conversations. While my child knows that you need a male and female to ‘make’ a baby, he also knows that ‘families’ are a lot more diverse. So he knows that sometimes there’s only 1 parent, sometimes two mums, sometimes two dads and sometimes kids like him end up with three! (His biological father died)

Some books I’d highly reccomend:
It’s okay to be different, Todd Parr. As well as dealing with ‘It’s okay to have different mums, It’s okay to have different dads’ it also deals with body types, disabilities and feelings. A bit cheesy but not bad. To illustrate adoption they have a puppy in a kangaroos pouch!

Odd Bird Out, Hrlga Bansch. It’s about a drag queen raven, not that they use those words. It’s really beautifully written and illustrated and has some very important messages in it. His parents were really good loving parents, his differences were innate and in the end it is the other raven’s who change and not him.

Uncle Jack, Kate De Goldi & Jacqui Colley. A beautifully rendered book in poetry about a family member’s visit’s. Every time he comes he’s a different character including on one page Jack-A-Lean Pennyfather. On that page they seamlessly change pronouns and there’s a notable difference in how the character is drawn.

I think that your spot on answering questions when he asks them. When parents don’t answer those questions it suggests to them that there’s something bad and shameful about sex which is never helpful. Recently I’ve heard that we’re meant to discuss sex before age 9 because that’s the age that some girls are getting their periods (so are fertile). Which is super scary to me (so young!). My son’s still at the age where I have to explain why he can’t marry family members (mainly me). My answer to that is ‘It’s illegal because when family members make babies together they’re born sick and not well’ I believe in giving them the facts instead of saying things like ‘It’s yucky! Now shhh!’

9 01 2011
Jacky V.

Yeah, I’m big on avoiding making subjects taboo. Part of it is my own baggage: no one wanted to answer my questions when I was a kid so I got a lot of bad cues about communication and what’s ok or not to talk about.

Thanks for the book recommendations. Books are somewhat useful for us but I can’t rely on them completely because my son doesn’t like to read that much. Getting him to read is a challenge. And when he does, reading comprehension is a big issue. So I still think it’s a good idea because it can get a conversation going, I can’t use them as a primary source of sex education.

He does have one book that’s helped him a lot though with my own transition: My Mommy is a Boy. He can really relate to a lot of it.à

Thanks for the feedback!

28 07 2011

Thank you so much for this wonderful article…that’s all I want to say 🙂

26 11 2012

My kids are 3, 5 and 7 and I’m still not sure what to say to them. With my own tendencies (which I’m still not entirely sure of, but are definitely not ..what word am I looking for? ‘Normal?’), I believe there will be some discussions with at least one of them on what it means to be ‘differently gendered’ in some fashion. I also believe strongly in monogamy, which gets me in trouble in GLBT settings since I married hetero. (The “oh, so you’re actually straight” look gets on my nerves.)

The end result (so far) is that my kids know where babies come from, that it takes two people to make them, a male and a female, but that anybody can be family or a parent. We just placed a ‘surrogate’ baby with a couple of our friends who couldn’t get one the normal way, and it made me part of a ‘blended’ family, as well as opening more questions from the kids. I wish I knew how to better express things to my kids, especially as my youngest boy has expressed an interest in a number of ‘girly’ things alongside more boyish likes, and I really don’t want to see him sat on by society, much less his older brother. I want him to feel his likes are *all* normal, and as his tastes change, to be comfortable with himself.

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