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For Some With Intellectual Disabilities, Ending Abuse Starts With Sex Ed

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Katy Park, who runs arts and wellness programs for Momentum — a community service program for people with intellectual disabilities — starts a class on healthy sexuality by asking her students to define what they want in a relationship.

by Joseph Shapiro

In the sex education class for adults with intellectual disabilities, the material is not watered down. The dozen women and men in a large room full of windows and light in Casco, Maine, take on complex issues, such as how to break up or how you know you’re in an abusive relationship. And the most difficult of those issues is sexual assault.

Katy Park, the teacher, begins the class with a phrase they’ve memorized: “My body is my own,” Park starts as the rest join in, “and I get to decide what is right for me.”

People with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate more than seven times that for people without disabilities. NPR asked the U.S. Department of Justice to use data it had collected, but had not published, to calculate that rate.

At a moment when Americans are talking about sexual assault and sexual harassment, a yearlong NPR investigation finds that people with intellectual disabilities are one of the most at-risk groups in America.

“This is really an epidemic and we’re not talking about it,” says Park, a social worker who runs arts and wellness programs for Momentum, an agency based in Maine that provides activities in the community and support services for adults with intellectual disabilities. Those high rates of abuse — which have been an open secret among people with intellectual disabilities, their families and people who work with them — are why Park started this class about healthy relationships and healthy sexuality.

Because one of the best ways to stop sexual assault is to give people with intellectual disabilities the ability to identify abuse and to know how to develop the healthy relationships they want.

“Let’s talk about the positive parts of being in a relationship,” Park says, holding a marker while standing at a whiteboard, at the start of the class. “Why do we want to be in a relationship?”

“For love,” says one man. “And sexual reaction.”

“Romance,” adds a woman.

“How about support?” asks Lynne, a woman who speaks with a hushed voice and sits near the front of the class.

“Having support, right?” Park says, writing the word on the board. “We all want support.”

A participant helps Park hang the agenda on the wall at the start of class.

From working with the men and women here, Park realized they want to have relationships, love and romance. They see their parents, siblings and their friends in relationships. They see people in relationships when they watch TV or go to the movies. They want the same things as anyone else.

But it’s harder for them. When they were in school, most of the adults in this room say, they didn’t get the sex ed classes other kids got. Now, just going on a date is difficult. They probably don’t drive or have cars. They rely on public transportation. They don’t have a lot of money. They live at home with their parents or in a group home, where there’s not a lot of privacy.

And then there’s the one thing that really complicates romance for people with intellectual disabilities: those high rates of sexual abuse.

“Oftentimes, it actually is among the only sexual experience they’ve had,” says Park. “When you don’t have other healthy sexual experiences, how do you sort through that? And then the shame, and the layers upon layers upon layers.”

This class, she says, is about “breaking the chain, being empowered to say, ‘No. This stops with me.’ “

“I Think People Take Advantage”

The women and men come to Momentum during the week for different programs. They go kayaking and biking; they go to the library and do volunteer work at the local food bank. There’s a range of disability here. You can look at some of the men and women — maybe someone with Down syndrome — and see they have a disability. Others, even after you talk to them, you might not figure out they have an intellectual disability.

Like one small woman with short, choppy dark hair, streaked red.

She’s 22 now, but when she was 18, her boyfriend was several years older. She says he was controlling. He didn’t let her have a cellphone or go see her friends.

“He was strangling me and stuff like that,” says the woman. (NPR is not using her name.) “And he was, the R-word — I hate to say it, but rape.” She says he raped her eight times, hit her and kicked her. “So I don’t know how I’m alive today, actually. He choked me where I blacked out.”

She thinks she was an easy target for him, because of her mild intellectual disability. “I think people take advantage,” she says. “They like to take advantage of disabilities. I have disabilities, not as bad as theirs. But I think they like to take advantage, which is wrong. I hate that.”

A student takes notes in Park’s Relate class.

She says the class helped her better understand what she wanted, and had a right to, in a relationship. She’s got a kind and respectful boyfriend now.

Her friend Lynne listens and says she would like to find a boyfriend. But in her past, she has experienced repeated sexual abuse.

She talks about a time when she was 14 and “this older guy that knew us” forced her to have sex. She says she told people but no one believed her. The next year, when she was 15, she was sexually assaulted — this time by a boy at her school. “I was trying to scream,” she says, “but I couldn’t because he had his hand over my mouth, telling me not to say anything to anybody.”

Lynne, who is 38, says those rapes and others left her unable to develop relationships. “I couldn’t trust anyone,” she says. Lynne (NPR has agreed to identify her by her middle name) says this class has helped her realize she wants a real, romantic relationship and has taught her how to better find one.

“There’s A Lot Of Loneliness”

Katherine McLaughlin, a New Hampshire sex educator, developed the curriculum used by Momentum. She wrote it so that it uses concrete examples to describe things, to match the learning style of people with intellectual disabilities. It shows pictures and uses photographs.

McLaughlin says the main desire of adults with intellectual disabilities is to learn “how to meet people and start relationships. There’s a lot of loneliness.”

That loneliness leaves them vulnerable to getting into abusive relationships, she says, or to rape.

Sometimes, especially when they’re young, they can’t name what happened to them as a sexual assault. Because they didn’t get the education to identify it. “We don’t think of them as sexual beings. We don’t think of them as having sexual needs or desires,” McLaughlin says. “Often they’re thought of as children, even when they’re 50 years old.”

Sheryl White-Scott, a New York City internist who specializes in treating people with intellectual disabilities, estimates that at least half of her female patients are survivors of sexual assault. “In my clinical experience, it’s probably close to 50 percent, but it could be as high as 75 percent,” she says. “There’s a severe lacking in sexual education. Some people just don’t understand what is acceptable and what’s not.”

Most of the women and men at the class in Maine say they didn’t get sex ed classes, like other kids, when they were in school. Or if they did, it was the simplistic warnings, like the kind given to young children. “It’s easy to fall back on ‘good touch-bad touch’ sex ed,” says Michael Gill, the author of “Already Doing It: Intellectual Disability and Sexual Agency.” “That’s a lot of what they get.” And the usual warning about “stranger danger” can be unhelpful, because it’s not strangers but people they know and trust who are most likely to assault them.

Most rapes are committed by someone a victim knows. For women without disabilities, the person who assaults them is a stranger 24 percent of the time. NPR’s data from unpublished Justice Department numbers show the difference is stark for people with disabilities: The abuser is a stranger less than 14 percent of the time.

“Parents get this; professionals don’t,” says Nancy Nowell, a sexuality educator with a specialty in teaching people with developmental disabilities, an umbrella term that includes intellectual disability but also autism.

Park asks her students to weigh in on agreements with a thumbs up or a thumbs down during class.

Parents have significant reason to worry: Figuring out what’s a healthy relationship is difficult for any young person, and it can be even trickier if a person has an intellectual disability. People with intellectual disabilities are vulnerable to problems from rape to unwanted pregnancy. Some people with intellectual disabilities marry. A small number have children — and rely on family or others to support them as parents.

Still, says McLaughlin, parents often are reluctant to talk to their children with intellectual disabilities about sex. “Parents often feel, if I talk about it they will go and be sexual,” she says, and they fear that could make them targets for sexual assault.

But educators such as McLaughlin, Gill and Nowell argue the reverse: that comprehensive sexuality education is the best way to prevent sexual assault. “If people know what sexual assault is,” says Gill, an assistant professor of disability studies at Syracuse University, “they become empowered in what is sexuality and what they want in sexuality.”

Respect

Gill argues that a long history of prejudice and fear gets in the way. He notes early 20th century laws that required the sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities. That came out of the eugenics movement, which put faith in IQ tests as proof of the genetic superiority of white, upper-class Americans.

People with intellectual disabilities were seen as a danger to that order. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote in a 1927 opinion that ruled the state of Virginia could forcibly sterilize a young woman deemed “feebleminded.”

Carrie Buck was the daughter of a woman who lived at a state institution for people with intellectual disabilities. And when Buck became pregnant — the result of a rape — she was committed to a state institution where she gave birth and was declared mentally incompetent to raise the child. Buck was then forcibly sterilized to prevent her from getting pregnant again. There was evidence that neither Buck, nor her daughter, Vivian, was, in fact, intellectually disabled. In the first half of the 20th century, impoverished women who had children outside marriage were often ruled by courts to be “feebleminded.”

There was another myth in popular culture that people with intellectual disabilities were violent and could not control their sexual urges. Think about that staple of high school literature classes, John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” The intellectually disabled Lennie can’t control himself when the ranch hand’s wife lets him stroke her hair. He becomes excited, holding her too tight, and accidentally strangles her.

The class in Maine aims to help these adults know what’s a healthy relationship and how to communicate how they feel about someone.

The main way this class differs from a traditional sex ed class is that — to help people with intellectual disabilities learn — the material is broken down and spread out over 10 sessions. Each class lasts for 2 1/2 hours. But the adults in the class are completely attentive for the entire session.

They do take a couple of very short breaks to get up and move around, including one break to dance. Everyone gets up when Park turns on the tape recorder and plays — just right for this group asking to be treated like adults — Aretha Franklin singing “Respect.” There is joyous dancing and shouts. And when the song is over, they go back to their seats and get back to work.

Complete Article HERE!

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9 Sex Resolutions Every Woman Should Make for the New Year

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By Danielle Friedman

For those of us who make New Year’s resolutions, we too often focus on doing less—eating less sugar, drinking less booze, spending less time in pajamas binge-watching The Crown. And while those goals may be worthy (though, really, The Crown is pretty great), this year, we’d also like to encourage women to do more—when it comes to pleasure.

As research consistently shows, the “orgasm gap” between men and women is real. A study published this year in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior found that, while 95 percent of heterosexual men said they usually-to-always orgasm when sexually intimate, only 65 percent of heterosexual women said the same. Meanwhile, along with simply feeling good, orgasms bring an impressive list of health benefits, from decreased stress to better sleep. “There’s freedom in pleasure,” Kait Scalisi, MPH, a sex educator and counselor and instructor at the Institute for Sexual Enlightenment in New York City, tells Health.

Convinced yet? We culled sexual health research and called on Scalisi’s expertise to bring you nine tips for getting the pleasure you deserve in 2018.

Carve out time for solo pleasure

If masturbation feels self-indulgent, that’s because it is—in the best way possible. Still, in a recent national survey out of Indiana University, one in five women said they had never masturbated in their lifetime—and only 40.8% said they had masturbated in the past month. In the year ahead, consider devoting more time exclusively to solo sexual satisfaction.

“The more you learn about your body and what feels good—and what doesn’t feel good—the more you can bring that into partner sex,” says Scalisi. And if you aren’t having sex with a partner, well, “the more you are able to bring yourself oodles of pleasure.”

Try a vibrator

Thanks to lingering stigmas around sex and pleasure, many women still feel too shy to purchase a vibrator. But research shows this is changing: In the same Indiana University survey, about half of women said they had used a sex toy. And that’s a good thing!

“Vibrators give us one more way to explore what feels good and what doesn’t,” says Scalisi. And the more methods we experiment with, “the more flexible we’ll be in terms of our ability to experience pleasure.” If you haven’t given one a whirl, why not start now?

Focus on foreplay

For the majority of women, research has shown that intercourse alone isn’t enough to orgasm—but a little bit of foreplay can go a long way. “One of the most common things I hear from clients is that [sex moves] too fast, from kiss kiss to grab grab,” says Scalisi. “Most women need time to transition from their day to sexy time. And that’s really what foreplay allows.”

Foreplay can start hours before the act. “When you say good-bye in the morning, have a longer, lingering hug,” she says. Send flirty texts during the day, or read or listen to erotic novels on your commute. As for in-the-moment foreplay, make time for kissing, touching, and massaging. “That allows the body to really experience a higher level of pleasure, and then satisfaction.”

Resolve to never fake an orgasm

If you’ve faked it during sex, you’re not alone. But chances are, if you’re feigning an orgasm, whether to avoid hurting a partner’s feelings or to hurry sex along, you’re missing out on having a real one. And if you want to be having a real one, that’s a situation worth remedying. “If [your partner isn’t] stimulating you in the way you enjoy, have that conversation,” says Scalisi. Maybe not in the heat of the moment, but at a later time when you’re feeling connected.

Don’t apologize for body parts you don’t like

When we’re self-conscious about our bodies during sex, we’re distracted from the act itself—and when we’re distracted, research shows, the quality of sex can suffer.

“So much of what impacts sex has nothing to do with the mechanics of sex,” says Scalisi. A very worthy goal for sex in 2018 is to “learn to be with your body as it is. You don’t necessarily have to be totally in love with it, but just be with it as it is. That allows you to be present, and to process sensation in a more pleasurable way.”

Try a new move or position

Changing up your sexual routine can feel daunting if you’re not especially sexually adventurous, but a tiny bit of risk can bring big rewards. Just the act of trying something new together can help you feel more connected to your partner, “no matter how it turns out!,” says Scalisi. “It can be a tweak to a position that you already know and love or an entirely new position. It can be as big or as small, as adventurous or as mundane, as you and your partner are comfortable with.”

Discover a new erogenous zone

Women’s bodies are filled with erogenous zones—some of which you may only stumble upon if you go looking! (Did you know the forearm ranks among women’s most sensitive parts?) “Have a sexy date night in,” says Scalisi. “Strip down and take the time to explore your partner’s body from head to toe. … The goal here is not orgasm. The goal is to answer the question: What else feels good? What else turns me on?”

Watch woman-directed porn

When women call the shots in porn—literally and figuratively—the final product tends to be “a bit more realistic and a bit more body- and sex-positive” than male-directed porn, says Scalisi, “and that means you can see a bit more of yourself of it.” Not only is women-directed porn excellent for stoking desire and arousal, but it can also inspire new ideas for your IRL sex life.

Speak up if you’d like your partner to touch you differently

It doesn’t have to be awkward! And even if it is, it’s worth it in the long run. “If you’re in the moment, rather than focus on the negative stuff, focus on what would feel good,” says Scalisi. “So rather than say, ‘I don’t like that you’re doing this,’ say ‘It would feel so good if you stroked me softly.’” Then, later, consider having a conversation about your likes and dislikes.

Complete Article HERE!

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The 3 Sentences That Have The Power To Take Your Sex Life To The Next Level

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So simple, yet SO hot

 

A happy African American man and woman couple in their thirties sitting at home together cuddling & laughing.

by Jamie Hergenrader

If only a boom box and the sweet, sweet vocals of Peter Gabriel could fix all that ails your coupledom. But it takes far more direct communication. So we asked top therapists (and a few of our bros at Men’s Health) for specific scripts and phrases to help you talk your way into fewer fights, hotter sex, and tighter bonds.

Here’s exactly what to say if you want to take things to the next level in the bedroom:

“I HAD A REALLY SEXY DREAM ABOUT YOU LAST NIGHT.”

Bringing up something new you want to try—or want more of—in bed can be awkward. So blame it on your subconscious, says sex therapist Ian Kerner, Ph.D., author of She Comes First. With this opener, he’s the star of your fantasy. “I like when a woman shows she’s been thinking about sex with me apart from when she’s actually having sex with me,” says Men’s Health senior editor Paul Kita. Include specifics (e.g., what you were wearing, who initiated) to really paint him an erotic picture and turn that dream into a reality.

“OH MY GOD, I LOVE IT WHEN YOU DO THAT.”

You don’t want to be in your head in the middle of sex, thinking of what to say, so stick to compliments about moves of his that you’re into. “Sex is the most raw, unfiltered expression of a relationship, so just say what you’re actually feeling,” says Dean Stattmann, special projects editor at Men’s Health. If words are too distracting in the moment, nix them and let out some moans of pleasure instead, says Megan Fleming, Ph.D., a New York City sex and relationship expert.

“I’M NOT WEARING ANY UNDERWEAR. CAN’T WAIT TO SEE YOU LATER!”

Send him this text when he’s still at work—it’s so out of context that it can have an even stronger effect than if you were together. It’s a teaser for what he has to look forward to—sort of extended foreplay. “When a woman takes the lead, it’s a huge turn-on,” says Stattmann. “Especially when it comes to stating her desires.”

Complete Article HERE!

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Our shame over sexual health makes us avoid the doctor. These apps might help.

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We’re taught to feel shame around our sexuality from a young age, as our bodies develop and start to function in ways we’re unfamiliar with, as we begin to realize our body’s potential for pleasure. Later on, women especially are taught to feel ashamed if we want “too much” sex, or if we want it “too early,” or if we’re intimate with “too many” people. Conversely, women and men are shamed if we don’t want nearly as much sex as our partner, or if we’re inexperienced in bed. We worry that we won’t orgasm, or that we’ll do so too soon. We’re afraid the things we want to do in bed will elicit disgust.

This shame can also keep people from getting the health care they need. For example, a 2016 study of college students found that, while women feel more embarrassed about buying condoms than men do, the whiff of mortification exists for both genders. Another 2016 study found many women hide their use of health-care services from family and friends so as to prevent speculation about their sexual activity and the possibility that they have a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

While doctors should be considered crucial, impartial resources for those struggling with their sexual health, many find the questions asked of them during checkups to be intrusive. Not only that but, in some cases, doctors themselves are uncomfortable talking about sexual health. They may carry conservative sexual beliefs, or have been raised with certain cultural biases around sexuality. It doesn’t help that gaps in medical school curriculums often leave general practitioners inadequately prepared for issues of sexual health.

So how do people who feel ashamed of their sexuality take care of their sexual health? In many cases, they don’t. In a study on women struggling with urinary incontinence, for example, many women avoided seeking out treatment — maintaining a grin-and-bear-it attitude — until the problem became “unbearable and distressing to their daily lives.”

Which may be why smartphone apps, at-home testing kits and other online resources have seen such growth in recent years. Now that we rely on our smartphones for just about everything — from choosing stock options to tracking daily steps to building a daily meditation practice — it makes sense people would turn to their phones, laptops and tablets to take care of their sexual health, too. Websites such as HealthTap, LiveHealth Online and JustDoc, for example, allow you to video chat with medical specialists from your computer. Companies such as L and Nurk allow you to order contraceptives from your cellphone, without ever going to the doctor for a prescription. And there are a slew of at-home STI testing kits from companies like Biem, MyLAB Box and uBiome that let you swab yourself at home, mail in your samples and receive the results on your phone.

Bryan Stacy, chief executive of Biem, says he created the company because of his own experience with avoiding the doctor. About five years ago, he was experiencing pain in his genital region. “I did what a lot of guys do, and did nothing,” he says, explaining that, while women visit their gynecologist regularly, men generally don’t see a doctor for their sexual health until something has gone wrong. “I tried to rationalize away the pain, but it didn’t go away.” Stacy says he didn’t want to talk to a doctor for fear of what he would learn, and didn’t know who he would go to anyway. He didn’t have a primary care physician or a urologist at the time. But after three months of pain, a friend of his — who happened to be a urologist — convinced him to see someone. He was diagnosed with chlamydia and testicular cancer. After that, he learned he wasn’t the only one who’d avoided the doctor only to end up with an upsetting diagnosis. “What I found is that I wasn’t strange,” Stacy says. “Everyone has this sense of sexual-health anxiety that can be avoided, but it’s that first step that’s so hard. People are willing to talk about their sexual health, but only if they feel like it’s a safe environment.”

So Stacy set out to create that environment. With Biem, users can video chat with a doctor online to describe what they’re experiencing, at which point the doctor can recommend tests. The user can then go to a lab for local testing, or Biem will send someone to their house. The patient will eventually receive their results right on their phone. Many of the above-mentioned resources work similarly.

Research shows there’s excitement for tools like these. One study built around a similar service that was still in development showed people 16 to 24 years old would get tested more often if the service was made available to them. They were intrigued by the ability to conceal STI testing from friends and family, and to avoid “embarrassing face-to-face consultations.”

But something can get lost when people avoid going in to the doctor’s office. Kristie Overstreet, a clinical sexologist and psychotherapist, worries these tools — no matter their good intentions — will end up being disempowering in the long run, especially for women. “Many women assume they will be viewed by their doctor as sexually promiscuous or ‘easy,’ so they avoid going in for an appointment,” she says. “They fear they will be seen as dirty or less than if they have an STI or symptoms of one. There is an endless cycle of negative self-talk, such as ‘What will they think about me?’ or ‘Will they think that I’m a slut because of this?’ If people can be tested in the privacy of their own home without having to see a doctor, they can keep their symptoms and diagnosis a secret,” Overstreet says, which only increases the shame.

As for the efficacy of these tools, Mark Payson, a physician and co-founder of CCRM Northern Virginia, emphasizes the importance of education and resources for those who do test positive. These screening tests can have limits, he says, noting that there can be false negatives or false positives, necessitating follow-up care. “This type of testing, if integrated into an existing physician relationship, would be a great resource,” Payson says. “But for patients with more complex medical histories, the interactions of other conditions and medications may not be taken into account.”

Michael Nochomovitz, a New York Presbyterian physician, shows a similar level of restrained excitement. “The doctor-patient interaction has taken a beating,” Nochomovitz says. “Physicians don’t have an opportunity to really engage with patients and look them in the eye and talk to them like you’d want to be spoken to. The idea is that tech should make that easier, but in many cases, it makes it more difficult and more impersonal.” Still, he sees the advantages in allowing patients to attend to their health care on their own terms, rather than having to visit a doctor’s office.

Those who have created these tools insist they’re not trying to replace that doctor-patient relationship, but are trying to build upon and strengthen it. “We want people to be partnering with their doctor,” says Sarah Gupta, the medical liaison for uBiome, which owns SmartJane, a service that allows women to monitor their vaginal health with at-home tests. “But the thing is, these topics are often so embarrassing or uncomfortable for people to bring up. Going in and having an exam can put people in a vulnerable position. [SmartJane] has the potential to help women feel they’re on a more equal footing when talking to their doctor about their sexual health.”

“If you come in with a positive test result,” says Jessica Richman, co-founder and chief executive of uBiome, “it’s not about sexual behavior anymore. It’s a matter of medical treatment. It’s a really good way for women to shift the conversation.”

This can be the case for men and women. While many will use these options as a means to replace those office visits entirely, their potential lies in the ability to improve the health care people receive.

Complete Article HERE!

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Raising Sex-Positive Kids

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My daughter is 12 years old, and she has already been groped. It happened at a local water park last summer in the wave pool, the kind of swimming pool where mechanically generated waves simulate the swell of the ocean. As one wave lifted her up, she felt the hand of a teenage boy grabbing her bikinied butt. How strange, she thought. It must have been a mistake; maybe the wave had carried him into her. Yet the same thing happened to her 11-year-old friend who was swimming nearby. Then they heard two more girls remarking loudly that the boy had touched them, too. Apparently, this young man was groping every female buttock in the pool like he was testing for ripe fruit at the farmers’ market. Soon, the two lifeguards on duty were frantically blowing their whistles. The waves stopped and the red-handed boy, standing by the lifeguard station with his father, was told to leave the water park immediately.

While the news that my young daughter had been groped horrified me, I couldn’t have imagined a better outcome. She was with a friend and her friend’s mother, able to share and process the experience and even laughed about it a little. More important, the teenage offender was caught, confronted, and suffered the consequences. He was publically shamed for his stupid and intrusive acts, as he deserved to be. And yet, my girl had been groped. She had been initiated into the world of women everywhere who are plagued by men behaving badly. Or in the words of a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit, “Welcome to Hell.”

The recent spate of news stories about women (and some men) being sexually harassed in the entertainment industry and in politics may be painful to witness, but it’s also liberating. The #metoo movement has broken the code of silence and unleashed a formidable backlash against many men who have unfairly wielded their power. Women and men are talking; mothers and fathers are talking. And many of us are wondering: How did we get here, and how can we stem the tide of sexual misconduct for the generations to come? How can we do things a little more mindfully so that we can raise girls who are empowered and expressive, and boys who are enlightened and empathetic?

A True Yes and a True No

Alicia Muñoz, a psychotherapist and couples’ counselor based in Falls Church, Virginia, sees one solution in the growing trend toward raising sex-positive kids. “Sex positive” is a relatively new buzz-phrase that’s gaining traction in the therapy world and beyond. “It’s about helping your children grow up with a sense of sexuality as a natural, normal, healthy, pleasurable part of being alive, of being a human being,” says Muñoz. “That’s easier said than done, especially in a culture that is so weighted toward sex negativity and gender biases and power differentials that are unfair. It’s a tall order, but an important thing.”

One essential message of sex positivity is that any sexual activity, and any touching of body parts, should be consensual. “Taking the shame out of sexuality is part of what provides a foundation for the awareness of consent,” says Muñoz. “It’s being able to grow up in an environment where you’re not ashamed of your own sexuality, or of sexuality in general. That’s part of what empowers you to have a voice, and having a voice means you’re connected to your right to give a true yes or a true no in different situations, including sexual ones. And on the other side of it, you’re primed to respect another’s true yes or true no when you view sex as a positive, integral, normal part of being human.”

Raising kids to be sex positive is a lifestyle that begins at the onset of parenthood. Many parents worry about when to have “the talk” with their children, but, in a sense, we’re already talking about sex to our kids before they have language. “From the moment they’re born, babies and kids are receiving data related to sex and sexuality and gender—through their senses, touch, longings, hunger, their relationship to their body, and their parents’ or caregiver’s relationships to their bodies,” says Muñoz. Yet the time will come when children want to put sex into words they can understand. And the sex-positive way for parents is to start talking about sex as soon as a child starts asking about it. “When a child asks a question, even if that child is just two and a half or three, you answer it in simple, true language,” says Muñoz. “You call a vulva a vulva, a penis a penis. You don’t call it a wee-wee or a pee-pee or another nickname. You show that, even in the naming of body parts, there’s no need to hide it.”

While the goal is to remove any negativity and evasiveness from sexuality, it’s important not to take the message too far and give your child more than he or she is ready to handle. Talk about sex should be age-appropriate, keeping in mind what young brains need. “Little kids need short-sentence explanations rather than long lectures,” says Muñoz. “For a four-year-old who asks where babies come from, a short answer might be that babies are created by a man and a woman giving each other a special kind of hug.” Yet with sex positivity, the aim is to always expand the lens of sexuality and give a sense of inclusiveness beyond limited cultural norms or biases. So, parents might want to add that some babies are created by a man’s seed that’s put with the help of a doctor into a woman, and then that baby might be raised by two men, or it might be raised by two women. Then no matter which path the child takes later in terms of sexual preference or gender identity, the stage is set for a sense of normalcy and acceptance from the outset.

Following Your Child’s Lead

With so much buzz about sexual harassment and assault in the news and popular culture, parents may wonder how to talk about such heavy issues with their children—and how to protect them from the bullying and power imbalances that start as early as elementary school. “Most kids don’t pay attention to what happens in the news, so in terms of discussing something disturbing with your child, it’s best to wait until the child raises up the issue themselves,” says Stanley Goldstein, PhD, a child clinical psychologist based in Middletown and the author of several books including Troubled Children/Troubled Parents: The Way Out 2nd edition (Wyston Books, 2011). The idea is to follow the child’s lead; equally important is to speak with them rather than to them, even when you’re laying down guidelines designed to keep them safe—such as explaining to your teenage daughter why you don’t want her to walk alone at night.

“It’s crucially important not to say to a child or teenager, ‘Do this because I say so.’ If you do that, then you repress the capacity for abstract thinking. Instead, say, ‘Do it because…’ and express your concerns. Explain that the world is generally a safe place, but you have to be cautious. If you feel that they’re not ready to do certain things, tell them no and tell them why.” While many parents believe that the major influence for teenagers is their peer group, Goldstein posits that the major influence for healthy teenagers remains the parents. “They might say, ‘Joey does this, so why can’t I do it?’ They might give you a hard time, but they’ll appreciate it. There’s nothing worse for a child than feeling like their parent doesn’t care.”

In the same spirit, parents are modeling behaviors to their children all the time, without speaking. Empathy is not something that you can inculcate into a child, but they’ll develop the capacity for it through osmosis, says Goldstein. “If the child sees a healthy interaction between the parents, sees them supporting each other and talking about their feelings, they’ll grow up with these kinds of capacities. Empathy is something that really derives from the family experience.” Yet some things do need to be put into words, and in a world where sexual misconduct is rampant, therapists tend to agree about one thing to tell your kids unequivocally: “The hard and fast rule is that you don’t have the right to put your hands on someone else, period. And no one should put their hands on you. Period.”

The Power of Speaking Out

Parents are not the only influencers; cultural messaging is very powerful as well. Terrence Real, a psychotherapist who wrote I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression (Scribner, 1998) and other books, says that boys lose their hearts when they’re five or six, and girls lose their voices when they’re 11 or 12. “Five or six is when the socialization process starts to really impact boys as they get shamed for doing things they were allowed to do when they were younger,” says Muñoz. “They might be called weak or girly. So, when you have a boy, how do you keep him connected to his heart yet still have him belong in his circle of peers? How do you keep your girls raising their hands in class rather than becoming wallflowers? How do you keep them speaking up when the society says that if you speak up you’re a bitch, or you’re not as attractive?”

Expressiveness in girls is crucial to encourage for two main purposes: their ability to share difficult experiences, and their empowerment in speaking out and defending themselves. “Letting your child lead the conversation, or lead the play when they are younger, creates a space where your child trusts you to share things such as, ‘Oh, one of the boys grabs my behind at school’ or ‘I saw a video with naked people on the internet.'” Parents can practice not reacting in fear or letting their anxiety show, but opening a space to calmly help and guide them. In turn, some self-defense teachers have girls practice yelling on the top of their lungs and using their voice, so if they are assaulted or groped in the subway or on the street, they can call attention to the perpetrator and get help if help is needed.

To raise sex-positive kids requires some work from the parents, and not all of it is easy. If a parent has any sexual trauma or abuse in their own past, it’s essential for them to be willing to face and work through it, not only for their own sake but for their children’s sake. Otherwise, says Muñoz, “In your well-intentioned desire to protect your children, you’re going to be communicating a lot of sex-negative messages to them.” Another challenge for parents is resisting the impulse to impose their power as adults over their children in everyday interactions. “What they learn there is, ‘Oh, I have to obey somebody more powerful than me even if it doesn’t feel good,'” says Muñoz. “Not telling your child they have to obey isn’t the same thing as having the inmates run the asylum. Instead it’s telling them, ‘I’m with you. We work as a team.'”

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