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‘Sex Invades the Schoolhouse’


Fifty years ago, panicked parents helped spread sex-ed programs to schools across the country, even as panicked critics mobilized to stop them.

By Conor Friedersdorf

Earlier this month, The New York Times Magazine published “What
Teenagers Are Learning From Online Porn,” a feature that probed the frontier of sex education: a 10-hour course for high schoolers titled, “The Truth About Pornography.”

The course aims to make teens in this age of ubiquitous porn “savvier, more critical consumers of porn by examining how gender, sexuality, aggression, consent, race, queer sex, relationships and body images are portrayed (or, in the case of consent, not portrayed) in porn,” the Times reports. One of its creators, Emily Rothman, explained that the curriculum “is grounded in the reality that most adolescents do see porn and takes the approach that teaching them to analyze its messages is far more effective than simply wishing our children could live in a porn-free world.”

While the conversation that ensued focused on porn’s place in American life, the story struck me as a useful point of comparison for a look back at sex-ed 50 years ago. In 1968, The Saturday Evening Post ran its own feature on the frontiers of the subject, billed as “The Truth About Sex Education” on the cover and “Sex Invades the Schoolhouse” on the page. The story documented a rapid shift in attitudes.

Until 1965, biology students in Chicago schools “might scarcely have imagined, for all the teachers ever told them, that humans had a reproductive system,” it reported. A principal in Miami said that, only recently, a pregnant pet rabbit couldn’t be kept in the classroom. Superintendent Paul W. Cook of Anaheim, California, was quoted as saying, “Not long ago they’d have hanged me from the nearest telephone pole for what I’m doing.” By 1968, all had formal sex-ed programs.

“America seems to have suddenly discovered an urgent need for universal sex education—from kindergarten through high school, some enthusiasts insist—and is galloping off in all directions to meet it,” the journalist John Kobler reported. “The trend is nationwide. Nearly 50 percent of all schools, including both public and private, parochial and nonsectarian, are already providing it, and at the present rate the figure will pass 70 percent within a year. Clergymen, including many Catholic priests, not only do not oppose sex education, they are often members of the local planning committees.” The impetus behind the change: “parental panic,” he wrote.

Venereal diseases among teenagers: over 80,000 cases reported in 1966, an increase of almost 70 percent since 1956—and unreported cases doubtless dwarf that figure. Unwed teen-age mothers: about 90,000 a year, an increase of 100 percent in two decades. One out of every three brides under 20 goes to the altar pregnant. Estimates of the number of illegal abortions performed on adolescents runs into the hundreds of thousands. One of the findings that decided New York City’s New Lincoln School to adopt sex education was a poll of its 11th-graders on their attitudes toward premarital intercourse: the majority saw nothing wrong with it.

Teen-age marriages have risen 500 percent since World War II, and the divorce rate for such marriages is three times higher than the rate for such marriages contracted after 21. Newspaper reports of dropouts and runaways, drug-taking, sexual precocity and general delinquency  intensify the worries of parents. But these evils are only the grosser symptoms of a widespread social upheaval. Communications between the generations has stalled (“Don’t trust anyone over thirty”), and moral values once accepted by children because Mom and Dad said so have given way to a morality of the relative. In addition, parents’ own emotional conflicts, and reluctance to recognize in their children the same drives they experienced … make it all but impossible for them to talk honestly … about sex.

Giving young people more information suddenly seemed less risky to many than the alternative. And in this telling, many parents preferred to let teachers do the hard part.

In Talk About Sex: The Battles Over Sex Education in the United States, Janice M. Irvine noted that the first calls for in-school sex education came in the early 1900s “from a disparate group of moral reformers including suffragists, clergy, temperance workers, and physicians dedicated to eliminating venereal disease.” They disagreed among themselves about the purpose of sex education, but united against Anthony Comstock and his anti-vice crusaders in arguing that expanding public speech about sex would better advance social purity and retard vice than restricting it.

A similar divide endured as sex-ed began to spread rapidly in the 1960s. Its proponents believed that talking openly about the subject would help cure social ills, as they had since at least 1912, when the National Education Association passed its first resolution calling for the introduction of sex curriculum in public schools.

1960s social conservatives countered that “if we talk to young people about sexuality, it should be restricted so as not to lead to destructive and immoral thoughts and behavior”—and that “controlling or eliminating sexual discussing best allows for the protection of young people and the preservation of sexual morality.”

For them, too much information posed the greater threat.

Some conservatives even saw sex education in schools as a Communist plot, causing local controversies like one in Utica, New York, where a contemporaneous newspaper article reported that “Joseph Smithling of Syracuse, a member of the Movement to Restore Decency, told an Oneida County Patriotic Society meeting that the national sex education movement is part of the ‘International Communist conspiracy.’ He said local teachers are being fooled by a Communist plot to take over this country by getting American children ‘interested in sex, drawing them away from religion and making them superficial and less rugged.’”

The era’s most far-reaching anti-sex-ed pamphlet was published in September 1968. Selling at least 250,000 copies, Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex? took aim at the Sex Education Council of the United States, the biggest and most influential group creating sex-ed curricula and spreading them to public schools.

The pamphlet’s first section portrays its opponents as a bunch of sex-positive relativists who can’t even be counted on to declare premarital sex morally wrong. “The public school is intruding into a private family and church responsibility as it frightens and coerces parents to accept the teaching of sex,” its second chapter begins. One can only imagine how these conservatives would regard media that children are exposed to in 2018 when reading their take on teaching materials circa 1968:

Sex education, as a symbol of curricular innovation, is in the classroom with all of its rawness, its tactlessness, its erotic stimulation. The flood of materials for classroom use includes books, charts, and unbelievably clever models which even include multi-colored plastic human figures with interchangeable male and female sex organs––instant transvestism.

The sexologists, who we cannot help but feel are Johnny-come-lately pornographers, are devoting their full creative powers to inventing sexual gimmickry.

Other passages could as easily be critiques of sex education (and especially porn education) today. “The embarrassing frankness of many sex education programs force the sensitive child to suppress his normal, emotion-charged feelings in listening to class discussion,” the pamphlet’s authors fretted. “This may develop into serious anxieties. On the other hand, he may either become coarsely uninhibited in his involvement in sex, or develop a premature secret obsession with sex.”

The pamphlet ended with a rousing call to parents to resist sex education and the notion that only teachers—“the professionals”—are qualified to decide what kids should be taught. In its telling, “the sex educators are in league with sexologists—who represent every shape of muddy gray morality, ministers colored atheistic pink, and camp followers of every persuasion, from off-beat psychiatrists to ruthless publishers of pornography. The enemy is formidable at first glance, but becomes awesomely powerful when we discover the interlocking directorates and working relationship of national organizations which provide havens for these degenerates.”

While the spread of sex education in the late 1960s undoubtedly changed the socialization of young people, giving progressive educators more relative influence and social conservatives less, claims that the curriculums were “sex positive” or grounded in “moral relativism” were very much exaggerated, as scenes from the Saturday Evening Post feature and other contemporaneous accounts illustrate.

The birth-control pill was deliberately excluded from many curricula. In Evanston, Illinois, which boasted a well-known sex-education program, “a junior high school teacher responds to the frequent question ‘Why is premarital sex wrong?’ by handing around a list of horrifying statistics on venereal disease, illegitimacy, abortion, and divorce,” Kobler wrote. San Diego described its goal as promoting “wholesome attitudes toward boy-girl relationships and respect for family life.”

In Miami, a youth counselor answered a common question posed by ninth-grade girls as follows: “Should a girl kiss a boy on their first date? Certainly not. A kiss should be a token of affection, not a favor freely distributed. Going steady? It’s too easy to slip into an overly close relationship.” In a separate classroom, boys were told, “Don’t you and a girl go pairing off in a corner. It’ll only lead to frustration. You’re not prepared for sex except as animals. Don’t start a relationship you’re not ready for.”

Only the most liberal educators were advocating for co-ed sex-education classes, that no position be taken on the morality of premarital sex, and that students be given “full information.” Fifty years later, Americans remain divided on many of these same questions. One change is that “full information” back then meant a curriculum that covered, for instance, birth control and homosexuality; by the 1990s, advocates of “full information” favored teaching students about masturbation, a taboo that cost Joycelyn Elders her job in the Clinton administration when she forthrightly broke it in response to a question.

And today? That New York Times Magazine story on porn noted a survey of 14-to-18-year-olds. Half said they had watched porn. And among them, “one-quarter of the girls and 36 percent of the boys said they had seen videos of men ejaculating on women’s faces (known as ‘facial’)… Almost one-third of both sexes saw B.D.S.M. (bondage, domination, sadism, masochism), and 26 percent of males and 20 percent of females watched videos with double penetration, described in the study as one or more penises or objects in a woman’s anus and/or in her vagina. Also, 31 percent of boys said they had seen ‘gang bangs,’ or group sex, and ‘rough oral sex.’”

Put another way, if sex educators today are to cover just the terrain that millions of American teenagers have already been exposed to through the Internet, they will be covering acts that even the most liberal sex-education teachers of 1968 would’ve found unthinkable to teach, and that they had more than likely never seen themselves. Imagine the confusion typical adults of that bygone era would feel if told about the content available to today’s teens—and then told that alongside porn’s rapid rise, teen pregnancies, abortions, and STDs have fallen simultaneously and precipitously.

Complete Article HERE!


We Need Bodice-Ripper Sex Ed



Where did you learn about sex?

In my personal pie chart, 10 percent of the credit goes to Mom and Dad, who taught me that sex was for marriage, or at the very least, for a committed, loving, monogamous relationship that would, God willing, occur once I was out of the house.

I’ll credit another 10 percent to sex ed, the junior-high health classes that taught me the names of the body parts and explained what went where in the straight-people intercourse it was assumed we’d all be having. Sex, I learned, was bad news, every act risking pregnancy or disease. Think Coach Carr’s speech in the 2004 movie “Mean Girls” — “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant, and die.”

Which left 80 percent to be filled in by my friends and pop culture: what I heard on the school bus and at sleepover parties, what I saw in movies and heard on the radio, the glimpses I got of dirty magazines, kept behind brown paper wrappers on the high shelves.

But I was a reader, and most of what I knew came from books, starting with the copy of Judy Blume’s “Forever …” that made the rounds of the cafeteria in seventh grade to the dozens of Harlequin romances I devoured to the best sellers by Judith Krantz, Shirley Conran, Jean Auel, Susan Isaacs and Erica Jong that I snagged from my mom’s shelves.

I’ve been thinking about sex education in light of what must, by now, be the most-discussed bad date in history.

By now, you’ve most likely heard about the encounter between an anonymous 23-year-old photographer and the comedian and actor Aziz Ansari. They met at a party, which led to a dinner date, which led to a sexual encounter that she came to deeply regret, she told a reporter, believing Mr. Ansari ignored verbal and nonverbal cues that she wasn’t into what was happening. Now that she has gone public with her account, everyone seems to have an opinion about what she did, what he did and whether talking about gray-zone sex, where the man believes that everything that happened was consensual and the woman feels otherwise, spells the end of the #MeToo movement.

Reading about it all, I realize how lucky I am that so much of my sex ed came from Harlequins.

The literary establishment doesn’t have much love for women’s fiction, whether it’s romance or erotica or popular novels about love and marriage. Romance novels come in for an extra helping of scorn. Critics sneer that they’re all heaving bosoms and throbbing manhoods, unrealistic, poorly written and politically incorrect.

But those books, for all their soft-core covers and happily-ever-afters, were quietly and not-so-quietly subversive. They taught readers that sexual pleasure was something women could not just hope for but insist upon. They shaped my interactions with boys and men. They helped make me a feminist.

Because these books were written for and consumed by women, female pleasure was an essential part of every story. Villains were easy to spot: They were the ones who left a woman “burning and unsatisfied.” Shirley Conran’s “Lace” features a heroine telling her feckless husband that she’d used an egg timer to determine how long it took her to achieve orgasm on her own and that she’d be happy to teach him what to do.

At 14, I never looked at hard-boiled eggs the same way again.

The books not only covered blissful sex but also described a whole range of intimate moments, from the awkward to the funny to the very bad, including rape of both the stranger and intimate-partner variety. Beyond the dirty bits, the books I read described the moments before and after the main event, the stuff you don’t see in mainstream movies, where zippers don’t get stuck and teeth don’t bump when you’re kissing; the stuff you don’t see in porn, where almost no time elapses between the repair guy’s arrival and the start of activities that do not involve the clogged kitchen sink.

Objectification doesn’t exist just in porn, of course. “So many men cannot get their heads around the idea that women are not first and foremost sexual objects,” the novelist Jenny Crusie told me. “You don’t get that from porn; you get that from a persistent worldview modeled by the men around you that you’ve been taught to admire.”

I have no idea how much, if any, X-rated material Mr. Ansari or his date consumes. Statistically, we know that modern men and women have access to every kind of explicit material, literally in their pockets. And they’re watching: One recent study found that 79 percent of men and 76 percent of women between 18 and 30 look at pornographic websites at least once each month, while another showed that three out of 10 men in that age group were daily viewers.

Sex might be easy, but relationships are hard. And a 400-page novel can teach you more about them than any X-rated clip. Fiction has time to draw a deeper picture, covering the getting-to-know-you stuff, the starts and stops and circling back that take boy and girl from first date to first kiss to the moment where they’re both naked and hopefully into what’s going to happen next.

“Romance novels teach readers that all partners are equal participants in a sexual relationship,” said Bea Koch, the 28-year-old co-owner (with her 25-year-old sister, Leah) of the Ripped Bodice, a bookstore in Culver City, Calif., that exclusively sells romance titles. “They highlight conversations about consent, birth control and myriad other topics that people generally find difficult to talk about. In some instances, it can be a literal script for how to bring up difficult topics with a partner. They give a road map to people wanting to experiment with their sexuality, or even just get in touch with what they want and need in a sexual relationship.”

Porn, necessarily, cuts to the chase: a little less conversation, a little more action.

Talking’s not sexy, people complain.

But when you don’t know how to ask, when you can’t bring yourself to tell, when you don’t possess the language with which to talk about desire, that’s when you can end up with crossed wires, missed signals, mixed messages, a guy who goes to sleep thinking, “That was fun!” and a girl who goes home crying in an Uber.

If we want men and women equally empowered to form real connections, to talk, honestly and openly about who they are and what they want, there are worse places to start than curling up with a good book.

Complete Article HERE!


‘Discovering my true sexual self’: why I embraced polyamory


My husband and I were together for 12 years and had two children – but while he was happy with one person, I needed more

By Anita Cassidy

It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to say to my husband, Marc. Three years ago, I sat down and told him: “The idea of having sex just with you for the next 40 years – I can’t do it any more.” But I had come to realise that my life was built around something I didn’t believe in: monogamy.

We had been together for 12 years and had two children, now nine and seven. I love being a mother and I set the bar high from the start – cloth nappies and cooking from scratch. But I needed something more in my emotional and sexual life.

Marc’s reaction was remarkable; he agreed to support me and open our marriage to other partners, although it wasn’t really what he wanted. We started counselling to try to identify the best of what we had, to save it and protect it. Sex is a big part of a relationship, but it is only a part. We didn’t want it to scupper us.

If that sounds difficult, it was. I don’t think we could have done it if we hadn’t spent most of our marriage reading, talking and exploring together.

I quickly embraced the dating scene and discovered another side of my sexual self. I enrolled on lots of sites, where you are asked specific questions about yourself and your preferences. It was illuminating: do I like this? Yes. Do I like that? Well, let’s see. They were the kind of questions I’d never been asked before – and had never asked myself.

I became convinced that traditional relationships are like an air lock. You meet someone. It’s amazing and it’s rare, and then you lock it; you shut the windows and doors, and you try desperately to keep it all to yourselves. Then the air turns sour because there’s no oxygen. You might make a sexual mistake on the spur of the moment because you are craving some – any – contact. Why not live in a world where you can have room for that connection, that spark?

I think most people’s reaction was that Marc should have kicked me out. My immediate family have been supportive, although my mother is still ambivalent. We discuss everything openly, and she understands where I’m coming from, but worries that I’m going to end up on my own. If I do, though, it will be because I have chosen that.

People who choose to be polyamorous often do so after delving deep into themselves and their desires, so it runs close to the kink scene, which was also something I wanted to explore. There’s a temptation to think that, had Marc and I explored these things together, our marriage might have worked without opening it up. I’m not sure that it would have, though, given that he wasn’t into it. It can seem quite intimidating, but I was so ready for it. The first time I went to a fetish club, I felt like I was at home – that I’d found my people.

I now have a partner of two years, Andrea. We work as a couple, but we also have sex with friends. He’s the only partner I have introduced to my children. I love Andrea and I’m very lucky to have him, but I don’t want to live with him – we both value our solitude too much. He and I can flirt with other people and ask for their number, but I still feel jealous sometimes. He went away with another woman and, yes, it was difficult.

Anita, Marc and Andrea, too: ‘I’m not sure our marriage would have worked without opening it up.’

Meanwhile, Marc and I realised we were no longer compatible. I had changed too much. We still share the family home and parent our children together. We still get on. We have counselling together, we spend Christmas together – we are still reading and learning as we used to. We wanted to keep all the bits that worked.

We have had to learn so much about communicating better, and I think the children have benefited from that. We have explained that Dad needs one person to be with and Mum needs more people to make her happy. The talk is ongoing; we won’t wait to sit them down when they are teenagers, expecting them suddenly to get it. Understanding polyamory is complicated, but monogamy is fraught with ambiguity, too.

You can craft your own polyamory, but I’m not sure I would want more than two or three other partners. I’m hoping two people I met recently will become lovers, but there’s no rush. People assume that I’m constantly having sex, but it’s not as simple as that. I want an emotional and mental connection with someone, so it takes time to build up to that.

Monogamy, meanwhile, feels more like a competition where you need to bag someone before anyone else does. None of that applies in a poly setup, which is incredibly liberating. Think how strange it would be to have only one friend. You can’t get everything from one platonic relationship. Why would you try with one lover?

But it’s a challenge: you’re swimming against the cultural norm and it’s difficult emotionally, with or without the support of an existing partner. On top of that, the amount of work involved in maintaining multiple relationships, sexual and platonic, is huge.

Andrea and I look to the future, but there are no expectations. We are part of a broader community and we think developing that is more important. Put it this way: I don’t see myself sitting on a park bench at 80 with one other person. I’d like to be part of a group of people, a community. We seem to want a silver bullet for everything. One God. One partner. But life is plural.

Marc’s view

I’d realised for a few years that Anita wasn’t completely happy, so it wasn’t a total shock when she told me she wanted to explore non-monogamy. It was upsetting to hear that what we had wasn’t meeting her needs, but it was very important to me that she was happy. If that meant her exploring a different relationship style, then I would be there to support her.

I did a lot of reading around the subject of ethical non-monogamy. It makes a lot of sense intellectually, but it doesn’t resonate with me emotionally. It didn’t feel right. I was prepared for our marriage to continue, with me being monogamous and Anita having other partners, but that proved more difficult than we envisaged.

I completely support Anita. I’m glad she has been able to share with me what she’s discovering about the honesty and communication needed to make polyamory work. It’s also true of monogamous relationships, and I hope to take what I have learned from this experience into my future relationships.

What I have always wanted – and still do – is to be with one partner, long-term, with whom I can share all of life’s rich experiences, to enjoy the journey and the inevitable changes together.

Complete Article HERE!


What a leather convention can teach everyone about sex and consent


I don’t think I’d ever realized just how “vanilla” I was, and how little I understood about all of the ways you can engage in fun, healthy, consensual, adventurous sex.

“Hotel is closed for private event” read the signs affixed to the front of the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill last weekend. A steady stream of people, mostly men, many in leather harnesses, some in collars and on leashes, and some simply in jeans and sweaters, walked in and out in an almost continuous stream.

Mid-Atlantic Leather (MAL), now in its 48th year, is a three-day long celebration of the leather community, a subculture that celebrates various sexual kinks, many centered around leather and toys. Bears, daddies, pups and others identifying with various subsets roam the Hyatt Regency, participating in conference-like demonstrations about suspension (BDSM where you’re bound and hung) and electro (BDSM involving electric shocks), buying handcrafted leather goods and sex toys, and, of course, partying. (Actual sex was not part of the convention but no doubt took place in private.) It’s a predominantly LGBTQ centric space, although look closely enough and you’re sure to find people on every part of the gender and sexuality spectrum.

My first MAL was in the winter of 2016. I’d just gone through a breakup and my friend had suggested that perhaps it would be good for me to explore life beyond my comfort zone. “Just get ready,” he’d said, “it may be more than your little vanilla heart can handle.” And he wasn’t entirely wrong. It wasn’t that I couldn’t handle it, but I don’t think I’d ever realized just how “vanilla” I was, and how little I understood about all of the ways you can engage in fun, healthy, consensual, adventurous sex.

That first year I met Adam, a dentist in town from Texas just for MAL. “You look like you could use a drink,” he said back in a hotel room he was sharing with a friend of mine.

“Do I look that out of place?” I asked. I’d put on a leather jacket to try to blend in.

“Not out of place,” he said, “just kind of shocked.”

And shocked I was. Not necessarily at anything that was going on at the hotel that night, but more so at the fact that for the better part of my life I’d allowed myself to believe that this kind of sexual openness was only available to a certain kind of person.

“Where I grew up, there wasn’t really anything like this,” said Anthony, a 30-year-old living in Arlington, Va., who grew up in Portsmouth. (The sources for this story preferred that only first names be used, for privacy reasons). “There was no kink culture, and I really wanted to explore it. Everyone here was super welcoming, and that’s why I keep coming back.”

This was a common sentiment. “It’s a different part of the gay family,” said Garret, 28, who lives in Washington. “We all have different interests … and if nobody else respects that, come to MAL because they do here.”

Respect, as it turns out, is a dominating theme throughout the course of the weekend. You might expect that when many attendees are walking around in only a jockstrap and a harness, but it is pleasantly surprising to see how strictly they adhere to that principle. In the era of #MeToo, when more and more queer folks are being vocal about the role consent plays in queer spaces, perhaps the leather and kink communities have something to teach the general public about active and enthusiastic consent.

Ask for permission before petting. Hold out your hand and let the pup come to you first. If the pup doesn’t, or turns or growls, let them be as they may not want to or have permission. This is rule No. 5 as listed on the board outside the 10th anniversary mosh at the MAL Puppy Park, a yearly tradition in which individuals who participate in pup play — a BDSM role-play wherein one participant acts as the “pup” and one as the handler — have an opportunity to interact with other pups. Other rules include: Nudity is not permitted in public spaces, genitals cannot be exposed and DO NOT pull on a pup’s tail or collar. It can cause injury and is disrespectful. Change some of the verbiage and perhaps these would be appropriate guidelines to post at the Academy Awards.

“It’s where I met my current roommate,” said Allyn, a 31-year-old originally from Wisconsin who now lives in Washington, of his first MAL experience. “It was exhilarating. I’d never seen anything like it. It make me feel brave and nervous at the same time.” He didn’t speak to his would-be roommate the first night they met, however. “I mean, I had a ball gag in at the time,” he recounted.

Zack, 23, from Baltimore, also used the world “exhilarating” when describing his first MAL experience. “I got chills coming down the escalator into the lobby of the hotel,” he said. “It’s the closest thing to Folsom I’ve ever been too,” a reference to the San Francisco street fair that’s the world’s largest leather celebration.

Everyone I spoke to talked about descending that escalator on the evening of the opening party. It is truly a complete sensory experience. The sight, sound and smell of wall-to-wall leather and latex on every kind of body, not just seen but celebrated and appreciated.

While I was talking to Garret about the weekend, someone he appeared to know approached him, whispered something in his ear and, after he nodded yes, lifted Garret’s arm and began to sniff his armpit. Garret continued to answer my questions without pause. “There may be something over here that’s not your thing, but then you’ll look over there and see something going on that you’re totally into,” he explained “Don’t be shy, don’t judge other people for something you don’t understand. And above all, come and have a good time. No one is here to be spectacled. It can be a learning and cultural experience.” The sniffer had moved on to his other armpit by the time he finished talking.

Although I have yet to be brave enough to buy and wear a harness to MAL myself, each year I attend I move closer toward that goal. At the very least, the event has highlighted for me the fact that there is an exciting world beyond the “vanilla” one I’d relegated myself to — and has given me a better understanding of the queer community as a whole. At one point, in the leather market, a man who had recently undergone top surgery was trying on a new harness next to a group of folks signing to one another, while feet away a $1,400 bejeweled pup hood was on sale. Only at MAL.

Complete Article HERE!


Raising Sex-Positive Kids


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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