September 4 is World Sexual Health Day and marks the kickoff of a monthlong campaign called Sexual Health Month. The annual observance is organized in part by the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) to help spread awareness of sexual health and rights.So, it’s an ideal time to consider how to talk to your child about sexual health and sexuality, while also checking in with yourself on the topics. Let’s start with some basics for people who are sexually active or thinking about becoming sexually active.
All About STIs
Sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, can affect anybody — no matter their age, background or lifestyle. According to ASHA, there are nearly 20 million new cases of STIs every year in the United States. About half occur in people ages 15-24.
While you might think you’d know if you have an STI, that’s not necessarily the case. Many people infected with certain STIs don’t show any symptoms or signs. Getting tested is the only certain way to know if you have an STI.
Testing is recommended for anyone who’s had unprotected sex, has a new partner, has multiple partners or may have been exposed to an STI in any way.
Talk to your healthcare provider about testing, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an online tool for finding free, confidential testing near you. All it takes is your ZIP code.
Not sure what to expect with an STI test? Testing can be a bit different based on what STI you’re being tested for. It may be a blood sample, a visual diagnosis or something else. Check out ASHA’s guide for information on what each test entails.
A Note on Consent
Consent is critical to sexual activity at all stages — before starting, during and after.
ASHA defines consent as “an agreement that is willfully given without any external pressure or factors.”
The key to this ongoing, willful consent is communication — every time. As ASHA notes, a partner may consent a hundred times in a row, but that does not mean consent will be given the 101st time.
People engaging in sexual activity together should establish boundaries before, during and after sex, and continue discussing them.
Here are some more recommendations on consent from ASHA:
- Consent must be given voluntarily and without coercion. That means no pressuring, threatening or using physical force to influence someone.
- Only clear and sober minds can consent. Someone who’s under the influence of drugs or had too much to drink cannot consent to sexual activity. Same goes for someone who is unconscious, including asleep.
- Confident, enthusiastic and aware consent is necessary. Those who are consenting to sex shouldn’t have reluctance to do so. It’s also critical for all parties to understand and communicate consent throughout sexual activity. For example, the phrase “hook up” can mean many different things, from kissing to sexual intercourse. So, it’s important to make sure all parties are on the same page about what is happening. Partners should also be aware of each other’s STI status, what contraceptive methods are being used and that their environment is comfortable.
- Consent can be rescinded at any point. With sexual activity, conditions can change, and each partner can call it quits whenever they like.
Talking to Children About Sex
Talking with your kids about sexual health is key to them developing in a healthy way. How they understand sex, intimacy, love and their sexuality when they’re younger can inform their thinking on these topics for life.
One key to having these conversations with your child is by becoming an “askable parent,” meaning your child feels comfortable coming to you with questions about sex and sexual health.
Tips for Askable Parents
- Show respect, value and love for kids.
- Realize that not every situation is a crisis.
- Always want communication, even if you don’t have all the answers.
- Don’t laugh at kids’ questions, even if it seems cute or funny.
- Don’t expect perfection from your child.
- Acknowledge the discomfort that can come from certain questions about sex and explain why it might seem awkward or uncomfortable.
How to Have ‘The Talk’
Wondering when to start? Truth is, you’ve already started. Children learn about sexuality from a young age, simply by observing their parents.
They notice how you dress, your mannerisms and how you carry yourself, and how you interact with those others. They also see how you respond to intimacy and affection.
Other things to consider:
- How much do they know: When you’re thinking about opening the topics of sex and sexual health for conversation, consider what your child already knows. One way is to pay attention to what they say to others.
- When is a good time: Look for chances during regular, everyday life to kick off a chat. Look for times when you have some privacy and minimal distractions. TV shows and movies, for example, offer many prompts to kick off a conversation between you and your child.
- Keep it going: “The talk” isn’t just one conversation. It’s a series of conversations over time.
That said, how much you tell your child really depends on their age and how much they want to know. For example, a 4-year-old may not need to know more about where babies come from other than a mom’s belly. A teenager, however, needs more information about anatomy, reproduction, consent and the different forms of sexual activity.
Sex for Aging Bodies
Pop culture might not often recognize adults as sexual beings after age 50, but that doesn’t mean sex stops as you age.
In fact, a majority of adults between the ages of 57 and 85 are in intimate relationships and see sexuality as important in their life, according to a national study.
As bodies change, so do the ways we experience sex and what feels good. ASHA has a list of some of the ways that older people can have a healthy sex life as they age.
And your doctor is always a resource. Even if your doctor doesn’t bring it up, you can and should talk to them about any concerns you may have.