How I Talked About Sex With My Kids
You asked for it. Porn, sex, orgasms, masturbation, wet dreams, and more.
A few weeks ago in my free Tuesday newsletter, I discussed how accidentally letting my kids watch a mature TV show sparked some excellent family conversations. Some of those were about sex. As an aside, I said that if you wanted details on exactly what I said, to let me know.
Well, let me know you did. I got lots of requests to share the nitty gritty details.
Before I do, I want to say that my answers here are in no way exhaustive, and they certainly aren’t prescriptive. I’m not sharing these because I think “this is how you should talk about sex,” but because many of you asked me to share what I said. How you answer these questions depends on your values and your perspective and the information you think is most important to convey.
Please keep in mind, too, that I was thinking on my feet, so I definitely forgot stuff; I also also didn’t want to overwhelm my kids, and I knew we’d be able to revisit these topics later and I could continue to add nuance. (And boy, did we revisit these topics. Today’s conversation about masturbation on the way home from the dentist caused me to miss my highway exit.)
So without further ado, here are my kids’ questions and how I answered them.
What is sex?
When adults really like each other, they often want to get really close to each other. That’s one reason why people kiss and hug. Sex is another way to get very close to someone you like or love.
There are different ways to have sex. When a man and a woman have sex, one way to do it involves the man’s penis and the woman’s vagina. Before having sex, a man’s penis will get hard, and that’s called an erection. Then it can actually fit and stay inside a woman’s vagina. And that often feels good, both for the man and the woman. Sex involves kind of moving around in ways that feel good. Then, after a while, the man and the woman may each have what are called an orgasm. It’s hard to explain what an orgasm feels like, but it feels really good — it’s like a really nice tickle that you feel all throughout your body.
Sex isn’t something that children do — it’s for adults, although people do start having sex at different ages. One really important thing about sex is that because it’s so meaningful, you only want to have sex with someone who also wants to have sex with you. Sometimes, when you really like somebody, your body might tell you that you want to have sex with them, but they may not want to have sex with you. You don’t ever want to pressure someone to have sex with you. It’s really important that both people want to do it, and that you talk about it in advance.
When can you start having sex?
There’s no right answer to that question. Physically, two people may be able to start having sex after they go through puberty, but they may not be ready for it yet emotionally. Sex can be a big deal — especially the first time you do it — so you only want to do it when you can handle all the feelings and related stuff. Sometimes people start having sex in their teens, but often they wait until they’re older.
Sex is also the most common way to make a baby, and that’s important to keep in mind. When a man has an orgasm, his penis releases what are called sperm, and those sperm can help to make a baby. If the sperm are released inside the woman’s vagina during sex, those sperm can swim up her vagina and, sometimes, reach an egg. If that egg gets fertilized and then continues to grow, it can grow into a baby.
How do you know if someone wants to have sex?
The absolute best way to know if someone wants to have sex is to talk to them about it. Ask them and make sure they are certain. There are things that people often do before they have sex, like kissing or touching each other’s bodies, but doing those things isn’t proof that a person wants to have sex. You always want to talk to them and make sure they want to do it. And even if you’ve had sex with someone before, that doesn’t mean that they necessarily want to have sex with you again.
What does sex feel like?
It depends! Sometimes it feels really good. Sometimes it doesn’t. It can hurt sometimes, too.
Have you and Dad had sex?
How many times?
Sorry, nope, not answering that one here!
How do you have sex without getting pregnant?
There are lots of ways that you can have sex without getting pregnant. A man can put something on his penis called a condom that usually stops sperm from going into the woman’s vagina, or he can get surgery so that his penis doesn’t release sperm at all. A woman can also take medicines or have something put into her body that prevents her ovaries from releasing eggs. These things that prevent pregnancy are called contraceptives. Sometimes women are pressured to use contraceptives, but since both men and women can make babies, it’s a man’s responsibility to prevent pregnancy, too.
What are other ways to have sex? (This one stemmed from my comment that “there are different ways to have sex.”)
Well, there are lots of ways. Another way to have sex is to use your mouth to make the other person feel really good. That might mean licking a man’s penis, or a woman’s vulva, in ways that tickle and feel good. That’s called oral sex.
What is porn?
I actually brought this topic up with my 11-year-old last week after reading this Substack post from that shared that 44% of teens have viewed porn intentionally and 58% have seen it accidentally. I've brought it up with him before (and discussed that conversation in my book), but it had been a while.
Here’s how I broached the topic: At lunch one day, my son shared a story about a kid at school who’d been suspended for throwing his Chromebook at someone. My segue was something extra smooth like “Do you know any kids who’ve gotten in trouble for doing other inappropriate things with their Chromebooks? Like looking at websites they aren’t supposed to?” I then explained:
Some grown-ups like to look at pictures or videos of naked people, or of people having sex. They find it enjoyable. Those pictures and videos are called porn, or pornography. Sometimes tweens and teens try to look at porn, too, because they’re curious. And it’s totally normal to be curious about it! But the thing is that the bodies and the sex that are shown in pornography can be confusing and unrealistic. Porn often doesn’t show what sex is usually like, or what most bodies look like. It can even be violent. So tweens and teens who see it often end up feeling confused or weird about it. It’s just one of those things that isn’t really meant for kids’ eyes.
At some point, you’re probably going to stumble across porn, either by accident or on purpose. Or maybe a friend will show it to you. You might have questions or it might make you feel confused. I want you to know that you can always ask us questions or talk to us about it, and you won’t get in trouble for having seen it.
What’s a wet dream?
These next two questions also came about in a follow-up conversation. This one happened today. We were driving home from the dentist and talking about the fact that girls often go through puberty earlier than boys. I then pivoted to talking about puberty hormones and how they can affect the body, and I explained again what erections are and asked my kids if they knew what a wet dream was. They said no, so I explained it this way:
As boys go through puberty, they will get erections at random times. Including when they’re asleep. And sometimes, they can actually have an orgasm while they’re asleep. That’s called a wet dream. A boy will know he’s had a wet dream because when he wakes up, he feels wet from the semen that came out of his penis when he had had the orgasm. Girls can have orgasms while they sleep, too, but those aren’t called wet dreams.
I brought this one up myself today, too, by saying something like this:
Another thing that can happen after puberty is that you might start feeling aroused more frequently. If you’re a boy you might get erections, for instance, as I already mentioned. Instead of reaching an orgasm with someone else, like during sex, you can actually make yourself reach an orgasm by touching yourself a certain way. This is called masturbation, and it’s a totally normal thing for teens and adults to do. Because it feels good! So it’s fine to masturbate. In private, of course. Like in your room or the bathroom.
One thing to know about masturbation, though, is that our society is kind of uncomfortable with the idea. In fact some people think it’s not okay to do. Dad and I think it’s totally fine, but not everyone does. Because of this, you might find that people don’t like to talk about it, or acknowledge it — even some of your friends, because their parents have told them it’s not okay. It’s just something that not everyone likes to talk about or admit that they do, and that can be important to keep in mind.
I hope that was helpful and not too creepy or gross! (I don’t even want to think about how many unsubscribes will I get today, oof.)
And now for this week’s Parenting Advice Hot Take, in which I will share my thoughts about this Instagram Post from Healthiest_Baby, which has nearly 11K likes:
Here are my thoughts.
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