Ep 222: Demystifying Sex

Episode Summary

Benjamin Dunks, author of Intimacy, comes on the show to demystify common concerns and misconceptions teens have a about sex. We discuss how parents can rethink the sex talk, why teens might be insecure about intimacy, and cover tricky topics like orgasms and even penis size.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Most teens have a million questions about sex: When should I have it for the first time? How do I find the right person to do it with? What’s the best way to ask for consent? How does sex even happen?

Typically, kids don’t exactly feel comfortable coming to parents with these concerns–and might even be too scared to ask their friends. Instead they often turn to porn for explanations…and although not all pornography is bad, there are plenty of harmful things online for kids to find.

So how can we make sure kids learn about sex in a healthy way? 

To find out, we’re talking to Benjamin Dunks, author of Intimacy: A Guide to Young Men About Sex. Benjamin is a professional in the world of dance who’s studied the human body in both artistic and scientific ways. He’s spent the past four years interviewing young people about sex and intimacy to find out where their concerns and confusion lie.

In our interview, we’re discussing how parents can have effective sex talks with kids, and how teens can deal with insecurities like lack of experience or anatomical differences. Plus,we run through the most critical things kids should know before they have their first intimate encounter.

Tweaking “The Talk”

When parents are approaching the sex talk, we often come from a place of fear, says Benjamin. We’re scared that our kids might get pregnant, contract an STD, acquire a bad reputation, get their feelings hurt–the list goes on. But when we come out of the gates full of warnings and negativity, we sometimes unwittingly push kids in the opposite direction, Benjamin explains. They roll their eyes at our advice, and then do the opposite of what we tell them!

Instead, Benjamin recommends opening ourselves up to an honest and frank talk about intimacy, and even emphasizing the positive aspects. This can help kids see the pros and cons of becoming sexually active, without scaring them off with tales of terror. When we open up this line of communication with teens, it can also create trust that extends past sex talks and into other parts of life, says Benjamin.

So where can we start when it comes to “the talk?” Benjamin suggests starting with lighter questions, and easing into the heavy stuff.. Benjamin also recommends that parents open up about their own experiences–although maybe without all the details! Reminding kids that you also felt scared or confused about sex when you were young might make them feel less alone, Benjamin says.

Facing Insecurities About Intimacy

Teens can be insecure about lots of things, sex included. Many teenagers, especially young boys, might feel insecure about their lack of knowledge or experience surrounding intimate encounters.

This is often because young men are taught that masculinity is all about control–controlling their emotions, their friends and their partners, Benjamin explains. When young men can’t express their insecurities, they double down on this need for control, creating a lack of communication in intimate encounters and even sexual violence. Being open and honest with partners about their insecurities instead can lead to a lot of growth for young men. 

Vulnerability helps create more trust between partners, and ultimately healthier relationships overall, explains Benjamin. Intimacy is more than just a sexual act, but includes emotional connections and quality time spent together, he says. Vulnerability isn’t easy–especially when teens are young and scared of getting hurt. But the more open they can be about their insecurities, the closer they’ll be with their partners.

Often times, kids who feel insecure turn to drugs and alcohol to lessen their fear of a sexual encounter, Benjamin explains. That’s not a sustainable solution, however, and can lead to gray areas around consent and safety, he says. Instead, teens need to learn to be vocal about how they’re feeling. Do they feel uncomfortable? Unsafe? Are they unsure of themselves or just reluctant to become sexually active?

These communication skills are just one of many things kids should know before heading into their first intimate encounter. Benjamin and I are discussing what teens should know if they’re preparing to start a sexual relationship with someone.

Critical Concepts For Sexually Active Teens

If teens are going to jump into a sexual encounter with someone, there’s a few things they should know first! Benjamin and I are reviewing some critical concepts that parents should review with teens who might have an intimate interaction on the horizon.

One thing that Benjamin emphasizes is that every encounter is different. Everyone has unique anatomy, and an intimate interaction might be short or long, slow or fast, loud or quiet. Instead of expecting things to go a certain way, he says teens should remain open-minded and above all, communicate. Communication is key to creating a better experience, not just for themselves, but for their partners.

In the episode, Benjamin and I chat about a common insecurity men face–the size of their genitals! But Benjamin assures us that size isn’t everything, and everyone is looking for something different in a partner. Other parts of an intimate encounter are just as, if not more significant than penetration, especially when it comes to women’s pleasure. We talk further about different kinds of pleasure in the episode, and how we discuss such an awkward and potentially sensitive topic with teens.

Benjamin also shares what teens should know about orgasms–and why it’s ok not to have them all the time. Sexual encounters don’t always have to have orgasms as the end goal, and can be perfectly enjoyable without them, he says. However, it’s important to know what a partner enjoys, and how our own bodies work! Learning about how partners can pleasure themselves and one another can be an important part of sexuality and forming intimate relationships.

In the Episode….

This episode is chock full of incredible advice for teens who might feel confused or insecure about sex. On top of the topics discussed above, we’re also talking about:

  • Why we shouldn’t shame masturbation
  • What teens should know about sex toys
  • How we can teach boys about periods
  • Why teens shouldn’t learn about sex from TV

If you liked this episode, you can find more from Benjamin at his website, Benjamindunks.com. Thanks for listening, and don’t forget to share and subscribe. We’ll see you next week!

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Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Remind teens that it’s ok to be vulnerable

“Being vulnerable is the beginning of the learning process as long as it’s safe, and it’s consensual and there’s a shared experience. You grow from this but you don’t grow from that power and control idea.”

Benjamin Dunks

2. Share your own experiences:

(Members Only)

3. Help teens through a possible break-up:

(Members Only)

4. Prompting teens to think about consent:

(Members Only)

5. Talk about masturbation:

(Members Only)

6. Comfort a teen who’s insecure about their body:

(Members Only)

7. Talk about orgasms:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: We got quite a topic today. You have a book on intimacy and really, it gets into some pretty intimate topics. Talk to me a little about what inspired this book and why you ended up writing this.

Ben: Well, I mean, Intimacy, it’s a guide for young men about sex. I actually started writing another book about eight years ago which is about called Men and Menopause, which was a guide for us blokes for our incredible wives, sisters, partners, and colleagues in going through menopause. I got sidetracked because I started to see across media just this epidemic of sexual assault that was happening on our young women from our young men and pursuing it further. Because in the Men and Menopause book, there was a chapter on intimacy. When you start to write about intimacy, it takes quite a step to do so. But once you’ve taken that step, you think actually, I’ve got something to offer here and to think about in different ways here.

I was starting to see this epidemic in the media and I was working with a lot of young people. They were talking about the young men in their lives who just had quite a twisted and dangerous view of intimate encounters. Coming to a lot of media and seeing just a lot of, well, the ubiquity of porn basically and teaching these young men essentially all the information that they thought they needed about intimate encounters.

A couple of other things around that, these young men are being shamed for watching porn. They’re being shamed that this is their only information. We have a deficit model of young people in our society, particularly young men. The snowflake attitude or that I work very hard attitude, it’s just a really negative attitude, particularly with young men. Just this portrayal of all these young men being sexual predators in waiting, and there was nothing. There was nothing for them. There was no alternative. I couldn’t find anything, particularly the 16 to 22 age bracket, which is what I’ve written the book for, which is when they’re really starting to explore themselves and their intimate futures. I couldn’t see anything else in the space. I’ve been writing about intimacy for Men and Menopause, and I thought, “I think I have something to add to this conversation.”

I’m Australian, I’ve lived in the UK now for 23 years, but I still bring a very straightforward Australian sensibility to these kinds of conversations and these kinds of topics. I thought that’s what was needed, a very straightforward, quite frank, not embarrassed, not shaming ideas on what the reality of an intimate life could be, should be, how they could go about it. Because the reality is that if porn is the teacher, then the violence and the assault that they see in porn and those algorithms just take them into some pretty dark places, and that’s what they think intimate encounters are, how are we expecting them to do something different if there isn’t other information out there for them? They’re not going to.

I felt that this was just a different pathway for them to focus on. The central theme is focusing on your partner, focusing on your partner’s pleasure, and focusing on porting your partner’s experience within any intimate encounter. By focusing on your partner’s pleasure, you’re not going to get into the assault by default that is happening so much in terms of these encounters.

Andy: So much of the conversation around sex becomes focused on what not to do. How a really big mistake or just even how porn is evil and danger. We worry about our kids getting into something that they shouldn’t be or getting weird ideas from the internet. That maybe if we do have any conversations around sex, it seems like it’s really warnings and negative. There’s really just such a lack of talking about the positive side. How do we really do what you are saying and focus on our partner’s pleasure? How do we actually go about that? It’s awkward to talk about. I think it’s very rare to find parents who talk about sex at all with their kids, let alone actually talk about it in a positive way or how to have really good sex. Why do you think that is or where do you think that that deficit model comes from?

Ben: Oh, it’s such an interesting question, Andy. I think we have this fear that if we describe our intimate encounters as positive and fun, all our 16-year-olds are going to go out, get at it.

Andy: Yeah, we don’t want to encourage them.

Ben: Exactly. But I think we encourage them by telling them not to. We’ve all been teenagers. All us adults have been teenagers. We remember that someone told us not to do it. We go and do it. It’s part of the experience of being that age is you want to push your boundaries. You want to explore the edges of yourself and how you exist within the society within which you sit. Part of that is someone tells you not to do something, then off you go.

But if we talk about something positively and we have an open conversation about it, our young people then have the opportunity to then have more information. They can come to a better understanding of themselves within that information. Actually, they explore their parents as people rather than evil dictators who are telling them, “No, no, no. You’re going to get pregnant. You’ll get STDs. Your life is going to be horrible.” I’ve read some things online where adults are saying, “I hope all teenagers have really bad sexual experiences to begin with so they don’t do it.” It’s horrible. Yeah, I know. It’s horrible to read.

There’s this idea of pleasure and this idea of sharing an intimate moment with somebody else, whether it’s an intimate moment as we’re talking about. Whether it’s an intimate conversation with your best friend, with your wife, with your parents, they’re profoundly important parts of our life. Who we are with each other and how we talk to each other is this intimate conversations and sharing of vulnerability.

To discuss that, particularly for young lads or for older teenage boys, to have conversations with parents where parents are being vulnerable with them, they be vulnerable with their parents, it creates a trust and it creates a conversation pathway. Open doors to a whole multitude of other things. I think sometimes parents think, “Okay. I have never had a conversation with my child. I now need to launch right into the massive conversation first time off.” They’re just going to bounce their child out of that conversation. This is obviously one of your areas of expertise, but just the stepping lightly to begin with into the conversations is important.

I’ve had some parents who bought my book who are now telling me they’re sitting down with their boys and reading it chapter by chapter, which is amazing. Blew my mind. I wasn’t expecting people to come back to me and tell me that. These are people I don’t know. Just have messaged me going, “This book has enabled us to find a way in to these conversations.” Yeah. I mean, intimacy is such an important part of all of our lives.

Andy: I think there’s a stereotype. If you see in a movie or on a TV show a parent having a conversation with the teenager about sex, it’s always the same thing. Or the kid’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to talk about this. Oh no, no, no.” It’s like, “Yeah. Well, we just got to do it and we just got to have this talk. It’s important.” We were talking about warnings, warnings, birds in the bees talk, as we say, and it doesn’t really have to be that way. But if we subscribe to that stereotype or if that’s all that we see in the media in terms of parents talking to kids about sex, then that’s going to really color, I think, the interactions when we do try to engage in something like that. How do you think we can break ourselves out of that or engage in a way where it doesn’t feel that way?

Ben: Just starting with small conversations, small topics, nothing scary, but just touching the edge of it. It might be that you pick a chapter in the book that’s not scary. Obviously not suggesting some of the chapters are scary. They’re frank and some of them are more frank than others. I think some of them can be a little bit more confronting with others. But there’s plenty of things in there that they can talk about and they can open a conversation with, even if they don’t share the chapter.

I mean, it’s just discussing maybe what’s happened at in school in their life. What’s happening with various different things? It’s not even talking about intimacy. Sometimes, part of those stereotypes is that we’re not even allowed to get into conversations about any aspect of our teenagers lives. It’s just slowly breaking down the barriers.

It’s listening to the answers. Sometimes our lives can be so busy that we ask a question, but we don’t really listen to the answer or we don’t listen to the non-answer being present with your young person. Just listen and respond. You don’t always have to be the wise adults and give them advice. Maybe you just stand there and you listen. You don’t really say that much. It’s just so they understand that you’re someone they can talk to and you’re prepared to listen to them.

Not judge them, not shame them. They’ve spent so much time in those positions of being judged and shamed in so many different ways. Just listen and you get to more interesting conversations. And they will probably actually start to have these conversations with you if they feel they trust you.

Andy: How much do you think parents should share about their own sex life or current sex life and history of what their experiences were as teenagers? Is that things that maybe is better just not really talking about too much, or that’s going to maybe create that reaction from the kid that’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to talk about this.”

Ben: “Oh, I don’t want to know. Don’t tell me that.” Well, I think there are elements of experience that you don’t have to go into detail of. I think part of the exclusion that we might have with our teenagers is they forget that we’ve gone through what they’ve gone through. And I think, again, it’s about, “I had this experience.” You don’t need to go through the detail, but you could describe to the moments where you were particularly vulnerable or moments where you made a mistake. You don’t have to go into the absolute nitty-gritty of it. That’s not necessary.

It’s about not going, “I’ve done everything you’ve done. I know all the answers. Here they are.” It’s just going, “Well, I had this kind of experience and this is what happened. I felt great about this and this was amazing, or this was a bit scary, or I was silly in doing this.” So that they can understand that you’ve gone through their experiences, but you’re not trying to tell them how they should be in them or what the right answer is.

They have to make their own mistakes, and this is something that we sometimes forget as parents as well. They have to make their own mistakes because sometimes, I don’t think we do allow them to be their own people. We try to shape them. They have to find their way. If they can’t make those mistakes and learn from them themselves, then it’s a deficit for their own future.

Andy: Doesn’t it seem like there’s this idea, especially among young men, that it’s like we can’t be awesome at sex and we can’t be vulnerable about, “Hey, I don’t know what I’m doing. It was my first time. I’m just trying to figure this out. Help me understand how to pleasure you better. Let’s talk about what you need and what would be better for you?”

I think when we see the sex scenes on movies and stuff, it’s never like that. It’s just like, “Oh, okay. Lights out, clothes off, sliding into the covers.” There’s never really that kind of communication or vulnerability or something like that. It gives us this warped perspective that we need to know exactly what to do and we need to just do it right.

Maybe that also goes back to what we were talking about earlier with the porn and how a big part of watching porn I think is trying to learn, “What am I supposed to do? How’s this supposed to work so that when I get in that situation, I’ll know I can be smooth and I can do it right or something.” Then we’re getting that information from a little bit of a skewed source.

Ben: Yeah, absolutely. It’s one of those things, isn’t it? You’re expected to be all-knowing and all-skillful. What have any of us ever done first time round where we are suddenly amazing at whatever it might be? It’s just massively unrealistic.

But this is that idea of masculinity that where masculinity is presented to teenage boys as control and power is the end game. Whether that’s control and power of yourself or whether that’s control and power over others, whether it’s your friends or whether it’s a potential intimate partner, but control and power is the end game. Any sense of vulnerability or intimacy in those ways is seen as a deficit. This is part of the narrative they’re continuing to be taught, whatever media that they’re seeing, whether it’s images or films. Essentially, it’s just all around them.

This idea of them being vulnerable, you’re fumbling away through your first time. This is, I think, what sometimes is the catalyst to these assaults is that they’re fumbling their way through their first time. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re feeling embarrassed about this. The partner they’re with is not sure what’s going on. Rather than saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Let’s just work this one out between us,” they double down on the power and control. They double down on the idea that they don’t want to appear to be vulnerable. Then they go into this memory of the lessons from porn, and then it becomes aggressive, it becomes violent, it becomes all these sorts of things where there’s no sense of partnership. There’s no sense of sharing. There’s no sense of intimacy because, again, these boys are shamed for showing vulnerability. I mean, it’s a conversation that I know you have a lot about boys, masculinity, developing into men, and these elements of their life, but it’s an impossible-to-attain situation.

Andy: As long as you’re trying to live up to that ideal, you’re always going to feel inadequate.

Ben: Absolutely.

Andy: Like you’re never good enough or manly enough or smooth enough or whatever it is.

Ben: Absolutely. The fumble fest is actually the beginnings of that learning process. The being vulnerable is the beginnings of that learning process, as long as it’s safe and it’s consensual and it’s, there’s a shared experience. You grow from this, but you don’t grow from that power and control idea.

Andy: This intimacy is the central idea of the book. How much more intimate is it to actually express your insecurities, vulnerabilities, and talk through that with one another than it is to close all that down, pretend you’re fine, you’re smooth, and you know exactly what to do. But for some reason, we don’t want to go there.

Ben: No. Intimacy isn’t just the sexual act. It’s the conversations. It’s being with somebody. It’s just being physically with somebody, walking through the town, walking through some woods. It’s being vulnerable and sharing parts of yourself you might not share with others.

There’s a reality also here that there’s a fear of being burned. There’s a fear of having a relationship with somebody, then that going sour, and that suddenly becoming difficult and negative. That’s part of life. That’s probably part of the conversations with parents of saying, “Actually, yes, you’re 16, 17, 18. You’re in love with somebody. It’s wonderful. It might end. And if it does end, it might be really painful. But actually, that’s also part of life and that’s part of the journey of what we experience with each other and the journey of intimacy, sharing something special with each other. Actually, if it does end, you’re feeling bereft, and it’s difficult, it’s also because you’ve shared these moments. You’re mourning the fact that these intimate moments won’t be shared with this person again.” It’s important.

Andy: You say in the book that there are two main rules when it comes to sex. What are those?

Ben: Consent and safety basically. Everything else comes from those two. Because in writing the book, I worked with a amazing young sex therapist over here who’s actually a family friend. She’s extraordinary, called Cherish Amber. She went through the book with a fine tooth comb, both from her young woman position, but also in terms of the sex therapist position.

I’ve talked through some interesting elements of sexual activities in the book. She felt, as I was approaching some of these, that I was approaching some of them suggesting the idea that it’s not that they were wrong, but they were odd or unusual. Actually, the reality is that everything’s possible in a sexual encounter. There are so many different kinks and different ways of engaging with each other in multiple different ways that there might be half a dozen people in this town over here who really like to do it, but everybody else thinks, “Well, that’s just weird.” But it’s not for them. And actually, if you are engaging with something and it’s safe and it’s consensual, other people might find it a bit odd and a bit extreme. But actually, why not? It’s consensual and safe. Everything else is on the table.

Andy: How do you think how we convey those or how do we teach those two concepts to a teenager?

Ben: Yeah, that’s a really interesting idea. And also, I mean, one of the challenges that we’re starting to face is that some of our young people are having what is essentially violent and assaultive sex. But both of those participants don’t understand that actually, it’s assault because porn is teaching them that this is what sex is. There could be an idea that this female partner having been assaulted actually consented to that not knowing that she’s being assaulted because she thinks that’s normal. This is part of the normative process that we’re going through in terms of how porn is teaching our young people what is okay and what isn’t.

Consent is a really interesting conversation. I’ve had some really interesting conversations about this in terms of the landscape of the world is changing for these young people. Do you like what you are experiencing? Do you feel threatened by this? Do you feel uncomfortable from this? Is there any part of you that’s going, “I don’t want to do this. I’m not really sure”? Then we know how to keep safe for ourselves. Do you feel safe? Do you want to have this experience? Having the voice to say no.

For our young men to understand what that is, and also to understand when people are vulnerable, that they’ve had a couple of drinks, if they’re under the weather from alcohol or drugs or anything, if someone’s not in the right state of mind, then they’re not in the right state of mind. It’s the responsibility for this as well.

I mean, these are becoming part of our narratives in terms of our cultural narratives, of seeing these situations. We know what they are now. Young people know what they are. They would’ve heard stories from the people at school or they would’ve just seen them in their media. They know what this is. It’s making the choices that they know are safe and consensual.

Understanding that actually if somebody is inebriated and you’ve gone home with them, ensuring that nothing happens, it’s a really important kind of action to take as a guy to make sure that this person is safe. Sober intimate relations are far more interesting than inebriated interactions. I talk a lot in the book, a fair amount, about alcohol and drugs and just the knock-ons of this, both in terms of the decisions you make, but also in terms of your performance abilities. They’re detrimental.

Andy: Well, there’s this idea that it’s going to make it easier because I’m so nervous and so awkward. Maybe both of our just boundaries will come down a little bit and will be more open. I can open myself up and be able to relate more or something. That drugs and alcohol, definitely as a teenager, feel like maybe this will help me get over some of those really hard things or something like that because intimacy is hard, it’s challenging. I think we see alcohol, a lot of times, as a crutch or sort of a cheat code or something that can help us achieve that more, but it’s really problematic.

Ben: Yeah, absolutely, and subverts our inhibitions in that way that we also start to make wrong decisions. Not only is it detrimental to your performance, but in terms of the decisions you make, in terms of safety, the decisions you make in terms of consent. Now, the right decisions or the safest decisions are being inhibited by your state of mind. We’ve all been in those positions where our inhibitions have just gone boom and slammed shut in front of us. There’s a big part of us is going, “I wish there was some way I could get past this.” But yeah, that’s not the answer.

Actually, again, probably starting with those easy conversations is how we move into getting past those inhibitions, taking it step by step.

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About Benjamin Dunks

Benjamin Dunks is the author of Intimacy: A Guide For Young Men About Sex.

Benjamin is an educator, dancer and writer, who’s spent most of his life working with kids in various capacities. He’s also worked as a massage therapist, immersive technologist, and sports pants designer. He’s passionate about movement, creativity and identity.

Although he is  Australian, Benjamin has lived in the UK for 2 decades.

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