Ep 96: Getting Over the Awkwardness to Talk About Sex

Episode Summary

Cindy Pierce, author of Sexplotation and Sex, College, and Social Media, brings her immense knowledge and humorous vibes to this week’s episode. Porn is wreaking havoc on our teens’ sexual development, but, fortunately, Cindy has ways parents can help undo the deleterious effects.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Talking to teens about sex is one of the hardest things to do as a parent. Initiation discussion about the birds and the bees can be very confusing, messy, and just plain awkward! Not only that, but teenagers can be very resistant to opening up and talking about sex even if they have questions and want clarification on the subject.

No matter how uncomfortable or difficult talking to your teenager about sex and relationships is, it’s a crucial part of helping your child to grow up happy and healthy. Kids today are exposed to sexual content from a very young age, with the internet providing an infinite amount of pornographic content. While knowing about sex from a young age is ok, kids should be learning the facts from an educational, honest source rather than porn. The porn industry, more concerned with making money than protecting the minds and hearts of young people, often portrays sex as degrading, violent, and often not even consenual.

Sound terrifying? I’m scared too! That’s why I’m sitting down with Cindy Pierce in today’s episode. Cindy is the author of several different books that tell you how to talk to teens about sex: Sexplotation: Helping Kids Develop Healthy Secuality in a Porn-Driven World and Sex, College, and Social Media: A Commonsense Guide to Navigating the Hookup Culture. She also travels around to schools across the country to educate teenagers, parents, and college students about sex.

She reveals fascinating and shocking things about how kids today are learning about sex as well as great tips to master talking to teens about sex. Cindy also shines light on a lot of the questions teenage and college aged people have about sex, relationships, and porn.

For example, she reveals that in her experience, most kids in the modern day are exposed to sex and even pornography by the age of 9. This is why one of Cindy’s biggest tips for parents is to start talking to your teenager about sex and relationships from as young as ages 5-7. This doesn’t have to be a full briefing, but instead a safe, simple explanation about biology and the reasons why people decide to copulate.

It may seem a little early to start talking to teens about sex, but it’s easy for children to be exposed to porn and be confused and manipulated from a young age. We want our kids to understand that sex is meant to be between two consenting adults who care about one another and communicate effectively. Instead, they may begin to believe that the degrading and often violent sex they see in porn is the same as real life sex–and we know it’s not.

By talking to teens about sex and relationships early, you’re also establishing an important connection with your kids that lasts, a certain trust. It helps you open up a safe space to talk about complicated subjects. Then, as they grow up and begin to experience the myriad of problems that comes with growing up, they’ll know they can come to you for advice and that golden parental wisdom instead of the internet.

Nervous about initiating discussion? Wondering how to talk to your teenager about pornography without saying the wrong thing ? Cindy also shares some tips for how to make sure that when you give the talk, you give it right. One thing she recommends is vulnerability. It’s easy to feel pressure to be a perfect parent, but you’re only human. It’s much healthier and more productive to talk openly about your experiences and be honest when you don’t know all the answers.

Although it would be nice if there was a secret to success when it comes to talking to teenager about sex and realtionships, there’s no one way to approach your child about these topics. This is because all children are different, with different personalities, fears, and interests. Every kid is unique, and struggles with their own complicated relationship with intimacy and sexuality. 

Cindy speaks on the idea that talking to teens about sex is one that continues to evolve over time, not a static event. Instead of one specific instance in which the two of you sit down to discuss it all, the “talk” is really a shifting conversation which changes as your teenager grows. Keep communicating, keep up the dialogue about how to have safe, consenual sex to ensure that your teen develops and maintains a healthy relationship with the subject.

Speaking of changes, one of the biggest shifts in a teenager’s life is their transition into college life–and this transition includes new sexual experiences. College hookup culture creates a confusing environment for many young adults as they enter university.

This confusion and chaos is often the catalyst for, as Cindy puts it in the episode, below average sex. This means sex that is completed without trust, without communication, and often, without condoms! That’s why we need to be talking to teens about sex on a regular nasis and educating them about how to maintain self respect and sexual health while in college.

Cindy breaks down how this hook up culture during the early years of college is largely motivated by the need for high social status. With the addition of social media to the lives of young people, status and image has become more significant than ever for college students. Part of this image is who you decide to sleep with. This means that students are motivated to hook up with other students to garner respect from their peers, rather than to share an intimate, fun experience with someone they care about. 

According to Cindy’s research, most college students actually report that they dislike hook up culture. Although it may seem like a convenient, no strings attached way to futile one’s physical need for intimacy, it can lead to a lot of traumatizing experiences, emotional damage, and, quite simply, unenjoyable sex. Often times communication between the two individuals is poor, leading to the lines of consent becoming blurred, the status of the relationship to be confusing and the sex to be bad.

Instead of promoting this kind of sexual experience, Cindy emphasizes the idea of happier, healthier sex that involves trust and consnent By listening to her ideas about how young people can form positive sexual habits, we can teach our kids about how to communicate better with their partners and keep themselves from getting hurt.

 In the episode we cover:

  • The most awkward question to expect from your teen
  • Just how financially powerfully the porn industry is
  • What the impact of Covid-19 is on teen and college hook up culture
  • A myriad of internet resources for teens and kids of all ages to learn about sex 
  • The importance of teaching about pleasure
  • Why teens and young men are suffering from erectile dysfunction despite their youth

Having “the talk” is already a daunting task for many parents–it may come as a shock that “the talk” actually should be an ongoing conversation. However for our teens healthy development into a full adult, having ongoing, indepth conversations about sex and sexuality is of the utmost importance. Teens crave good information, and while it may be uncomfortable explaining intimate things to your teen, a few moments of awkwardness is a small price to pay for a well-adjusted, sexually-intelligent adult.

Parenting Scripts

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

1. Educate your teen on what sex is really about:

“You know healthy sex is about intimacy about communication, about equality. It’s positive it’s about valuing the other person and that’s what’s missing in porn; you won’t see a lot of kissing you won’t see a lot of communication.”

-Cindy Pierce

2. When you’d rather NOT tell your kid about your sex life:

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3. Clarify that female pleasure in porn is not the same as in real life:

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4. Admit that while enticing, porn is fiction:

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5. If you haven’t talked to your kid about sex, it’s never too late for this:

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6. Let your teen know there is a conscious and unconscious response to porn:

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7. Explain how fetishes often begin:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I just watched your TED Talk, got these two books–really excited to talk about sex and porn and pleasure and all of these fun topics that parents love talking to their kids about.

Cindy: Yeah, I wish they loved it more.

Andy: So, how did you get into this area of passion and expertise of talking about sex?

Cindy: I have tons of nieces and nephews. Two of them were going to college locally, and they were in a fraternity and a sorority, and I went to speak to those guys. My assumption was, these guys are young, they’ve got all the information they need because they’re growing up with the internet at their dial.

Andy: Totally. Anything they want to Google is right there. They’re just so well-informed.

Cindy: Thought they were on it, and then the questions that started coming, I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, you guys don’t know anything about pleasure. You really don’t know much about sex. You’re having tons of it with random people totally drunk to survive it.” Like, wow. So, I just felt like… I took for the first group of fraternity brothers, it was like an hour presentation and two hours of questions from juniors and seniors. I thought, “Okay, that’s alarming.” Then I started going around to other groups, and I realized, “Wow, the internet has so much to offer, but really hard to get to the good stuff. When you Google something about pleasure, the porn industry has a way of pulling everybody right to their material. So, no one’s getting to the good stuff, the important stuff. That’s what got me spreading the news on these matters. It started with college, then high school, then parents, now all kinds of people, all ages.

Andy: I think with porn, they make so much money off of… every click is worth so much to them that they, like you’re saying, I guess, they just take over any searches out there or any conversation that’s happening that’s related to sex in any way, they dominate it somehow because they stand to benefit so much from getting your attention and from dominating the conversation. It’s really, really hard for anybody with good information to compete with that because there’s not that much money in spreading good information.

Cindy: It’s true.

Andy: So as a parent, we’re up against a really, really big machine. You had some numbers in your TED Talk and book about how huge the porn industry is. What are we dealing with here?

Cindy: Well, it’s bigger. I have no intention of stopping the porn industry because they literally own the world. Right? If you put internet traffic, Amazon, Twitter, and Netflix altogether, the porn industry is bigger than that.

Andy: Wow.

Cindy: So, I want to educate consumers to know. The thing is, young men, I mean, young people of all genders, but young men are the biggest consumers of porn for obvious reasons, developmentally. People say it’s increasing for girls and gender nonconforming kids, but boys are the dominant consumers of porn because they’re going through puberty as teenagers, and they have these phones that make it really easy to access. They used to have to set up camp. When I first started, the boys were like, “Yeah, you got to wait till your roommate’s got a class. You got your laptop, you got to get set up.”

Cindy: Now kids have got a phone, they can scoot into any nook and cranny anywhere. So, masturbation has increased. Lubrication use isn’t always used. Lubrication isn’t always used it because it’s just anywhere and everywhere.

Andy: Yeah, whatever’s convenient. Yeah. Right.

Cindy: The porn industry, so PornHub during COVID made all this stuff that costs money free. So, they really picked up a lot of consumers, and young kids are stumbling into that. So nice. Did you say it’s so nice of them?

Andy: What a warm hearted and kind organization to just open their doors like that.

Cindy: Yeah, just a gift to the world. The thing is, young men don’t complain about people who are trying to talk to anyone about porn. They are desperate for answers. It’s men in their forties, fifties, and sixties who grew up with magazines, and the poor dears that are like, “Are you trying to stop masturbation?” I’m like, “No, masturbation is beautiful, healthy, and normal.” But what’s fueling it, young man, I get into a fraternity, I get to the sports team. They’re really concerned about their porn use, but they’re just kind of riding it out until they figure it out. So, they’re very receptive. When they hear about the industry, how it’s trying to manipulate them, they’re concerned about that. They want healthy relationships.

Andy: I guess the next question is what can we do? What kind of counter education, given that they’re going to be stumbling across all of this online probably starting about age five or as soon as they can pick up a phone, it’s going to happen. So, as a parent, what age do you have to start with the counter education, and what does it look like?

Cindy: Okay. There’s two parts to that. One is the preemptive strike of sex education, and the second part is responding when your kid does stumble on porn. In most cases, they won’t tell you, but I think a lot of parents, the hardest thing is to have conversations with kids, and really sex education is the most important part, talking between the ages of five and seven, talking to kids about sexuality, all kinds of sexuality. 99% of sex is for pleasure. We stick to this sexist for babies, but kids have parents with two moms, two dads, single parent. So, talking about sex is something adults do for pleasure, so really talking about, yes, it is about how babies are made, but really talking to them in that time. The reason that is, that changed when the internet really took off, that the necessity is to get ahead of the internet.

Cindy: Then talking about porn, that’s tricky. Talking about online safety and porn probably around nine years old, because we’re now hearing that’s a common age of first exposure. When I wrote my book, it was 11. Now we’re hearing more nine. So, you want kids to be prepared. What it looks like is really being honest with them and saying, “The porn industry has created all these videos that aren’t showing necessarily healthy sexuality, not respectful, not consensual. There’s not much intimacy,” and it’s very confusing when you see that and you think that’s how sex is between adults.

Cindy: A lot of little kids think, “Oh my gosh, that’s what my parents are doing?” It’s the most clicked on, the most easily accessible porn, and therefore the most viewed is often particularly heterosexual porn violence against women. The violence, like 88%, include verbal and physical violence, a lot of choking, a lot of hitting, and people say, “But what if that’s your thing?” I talk to so many young people who are willing to be tied up to a bed, being willing to be slapped, hit double penetrated, and they haven’t even had an orgasm. I’m like, “Women, figure out your pleasure zones before you’re saddling up with…” swing from your trapeze, do what you want to do.

Cindy: But first understand your pleasure. This is not about providing services. This is not about keeping up with friends. Porn has changed the expectations of what kids or young people think is what’s going to bring them pleasure, or what’s expected. Anyway, getting back to what that looks like for parents, talking to kids early, a couple things happen. You get your kids, it’s awkward for parents, but it gets your kid tenderized and used to you talking about awkward things. It’s so much easier to do that when they’re five and seven, then starting at 12 and being like, “So. I missed the window. Jumping in now.”

Andy: “Let’s make up for some lost time here.”

Cindy: Yeah, yes. So, it’s a preemptive strike, and it’s not one talk. People still talk about the talk. It’s many talks over time, every couple of months, checking in, taking opportunities, whether they will resist it, most likely. But once they’re used to… my kids just got… they’re like, “You don’t know what’s going to come out of this woman’s mouth. She might just say anything.”

Andy: I absolutely believe it.

Cindy: Yeah. It also means, I just want to say, parents need to be comfortable not knowing, not knowing and being able to say, “I don’t really know the answer to that question,” or, “I can figure that out,” and to show that they’re still learning.

Andy: It’s vulnerable to put yourself there, I think.

Cindy: Yes.

Andy: Starting this conversation, you kind of know that’s going to probably happen at some point, and something awkward is going to come up and you’re just stepping into… and it strikes me also that it’s one of those things that’s so easy to put off until tomorrow. You know? You know what? “Actually, I’ll do that Friday when I talk about the other thing, because that’ll be really good.” Then Friday comes around, and, “Actually, it’s not really good because there’s something else going on, it’s really busy, but you know what? Next Monday, oh, man, I am totally going to have that sex talk. We’re going to be on it,” and you just kind of keep putting it off and putting it off, and it kind of just minimizes more and more and more in your consciousness or something. So, I guess, what’s the antidote to that, or is there one?

Cindy: There is. It’s practice. This takes practice. So, parents need to be, that’s once again, admitting what you don’t know, being a novice. One thing also parents worry about is often they’re not having sex because they have little kids or they’re not having much of it, so they feel like they’re not equipped to have that conversation.

Andy: We’re going to have the talk, and the kids are going to say, “Oh, do you have sex?” And I’m going to have to talk about my sex life, which I don’t want to do.”

Cindy: You don’t have to–you don’t have to.

Andy: Ah, okay.

Cindy: That’s the thing. Kids don’t want to hear about your sex life. Sometimes a kid will ask, but they really don’t want to know. But little ones might sometimes…our little ones when they were little asked some bizarre questions that threw me off my game.

Andy: Oh, sure. Oh, yeah, when they’re five, if you start talking about this when they’re five, it’s like you’re going to get some… whatever pops into their head is going to–

Cindy: Right, right. You don’t have to answer. You can say, “You know, that’s something that’s private between your dad and me,” and just keep it very general. With our kids we talked with, they did have parents with two dads, two moms. So, we talked about all kinds of sexuality that occurs, and we talked about masturbation. You feel it out, and each kid responds different. You can’t predict their response, but there’s also so many great resources. Amaze.com, some parents really are not equipped, and that’s when you recruit the auntie, the other parent, these resources. There are so many great resources. Amaze.com, there’s great guides, Deborah Roffman’s book, Talk to Me First, Amy Lang, there’s so many blogs and websites that will give you the script.

Cindy: Everyone wants an exact script, but here’s the deal on a script. You can plan your game, but that kid will not respond how you expect, and you got to keep your game face on, like, “Okay.” I couldn’t keep my game face on, so I’d be like, “That’s alarming, and I’m not really ready to answer that.” I think I was very honest with my kids, but I think I had the advantage of being the youngest of seven children and watching my parents be off their game with all kinds of conversations, and saw behind the curtain of all these adults that things aren’t as smooth. So, I’m very comfortable. That’s the thing, is parents need to step away from that all knowing idea that they’ve got it figured out.

Andy: Every answer and got it all. Yep. Yep. Totally.

Cindy: Yeah, yeah.

Andy: Together and never messing it up.

Cindy: Yeah. But the answer is have these conversations early and often, and once they’re 12 years old, there is no longer anything you don’t talk about. People say, “Oh, but 12 is so young.” Once they’re 12, they’ve seen so much, they’ve been exposed to so much. You let it rip.

Cindy: But nine is really, and talking about porn, you really talk specifically about healthy sex is about intimacy, about communication, about equality. It’s positive. It’s about valuing the other person, and that’s what’s missing in porn. And you can talk about that. You won’t see a lot of kissing. You won’t see a lot of communication. The female orgasm and ejaculation across the room, they’re screaming with pleasure one after the other, not acknowledging that female pleasure is complicated. It takes time. It takes foreplay. 75 to 85% of women don’t have orgasms penetration alone, so when you’re seeing this anaconda sized penis actually pounding this woman and she’s screaming with pleasure, what’s confusing is abuse, what we know is painful and abusive in real life, yet it’s very confusing for a young person to see that with pleasure on a screen.

Cindy: A lot of young gay men say to me, “I think heterosexual men are creating gay porn,” and that’s actually true, because the dynamic is very much a top who is abusive and in control, and a submissive bottom. So, that’s also confusing. A lot of LGBTQ kids say they couldn’t talk openly about their identity with anyone in their family, and they weren’t ready. They were trying to figure out their sexual orientation or their gender identity, and they went online to do that, and that often led them to the porn with the questions they had. A lot of kids, they’re trying to validate their orientation and validate their identity before they come out. So, their exposure to porn, but a lot of those kids tell me, “Not only did I see porn, I also got to the good resources, sex, et cetera.” They get to these great Go Ask Alice, all these great resources, great stuff.

Andy: So, okay, 12 years old is the age. I like that. That’s the cutoff. So, once they get there, everything is on the table. I wonder how that relates to language, because so many words related to sex are seen as taboo and are bad words in our culture. So, I guess, do you just kind of recommend, as long as they’re being used in the context of talking about sex, pretty much any words are okay?

Cindy: Yeah. I think kids are seeing those words in… I wouldn’t use, like there’s no need to use them. Parents who want to be like cool and hip, that’s the kiss of death, because by not caring that your kid thinks you’re cool and not trying to be their friend is actually what gives you freedom and is a clear boundary. So, I think not using those words, but referring to those words or defining those words, they’ve seen them, they’ve heard them.

Andy: Yeah. But probably without really knowing what they mean or something like that. So, yeah, I wonder if just sort of being that explicit in some ways.

Cindy: Yeah. I think parents, it depends on the parent and how comfortable they are. I think certainly that’s where you can bring in amaze.com for younger kids. There’s so many videos that in five minutes, and you don’t have to even sit with them. Then once they’re 12, one woman said to me, she was a mom of a kid who was about 16 and she realized she blew it. She was like, “Oh my gosh, I haven’t had this conversation.”

Andy: “Missed the boat.” Totally.

Cindy: So, she said to her kid, “Look, I blew it, missed the window. What we’re going to do…” like, obviously you’ve had guests talk about the car is a great place because you’re facing forward, even in the dark is better, but this woman did this. She said, “I have information I need to give you. It’s going to be painful. It’s going to be awkward. We’re going to sit on the couch. You’re going to set your timer on your phone. We’re going to face out, and I’m just going to go. When your timer goes off, I cannot add anymore. If you want to ask questions, you can. But I’m just…” and the first three times, the timer went off and the kid bolted. But the fourth time, he stuck around and he said, “Wait a second, I have a question.” So, there it is, the evidence that you can tenderize your kid to get used to you saying awkward things, and to admit, “Okay, this is painful. All right.”

Andy: But it took that repetition, and after two times, then the third time he still bolts out and then still sitting down again and not knowing what’s going to happen, I mean, that’s some grit and perseverance. Right?

Cindy: I think kids put their hands up and say, “I don’t want to hear this.” but the research is clear that teens want to know what their parents’ values are and what their parents think. So, when you see this, you got to remember they’re putting their hand up, but the other hand’s kind of saying, “But I do want to hear it.”

Andy: Yeah. I think that the kid always has both voices in their head anyways, and so they already have the voice that’s, “Oh, I probably should become more educated on. I’m going to learn more about this,” and the other one’s like, “No, whatever. It’s all good.” So, by just joining that conversation that’s already happening in their head, I think, jumping in on the side of, “No, we need to do this,” sometimes you just need to push a little bit and overpower. In the end, I think they already had that knowledge, that they knew it was important, that it was something they needed to do, and they were just kind of resisting it. You know? It’s like anything that you are glad afterwards, like a hard workout that afterwards you’re glad your friend dragged you to it or got you up early in the morning and brought you out there.

Andy: In the moment, you might be like, “Oh my gosh, I hate you so much right now. This is the worst.” But once you’re done with the whole thing and you take the shower and you’re eating breakfast and you’re like, “Ah, wow, we just did that thing,” you feel good. You know? So, I feel like it’s the same kind of thing where you might have to just kind of be that annoying friend for a little while or whatever it is that’s in that role of pushing them along through the awkwardness.

Cindy: Yeah, training. Training.

About Cindy Pierce

Cindy Pierce is a social sexuality educator, storyteller and author of Sexplotation and Sex, College, and Social Media.Combining comic storytelling and years of research, she engages audiences with her message about making healthy choices and navigating cultural pressures.

Cindy encourages educators to engage in conversations with students about the influences of social media, Internet porn and hookup culture. Young people are struggling more than ever to feel at ease, worthy and relevant as they attempt to find balance with all realms of their busy lives.

Cindy and her husband, Bruce Lingelbach have three young adults and run Pierce’s Inn in Etna, N.H.

Want More Cindy?

Find Cindy on her website, Twitter, and Facebook. You catch her TEDx talks here and here.