The Difference Between Talking About Sex And Having Sex

One of the complaints about sex education for children is that it sexualizes them. Generally, I  hear this sort of thing from people who push for abstinence-only programs even though they don’t work. But whatever the motivations behind it, I think it’s worth taking a look at the idea that talking about sexuality creates sexualization, especially since it’s used to attack sex education.

For example, The Guardian has an article about Lynette Burrows, a “family values” campaigner who said:

I think parents have the absolute right to protect their children from this sort of education which is so unhelpfully obsessed with destroying childhood innocence, in a way that’s reminiscent of paedophilia. To me, anyone who wants to talk dirty to little children is a danger to them.

When I still worked in the Good Vibrations stores, I would sometimes find customers flirting with me. Granted, I enjoy flirting and if you see me at a party, there’s a chance that’ you’ll see me doing exactly that. But in the store, I’d have people flirting with me that I wouldn’t have expected to, especially since I didn’t initiate it. I used to wonder what that was about, until I realized that I was probably the first person that many of my customers had ever spoken with about their sexual fantasies, desires, and practices other than a partner or a potential partner.

From what I’ve seen, most people don’t have much experience in talking about sex with someone they’re not sexual with. As a result, customers would sometimes have sexual feelings, even when those feelings had nothing to do with me. And quite often, those feelings would come out as flirting. Actually, they’d sometimes come out in more direct ways, although that happened to me less often than it did for my female co-workers, especially the femme ones.

I think this sheds some light on the question of why some people think that talking about sex with kids sexualizes them. If you equate talking about sex with being sexual, then it’s only logical that talking with kids about sex is the same thing as having sex with them, right? And if that’s where your logic takes you, then not letting educators talk about sex would seem to protect kids from sexual intrusion.

Of course, this whole thing rests on the assumption that talking about sex is a sexual act. And while it certainly can be, it also doesn’t have to be. In fact, I think that talking with a partner about your wants and desires is better done when you’re not turned on since arousal often causes our boundaries to become a bit more porous. If you’ve ever gone grocery shopping when you’re hungry and come home with strange impulse purchases, you know how that can be. Learning to talk about sex without it becoming sexual is like making sure you’re not hungry at the grocery store. It’s a really useful skill because it helps you share your desires and boundaries without the influence of arousal. Reid Mihalko’s Safer Sex Elevator Pitch is an excellent tool for that, as is the Yes/No/Maybe list.

This is one reason why learning to talk about sex in non-sexual settings is useful. I know that a lot of people will hear that and think that I’m trying to sexualize life, but I’m actually suggesting something quite different- when we can take the arousal out of some of our discussions of sex, we gain much more clarity. When we practice that, it becomes much easier to share information, provide education, and foster sexual well-being. And of course, when we know how to do that, we can engage in conversations and sex education with children without it even coming close to sexualizing them or pedophilia.

The irony is that Lynette Burrows is the one who’s sexualizing the interactions between educators and children. For a trained, qualified, and experienced sex educator, it’s simply talking about sex. We understand that that’s not sexual. So why doesn’t she?

10 Responses so far.

  1. Mindet says:

    Fantastic post, thank you. I’ll save it for reference in future when this subject comes up, as it inevitably will, sadly. I love the grocery shopping analogy.

  2. I am going to leave the sex ed stuff aside as I don’t want to get into a debate about that. I do see your points, there, as well.

    But I am not sure about the idea of ‘not shopping when you are hungry’ or not talking about sex when aroused.

    If I had not been aroused when discussing potential sex acts or ideas I don’t think I would have had most of the sexual experiences I have done.

    It makes it rather clinical, and also suggests some kind of trusting long term relationship as the ideal, to suggest that we should discuss our desires in a non-sexual way with partners.

    I don’t think I have ever done that. And my sex life is not a ‘success’. But it’s not been a total disaster either!

  3. Charlie says:

    @QRG I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t ever talk about sex when you’re turned on. And if it feels too clinical to you to try it, well as I always say, YMMV. Although it does sound like you’ve never tried it, so how do you know how it would feel to do it?

    Check out Reid’s elevator pitch idea. With a little practice, it can actually be pretty easy to put your cards on the table, even with a new partner.

  4. AV Flox says:

    Excellent piece, Charlie. I am very familiar with this topic as someone who discusses sex and who shares on social media in a very open way. The idea is to normalize sexuality, to allow people see it around them as part of life, not something hidden and repressed. My ideal self is a woman who is intelligent and well-mannered, but also unashamed of her body and desires.

    At first it was very confusing when people would take this openness as invitation. I was sharing about encounters with another person, occasionally expressing that this was a monogamous relationship, but that didn’t factor in. The fact that I discussed sex frankly created a sense of intimacy in people reading. Because we’re culturally oppressed sexually and rarely have an outlet for our deepest desires, we confuse anyone who openly discusses sex with a person who is sexually interested in us.

    I think that sexual education that fosters discussion outside of an intimate setting is essential for this reason. Done by someone who knows how to guide the listeners, it can help prevent the so-called “loss of innocence” among the young. Being able to approach propositions with a clear head is vital for people of any age, but especially so for the young. The key is not what, it is how. Sexual education is not dangerous, but how it is undertaken can be.

  5. […] But wouldn’t you know, Charlie Glickman – a phenomenal sex educator/blogger – found the punch and beat me to it. Mr. Glickman is predictably fantabulous and I’m on to the next subject: Hallowe’en […]

  6. Aislinn says:

    LOVE the grocery store comparison. Impulse purchases – we’ve all been there!

  7. Lana Fox says:

    Brilliant! You are utterly right, and so beautifully, articulately so. (It always amazes me that the Guardian can be so sex-negative. I used to be a reader, years ago, would you believe).

  8. Woman says:

    Fantastic post. And one I whole-heartedly agree with. 
    I am a Canadian living in China, teaching at a medical college here, where yes, many teachers and parents refuse to speak to their children about anything relating to sex because a) they are embarrassed and b) they seem to think that if they give a little bit of knowledge to the students/children, they will go out and have sex with the first person they come in contact with.
    They walk around with an idea of “knowledge is power” yet they refuse to even allow them access to the bit of knowledge that relates to their own bodies. And I am not talking just about sex, but about their own bodies. Women do not learn about their periods. Men do not learn that smoking harms their long term sexual health in a country where smoking is mainly something men do because it makes them more “manly”.
    To the traditionalists in the country, sex seems to be something that is frowned upon and kept a secret. Women are not taught that they can say “no” to their husbands and boyfriends.
    I do feel that the world as a whole needs to learn that sex is not something “naughty” or “bad” (and these words should really stop being used to describe sexual acts) but the more information that one can get their hands on… is better in my opinion.
    I think of it when the internet first became a common occurrence. I was a teenager, and I searched and searched and searched for more information about what my body was doing. I needed to know if my body was normal.
    When I teach about sex in my classroom, my students are shocked about how much a common person knows. Even many of the doctors I teach in post-grad classes know nothing about heir own bodies because sex is something that is taboo and ones sexuality should be a shameful feeling. One that everyone wants to know about but one that you really shouldn’t talk about.

  9. Jack Jones says:

    If talking about a subject “activated” people, then we wouldn’t be able to teach kid about “crossing the road”… it would make them want to do it. We could teach them about World War II, as it would turn them into dictators, and entertaining crime dramas would produce a world full of criminals. To equate sex education with talking dirty to kids is infantile and an insult to both adults and kids.

  10. Jack Jones says:

    “One of the complaints about sex education for children is that it sexualizes them.”
    Surely there has been some research on this. It must be very easy to test?

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