Teach Your Kids 'Sexual Competence'

Do we want to talk about sex with our kids? No.

Are our kids going to have sex whether we talk to them about it or not? At some point—we have to assume—yes.

But the bigger question is: When they do have sex, will we have done all we can as parents to help them feel ready, in terms of protection, consent, safety and timing? A new study in Britain, published in the BMJ Sexual and Reproductive Health journal, found that a substantial amount of young people “transition into sexual activity under circumstances incompatible with positive sexual health.”

While that’s not totally unsurprising, the questions posed through the study can help guide parents on the specific topics to cover when talking to our kids about sex and relationships. Rather than looking simply at the age of a person’s first sexual experience, the researchers studied what they called “sexual competence”:

The concept of ‘sexual competence’ represents an alternative approach to timing of first sexual intercourse, considering the contextual attributes of the event, rather than simply age at occurrence. This departs from the traditional framing of all sexual activity among teenagers as problematic, and recognizes that young age alone does not threaten sexual health, any more than older age safeguards it.

Studying sexual competency meant asking questions related to:

  • Whether a reliable method of contraception had been used.
  • Whether partners were both equally willing.
  • Whether the decision to have sex was autonomous (not due to external factors, such as peer pressure or inebriation).
  • Whether the respondent felt their first experience of sexual intercourse had happened at the ‘right’ time.

By their definition, of the more than 15,000 young adults ages 17-24 who were studied, researchers found that more than half of the women and more than a third of the men were not “sexually competent” the first time they had sex.

Talking to our kids about contraception, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is good. Adding in conversations about consent is even better. But diving even further into not just consent but autonomy, as well as waiting for a time that feels “right,” is also a way to empower teenagers to make better decisions about their sexual activity.

The National Health Service in England recommends encouraging young adults to ask themselves these questions when they’re considering having sex:

  • Does it feel right?
  • Do I love my partner?
  • Does he/she love me just as much?
  • Have we talked about using condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, and was the talk OK?
  • Have we got contraception to protect against pregnancy?
  • Do I feel able to say “no” at any point if I change my mind, and will we both be OK with that?
  • Do I feel under pressure from anyone, such as my partner or friends?
  • Could I have any regrets afterwards?
  • Am I thinking about having sex just to impress my friends or keep up with them?
  • Am I thinking about having sex just to keep my partner?

For young women in particular, the study found that discussing sex with parents or learning about sexual matters in school made them more likely to be “sexually competent,” and may “provide the knowledge and skills required to negotiate a positive and safe sexual experience.”

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