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Outspoken Sex Ed: Q&A with Leah Jewett

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Some parents feel very uncomfortable talking to their children about relationships and sex. If that’s how you feel, do not fear. Social enterprise Outspoken Sex Ed is on hand to help. Co-founder Leah Jewett has kindly taken some time to tell me about the organisation’s work and provide mums, dads and carers with hints and tips to help them with this sensitive subject.

Leah Jewett, co-founder of Outspoken Sex Ed
Outspoken Sex Ed co-founder Leah Jewett encourages families to have open conversations about issues such as consent, love, unhealthy relationships and gender.

Outspoken Sex Ed was set up to encourage families to have these open conversations. In the digital age, this has never been more important. Youngsters have access to all sorts of material that may be upsetting or inappropriate for them. Even if your children aren’t exposed to this material, their friends and acquaintances possibly will be.

As it says on the organisation’s website:

“If we don’t talk openly with our children, they’ll find out another way – and sooner than you think”

Raised in San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s, Leah had a long career at the Guardian and Observer newspapers. She was also co-leader of the Camden Branch of the Women’s Equality Party for three years. Leah has two “very British” teenage children so has had to deal with sex ed issues herself. Here’s what she had to say about Outspoken Sex Ed and its work. .

Can you please introduce Outspoken Sex Education?

Outspoken Sex Ed gets parents talking with their children about sex, bodies, consent and relationships. We’re a social enterprise that believes that parents are the missing link in their children’s sex education and that by talking openly at home, parents can encourage their children to become critical thinkers, to make good decisions and to have both self-confidence and respect for others. We’re out to change the sex-education conversation.

What help and assistance can you provide parent?

On the Outspoken Sex Ed website you’ll find a range of expert advice on how to deal with Mayday Moments (your child finds a tampon, for example, or you find your child watching porn) as well as Talking Points from the latest news stories to kickstart conversation with your child and armchair activism in the Read / Watch / Do section. Sign up to the topical Outspoken newsletter to keep up to date on debates, campaigns, videos and virtual workshops on sex ed – it’s informative and entertaining!

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Many parents get anxious about talking to their children about sex, intimate relationships and issues like periods. How do you advise putting parents at ease?

Often parents don’t have the language, skills, knowledge or confidence to talk openly about sex and relationships. No wonder, usually our parents didn’t talk openly with us and/or we didn’t have good sex ed.

Not talking openly is an issue. Challenge yourself to get over your fears or hesitation. Your child will recognise that you are trying to reach out and be approachable.

If you don’t have an answer, be honest. You can always say you’ll look something up later or research it with your child. It’s also good to ask them what they know about a sex-ed topic, the goal is to have a dialogue, not give them a lecture.

Use ‘teachable moments’ to start sex and relationships conversations: A scene on TV, song lyrics, a billboard ad, something that’s happened to someone you know, a news story.

Take a deep breath and take the plunge: Make a comment or ask a question. Don’t be hard on yourself, the more you practise saying tricky things out loud, the more confident you’ll become.

Among my own friendship group, I know of parents who are leaving it to their child’s school to have these conversations. What are the risks of not having these conversations at home with trusted adults?

Parents and schools are children’s top two preferred sources of information about sex and relationships, but actually sex education begins at home. From the start we model how we feel about bodies, sex and relationships. You are your child’s first educator and (uncomfortable as it might be to hear this) their sex educator. In fact teens say that their parents are the biggest influence on their decisions about sex, and most say they share their parents’ values about it.

Be proactive in finding out from your child’s primary school what’s being taught in relationships education and, if they offer it, sex education. From your child’s secondary school, find out what is covered in relationships and sex education (RSE). Knowing what’s being taught, and when, means you can talk about it at home as you might other school subjects.

The risk of not having open conversations with your child is that you won’t be giving them the foundation of knowing your views, cultural perspective or values about sex and relationships and you are, after all, their moral compass.

Children are exposed to these topics via the media, social media, the internet, teachers, other children. You can’t control that. But if you talk openly you can help safeguard your child, improve their mental health and strengthen your connection to them.

The point I hear made time and again is that you should not have one conversation with your children about sex, but you should have numerous conversations with them over the years. Why is that?

Having a one-off talk and downloading information into your child won’t work, especially if you haven’t laid the groundwork by having open, honest, everyday conversations. Would you only  teach your child how to cross the street once?

Over time your child changes, your connection to them evolves, the sex and relationships conversation gets more complicated. Ideally it spirals naturally throughout their childhood if you talk – little and often – and revisit topics, adding age and stage appropriate information.

Are there any common mistakes parents make when talking to their kids about sex?

Parents often believe that talking about sex will sexualise their child. They might worry about ‘stealing’ their child’s innocence or giving them ideas, but shielding a child from the truth keeps them in the dark. Studies show that open communication with parents about sex and relationships makes kids delay first-time sexual experiences and practise safer sex.

Don’t shy away from talking to your child about love, affection, pleasure, crushes, emotional intimacy, trusting someone, healthy and unhealthy relationships, starting a relationship, managing conflict, breaking up. Young people want insight from their parents on these things.

For a great parody of an overprotective dad, watch If You Ever Hurt My Daughter, I Swear to God I’ll Let Her Navigate Her Own Emotional Growth, a 3-minute film voiced by Mad Men’s Jon Hamm.

Are there any issues that you should speak to boys about differently to girls and vice versa?

I think the personality of who you’re talking should take precedence over their gender. Often at school boys aren’t included in lessons about periods, and masturbation isn’t discussed with girls. Sometimes it’s best to have a lesson in which everyone hears about everything, then another time there can be a girls-only lesson about periods so they feel more comfortable opening up.

What’s important is making both girls and boys aware of how we’re all conditioned around gender, because girls are socialised to defer to and to please other people, they often aren’t attuned to their own body or desires and aren’t used to asserting themselves; meanwhile boys are trapped in a ‘man box’ of not showing fear, pain or feelings, of being dominant and of seeing women as objects.

Tear up the rulebook and don’t have conversation along gendered divides. If you’re a father, talk openly with your daughter. Mix it up and make no topic, whether it’s periods, wet dreams, masturbation, porn or consent. off limits to girls or boys.

One issue I was very keen to ask about was the impact of tech on the behaviour of teens and young adults. A lot of people don’t seem to appreciate that youngsters today have access to all manner of sexual material thanks to their smartphones. What do parents need to know about tech and graphic online material?

Parents have a responsibility to put filters on their internet connection to block disturbing content, but there are differences of opinion on using controls and monitoring children’s use of tech. Some parents like to look at their child’s texts regularly or do spot checks. Others don’t want to micromanage. Instead they prefer to build up trust so that their child doesn’t feel under surveillance and hide what they do.

The younger your child is when you establish limits and ground rules the easier it will be. Collaborate with them in drawing up an agreement about screen use. They’ll be more committed if they’ve negotiated with you. Troubleshoot strategies with them on dealing with upsetting online experiences. Ask your child about the sites they use and how they stay safe online, and do what Childnet calls a privacy check-up on their settings.

Be reconciled to the idea that your child will see porn either accidentally or intentionally. Some kids are exposed to it as young as age seven.

Quote from Outspoken Sex Ed co-founder Leah Jewett

Sexting is another issue parents need to be aware of. How should parents be educating their children about the risks of this activity?

Think about why young people are involved with sexting, aka sending nudes. It can be a way for them to build body confidence, figure out about pleasure, show off or be validated. Many young people consider it to be a form of flirting or being intimate, a normal part of sex and relationships.

Discuss the double standards with your child. Boys are usually not easily identifiable in nude photos, whereas girls tend to take pictures that include their faces. Girls are often pressured to prove their love for a partner by sending nude pictures or videos, but if they do they can be objectified, blamed and shamed whereas for young men seeing and sharing images of naked girls is a ‘boys will be boys’ way to bond and won’t affect their reputation in the same way.

The most persuasive arguments against sexting are about children breaking the law, damaging their digital footprint and having no control of an image once it is sent. You can ask your child to think: “How would I feel if this picture became public?”   

Some parents struggle when discussing LGBT issues, not because they don’t want to talk about it but because of lack of personal experience. What advice would you give parents in this position?

We can all talk about many things without having experienced them personally.

With LGBT+ issues and identities, it’s really a question of acknowledging equality, enjoying diversity and showing respect. Our shared humanity should transcend issues like discriminating against people based on the people they love.

Make the point that it’s OK to be different from the norm, that different kinds of families exist (with same-sex parents, single parents, adopted children etc) – and that it’s important to respect everyone no matter what their sexuality, gender, race, size, culture or background is.

Also bring up the idea of empathy. There are times when all of us feel we don’t fit in. So what might it feel like to recognise in yourself that you are different from the societal norms you see around you, to perhaps struggle with that, then to decide to act on it and express your identity?

Make an effort to make your language and attitude more inclusive. Say things like: “A mum and a dad, or two mums or two dads” and “He might fall in love with a girl, or a boy.”

Give your child some LGBT+-inclusive books. Talk about recent news stories involving LGBT+ issues (see the Talking Points and articles in Outspoken’s News You Can Use). To check in with your own reactions or be inspired, watch some It Gets Better videos.

Are there any particular LGBT issues parents should discuss with their kids?

When you think about LGBT+ issues, think about inclusivity, equality and respect.

You might try asking your child if they know any children, parents, celebrities or other people who are out. You could talk about the fact that homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967 and that it’s still criminalised in parts of the world. You could discuss that, during lockdown, some LGBT+ young people haven’t been able to access their friends, community and support systems – their ‘logical’ as opposed to their ‘biological’ family, as gay writer Armistead Maupin put it – and have instead been confined with families that are hostile, critical, unaccepting and maybe violent and abusive towards them because of their sexuality.

Ideally LGBT+ young people would feel that their parents are available to them, non-judgmental and accepting of who they are.

There’s so much on your website, but I was really taken by the section dedicated to consent. What are the main points mums and dads should keep in mind when discussing consent with their offspring?

Consent, which is defined as giving permission or agreeing to do something, is about setting boundaries: That means showing self-respect and respecting other people’s boundaries. It’s about safeguarding and standing up for yourself. With so many things in sex ed, consent merges with other topics such as good and bad touch, safe and unsafe touch and being able to talk about what you like and don’t like.

Get a young child to understand body safety – that they have a right to personal space and that they know the correct terms for body parts and the messages: “No means no” and “My body belongs to me.” You’re already modelling consent in suggesting that they share their toys or ask someone to play with them.

If your child doesn’t want to hug a relative goodbye, if they don’t want to be tickled, if they are OK with being tickled then they want you to stop, don’t force them. That allows them to see that their intuitive feelings, of not feeling right physically or comfortable emotionally, are being respected. Otherwise you’re teaching them to override their instincts and that it’s OK to be coerced and to acquiesce to someone’s demands.

For older children the conversation becomes about preparing for when they start to get physical with someone. Consent is a process, a negotiation in which anyone can change their mind. So emphasise the importance of communicating and looking for ongoing, enthusiastic consent, using their words, listening to the other person, reading non-verbal cues, checking in along the way (“Shall we do this?” or “Are you OK?”).

Watch the 3-minute Consent – It’s Simple As Tea video as a crash course on getting to grips with consent before you start talking to your child about it.

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