Okay, Friends. I received a compelling email from a senior in high school and I would love to get your help answering it. It’s such a sincere, honest email with such heartfelt questions about an important topic. And I want to give a really good response. Here’s the email (with her name changed and any identifying facts removed):

Hi Gabrielle,
My name is Lisa and I’m a senior in high school living in a medium-size city in Utah (I’ll be heading to BYU in the fall). As you probably guessed I’m LDS. I’m emailing you for advice among all people in the world because a) you’re a mom b) you’re LDS, and c) I like what you have to say especially about tricky topics like this. So here I go.

Today I was talking to my college age sister about a terrible law of chastity lesson I had in seminary and explained my frustration about how Mormons have such an unhealthy way about discussing sex. Saying “sex” in seminary is almost like a bad word. We also talked about the sex education in Utah which is definitely lacking and most parents don’t supplement their kids sex education in the home. This combination leads to curious kids who don’t really know where to go for good answers. In short, this combination leads to kids like me.

I’m 18 and about to graduate from high school and quite frankly all I really know about sex is what I’ve seen from movies. Maybe 50 or 100 years ago it wasn’t really important to know that much, but in 2017 I think that teens need to be equipped with this knowledge. I don’t know how to navigate figuring things out in my Wasatch Front culture. Today my sister said “when I was in jr high I thought sex was __ and__ and then I figured out it was so much more”. Unfortunately until today I thought that was the same definition of sex.

Before I go on I want to add that I have a normal family and very normal parents. Like my dad learns current songs on the guitar and my mom is obsessed with current fashion designers. I have great relationships with both of them. I know that they like the idea that their kids could come to them with any questions, but I know that they would probably feel uncomfortable talking to me about sex.

So here’s where I ask for advice and a few questions. How can I open up a conversation about sex with my parents? Who else should I go to for real information? As a parent is it difficult to talk about this with your kids?  Do you have any recommendations for basic resources/literature? Any other thoughts?

As mentioned before I really do appreciate your approach to motherhood especially regarding tricky subjects such as this. Not only does it create trust between you and your kids but it prepares them to be functional teens and adults. I know this probably isn’t the kind of email you want to read but I thought that you could answer it with keen insight.

Thanks a lot,
Lisa

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Dear Lisa,

Thank you so much for your email. I can see you have a ton of confidence just to write it up and send it. So high five to you! Way to go! As you know from our exchanges, I’m going to respond publicly here, and I also want Design Mom Readers to respond, because I think this is a topic that benefits from many experiences and many points of view. I also think you are not the only 18 year old that feels this way. Not even close. So I’m hoping this public post can be a help to others who feel just like you.

First, you’re absolutely right that as Mormons we generally do a horrible job of talking with our kids about sex. And it’s not fair to you, and it needs to change. So thank you for bringing this up. It’s important.

Second, I don’t know you or your parents, but based on what you wrote, and your confidence, I think they seem pretty great. And I would 100% recommend that you share this same email with them — both your mother and father — and tell them you want to have a series of open, frank conversations about sex with them.

They are the grownups, and even if the topic makes them uncomfortable, it’s their responsibility to teach their children. And trying to help them avoid feeling uncomfortable should not be the priority; you getting the information and knowledge you need is the priority. From their point of view, they may feel like you don’t want to talk about it and that they are doing you a favor by not bringing it up. But sharing this email will be sure to open their eyes and help them realize you need them to talk about it. And the good news is, I can tell you from experience, the more parents talk about sex with their kids, the less awkward and uncomfortable it is.

Sex is very normal, and not talking about it is what makes it seem weird, uncomfortable and not-normal. So open conversations can bring it back to normal really quickly.

In addition to your parents, I hope you will also ask other adults in your life (teachers, church leaders, aunts) for open conversations about sex. The experience of sex is so personal, and everyone you talk to will have experienced sex differently in small or big ways. Their insights will help too.

Here are some things from my own experience with sex that might help. These are things I want my own kids to understand. From your letter, I get the idea you’re looking for real advice, more than just a reassurance that sex is good. My apologies in advance if this is too deep a dive.

I’m going to note: I’m not an expert or sex therapist and you know that. You wrote to me as a mother, and I’m answering from a position of an LDS woman and mother who enjoys sex very much, and has a healthy sex life. I know there are people, who for one reason or another, struggle with having a happy sex life. Perhaps we’ll hear some of their perspectives in the comments. Also, you didn’t mention same sex attraction, so I’m going to assume you are talking about sex between women and men:

1) You can read all about sex, and have lots of conversations, and feel like an expert. But until you’re actually having sex on a regular basis, a lot of what you learn or hear won’t really be helpful or make sense. The same thing is true for so many of life’s experiences, so it’s not just a sex thing. Just know that no matter how much you know ahead of time, there will still be plenty of things to learn even after you start having sex. I’ve had sex thousands of times and I’m still learning stuff (there’s always some new trend or new term I’ve never heard of before). So keep asking questions, and don’t feel embarrassed about it.

2) Sex has to be learned, it’s not like breathing or blinking. So if two people have never had sex and they decide to start having sex, it might not be much fun at first. It seems like it would be totally instinctive, but it’s not. You have to try different things (like try different positions, or different times of day, or different locations) until you know what you like and what works for you and your partner. That definitely happened for me and Ben Blair. We were both virgins when we got married and even though we knew the facts of sex, it still took awhile until we were any good at it. (By the way, it’s totally fine if one or both of you are not virgins if/when you get married. Just don’t marry a jerk.)

Also, what you like during sex can and does change, so you have to keep trying things throughout your sex life.

The nice thing is that even if both of you are new to sex, and the actual sex part isn’t that fun yet, all the stuff around the actual sex is still lots of fun. It’s super fun to be naked with someone else. Foreplay (caressing, touching, kissing, making out) is tons of fun. Laughing about sex with your partner (because there are awkward parts during sex) is also fun. The anticipation of getting to have sex that night is fun, and flirting all day is fun too.

3) Sex is way more awkward than it looks in the movies. On screen, two people are passionately making out, and then somehow they’re undressed and his penis is in her vagina, but magically, their hands haven’t stopped caressing each other the entire time. It seems amazing, but doesn’t really work like that. Sometimes pulling off your jeans looks super awkward and you fall over. Sometimes you’re cuddling and not quite sure where to put your arm. And during the learning stages, when it comes time for the penis to go into the vagina, you or your partner will need to use a hand to grab it and put it in the right spot.

So think about that when you’re going to have sex with someone. Is this a person I can be completely awkward with? What if I burp or sneeze (or fart!) during sex? What if I’m on my period? Will my partner be a jerk about it? Steer clear of jerks.

Related to this, what you or your partner has seen in porn is pretend. It’s actors. It’s not real world sex. Whatever you or your partner think you know about sex from porn, you need to set aside. It’s not sex ed.

4) Some couples give up on sex, or just conclude they have a crummy sex life, because it doesn’t seem that fun at first. Or at least it doesn’t seem that fun for the woman. And if she’s not having fun, then it’s not that much fun for the man either. Because who wants to have sex with someone who is not that into it? I get that. If I have sex and don’t have an orgasm, I’m not happy about it.

The general goal is for both people to have a lot of fun, and for both people to have an orgasm.

Not sure what an orgasm is? For men it’s pretty straightforward — they have an erection, then they rub their penis inside a vagina, or with their hand, and the energy sort of builds up and then they climax (climax is another way to say orgasm), and their semen comes out of their penis (another word for that is ejaculate).

For women, there’s no semen, and it can be a little harder to figure out how to have an orgasm at first. But I think that’s mostly because we don’t talk about women and their bodies and their orgasms. Women typically have orgasms from stimulating (touching, rubbing, licking) their clitoris. Again, the energy builds up and then she climaxes/has an orgasm. (I’ve never tried to describe what it feels like, but recently I read a description that it’s like a pelvic sneeze.)

It seems like an orgasm would be an easy thing. In the movies, both people always have an orgasm, and they always have an orgasm at the same time. But that’s just movies.

In real life, it’s different. Depending on what position she is having sex in, a woman’s clitoris might not get any stimulation at all. For example, if the man is behind the women when they’re having sex, the clitoris gets zero action — in that case you can use your hand or your partner’s hand to help out.

My best advice: Figure out how to have an orgasm on your own. Consider it your responsibility. Once you have mastered it, it’s much easier to tell your partner what feels good to you, and how you need them to touch you so that you’ll climax.

This can get into a tricky place for Mormons or other religious people, because we’re talking about masturbation now. You probably already know, but just in case, masturbation means touching or rubbing your own genitals until you have an orgasm. Religious people are often told that masturbation is evil and they should not do it.

I disagree with this. Especially for women. I think it’s really important for women to understand their bodies and what feels good to them. I think mastering your orgasm before you get married or start having regular sex is important. Once you’ve mastered it, it usually only takes a few minutes, and gives you amazing endorphins. It’s a really helpful way to release energy when you’re stressed out and don’t have someone to have sex with.

Related to this, remember that your partner can’t read your mind. You need to ask for what you want, and communicate what feels good and what doesn’t.

5) You don’t have to do anything during sex you don’t want to do. Even if it seems like everyone else is doing it. For example, I’m never going to have anal sex (not sure if you know what anal sex is — it’s when a penis goes in a butthole instead of a vagina). I have zero interest, and there is no scenario where I think that anal sex will feel good to me. I don’t care how much my friend likes it, it gets a big no thanks from me. And that’s fine.

I’ll add: sometimes something you think is a no go, becomes a sure-I’ll-try-it down the road. That’s fine too. But you don’t ever have to do something you don’t want to do.

6) REMEMBER: Your pleasure during sex is equally important to your partner’s pleasure. If only one of you is enjoying himself or herself, or if only one of you climaxes, that’s pretty crappy sex. It’s bound to happen on occasion, but if it’s the norm, it’s not good for a relationship or a sex life.

Okay. That’s a start. There’s so much more — we didn’t even mention birth control! But again, it’s a start.

Now a couple of resources. A year ago I wrote about a book called Girls & Sex. It may feel overwhelming to you, because it deals with teenage girls who are actively having lots of sex and know all about it. But, I think the book is important as far as talking about how we prioritize the pleasure of men during sex (and that we shouldn’t do that).

Another great resource I recently learned about is called AMAZE. It’s aimed at kids who are younger than you (10-14 year olds), but has a ton of good straightforward information. It’s a collaboration between experts in the field of sex education, and they cover a wide range of subject material.

For any parents reading, AMAZE videos are really good to use as conversation starters — they cover the “mechanics” (e.g., puberty) and also the more complex topics (relationships, gender identity, consent, etc.). They really want to help empower parents to be the primary sexuality educators of their kids. I follow their Facebook page so that I know when they have a new video.

Again, thank you for writing, Lisa. I hope this helps get some open conversations about sex started in your home. Feel free to send more questions.

kisses,
Gabrielle

Dear Readers, it’s your turn. What advice do you have for Lisa (not her real name)? And parents, how often are you talking about sex with your kids? Do you have websites or books that you would recommend to Lisa?

P.S. — Here’s how Ben Blair and I first talked to our kids about sex — Part One and Part Two.