When it comes to sexual health education in the United States, one thing is abundantly clear: It’s a messy patchwork of programs, topics, and criteria. Only 29 states and the District of Columbia currently mandate sexual health education. Sixteen states have an abstinence-only curriculum, whereas 13 do not require that instruction be age-appropriate, inclusive, medically accurate, or evidence-based/informed. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, according to a 2022 report issued by the Sex Ed for Social Change organization.
Parents should take an inclusive approach to sex communication and create a safe space for discussing sex and sexual orientation, said almost all (96.7%) of male young adults who participated in a qualitative study. This would help reinforce acceptance and parents could possibly serve as a proxy for children who’ve not yet disclosed their sexual orientation. Yet, few parents are equipped or prepared to have these meaningful conversations with gay, bisexual, queer, or gender-diverse children, despite the fact that they are especially vulnerable to poor sexual health outcomes, bullying, abuse, and mental health challenges, as well as high-risk sexual behaviors.
“Parents are sexual socialization agents,” Dalmacio Dennis Flores, PhD, ACRN, assistant professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, told this news organization. “It’s through the information that they convey, the way that they normalize rituals and expectations, that they inform young people of all of societal expectations or roles they’ll be fulfilling in the future.”
Dr. Flores is lead author of a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. He and his colleagues collected perspectives on comprehensive, inclusive, and age-appropriate parent-child sex communications from 30 GBQ adolescent males aged 15-20 years who were already “out” to their parents. Participants were asked to sort through 28 preprinted note cards containing broad sexual health topics (for instance, human anatomy, dating, sexually transmitted infections) as well as topics theoretically specific to GBQ individuals (for example, anal sex), and were asked to add additional topics that they felt were missing. They were then directed to recommend topics along with ideal timing (that is, elementary, middle, or high school) for these conversations.
Study findings also underscored the importance of initiating comprehensive sexuality talks as early as elementary school age – namely to start preparing GBQ children for inevitable adversities that they were likely to encounter later in life, as well as to form building blocks for more mature, in-depth discussions during high school.
Importantly, these recommendations generally align with those aimed at heterosexual youth.
“When we refer to topics for elementary school, they are general parameters of what kids might be interested in or want to hear more about; it’s not planting a seed,” explained Dr. Flores.
Eva Goldfarb, PhD, LHD, MA, professor of public health at Montclair (N.J.) State University, agreed. “We always talk about (in sex education) to follow young people’s lead. If your child is asking you a question, they deserve a response,” said Dr. Goldfarb, who wasn’t involved in the study. “It doesn’t mean you have to give a detailed- level explanation but if they’re asking about it, it means that they are thinking about it. But it’s really important for all young people to know all of this information.”
Along those lines, participants deemed that fundamental issues about bodies (for example, human anatomy, reproduction), different sexual orientations, and an introduction to foundational issues (like privacy, peer or social pressure, sexual abuse) would help elementary-aged children to normalize discussions about sex, anatomy, and sexual orientation.
Middle school conversations were ideally more in-depth to reflect the time when young people are beginning to explore and accept their social and sexual identities. Topics of discussion might include types of sexual intercourse (anal, oral, and vaginal), health promotion strategies (abstinence, condoms, and contraception), possible adverse outcomes of condomless intercourse (HIV, STIs), considerations about engaging in sexual intercourse (including readiness, negotiating boundaries, virginity), and interpersonal safety (for instance, sexting, alcohol/drugs/chemsex, sexual coercion, and partner abuse/violence).
Finally, high school age recommendations focused on socio-relational topics (such as hook-up culture, technology/online dating, and multiple or concurrent sex partners), which are most relevant during a time when adolescents are most prone to experimentation and risk-taking.
Acknowledging that the study approach was novel, Dr. Flores noted that hearing about these topics from the youth perspective allowed parents to prepare. “Communication is better when it’s anticipated vs. reactive,” he said.
Last but not least, clinicians also have an important role in supporting these conversations.
“We’ve always looked at sex communication as a dyadic process, as a parent bestowing wisdom on a child who doesn’t have that knowledge yet. But it can be a triadic model,” said Dr. Flores. “Providers can encourage parents to ask if a child is dating or is familiar with ways to protect themselves or provide consent, and act as a resource exclusively to troubleshoot emergent issues.”
This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The study also received supplementary funding from the Surgeon General C. Everett Koop HIV/AIDS Research Award. Dr. Flores and Dr. Goldfarb report no relevant financial relationships.
A version of this article originally appeared on Medscape.com.