Care and Feeding

Can You Be Sex Positive and a Responsible Parent at the Same Time?

I want to have reasonable, progressive dating rules at home—but what’s the limit?

Two teens go on a date.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Valeriy_G/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

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Dear Care and Feeding,

What are some reasonable rules around teenage dating? We’ve covered the big stuff of consent, respect, and condoms, but what is reasonable for parents to allow for their high school-age teens? I want to be a sex-positive parent in theory, but I’m not OK with the dating sleepovers that my sophomore swears their friends’ parents allow! I’ve been asking around, and it seems like half the parents we know allow their teens to have dates in the house when no one else is home, and the other half have a no-bedrooms-ever-even-with-the-door open rule! Neither my spouse nor I have a good grasp of how to handle this. My parents were theoretically strict but functionally clueless, so I was taught nothing and engaged in very risky behaviors on the sly, while my spouse was a late bloomer and has only ever dated me. And most of what I’m finding online is either purity culture or geared towards older teens. I need some guidance!

—Kinda Wish My Kid Couldn’t Get a Date

Dear Kinda,

Look, I get it. It’s hard to adjust the way we think about our kids as they begin to grow up, and many parents find it unbearable to think about their kids being sexually active. Plus, the way most of us were raised means most of us, like you and your husband, have no grasp on how to handle it. So I understand why this has you in knots.

The trouble is that being a sex-positive parent “in theory” means … well, that you are not actually a sex-positive parent. I’m not scolding you about this, but I do think you need to own it if this is the truth. In other words: don’t pretend to be one way and then be another way, in practice. Take some time to think about what you mean by “sex-positive.”

And while you’re at it, think about the bigger picture: the ideas we hold as a culture about teenagers and sex. Ellen Friedrichs, a health educator who is the author of Good Sexual Citizenship: How to Create a (Sexually) Safer World, suggests that we all “challenge the idea that sex is inherently dangerous for teens.” She notes that “shaming attitudes and policies have created a climate where a lot of teens have sex in unsafe ways … [in this] climate that encourages [them] to have sex in secret and prevents them from going to parents, teachers, or health-care providers for help.” And she does, in fact, urge parents to consider letting teens have sleepovers or privacy with their partners. This seems shocking to many American parents, but as Friedrichs points out, it’s a practice that has been adopted across Western Europe—a region in which teens tend to have sex at the same age as Americans, but with measurably fewer negative outcomes.

If you’re willing to consider allowing your teenager to have sex safely at home, you might take a look at some of these commonsense guidelines from Sex Positive Families. And for readers who are clutching their pearls, I will add that Friedrichs and other sex-positive educators, clinicians, and parents (and advice columnists, including this one) aren’t suggesting a hands-off, anything goes policy in which parents merrily wave to their children as they pair off with other children and close their bedroom doors. There are essential, sensible conversations to be had with our children about sex. Instead of saying, “Sure, go ahead—have it at!” or “You are absolutely not ready for sex! You’re too young! You’re forbidden!” or the close-your-eyes-and-hope-it-will-go-away non-solution you may be on the verge of making by default, how about a series of conversations with your child?

Ask questions that will help them consider aspects of sex that they may not have given much, or any, thought to. Don’t demand an answer in the moment: just get them started thinking about what their answer might be once they’ve had a chance to think about it. Ask what their thoughts are about what sex means to them and what it has (or doesn’t have) to do with being in a relationship. Ask what their expectations are around sex and what happens afterwards. Will they expect more commitment from a partner, or will their partner expect more commitment than they’re willing to give? Are they feeling pressured into having sex? Is their partner feeling pressured? If they’re going to have sex, or are already having sex, are condoms and other contraceptives available to them? It’s one thing to tell a 15-year-old to use a condom; it’s another for them to obtain them without shame—and while minors in many places may have the legal right to confidential reproductive health care, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s accessible, in part because very few clinics offer free or low- (enough) cost teen health care for a real-life teen to access it.

One other important thing to bring up in this frank conversation—or, better yet, multiple conversations, each of them brief—is that age of consent laws in the U.S.
rarely allow sex for people under 16, and a complaint by the parent of the other teenager could lead to serious problems for your kid. Whether these laws make sense or not, they are a reality you and your child should be aware of.

As to the question of what’s “reasonable” in your household … well, only you know the answer to that. Can you answer it for yourself honestly, decoupled from all the external noise around it (including your own and your husband’s upbringing)? Can you make sure part of that honesty to yourself includes the recognition that your kid probably will have sex—if not now, then soon—whether or not it’s in their own bedroom?

—Michelle

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