“But, how do I talk about this?”
A friend in her 20s recently asked me how, exactly, she was supposed to talk about specific sexual behaviors with someone she’d been seeing for a few months. My friend, who’s smart, driven and empowered in many aspects of her life, had no idea how to talk with her partner about what she wants, needs, likes and dislikes when it comes to sex. I wondered and worried if she couldn’t talk to him about these topics, could they discuss safer sex or birth control?
While Answer works to educate teens and adults who work with teens, I’m reminded by conversations like this that teens who do not receive honest, straightforward sexuality education aren’t likely to be able to talk with their partners about these topics. And without parents or other trusted adults teaching young people how to talk with their partners, they very quickly become 20-something young adults who aren’t able to have these conversations either. I sympathize with my friend, because no one taught her or her partner how to have these sorts of conversations. And if a successful, mature young adult like my friend doesn’t know how to talk with her partner, how do we expect teenagers—who arguably have less relationship experience—to know how?
As the expert on the Sexetc.org Forums who answers teens’ questions about sex, sexuality and sexual health, I encounter teens everyday who don’t know what good communication looks like. They ask how to tell their partner they want to use a condom or that they don’t feel ready to have sex. It’s our job as adults and educators to do a better job of counseling young people on how to have these important conversations with a partner.
I want to make the case for us—as educators, parents or people with a young person in our lives that we care about—to make the time in 2014 to talk with young people and teach them how to have healthy and respectful conversations about sex, sexual health and sexuality. Most young people will hopefully be getting the information they need about safer sex and birth control (and if not, send them on over to Sexetc.org!), but as adults who care about young people, we need to make sure they learn more than the steps to putting on a condom or the effectiveness rate of an IUD. They need to be able to talk about what they’ve learned so they can use it.
It can be hard even for us as adults to know what to say. So, here are four things we can teach young people when it comes to communicating with a partner:
- Make sure the conversation happens when you aren’t engaging in sexual behaviors. Having a conversation about sexual behaviors is usually easier when both partners are clothed and just hanging out together. People generally will feel less vulnerable, emotionally and physically, for what can sometimes be an awkward or difficult conversation.
- Use “I” statements. Statements that begin with “I think” or “I believe” let a partner know that you’re speaking for yourself and how you feel and that your conversation is about expressing your thoughts and communicating—not about accusing or attacking. Be sure that your language and thoughts are clear and that you’re telling your partner not only what you don’t want or aren’t ready for, but also what you do want and are ready for. It may help to think about this and formulate some thoughts before sitting down to talk.
- Find a solution together. Agreeing to work toward something as a team often brings couples closer together and can make the conversation feel less awkward.
- Practice. Like anything else, good communication isn’t something that everyone is automatically great at. Learning how to communicate effectively and in a way that each partner feels valued and respected can take some time. It gets easier!
We know young people want to learn how to communicate more effectively with a partner. We also know they look to trusted adults and educators to teach them how. Teaching young people how to communicate in a relationship in an honest and respectful way just may be the most useful tool you can offer them in 2014.
—Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, M.A., Coordinator of Education and Communications