I have worked with thousands of parents over the years, many of whom try to find any excuse they can to not talk with their children about sexuality. As a sexuality educator who is also a parent, I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum, finding teachable moments everywhere, relentlessly reinforcing information and values with my child.
So I was a little embarrassed to admit that it took me until the third day of the Olympic Games to realize how many teachable moments relating to sexuality there have been within both the Games and the accompanying media coverage. When you consider that sexuality is about far more than sexual behaviors-that it is about gender and gender roles, body image and self-esteem, sexual orientation and identity, and much more-opportunities for discussing sexuality are all over the Olympics. So I thought I’d offer a few examples and suggestions of how you can take advantage of the many teachable moments that are sure to arise while watching the remainder of the Games:
My soon-to-be-ten-year-old son is obsessed with puberty. He couldn’t be more excited, so anything he can link to what’s going to happen during puberty he will. As we watch the Games, he’s full of questions:
During synchronized diving: “Why does the one on the left have hair on his legs and the other doesn’t? Is he older than the other one? Does the other one shave his legs? Will I have to shave my legs in puberty?”
During women’s gymnastics: “She’s 15? She looks like she’s 12. She doesn’t have any, you know… OK… breasts….”
Behind all his questions is “What’s normal?” I didn’t need to know anything about these individual athletes to be able to respond; I didn’t need to know their true ages or shaving habits. What he needed to hear was this: young people go through puberty at different rates; bodies can look totally different on people of the same age; and all of this is entirely normal.
Already there have been gender role stereotypical moments, and moments that have decimated those stereotypes. They are all opportunities to talk with your child about perceptions they may have (or have heard expressed) about what boys or girls can do solely based on their gender. This is the first year that every single country represented has a female athlete, and that is worth highlighting. Perhaps you’d want to discuss why it took so long for that to happen, why it happened this year and why some people are not celebrating.
You may wish to discuss how, even in the Olympic Games, girls and women are still expected to pay attention to their overall appearance while boys and men are not. I purchased a magazine for my son that provided in-depth interviews with some of the athletes. Part of the coverage discussed the female athletes’ makeup tips, while coverage of the male athletes described their workout routines. The fact that female athletes are judged on appearance as well as ability is something that can and should be discussed with young people.
Young people receive messages from their earliest ages about beauty, and research consistently shows that people who do not feel good about their bodies are much more likely to make poor sexual decisions. Olympic athletes would give regular runners who are in great shape inferiority complexes, never mind how we as civilians might respond! So here are a few things you can point out if your child comments on the athletes’ bodies:
- Olympic athletes spend most of their days exercising and working on strengthening their bodies.
- They need to eat really healthy and take care of themselves.
- There are lots of different body types in the world. Most people do not look like these athletes, and that’s OK. Some other athletes don’t look like these athletes. Everyone is different, and it’s normal to be different.
Sexual Orientation and Relationships
The opening ceremony was a huge demonstration of pageantry and mixed media, including a part that combined live-action and video in which a broad array of couples were shown kissing. These went very quickly, but once your kids got beyond squealing “Lady and the Tramp!” and “Shrek and Fiona!” they may have also noticed interracial and interethnic couples, adults older than their 20s, as well as-for a few brief seconds-a kiss between two women. All of these are potential teachable moments.
The vast majority of relationships young people see in popular media are still people from the same racial/ethnic backgrounds. They are also between people of two different sexes in their 20s-to-30s. This video and performance represented the diversity that can be found in love relationships. Talk about it!
With a week and a half left in the Olympics, who knows what other opportunities for discussion will present themselves? But consider the values and lessons you’ve been imparting to your child(ren) already, and see whether you can find ways of using an event that has captured the attention of so many of our children as an excuse for starting new conversations and keeping them going well beyond the closing ceremonies.