Recently I was setting up my teaching materials in a Grade 8 classroom when I overheard one of the students say, “I hope we get lots of time to do questions without names [aka anonymous questions] because that’s the best part of THE talk!” That Grade 8 student definitely spoke the truth—youth questions always provide the best opportunities for learning. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned as a seasoned sexual health educator is that every young person has questions about sexuality. Whether youth are asking for themselves or the universal, ever curious “friend”, there is no shortage of curiosity.
As the supportive adults in their lives, it is our privilege and responsibility to create safe and comfortable spaces for youth to explore their questions and seek realistic and honest answers. Parents often ask me what types of questions today’s youth are asking. They tell me that when they ask their own youth if they have any sexuality questions, they often receive the apathetic shoulder shrug/grunt “I don’t know” combo in response. More often than not, the questions are at the ready but youth need reassurance and coaching to do so comfortably. There are very few times in life that a person gets the opportunity to ask their most burning, obscure, or agonizing questions and receive reliable answers without the help of a search engine! This is why students love the opportunity to ask anonymous questions. Having the opportunity to hear the questions of their peers and learn the reliable answers normalizes and validates the experiences, hopes, fears and feelings of youth in the most valuable of ways.
While life as an adolescent in 2020 carries some major differences than that of previous generations; contrary to popular belief their curiosities and questions about sexuality remain very much the same. As a way to provide a bit of insight into what today’s youth are asking and to provide some inspiration for your own family conversations, here’s a compilation of the paraphrased five most frequently asked questions I receive from youth (grades 6-12) with answers.
What is the average or healthy sized penis for a 12 year old/16 year old/people our age?
This is the most common question ever asked! It’s asked multiple times on a DAILY basis in an attempt by youth to normalize their developing bodies. It is essential to reassure our youth that the healthy sized penis for a person their age is the penis they currently have which depending on their age/stage of development may change further or not. Remind them that the size, shape and appearance of all genitals (not just the penis!) have zero effect on the health, function or amount of the pleasure they may give and receive. This question provides a fantastic opportunity to further explore body image messages we receive in society and how these influence our feelings of self-worth and confidence.
Is it normal to have discharge in your underwear when you’re a girl in middle school?
Yes, it definitely can be!! An increase in discharge from the vagina is very typical as bodies move through puberty. It will fluctuate throughout a cycle and become more predictable as cycles regulate. It’s important to remind our youth that many parts of our bodies discharge fluid as a way of keeping it balanced and healthy—think of our eyes and noses. It’s not always a sign that there’s something wrong. If they notice a difference in amount, colour, texture, odour or experience irritation this would time to follow up with a trusted adult and health care professional. Body function questions provide a great opportunity to encourage youth to become the best experts on their bodies and to learn their typical functions. This question also jump starts the conversations about how/when/ where to talk with a health care professional so they are prepared to access care privately and independently if needed.
What’s a good age to begin a relationship?
Being ready for a relationship requires a lot of self knowledge. Youth need to consider circles of influence: what are their own feelings/concerns/desires/values about having a relationship and how do they compare with those of their family/culture/society? Will having a relationship add to/change/take away from other areas of their lives; friends, school, sports, work, and family? Are they able to set boundaries comfortably and talk about their own needs. Do they understand consent and practice it in other areas of their lives? Relationship questions provide an exceptional opportunity to talk about your family/cultural/religious values and beliefs and hopes for them as they develop their relationship skills.
How do I talk to my parents/family about all of this sexuality stuff? They seem really freaked out about it!
In all honesty, this questions breaks my heart a little bit when I see it in the box. I feel like students should be asking me how to get their families to STOP talking to them about sexuality! This question underlines the importance of these conversations to youth. They want to have these conversations and often try to take the responsibility on themselves to make it happen! It can be easy to make assumptions about why these conversations aren’t happening. Ask each other how and when you want to have these conversations? Is it when you’re doing the dishes, walking the dog, or driving to practice when eye contact is optional? This is a great opportunity to set an intention/make an agreement about having these conversations and to find a way to make these conversations more comfortable for all.
Is watching porn bad?
This has become an increasingly common question found in the box and is one of the most challenging questions to answer. When something is perceived or labelled as bad it has the opportunity to create feelings of shame and guilt and when shame and sexuality mix; the results can be really damaging to a person’s healthy self-concept and decisions. I usually ask students to consider why someone would be using pornography and suggest alternative ways to explore those motivations. I think it’s most important to focus on what isn’t being shown in sexually explicit material—consent, communication and caring which are the foundations of a sexually healthy relationship. Typically, the sexually explicit materials youth can readily access through a search engine narrowly portrays sex as a physical performance void of emotion and relational aspects. When a person lacks a solid understanding of sexuality as a whole or an alternative for information, these materials can become very misleading. Youth are lacking a solid understanding of sexuality because of their developmental stage in life and we don’t want to limit that further by using a very narrow construction of sex as a performance rather than an experience.
As supportive adults, it’s our job to encourage youth to ask questions, reassure them the question only feels awkward until it’s asked, and remind them they are deserving of honest, reliable answers. The more opportunities we create for our youth to explore their curiosities in comfortable ways, the more open they will be about these curiosities and there will be no need to “ask for a friend.”