Sex Ed Subtlety

There is something about subtlety around adolescence and sexuality and sex education that I see as problematic in the culture of advice and guidance from professionals.

I have had an experience of sitting in eight hours of talks from Dr. Sharon Maxwell this week.  I have heard from her that parents should look inward to find their own family’s perspective on the morality of sexual ethics to guide their children.  I also hear her saying that we need to swaddle our children away from the popular culture.  There are a few issues, big issues, that I have with her perspective.

First, the places where Dr. Maxwell just misunderstands where subtlety needs to happen:

  • Rather than looking inward for their own morals, presenting them to their children, and stopping there, I encourage parents to then work to find out, to discover what their child’s perspectives on morality and sexual ethics are.  We are not the moral or ethical end-all-and-be-all in our households as much as we might want to be.  Furthermore, by the time our children are teenagers, they generally know what we think about things but we generally know very little about what they think about things.  It’s a good time to balance those scales a little bit.
  • Regarding the cultural swaddling: Don’t get me wrong, I agree with everyone out there who says that our popular American culture is a huge, sexualizing problem.  However, there must be a process of opening up, of slowly exposing a child to what exists so that the child has the capacity to deal with it by the time they are moving out on their own.  This change from protective swaddling to openness cannot safely happen overnight, and it is this process that a parent educator, either for general parenting or parenting specifically regarding sexuality, needs to address and offer support regarding.

And now the place where Dr. Maxwell apparently throws up her hands and says that it’s all so subtle that there is no way that she could provide guidance on it:

  • Dr. Maxwell appears to defer all of the trickier subject matters, notably including masturbation, sexual activity before marriage, and sexual orientation, to the family.  She is unwilling to tell families what or how to address these issues because they vary so much from family to family.  She seems to see too much cultural subtlety here.  There is biological, psychological fact around these issues.  However, throwing up your hands and saying that everyone can decide for themselves probably sounds very good to parents, it is likely that parents will want to hear this.  Regrettably, it is simply not true.  There are aspects of all three of these topics, and others, that are simply life-saving for children and teenagers to have specific conversations about.  To give up professional authority to someone’s emotional/religious/sociological reaction to a topic rather than to work towards the life-saving approach is professionally irresponsible.

This is an issue I see in many places, and it is very different from how I proceed.  I want to encourage, to challenge parents to engage in relationship and conversation with their children and teenagers.  I want to hear parents stop accepting compliments about their offspring as though they are the reason the children are that way.  I want for parents, after they listen to me talk or read my writing, to return to their relationships with their children and teenagers with a greater openness and the energy to deeply engage in that relationship.  This is not to say that the parent should abdicate their role, be the young person’s friend, etc.  It means that they come to interactions with their child filled with a curiosity about the child and their experiences.

This is not to say that there was nothing positive to hear in Dr. Maxwell’s talks.  For example, she is a strong advocate of the parent talking about the biology of sex and related topics, including sexual desire.  That’s great!  I am so in-line with her on this!

There’s just so much that I disagree with her on, and the issues are subtle, not inherently obvious if this isn’t something you talk about all day long, and mostly reside in the realm of the things she neglects to discuss rather than the the things she does.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. As usual I appreciate your comments. I don’t know Dr. Maxwell, but I do know you from reading your blog over several years. I especially appreciate you pointing out that young people have their own thoughts and feelings about sexuality (apart from what their parents think, feel, and believe), and that discovering their perspective is an excellent way to open up deeper and more meaningful conversations. I also appreciate your reminder that parents don’t start out with a child who is a blank slate. Children come into the world with their own personality. This is a wonderful thing, and can lead to great respect in adults, when we get out of our “we know it all” attitudes toward young people.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Margaret. This respect for young people as individuals with their own perspectives is something that I am very passionate about – and I have a hard time seeing how a parent can truly engage with their children without acknowledging and appreciating!

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