Building a sexual vocabulary

Many Middle School students – okay, let’s face it, many Americans – have a hard time holding a serious conversation about sex using correct terminology.  Even among adult, many conversations about sex include a lot of insinuations, a lot of suggestive and knowing glances and meaningless phrases like “Well, he … you know … and then I was like, wow, so this is how it’s supposed to feel!”

But in order for us to have effective and meaningful conversations about sex with our partners, our children, and our doctors, we need to use specific terminology.

A friend was recently recounting to me a certain scene from a recent Jim Carrey movie, where for rather preposterous reasons Carrey must say “Yes” to receiving oral sex from an older woman, even though he doesn’t want to.  (For the purposes of this story, I am setting aside two issues that present themselves through this scene: stereotypical and offensive joking about elder sexuality and the undercurrent of male rape which is far too often ignored or, as in Yes Man, laughed at.)  Back to my story.  My friend was disappointed that this scene was included because she thought her 6th grade daughter would like the rest of it, but she felt that this scene made the movie inappropriate for her.  At least one of her friends, however, had seen the movie, and the mother learned had told her about the old-lady-oral-sex scene.  Another friend sitting by was surprised that 6th graders would get the visual joke – that they would know that oral sex was being suggested off-camera.

Now, do young teenagers who see this movie explicitly know what’s happening off camera?  Could they, as we say, draw a picture for me?  Maybe, but maybe not.  More likely they are cobbling together their sense that something illicit is being suggested – and that this probably means sex.  Even the group of moms sitting around talking about the movie were slightly discomfited when I used descriptive terminology in our conversation.  I wasn’t using the terminology to be salacious – just specific.

One of my first goals with any sexuality class, regardless of the age of the participants, is to help them move past this initial discomfort with even anatomical words like penis and vagina.  Middle school students, being the youngest that I teach in a classroom setting, often have the most difficulty with this process.

I am about to wrap up two of my middle school classes and I just started one a few weeks ago.  What is very noticeable to me is that the two groups I have been working with for many months are both full of kids who are more or less willing – if not always pleased – to say the required nouns and verbs to hold a complete discussion about sex.  And they do not giggle or blush or hide their face anymore when anyone else in the room uses those words.  These young people are ready to have serious discussions about different levels of sexual activity, STDs, and safe sex.  They have practiced saying “No” to sexual and romantic advances, and they have had in-depth conversations about what kind of relationship they need to have before they say yes.  They are, in fact, prepared to handle the next several years of their emotional, social, and sexual development.

In my class that just started, however, there exists a very different sexual vocabulary.  They are beginning to accept that sexuality is just another topic to be talked about, but giggles often still erupt when we answer their questions about orgasms (“cumming”) directly and honestly.

Looking over these three classes and almost thirty students, one thing I have noticed is that the students who are less sexually experienced are often more willing to talk honestly and directly about sexual experiences.  The students who have begun to experiment with sexual activities (if not intercourse) are far more likely to be giggly and immature about confronting the topic head-on.  This is one clear indicator, for me, about why young people must have comprehensive sexuality education before they begin to be sexually active: It is now, during this time, that they are most open to building their sexual vocabulary.  Because they have not had much to giggle about behind closed doors, they have not yet closed the doors.

Young people who are able to talk clearly about sex and sexuality have a higher Sexuality IQ.  They will be better able to look inward to determine their own desires and to cleave true to themselves rather than someone else’s desires.  They will also be better prepared to be clear with their partners about what they want – and what they don’t want.

All of these young people will need a booster-shot of sex education sometime in high school.  They will need to be reminded of how to speak honestly and openly about sex, about the intricacies of STDs, reproduction, and safe sex, and they will need the information directed to them in a way that respects their new developmental stage.  They could probably also benefit from a college level class on human sexuality to understand more of the historical context and psychology around our intimate relationships.  But even without these additional classes, the middle school students in my class have come to a place of uncommon sexual vocabulary which can come to their aid for the rest of their lives.

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.