How Talking To My Dad About Sex Changed My Life

Illustrated by Mary Galloway
It’s a warm Friday evening, and I’m sitting outside at a restaurant in New York City with my business partner. We’re talking about our new line of condoms. "I think women would prefer if it is more descriptive," my business partner says. "I think we should call it comfort fit." "I think we should just call it large," I counter. The guy sitting next to us gets up and moves to another table. No shocker there; not everyone is comfortable hearing about, let alone talking about, sex and sexual health. Good thing he doesn’t know my business partner is also my father. We sell natural sexual wellness products, and we’re debating what to call the various sizes of our condoms. The fact that I have these conversations with my father makes people really uncomfortable. I get it, but I don’t get it. My dad and I were extremely close while I was growing up, and we had an authentically open relationship. By the time I was 15, he started talking to me about the parties I was going to, what I was doing at them, and what other people were doing — which meant we were having honest conversations about drugs and alcohol. Since my dad didn’t have that dynamic with his parents, he made an effort to have it with me. I felt like I could trust him and ask him questions without fear of punishment or judgment. It was great. So when I was thinking about birth control and having sex for the first time, I was able to talk to my dad about how these "sensitive" subjects factored into my relationship at the time. Let me be clear here: I wasn’t sharing the details of my sex life with him. There are boundaries to our candidness, thankfully. That’s what I think most people don’t get. Still, I was able to talk to my dad about how the person I was dating made me feel. His primary concern was whether or not I was being respected; he didn’t awkwardly sit me down with a box of condoms and say, "Good luck!" I was lucky enough to never get the typical spiel.

His primary concern was whether or not I was being respected; he didn’t awkwardly sit me down with a box of condoms and say, "Good luck!"

Instead, he taught me to think about my relationship and look for certain character traits in my boyfriend, and use those as my guiding points. Of course, condoms and safe sex were big parts of our conversations. But based on conversations around my company, news articles, and my friends’ experiences, it seems those components are generally the sole focus of "the talk," and discussions about trusting someone, consent, shame-free sexual health services, and feeling respected seem to get left out. In my experience, there are emotional, as well as physical, aspects of having sex, and I’m so thankful to my father (and my mother) for teaching me their importance at a young age. In fact, I have my mother to thank for a particularly impactful conversation she had with me about birth control when I was 18. She didn’t use fear-mongering to jar me into abstaining from sex — rather, she told me how important it was to make sure that whatever form of birth control I used was right for my body. Based on what I’ve seen, it’s become natural for women to assume that once they get into a monogamous relationship, they should go on the pill or get an IUD. But those methods, while extremely effective, aren’t necessarily the best solution for everyone. For me, I soon realized that hormonal pills didn’t work with my body. And even though my boyfriends haven’t been thrilled about my insistence on using condoms, I’ve been able to stand up for what works for me — thanks to my mom teaching me that this was my choice, because it affected my body. Fast-forward to the present, and my candidness with my parents about my sexual health, particular with my father, really confuses people. They somehow think that, because we’re selling condoms and personal lubricant together, we’re constantly having free-for-all sharing sessions about the intimate details of our sex lives. Yes, I did tell my dad when I decided to get an IUD (and what a terrible experience that was), because the procedure affected my mood and well-being. But no, I don't talk to him about the details of my sex life. There’s a difference between a comfortable dialogue with your parents around sex and discussing your favorite sex positions or vibrator of choice. I’m not talking about those kind of intimate details with my parents. Sure, there’s some overlap, but the nuance between the two categories is crucial.

Just as people are perplexed by my dynamic with my parents, I’m left wondering why people aren’t discussing sex with theirs.

Just as people are perplexed by my dynamic with my parents, I’m left wondering why people aren’t discussing sex with theirs. By the time teens reach their senior year of high school, 62% of them will have had sex. And by the time they reach their freshman year in college, nearly one in five women will have been the victims of rape or attempted rape (and far too many of these women will blame themselves). Not to mention, nearly half of new STI diagnoses are among those between the ages of 15 and 24, and the highest incidence of unintended pregnancy is among women between 20 and 24. There seems to be a gaping hole in our cultural dialogue around "the talk" that could be leaving young women and men ill-equipped to navigate the complexities of the sexual world and their own desires. When you shed societal norms and all of the taboo shrouding sex, it’s clear: Who better to teach kids about consent, desire, and sexual health than the people who presumably taught them how to navigate all of the other aspects of the world? And teens themselves are recognizing the influence their parents could potentially have on their sex lives: 87% of people between the age of 12 and 19 said that open and honest conversations with their parents could help them avoid unplanned pregnancies and guide them in their decisions to put off sex. (Props to my parents for their foresight.) But unfortunately, most people aren’t having comfortable dialogues about sex with their parents. According to a report conducted by Planned Parenthood and NYU’s Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health, while 80% of parents talk to their kids about sexuality, they don’t do it very often — and many of them aren’t covering consent, birth control methods, and where to find sexual health services. I’m going to assume this is why I’ve been asked by every reporter I have spoken to in the past few years: "Wait, you started a company selling condoms with your dad?" They want to know how awkward it is, but thanks to years of frank conversations and sex positivity, it isn’t. These conversations don’t have to be awkward for you and your parents, either. Or your kids, if that’s your current situation. Go on, try it. Once you push past your initial discomfort, you’ll be glad you did.

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