"Hey, teen. Let's have a rap session."
December 21, 2010 10:53 AM   Subscribe

Please help this repressed (lapsed) Catholic stumble through a sex talk.

I have a half brother who is 20 years younger than me. He's 16 and the very model of a "good kid." He's kind, funny, gets good grades/has part time job, nice friends. Etc. He has a long-term girlfriend and I am assuming nature is running its course. It has occurred to me that, when I was his age, it would have been awfully nice if there was an adult around who could at the very least supply me with condoms. I certainly didn't want anyone to talk to about sex, but I want him to see me as a possible sounding board, too. I've tried to broach the subject but it's come out comically vague. The message I want to send is: "Need condoms? I can help. Need to talk? Let me know." I know -- I could just SAY what I just typed. But if it felt that simple I wouldn't be bothering you guys with this. Maybe I don't need the words, just a pep talk or guidelines on how to talk to kids.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total)

If you're going to do that, just give him the condoms. That way, if he thinks the interaction is awkward too, he won't have to go through it again.
posted by dubold at 10:57 AM on December 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

I have a 16 year old son and 13 year old daughter. Some of our best "sex" conversations have come from watching a movie or tv show that provided a jumping off point. So maybe you could watch something with him that will lead into a more natural talk. Of course, right now I can't think of some that worked for us!

Or a simple note/email saying what you already mentioned. Avoids embarrassing him but lets him know he has a person willing to talk anytime.
posted by maxg94 at 10:59 AM on December 21, 2010

I've found -- not in this exact situation, but in similar ones -- that the awkwardness is never going to go away, so the best you can do is hang a lampshade on it. "Hey, bro. This is hideously awkward, and I'm sorry for that, but I feel a certain fraternal obligation to push through it. This girl you're seeing. . . argh, I can't do it! OK, look, I have condoms for you, and also I'm here to talk about anything, sex-related or otherwise. Totally open, here if you need me. and otherwise I'll never speak of it again."
posted by KathrynT at 11:09 AM on December 21, 2010 [10 favorites]

I recommend the second act of "how to talk to kids" from this american life. (I generally recommend the whole episode, but the second part is particularly relevant).
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:11 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Need condoms? I can help. Need to talk? Let me know."
What's wrong with this?

You could also say something along the lines of, "I don't know how much you talk about sex with your friends, but my friends were ignorant or badly misinformed. If you ever have doubts, you can go ahead and ask me (too)."

I'm assuming, of course, that your friends and information sources were just as typically ignorant/inexperienced as most.
posted by plinth at 11:14 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is going to be awkward no matter what. (But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't do it)
posted by schmod at 11:25 AM on December 21, 2010

Don't just give him condoms, make sure he knows how to use them correctly! If you don't pinch the reservoir tip while putting it on then it's probably filled with air and thus more likely to burst upon ejaculation. He should also reach down and hold it on when he pulls out so that it doesn't slip off and leak sperm inside. Plus, he needs to be mindful of proper storage conditions and expiration dates.

If you're too embarrassed to go into that much detail and demonstrate on a cucumber, you can send him a link to a video that explains the proper application, care, and feeding of condoms.

You might also consider giving him a good book about sex, so he doesn't turn to his buddies or Yahoo! Answers for information. The Guide to Getting It On is a fairly comprehensive manual.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:25 AM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

You don't say whether there's someone else who might be talking to him as well, or why you think at 16 he might not already have the basics down from other reliable sources. Especially with a long-term girlfriend in the picture, the horse may already be out of the barn, or whatever.

If you are close enough with him that you do know his situation, then go for it with advice like KathrynT gives. But if you aren't close enough with him to know what he knows or what he's up to, I wouldn't offer to buy him condoms.

I've been talking with my 15- and 16-year-old boys about sex in age-appropriate ways since they were small. Like your brother they are kind, funny, get good grades, have nice friends.... at this point, the possibility of them becoming sexually active is no longer a "someday" proposition, so we're down to reminders about self-protection. I tell them that no matter what, they are responsible for their own birth control and STD prevention. Even if the girl says she's on the pill, even if she says you're the only one, even if it's only for a minute... never ever ever have unprotected sex unless you are ready to raise a child for 18 years beginning that very minute. They can get condoms on their own, and I'm sure your brother can too. It's really more about having open conversations.

Also I remind them how much I love babies and promise them that whoever makes me a grandmother first will have me living next door to them for the rest of their lives. I don't know if that would scare your brother as much as it scares my boys though.
posted by headnsouth at 12:13 PM on December 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Here's your pep talk: if he doesn't get the info from you, he's probably getting it from his friends and the internet*.

So you need to just take a deep breath and tell yourself, "I have the ability to positively affect forever the life of this young person that I love dearly." When the talk becomes something that you know you must do, it actually becomes slightly easier.

Lots of other good advice here but I would just add that since you are a trusted adult who is not a parent, you are in a very unique position to be helpful and I encourage you to follow through with it.

You might consider saying, "Look, I won't judge you at all. You can ask me anything you want and I promise that I won't assume that it means you want to run out and do the thing you ask me about. It's completely okay to want information and to be curious—wondering about sex doesn't make you a freak, it makes you a human being whose body and brain are functioning correctly."

(I use this technique a lot especially with girl teens because here in the South they are constantly getting messaged about "what good girls/bad girls do" and I refuse to encourage that shame business.)

I find that difficult or wobbly conversations with teens are very easily had while driving in the car (kid as passenger, not as a young driver who might just run off the road if his brother busted out with, "So, are you doing it?"). Being in the car gives you both somewhere else to look, ergo avoiding uncomfortable or awkward eye contact.

I also find that, for serious conversations about bodies, sex, relationships, etc., teens love to take advantage of a casual opening that seems like it was a total afterthought. Like maxg94 mentioned, movies and TV shows are great source material. I also drop anecdotes about things that happened to me or my friends when I was a young adult, and it goes unremarked at the time, but then those are like little seeds in the ground that the kid will circle back to later, often as a total non sequitur.

I try very hard not to be prescriptive. The simple fact is that there is no One Right Way when it comes to sex, and the minute an adult goes all, "You have to do this" or "You have to do that," you're not only losing your audience but you're communicating to them incorrectly that sex is black and white rather than a million shades of gray. (Of course, communicating facts like, "A girl can get pregnant while having her period" or "Nocturnal emissions happen to men and women" are values-neutral.)

You still can communicate your values, though. It just gets across better when you say things like, "You know, if you watch TV it seems like everyone believes X about [sex thing], but I actually think that Y is more realistic and healthy, and that has worked well for me in my life. Everyone can make their own choices though."

Which is just a softer way to say, "I realize it's your call to make, but here are the decisions that I personally made, and why, and I hope you'll model your choices on mine."

* Have some good sex ed internet: Scarleteen is an amazing resource both for young adults and the older adults who are guiding them. Check out the For Parents page to get some great perspective on the how and why of Scarleteen.
"What you can do to enable this very important development is simply to be open, to be candid, and to be as honest as you can. If you don't have the most up-to-date information use this site, or other sites and resources we recommend below, to get them. However, if you look, there is plenty of information like this out there. What is lacking isn't the information, but instead a the presentation to teens in a manner they can feel safe and secure in, from the adults they respect and love. Don't get discouraged if you're doing your best to be open and informative, and your teen doesn't respond: it's normative for young adults to prefer to do most of their talking about sex with peers, extended family members, siblings or mentors. Even when that is the case, it doesn't make what you can offer, the door you keep holding open, any less valuable and important."
Notice that Scarleteen tells parents that siblings are the preferred source of sex information. You are the right person for this! Good luck! Be brave!
posted by pineapple at 12:56 PM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've been in a very similar situation. The first point I'd like to make is that it was initially awkward for me simply because it's not a common occurrence (to have a knowledgeable adult volunteer to provide clear information to a teenager on a quasi-taboo subject, one-to-one) but I reminded myself that it was super-important to me that my sibling NOT have the impression that to ask was awkward or that for me to answer was awkward, EVER. So I made myself as blunt and matter-of-fact about it as I could. Clinical, even. You're the adult - your sibling is going to follow your cues here. (My sibling was comfortable asking but only once I had demonstrated I could talk about it in a detached, non-judgmental manner - at length.)

Another point I'd like to make is that from my personal experience - it's easy for us to say "I'm here for anything if you need me" and wait for the kid to come to us if they have questions. Less awkward for everyone all around, right? But often teenagers are just going to handwave and say "I think I've got it all down already, thanks" because 1) no loss of face for them or awkwardness to act like they know it all, and 2) they don't know that they don't know it all; they might *think* they do, but what do they have to compare it to?

(A little bit of digging revealed actually, my sibling knew almost nothing - had not had a sex-ed class; had not been given The Talk from our parents; had not even had a health class with basic "these are the parts of your body" or "this is how reproduction works" overview; had not even been given or sought out any books explaining this... and then I realized I was going to have to start at the beginning and be as thorough as I could - because if I didn't tell them, who was going to?)

Most of my "talk" was communicated driving in the car or walking the dog together. Not having to look at each other all the time is less pressure. After the initial in-depth "crash course" I also pointed out stuff when we were watching TV together, etc. This is what I do with my own kids naturally but they are much younger than my sibling was and I have been giving them the opportunity to learn for years now. I had to compress all this information into a short time because my sibling is much younger than I am and I am not around them often. I hope it was enough.

In a nutshell:
*if you convey to him that your expectation is that it's awkward for both you and him, he may well choose to spare you the awkwardness of being asked anything, no matter if you TELL him it's okay;
*don't assume what he probably already knows (good point made above that just giving someone condoms doesn't mean they know how to use them properly) - realize you may well have to fill in gaps here, in detail;
*don't expect him to come to you; be prepared to do most of the footwork here in setting up the connection (providing information, making it comfortable) and that for this to be effective it will very likely have to be more than a one-time, one-sentence interaction.
posted by flex at 1:28 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

My kid started asking about sex when he was 7. The 1st talk was the most difficult. It gets easier. Take him for a walk or drive, and just say, "I've been thinking that when I was 16, it would have been nice to talk to somebody about sex, life, sexual orientation, condoms, STDs and other stuff."

Try to listen more than talk.

One thing I really try to talk to my son about is respecting women, and that respect should be mutual.
posted by Mom at 1:31 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

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