Notes from Night 1 of the 2021 Parenting Forward Conference: “Parenting After Purity Culture”

This year’s Parenting Forward conference has the theme of “Parenting After Purity Culture,” with speakers sharing advice and perspectives about teaching kids about sex, but from a non-fundamentalist perspective (either religious or secular). The conference presumes that most attendees were raised in conservative religious communities with traditional sexual norms and values. What follows is a paraphrase of some of the main points from the speakers. (The notes from Night 1 can be found here.) All errors are my own.

February 1, 2021

Cindy Wang Brandt, conference organizer:

  • It’s important to know that cultural sex stereotypes sometimes fit but sometimes not. Women can have strong needs and be aggressive and men can need lots of communication and connection in order to have a satisfying experience. You can point that out to your children and challenge the stereotypes.
  • Both partners are fully themselves and who care about one another independently, as opposed to “two halves of a whole who belong to one another.” This is important because neither partner in a relationship “owns” each other’s bodies. That’s why we should avoid narratives of “ownership,” even if well-intended.
  • In purity culture, privacy is secrecy. (If anything is private then it must be shameful because secret.) No, private and secret are two different things. We are entitled to privacy in aspects of our lives, including from intimate partners. Of course trust is important, but we shouldn’t feel that we’re obligated to share every single thought that crosses our mind with our partners.
  • For most of us, it’s not possible to be each other’s “soul mates.” It’s not humanly possible to be a partner’s perfect counselor and friend and lover and therapist and professional colleague… That’s exhausting and unrealistic. It’s okay to have some needs met outside of partnership without sparking jealously.
  • So how do we “parent after purity culture?” Just do the opposite of what purity culture does.
    • PC is prescriptive (gender roles, etc.). Don’t do that. It’s not completely avoidable, but it’s important to disrupt the prescriptions and assumptions.
    • PC is enmeshment. Instead, respect our kid’s privacy and autonomy. Our kids don’t exist to complete us, but rather for their own flourishing.
    • PC is static and unchanging. How about instead we raise our kids to love their wild and spontaneous spirit of fun and excitement, including sexual and erotic excitement?
  • Many folks disagree about the ethics of polyamory and pornography… but at the end of the day, Cindy sides on the perspective that this should be up to individuals and couples to negotiate.
  • Talking about masturbation to children; we shouldn’t continue harmful myths that this will ruin sex with your future partner or that it’s physically unhealthy. There is zero evidence for this. There’s an important conversation to be had with children about privacy (don’t touch yourself in public), but otherwise this is about about autonomy and personal authority.
  • You have to model NON-SHAME yourself if we want our children to grow up without shame.

Nadine Thornhill:

  • Goal should be that children learn that sexuality is an integral part of the human experience, not something that needs to be feared or is dangerous. We all have unique relationship to our own sexuality and experience, and our own needs and boundaries.
  • Talking to your kids is a process, not a one time event. We don’t have to know all at once.
  • Regular short conversations throughout their growing up is better than one or two “The Talks” total all at once.
  • Own your values–your beliefs and things you feel are important about sexuality. Children tend to adopt values of parents more often if they’re presented positively and see that they make a good difference in lives of parents.
  • Avoid myths–if you tell your kid something that’s not true and they figure it out by fact-checking you on the internet, it’ll erode a lot of trust in them. So try to get your facts straight and tell them straight to your kids.

Matthias Roberts:

  • How to develop a sexual ethic? I don’t know! And that’s okay! Because there’s no one size fits all. We’re human and complicated.
  • Humans like rules. They’re very helpful. BUT I’m not entirely interested in making a new set of rules. Instead, let’s talk about values.
  • We come to our values by engaging complexity, not by running away from it.
  • Sexuality doesn’t fit into neat boxes, just like people don’t fit into neat boxes.
  • Sexuality is about connection to others and pleasure. It’s wired into our brains.
  • Four paradoxes:
    1. Sex is healthy and risky.
    2. Sex is most vulnerable experience, but can also be used to avoid vulnerability (difficult conversations and hard feelings).
    3. Sex requires psychological safety, but it’s never guaranteed.
    4. We’ll get things right… and wrong. At the same time.
  • I can’t make your sexual ethic for you. I encourage you to work this out by engaging with the paradoxes and complexities.

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