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 on Night 2 of the conference. (The notes from Night 1 can be found here.) All errors are my own.

February 2, 2021

Linda Kay Klein:

  • Her experience growing up in purity culture. Shame and fear. You could lose SO much if you had sex.
  • The reality is that in the second half of the 20th century, American Evangelical culture was feeling worried and anxious. The purity movement came out of that as a way to deal with that anxiety. Evangelicals built purity culture on wider 1950s sexual norms. They didn’t start it, but they dragged it out much longer through the rest of the 20th century after the 1970s changed norms.
  • She left Evangelicalism because she felt like she could never be pure enough. Thought she’d be able to be her authentic self now. But no, that shame was so deep inside her. Totally different world now, but felt lots of shame still. Dealt with this for many years.
  • She wrote a book about this.
  • How do we not pass it along to our kids? Modeling behavior for kids is more effective than telling them to do something but not modeling it OR telling them to do something and modeling it. Just modeling is most effective. SO DON’T MODEL SHAME.

Dr. Tina Sellers:

  • Shameless parenting. What is it? What does it look like? What would it mean to parent without shame? How is it done?
  • Shame is toxic. We’re not born with it, but we all acquire it, usually unintentionally from those who love us the most. When our kids do something that would cause us shame, we often get triggered and take it out on them by over-reacting.
  • Example scenario she shared: a couple wrote to her about their 14-yr-old daughter who had sex with a boyfriend. “What did we do wrong!?” Nothing! She’s just growing up faster than she probably should. Breathe. It’s okay. Need to meet her where she is. If you bring down the hammer, she’ll just try to sneak out more, and at age 14 without the maturity that comes with age and life experience, that can be even more dangerous. Instead, try to figure out and talk to her: “why did you feel that you were ready? do you feel that you can stop without him being angry or sex-shaming you? is it fully consensual?” You need to teach her it’s very important to think about the questions. What will she do if he starts to take advantage of her? Is she able to be assertive and give consent? Is she able to leave if she wants to? The talk about “waiting until you’re ready” isn’t about being old-fashioned. It’s about taking the time you need to prepare and learn and letting others grow and learn as well. It’s about learning how to deepen the relationship; how to love someone unselfishly. Tell her: it’s her decision, we’ll love you regardless, you need to know about STDs and other very important ramifications.
  • What I hear most from parents is this: “I had to figure it out all on my own and I want to do better for my own kids, but I have no idea how to do that. Can you please help me? I don’t want to shame them or for them to avoid us.”
  • Freaking out when kids tell us something is a sign that it’s shameful. Even if we don’t mean to, kids will remember in their implicit understandings.
  • First and foremost: we love our kids more than anything, and God loves them more than anything. NO MATTER WHAT.
  • What is sexual shame, according to research? It’s a visceral feeling, deep in our cells (our “body mind”), of humiliation and disgust toward our bodies and belief in being abnormal, inferior, and unworthy. This is internalized but also manifests in interpersonal relationships, having a negative impact on trust, communication, and physical/emotional intimacy.
  • She’s writing a book including typical curiosities and behaviors for each age group, what they need at that point, the most typical shame triggers, and gives ideas on how parents can self-sooth those triggers. Stay tuned!

Al Vernacchio:

  • Sexuality is a “good gift from a good God;” it’s the thing that allows us to be most authentically ourselves. We can reach out in authentic and honest ways. When we live out our sexuality as a good gift, we make the world a better place.
  • Bottom line: porn is everywhere and it’s easy accessible. By age 11 most kids have seen something. It’s not a matter of if, but rather when. The more we can talk to kids BEFORE the better they’ll be able to handle it when they encounter it. Let’s have conversations when they’re little kids.
  • Pornography is designed to titillate, arouse, excite, to “turn you on.” Sexually explicit can be educational or inform or as art, not always to excite. Not always the same thing, and we should keep those differences in mind when kids ask about different kinds of content.
  • When kids ask me about sexuality, the first response should be to NOT shame, blame, etc.
  • Question from his teenage clients: “Is it bad to look at porn?” Could be. What would make it bad? Let’s talk about it.
  • Question from his teenage clients: “Are there benefits to watching porn according to scientific research?” Well, no-ish… but…? The issue is that it’s so laden with other information, etc. etc. will probably be overshadowed by the negative stuff.
  • Things he emphasizes in his counseling:
    • It’s not just the person viewing the content; there’s also the producers and the actors.
    • It’s not a “victimless crime” — industry has a poor track record of taking care of actors. LOTS of exploitation; not a lot of consent; not everyone is getting paid fairly.
    • The industry is multi-billion; it comes at expense of people. The producers don’t have the best interests of consumer at mind. Their goal is making money.
    • How consumers are affected by it can vary greatly. Giving context “what are you seeing and what is it?” it really helps them walk away without being rattled or whatever.
  • So what can we say to help educate constructively? 1) “it’s a movie, not a documentary”, do NOT use as sex ed; it’s fantasy entertainment, 2) the people are real and it teaches us to dehumanize and depersonalize the actors we’re watching, “have you ever thought about what it’s like to be the people in the movie?” 3) we live in the REAL world, not the internet world; nothing more awkward in real life than having sex! It’s fun and exciting, but also goofy and silly.
  • Is porn addictive? Perhaps. It’s not the same as drugs, alcohol on our brain, though. But it can definitely develop a HABIT. Also “addiction” is an anxiety-triggering word for teenagers. So he says “porn habit” rather than “porn addiction” – addiction means I’m a terrible addict and there’s all kinds of shame with that.
  • What would make a “habit” problematic? 1) If the only way you can get aroused and sexually fulfilled is with porn, your body will need that, and it’ll be hard with another real person. 2) If it interferes with the rest of your life (school, friends, family, etc.), 3) it’s disproportionately harmful to women in terms of dehumanization, this can lead to more sexist attitudes. Watching violent porn tend to be associated with more sexual harassment, etc. 4) it gives us a false idea of relationship, connection, etc. They act to make it look like they’re fulfilled. 5) stamina/length of encounter most of the time is shorter than it is on the pornographic depiction, this can lead to unrealistic expectations about what’s normal.
  • Websites he recommends for teenagers:

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