A few months ago over Sunday brunch, my 18-year-old daughter and I fell into a discussion about sex and dating. Between the omelets and crepes, she described how she felt about her new boyfriend, and I gave advice on enjoying their young love while retaining her independence and sense of self.
From the time she was in middle school, I have spoken to my daughter about how to stay safe on dates — never let anyone else get your drink, no means no, you do not have to do anything you do not want to do, always practice safe sex — and other rules I wanted her to live by. Every discussion we have had and every piece of advice I have given originated from our shared identity as cisgender, straight females.
Not long after that brunch, I read about a recent set of online focus groups conducted by Northwestern University that examined heterosexual parents’ attitudes toward talking about sex with their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer teens. Some of the remarks from those parents made me realize how easy I have had it, in a way, talking with my teenage daughter. Few parents feel comfortable broaching the subject of sex with their children, but parents of LGBTQ teens have the added challenge of not always feeling equipped to talk about an experience they themselves have not had.
“I have no idea what sex is really like for men, especially for gay men,” one mother commented.
Another parent reported sending her bisexual daughter to a lesbian friend to talk to her about “gay sex.”
“I felt challenged that I’m straight, my daughter is dating a gal, and I didn’t know anything about that,” the mom wrote. “All my sex talks were about how not to get pregnant and how babies are conceived.”
Aside from sexual education in schools (which is not universal) teens learn about sex from their parents and peers, so if no one in their life knows what it is like to have the sex that corresponds to their orientation, they are left to fend for themselves. Michael Newcomb, lead author of the focus-group study and an assistant professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says it is difficult for heterosexual parents of an LGBTQ teen to give advice about how to stay safe when having sex. In fact, parents who participated in the Northwestern focus groups reported sexual safety was the most challenging subject for them when giving advice to their LGBTQ teens.
“The mechanics of sex are different for LGBTQ people in some ways, so those young people could be unprepared the first time they have sex and could get into unsafe situations,” Newcomb says. “Most often with safety, we think about prevention of things like HIV and STDs, but safety encompasses much more than that. It’s about not feeling coerced into having sex, it’s about feeling comfortable while you’re having sex, not being in pain; all of those kinds of things that would be very difficult to prepare for if no one in your life knew what it was like for you to have sex.”
About a quarter of the 44 parents in the focus groups expressed concerns about predators, with one parent of a 16-year-old, questioning, gender-nonconforming teen writing. “They are in a very vulnerable place, and sometimes I feel they are desperate for a true friendship/relationship. If they were to let someone in, I would really want to get to know the person and understand their intentions.”
Newcomb says because there are fewer LGBTQ people than there are heterosexuals, it can be difficult to find partners in more traditional settings, such as schools. So they may be more likely to meet partners online.
“Navigating who you can or cannot trust online can be very challenging, particularly when most people on those sites are adults,” Newcomb says. “If LGBTQ youth are highly motivated to meet partners online because they feel isolated, they may overlook some indicators that potential partners may not be trustworthy.”
I spoke with one mother who, with her husband, has two sons, one who is straight and the other who is gay. Long before her son came out to her when he was 14, she suspected he was gay.
“It was a matter of him getting comfortable talking to me about it,” says the mom, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her family’s privacy.
In the five years since, she has talked openly with him about sex and relationships and says she is lucky she has a lot of gay friends whom she often turned to for advice.
While acknowledging she needed some assistance with the more mechanical aspects of gay sex, she says she spoke to both her sons in the same way when it came to how good relationships work.
“It has nothing to do with being gay, but about keeping the lines of communication open and letting your kids understand that they are being listened to,” she says.
Newcomb, who is also a clinical psychologist, advises parents — whatever their teen’s sexual orientation — to initiate conversations about sex and dating, regardless of how uncomfortable they or their teenagers feel.
“The more frequently parents initiate conversations about sex and dating, the more likely it is that their child will come to them when they have a question or when they could potentially be in trouble,” Newcomb says.
He added it is important for parents to tell their LGBTQ teen their experience as a heterosexual person might be different and to acknowledge what they do not know. Newcomb suggests parents and their LGBTQ teen do research together online because parents may be better prepared to evaluate the credibility of the information. It also gives parents the opportunity to teach Internet literacy.
“Parents may need to help their teens figure out who they can and cannot trust online, as well as put in place strategies for staying safe when meeting people in person who they met online initially (for example, meet in public places or have a parent meet the other person first),” Newcomb says in an email.
He also recommends reaching out to organizations such as PFLAG, a national nonprofit that provides information and resources to LGBTQ people and their families.
“It’s a great support system for parents — particularly with a child who is first coming out — to be around other parents who are much more experienced. It can help in providing role models for how to effectively parent LGBTQ teens,” Newcomb says.
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