What’s My Stuff? How to talk to your child about sex when you are the partner of a sex addict

Worried young Caucasian man with hand on head

In my book, The New Age of Sex Education: How to Talk to your Teen about Cybersex and Pornography in the Digital Age, I write about the baggage that can interfere with a parent talking to their child about sex, pornography, masturbation or any other sexual topic. This topic recently came up in one of my therapy sessions. I have a long-time client whose husband is in recovery from problematic sexual behavior and she has worked a strong program of recovery and self-discovery herself. She and her husband have several wonderful children, the eldest of which is entering pre-pubescence and the age of sexual curiosity. My client is a great mother and knows she needs to talk to her son (after recently accidentally finding him touching himself). She is also introspective and self-aware so she knows she is having a hard time even thinking about the conversations.

Why is my client struggling to talk to her child? Is it more than the normal incoming awkward conversation? My client thinks so. Being the partner of someone with out-of-control sexual behavior (they identify as sex addiction) means that, for her, sex and sexuality no longer have the same meaning that they once did. Being in a relationship with someone who engaged in secretive and betraying sexual behavior has skewed how she thinks of most things sexual. She no longer thinks that pornography is an “ok” thing. She struggles with what the obsessive objectification of women by her partner has done to her self-esteem. She wondered if she even knew what was normal sexuality for an adolescent. Could she bring herself to say that masturbation was a healthy behavior? Could she talk to her son about sex without inducing shame? Does she trust her partner to talk to her son about sex given his past issues?

What did we come up with? First, I offered my client resources. Both my book and the 30 Days of Sex Talks books by Empower Kids. These are great resources for parents. Second, we practiced talking about sex and what is healthy. It is normal for kids to find touching themselves pleasurable. She felt she would be able to talk to her son about this behavior and add a discussion of boundaries to it. Masturbation is something that should be done in private. He needed to agree to shut his door, lock his door and not touch himself around others. She also would agree to no longer just open his door but respect his privacy and knock before she entered. She also decided that she wanted to talk to her son about reasons for masturbation. She wanted to let him know that using masturbation to quell a sexual urge was a normal thing. She wanted him to know that doing so to self soothe bad emotions could be problematic. In this, she also will talk to him about other, non-sexual ways to self soothe.

Her next struggle was to talk about pornography. Her son is 12 and the average age of first exposure to online pornography is around 10 or 11. It is likely that, even though all her devices are locked down, he has either seen or heard about it. My client struggled to separate her own feelings about pornography from the discussion. We settled on just talking about facts. Pornography is something that is around and a lot of people look at. Has he seen it? What reaction has he had? We also talked about discussing with him what pornography portrays. Today’s mainstream pornography does not do much to show safe sex, mutuality, or anything relational. She decided to talk to him about how it does not portray what often goes on between partners. Most people do not look like porn stars nor do most people act like porn stars when being sexual.

As we have not yet had our next appointment, I cannot share the results of these conversations. I share them with you to show one of the many ways a parent’s sexual “baggage” can interfere with the education of their child(ren). I am grateful that this mom was willing to spend an hour working through the hard stuff, namely her own issues with sex, to find a way to provide an educational and non-shaming way to talk to her son.

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