How to talk to your kids about sex

Kelly Yang says as society becomes more liberal, there's no escaping the inevitable talk with our children about sex. So be prepared

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 March, 2013, 2:51am

I recently joined a good friend and her 18-year-old son for Sunday brunch. In the middle of the meal, her son began telling us about a girl he'd met. "We're sleeping together," he announced. We all stopped eating. His mother wriggled uncomfortably in her seat. The chopsticks fell out of my hand.

His mother leaned forward and cleared her throat. I prepared myself for a lecture on the dangers of premarital sex or the importance of getting to know someone first. Instead, she said: "You must always remember to use your own condom. Don't use hers." As she dug into another spicy tuna roll, she asked him how the sex was. It was OK, he said; could be better.

There I was, about to fall off my chair. My friend went on to remind her son to call the girl the next day or at least text, that he can have sex with girls but must not get them pregnant, and that, most importantly, no matter what, he should always pay for dinner.

"Look," my friend whispered into my ear, "kids are going to have sex, whether we like it or not. If you want to know what's really going on in their lives, you can't judge them."

As I watched my friend and her son happily walk out of the restaurant arm in arm, I didn't know whether to be horrified or impressed. Is this what I have to look forward to with my own children in 15 years?

These days, sex is everywhere. It's unavoidable. When Abercrombie & Fitch opened its flagship store in Hong Kong, thousands flocked to see the buff, nearly naked models grinding away to the store's techno music. According to a 2011 study, 40 per cent of Hong Kong women have admitted to having premarital sex. In mainland China, the latest figure is 70 per cent and it's about 90 per cent in the US .

So the fact that most college students in the US, like my friend's son, have had sex is not surprising. What's surprising is how open they are about it. When I was growing up, talking to your parents about your sex life was simply mortifying.

But why not talk about it, my friend would counter? Maybe if they talk about it, kids won't want to learn about sex from Fifty Shades of Grey. Perhaps if they can have frank, open discussions with their parents about sex, they won't have misconstrued notions of sex. They'll become more confident, well-adjusted members of society. They won't put themselves through hymen reconstructive surgery, which reportedly tripled before the Lunar New Year in Dongguan , because so many Chinese men still prize virginity in a bride.

Ultimately, when it comes to talking about the birds and the bees, we must all find our own way. How and when we talk to our children about sex will have a huge impact on their lives. Personally, I don't know if I'll follow my friend's exact footsteps.

I also know that this is the 21st century, not the Victorian era. In this highly technological day and age, simply reusing my parent's strategy, which consisted of a stern "Don't do it" and took all of two minutes, may not work.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.