Tell Me About It

My husband refuses to talk to our teenage son about sex

Tell me about it: I feel my son would benefit from male guidance around issues such as pornography but his father has opted out

PROBLEM: I am mother to three teenagers – two daughters, aged 19 and 15, and a son, aged 17. I have had discussions over the years with each child about sex, according to their age and maturity.

Naturally, the teenagers can sometimes squirm with embarrassment and want to retain a zone of privacy about some aspects of their personal lives. However, I aim to create a zone of trust within my relationships with each of the children where we can bring up such topics, especially if something is worrying them. All of the children would be aware of issues such as consent, the me-too movement and pornography – we would discuss these topics, even if in the abstract, quite regularly.

I am seeking your advice as my husband has not engaged in any discussion with our children regarding these topics. In particular, I have asked my husband over the years to chat with our son about the changes during puberty, how he might conduct himself within relationships, his values, expectations, pornography etc. My husband disagrees with this approach and said our son should just know right from wrong. No direct or ongoing conversations around these issues has really ever taken place.

I appreciate that my husband did not experience chats with his dad when he was growing up and I think he is not comfortable with it. As a woman and mother, I do not want to be the only parent initiating conversations with our son and feel strongly that the input of a man and father was important.

I feel strongly that our son requires support and guidance. I also feel that the relationship between my son and my husband would be deepened and enriched by such discussions.

Recently, an incident came to light with our son where the issues of consent, alcohol and contraception required to be discussed. I feel strongly that we as parents have a responsibility to offer guidance and support to our son.

My husband has opted out of any such discussions.

ADVICE: The perfect situation would be that both parents are equally comfortable in talking about sex and related issues with their children, but this is rarely the case and in your situation your children have benefited from one parent who is open and able to have the awkward conversations. The issue seems to be that you are disappointed in your husband and he is defensive or unable to engage with sensitive conversations with his son. If you really want him to learn how to engage in difficult conversations, you need to help and guide him. Do you and he talk about sex as a couple?

It might help your husband if he could be drawn into discussion about his own sexual awakening and education

This might be a starting point and it has the added bonus of increasing intimacy between you. It might be an idea to have some reading material that you could discuss: Alain De Botton’s How to Think More about Sex is a little book that is both wise and humorous and it might allow you to debate and discuss intimacy at a couple level.

It might also help your husband if he could be drawn into discussion about his own sexual awakening and education – he could connect with his own needs from that time and it might be of benefit to him. A method of doing this is to draw a ‘sexual messages lifeline’ and it would help if you also did yours. Simply put, you draw a line indicating from birth to your current age and represent on this all the messages you received, verbal and non-verbal, about your sexuality.

For example, at puberty you might have a message that says “hidden”, “don’t speak”, “dirty” etc. Then you and your husband could take a section of one of your lifelines to discuss at regular intervals. The aim is to understand how you arrived at this point with the views and baggage that all of us have. With practice, your husband might find that he can extend these conversations to include his son or indeed, his daughters.

Older teens are generally very wise about what younger teens need and in this way the conversation starts

At 17, it is likely that your son has already had plenty of engagement with the world of pornography and has thought about and reflected on his own sexuality quite a lot. What he needs from his dad may be relationship advice or guidance and this may be a good starting point for their conversation. These conversations could begin over dinner with you bringing up a general discussion about what your men think young men (early teens) need in terms of knowledge of relationships and sexuality.

Older teens are generally very wise about what younger teens need and in this way the conversation starts. You might need to pre-warn the girls not to dominate this conversation as they are likely to have a lot to say on this matter.

Your current attitude of disappointment in your husband might need addressing as this is likely to make him withdraw even further. Encourage, believe in and draw out his capacity to talk about intimacy and relationships in any situation and he will slowly expand his repertoire with your encouragement.