Scarleteen Confidential: Ten Questions with Dr. Karen Rayne about Parenting, Sex, and Communication

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You've probably seen all kinds of adults⁠ writing about teens and sex⁠ . Some of that writing is well-researched and thoughtful. Some -- most, sadly -- is hysterical and full of fearmongering and shoddy (or no) research. I was lucky enough to interview an author who belongs solidly in the first category.

Dr Karen Rayne has spent the past ten years actively and thoughtfully supporting parents and teens in their conversations about sex and sexuality, and she's released a new book called Breaking the Hush Factor: Ten Tips for Talking to Teenagers about Sex, which we think is accessible, compassionate, and incredibly useful. Keeping with the top ten theme, I asked Dr. Rayne about how the book came to be and what she hopes it will do for adults and teens alike.

1) To start out with, can you tell us who the book is aimed at and what, ideally, you hope people will use it for?

Breaking the Hush Factor is written with parents of teenagers in mind, although the ultimate goal is that it provides useful insight and guidance for all adults who talk with yoiung people about sex and sexuality. My hope is that the book will invite adults into a thoughtful, introspective space where they are able to consider how they approach conversations about sexuality with teenagers. This particular book is less what to say about sexuality and more how to talk about sexuality.

2) What was the catalyst for you deciding to write this book?

This is a book I’ve always wanted to write. I’ve been writing it, in one way or another, since I first started working with parents. Parents have so many questions about those conversations – and not just about the content, but about the form. There are plenty of general parenting books about sexuality and plenty of books about sexual⁠ content. What I felt was lacking, both in the mainstream cultural conversation and in the literature, was guidance for parents about the actual conversation itself. 

3) You mention in the book that the goal of teen sex education (and conversations about dating, relationships, and sex) is to help form physically and emotionally healthy adult sexuality. Could you describe what that type of sexuality looks like?

It is joyful! It is pleasurable! It is loving! It is attentive to physical and emotional boundaries! The details of healthy adult sexuality vary widely – but the core feeling of respect and happiness that come from having an elemental part of being human fulfilled – that is what we need to support teenagers in finding.

4) Your book is built around ten tips for talking to teens about sex. I’ve included that list at the end of the interview, but can you describe how you came to settle upon those ten points as the ones you wanted to use?

Well, everyone loves lists of ten. That seems to sit deep within the human psyche. Building from there, I listened to a lot of parents and youth talk about where they felt like things went wrong in their family communication⁠ about sexuality and where they felt like things went right. I sifted through stories and stories and stories looking for the threads of what hurt and what helped. I turned these into actionable steps that parents can use to ease the tension.

5) Something both Heather and I find really wonderful about the book is the fact that it manages to be equally empathetic to both teenagers and adults. What are the factors that you feel help you balance those two perspectives as an author and educator?

Wow, that’s a great question! I began my work in sexuality education out of my deep empathy for teenagers. In many ways, my entire career has been mobilized by my anger at the larger culture for how it treats teenagers, so that part came easy. Working with parents seemed a logical professional trajectory – they are often complicit in the cultural silencing of adolescents. When I started working with parents, and realized how tied up in knots they were, I saw a new side to the parent/child communication dynamic. 

When parents are feeling really open in dialogue with me, raw fear often rolls off of them. They are afraid of themselves, their teenagers, strangers, friends, the culture at large, everything! It’s hard not to be compassionate when someone is experiencing so much internal turmoil. Parents and teenagers call forth very different kinds of compassion in me – but they are both deeply rooted in the lived experiences of intergenerational strife. Easing that flash point, when I’m able to help, is one of my larger goals in life.

6) As you mentioned, it’s not uncommon for parents and other guardians to feel a lot of fear when it comes to teens, sex, and what they (the adults) view as possible negative outcomes. What advice do you have for adults to help manage those fears?

Breathe. A lot. All of the time, if possible. Sometimes it’s the best thing that parents can do when they feel fear starting to take over: take all of their attention and put it into breath until they have regained some control. 

Don’t do anything. Parents sometimes feel the need to react quickly – but the reality is that the overwhelming majority of the time immediate action isn’t called for and will likely only make things worse.

Don’t believe anything the media says about “kids these days.” It’s all a load of horse crap. Sure, maybe one or two teenagers did this thing that the media is screaming about, but with almost 42 million teenagers in the United States, one or two is not worth your emotional time and energy.

Hang out with your teenager. Spend time doing the things they like to do. You’ll get to know them that way, which is so important to your relationship⁠ . 

Know that things will go wrong sometimes. Life is like that. If you and your teenager have a strong relationship, you’ll be able to roll with the hard times together.

Keep breathing.

7) One of your tips is the “one question rule.” Can you explain why you advocate for that rule, and how an adult can best use their one question?

This is the rule that people are often the most curious about. My recommendation to ask only one question has a couple of reasons behind it. It forces parents to consider what it is that they really want to know about a conversational topic, an event, a choice, etc. It invites parents into curiosity about their teen’s experience. It keeps parents away from a barrage of questions. It’s easy, when you’re worried or upset, to ask all of the questions that are running around inside your brain at once. But it’s really, really hard to answer all of those questions at once. Being on the receiving end of the barrage of questions shuts teenagers (and people of all ages!) down. 

My hope is that when parents feel that barrage burning inside them, they’ll be able to grasp on to the one-question-rule and hold on there, keeping the barrage to themselves. That will give their teenager a chance to consider what they want to share and then share it on their own terms. 

Using the one-question-rule may mean that there’s more silence during the conversation, while both parents and teens are thinking. Silence is not a bad thing in conversation. It lends itself towards building trust and communication. Building a creatively-formed, well-targeted question can be difficult, and the rule is intentionally designed as such. I am inviting parents to consider what it is that they really want to know and how to best ask about that. When they stop and consider, what are they actually curious about regarding their teenager and their teenager’s experience?

8) A point I appreciated you making was the need for adults to address pleasure when they talk to teens about sex. Why, to you, is that an important topic to cover?

Well, bluntly, sex spans the potential experience realm from the most pleasurable to the most painful. Teenagers know that. If you only talk with them about one end of that spectrum – or even if you ignore the majority middle-ground – you’ll lose them. Most teenagers have good bull-shit-o-meters around adults and will (rightfully!) check out when they sense someone isn’t giving them the full story. Focusing only on the negative parts of sexuality calls into question everything you say about it.

On a deeper note, teenagers NEED people to talk with about how to negotiate the pleasurable feelings that sex can bring. That is, OF COURSE, part of the decision-making process. AS IT SHOULD BE! If we ignore pleasure, teenagers miss out on critical information like: “If it doesn’t feel good, stop and reassess.” 

9) Do you have any resources (books, websites, etc) that you think adults and teens could benefit from?

Heather’s book, S.E.X., and Scarleteen online are always top on my list. I also continue to be in love with Danah Boyd’s book It’s Complicated (for adults, generally, about how teenagers use digital media) and Sam Killermann’s book A Guide to Gender (for anyone, about gender identity⁠ ). There was a really great National Geographic article a few years back that I really appreciated called Beautiful Teenage Brains. And, I guess obviously, my book! I have more recommendations on pretty much any topic you’re interested in – too many to list here, really. People are welcome to contact me if they’re looking for something specific.

10) Any topics you’d like to address that I haven’t hit on? Closing thoughts? 

Thank you for the work you do, Sam! I’m thrilled that Scarleteen is reaching out to parents and I’ve already started recommending you as a resource. The more supportive dialogue out there in the world the better.

You can check out Dr Rayne's top ten tips below, and get even more good stuff by getting your copy of Breaking the Hush Factor today!

Top Ten Tips for Talking to Teenagers about Sex 

1. Know yourself.
2. Remember that it’s not about you.
3. Stop talking!
4. Start listening!
5. You only get one question.
6. Do something else.
7. About pleasure and pain.
8. Be cool like a cucumber.
9. Bring it on!
10. Never surrender.

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  • Heather Corinna

Quite a few young people have come to us with this scenario: a parent has told their child that they are open to talking about contraception. But when the young people bring this up with us, they sometimes say that even though that invitation was extended, they don't feel comfortable picking it up and asking for that help, or can't figure out how.

I absolutely see what I am sure are usually the best of intentions with this invitation. But I'd like to suggest an alternative that will probably work better.