What Parents Can Learn From Teen Vogue's Sex Advice Controversy

Be a trusted source, but not the only source.
<p>Your kid's metaphorical backpack should be full of trusted sources. </p>

Your kid's metaphorical backpack should be full of trusted sources.

This post is not about anal sex. It’s not about any sex position, or any position about sex. It’s not about what’s “appropriate” or “inappropriate” content for teen magazines. It’s not about being sex positive, or sex negative, nor is it about being for or against sex education.

It’s about sources.

On July 7, Teen Vogue published “Anal Sex: What You Need to Know.” Gigi Engle opens the piece with direct and practical advice: “When it comes to your body, it’s important that you have the facts. Being in the dark is not doing your sexual health or self-understanding any favors.”

That’s great advice, not just for teens considering a particular sex act but for all people approaching any new topic.

There are some wildly incorrect assumptions about the article flying around, so here’s a quick run-down. Engle devotes the first seven paragraphs just talking about sex education more broadly: why Googling for sex advice may lead you astray, how not all types of sex feel right to everyone, how it’s helpful for everyone to be more informed. But there’s no pressure to have anal sex or even read about it. Engle advises readers to “click out” if they aren’t comfortable. The rest of the article addresses why anal may feel good, why it might not, how to approach a partner about it, and how to pace yourself. A reasonable and respectful primer for curious readers.

Huge props to Teen Vogue here, and to their last year of work more generally. They truly are, as I’ve referred to them elsewhere, “our surprising moral compass during America’s aggressively orange spectacles.

Its readers want well-researched, politically engaged content, and it is delivering. So huge props also go to those readers, who are far more sophisticated than my teenage, Cosmo-reading self.

What’s much more interesting than the article is the responses it has drawn from the mommy blogs. Predictably, there are conservative parents who think it’s never appropriate to talk about sex to teenagers. Perhaps as predictably, there are liberal voices angry at the article for defining women’s sexual experiences in relation to men. There’s a range of positions in between, from disagreement about age-appropriate conversations about sex, to informing parents what their kids might be reading.

I would link these responses for you, but I can’t, because many of these bloggers have found their social media accounts de-activated for sharing “child pornography.”



I’ll trust readers to trust my direction and not report me here, because I want to get to the most baffling response the article has received: that kids shouldn’t be reading about sex in Teen Vogue because their parents should be the ones to teach them.

That is insane.

To see this insanity, we have to put a plug in the whole anal sex question ― the whole of sex ed, even ― and think about our children’s education.

You find your kid has been watching “Sesame Street” and now knows how to count to 10. Or he read a cookbook and now understands how to make pesto. Are you enraged at The Count or Jamie Oliver for teaching your child these things? Are you angry you didn’t get to teach your kid these things yourself?

I like math. I love pesto. But I lose nothing when my son learns about these things from other sources. I can build on what he’s learned, teaching him “11” or swapping his pine nuts for pistachios.

These examples are intentionally simple. There aren’t weighty moral or ethical debates about numbers or basil. But I would argue that, as our children’s learning opportunities get more complex, it’s even more important for them to seek more sources of knowledge.

Let’s zoom way past counting and cooking, past early sex ed, and into the decisions we make as parents, like choosing a pediatrician. You may have sought your parents’ advice in making that decision, but you probably also used a variety of additional sources. You may have read a parenting book with questionnaires for your top choices. You may have read patient reviews, or sought opinions from trusted friends with older kids. You may have used information from your insurance company or medical provider. And all of that research was just for choosing a doctor. If your child had an illness, you probably sought out even more sources of information.

Your own decisions are improved by seeking information from others. So why would you want to be your kid’s only source of information about any topic?

Maybe my open attitude toward information-searching will change as my own child turns from 3 to 13. But I like that he learns from more sources than me. I like that he notices contradictory beliefs (his dad believes steak to be delicious, while I believe it to be disgusting). I like that he has to grapple with contradictory information and sort things out for himself.

The Teen Vogue controversy has got me thinking I need to focus even more on not being the only data source around, so that when we move on from counting and chopping, I will be prepared to be just one more (hopefully trusted) source among many.

This post originally appeared at snackdinner, where we believe that better researchers make better parents. Join us on Facebook and Intagram for more research tips and parenting advice.