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Sue Jaye Johnson: What we don't teach kids about sex

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As parents, it's our job to teach our kids about sex. But beyond "the talk," which covers biology and reproduction, there's so much more we can say about the human experience of being in our bodies. Introducing "The Talk 2.0," Sue Jaye Johnson shows us how we can teach our children to tune in to their sensations and provide them with the language to communicate their desires and emotions -- without shutting down or numbing out.

- Journalist, filmmaker, writer
TED Resident Sue Jaye Johnson explores the ways cultural expectations shape our public and private behavior. Full bio

I remember my aunt
brushing my hair when I was a child.
00:12
I felt this tingling in my stomach,
00:16
this swelling in my belly.
00:18
All her attention on me,
00:21
just me.
00:23
My beautiful Aunt Bea,
00:25
stroking my hair
with a fine-bristled brush.
00:27
Do you have a memory like that
that you can feel in your body right now?
00:31
Before language,
00:35
we're all sensation.
00:37
As children, that's how we learn
00:39
to differentiate ourselves
in the world -- through touch.
00:40
Everything goes in the mouth,
the hands, on the skin.
00:43
Sensation --
00:47
it is the way that we first
experience love.
00:48
It's the basis of human connection.
00:52
We want our children to grow up
to have healthy intimate relationships.
00:56
So as parents,
01:00
one of the things that we do
is we teach our children about sex.
01:01
We have books to help us,
01:04
we have sex ed at school for the basics.
01:06
There's porn to fill in the gaps --
01:08
and it will fill in the gaps.
01:11
(Laughter)
01:13
We teach our children "the talk"
about biology and mechanics,
01:14
about pregnancy and safe sex,
01:18
and that's what our kids grow up thinking
that sex is pretty much all about.
01:20
But we can do better than that.
01:24
We can teach our sons and daughters
about pleasure and desire,
01:26
about consent and boundaries,
01:31
about what it feels like
to be present in their body
01:33
and to know when they're not.
01:37
And we do that in the ways
that we model touch, play,
01:39
make eye contact --
01:43
all the ways that we engage their senses.
01:45
We can teach our children
not just about sex,
01:48
but about sensuality.
01:50
This is the kind of talk
that I needed as a girl.
01:54
I was extremely sensitive,
01:56
but by the time I was an adolescent,
01:58
I had numbed out.
02:00
The shame of boys mocking my changing body
02:02
and then girls exiling me for,
02:04
ironically, my interest in boys,
02:06
it was so much.
02:09
I didn't have any language
for what I was experiencing;
02:13
I didn't know it was going to pass.
02:15
So I did the best thing
I could at the time
02:17
and I checked out.
02:20
And you can't isolate
just the difficult feelings,
02:22
so I lost access to the joy,
the pleasure, the play,
02:24
and I spent decades like that,
02:27
with this his low-grade depression,
02:28
thinking that this is
what it meant to be a grown-up.
02:30
For the past year,
02:35
I've been interviewing men and women
about their relationship to sex
02:36
and I've heard my story again and again.
02:39
Girls who were told
they were too sensitive, too much.
02:41
Boys who were taught to man up --
02:44
"don't be so emotional."
02:46
I learned I was not alone in checking out.
02:48
It was my daughter who reminded me
of how much I used to feel.
02:54
We were at the beach.
03:00
It was this rare day.
03:01
I turned off my cell phone,
03:03
put in the calendar,
"Day at the beach with the girls."
03:05
I laid our towels down
just out of reach of the surf
03:08
and fell asleep.
03:12
And when I woke up,
03:14
I saw my daughter
drizzling sand on her arm like this,
03:15
and I could feel that light tickle
of sand on her skin
03:21
and I remembered my aunt brushing my hair.
03:27
So I curled up next to her
03:31
and I drizzled sand on her other arm
and then her legs.
03:32
And then I said,
"Hey, you want me to bury you?"
03:37
And her eyes got really big
and she was like, "Yeah!"
03:41
So we dug a hole
03:43
and I covered her in sand and shells
03:45
and drew this little mermaid tail.
03:46
And then I took her home
and lathered her up in the shower
03:49
and massaged her scalp
03:52
and I dried her off in a towel.
03:53
And I thought,
03:55
"Ah. How many times had I done that --
03:57
bathed her and dried her off --
03:59
but had I ever stopped and paid attention
04:01
to the sensations
that I was creating for her?"
04:03
I'd been treating her
like she was on some assembly line
04:07
of children needing to be fed
and put to bed.
04:10
And I realized
04:13
that when I dry my daughter off
in a towel tenderly the way a lover would,
04:14
I'm teaching her
to expect that kind of touch.
04:19
I'm teaching her in that moment
about intimacy.
04:24
About how to love her body
and respect her body.
04:27
I realized there are parts of the talk
that can't be conveyed in words.
04:31
In her book, "Girls and Sex,"
04:37
writer Peggy Orenstein finds
04:38
that young women are focusing
on their partner's pleasure,
04:41
not their own.
04:44
This is something I'm going to talk about
with my girls when they're older,
04:47
but for now, I look for ways to help them
identify what gives them pleasure
04:50
and to practice articulating that.
04:54
"Rub my back," my daughter says
when I tuck her in.
04:58
And I say, "OK, how do you want me
to rub your back?"
05:01
"I don't know," she says.
05:05
So I pause, waiting for her directions.
05:07
Finally she says,
"OK, up and to the right,
05:10
like you're tickling me."
05:12
I run my fingertips up her spine.
05:14
"What else?" I ask.
05:16
"Over to the left, a little harder now."
05:18
We need to teach our children
how to articulate their sensations
05:21
so they're familiar with them.
05:25
I look for ways to play games
with my girls at home to do this.
05:27
I scratch my fingernails
on my daughter's arm and say,
05:30
"Give me one word to describe this."
05:33
"Violent," she says.
05:35
I embrace her, hold her tight.
05:38
"Protected," she tells me.
05:40
I find opportunities
to tell them how I'm feeling,
05:43
what I'm experiencing,
05:46
so we have common language.
05:47
Like right now,
05:48
this tingling in my scalp down my spine
means I'm nervous and I'm excited.
05:50
You are likely experiencing sensations
in response to me.
05:55
The language I'm using,
05:59
the ideas I'm sharing.
06:01
And our tendency
is to judge these reactions
06:03
and sort them into a hierarchy:
06:06
better or worse,
06:08
and then seek or avoid them.
06:09
And that's because we live
in this binary culture
06:12
and we're taught from a very young age
to sort the world into good and bad.
06:14
"Did you like that book?"
06:19
"Did you have a good day?"
06:21
How about, "What did you
notice about that story?"
06:23
"Tell me a moment about your day.
06:26
What did you learn?"
06:28
Let's teach our children to stay open
and curious about their experiences,
06:30
like a traveler in a foreign land.
06:34
And that way they can stay with sensation
without checking out --
06:38
even the heightened
and challenging ones --
06:42
the way I did,
06:44
the way so many of us have.
06:45
This sense education,
06:47
this is education I want for my daughters.
06:49
Sense education is what I needed as girl.
06:51
It's what I hope for all of our children.
06:55
This awareness of sensation,
06:58
it's where we began as children.
07:00
It's what we can learn from our children
07:02
and it's what we can
in turn remind our children
07:05
as they come of age.
07:08
Thank you.
07:12
(Applause)
07:13

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About the speaker:

Sue Jaye Johnson - Journalist, filmmaker, writer
TED Resident Sue Jaye Johnson explores the ways cultural expectations shape our public and private behavior.

Why you should listen

Working across mediums, from radio, film, print and interactive media, Sue Jaye Johnson has investigated the US criminal justice system, women in sports, the legacy of apartheid and girls in South Africa. As a TED Resident, she is examining our current relationship with pleasure and sex through intimate interviews with people from all walks of life asking what they believe about sex and why. She is working on a book about rethinking how we talk about sexuality and sensuality fostered by this series of interviews.

Jaye is a two-time Peabody-winner and recipient of a Creative Capital award for her pioneering interactive documentary about US prisons. Her first feature film, T-Rex (PBS, Netflix) followed 17-year-old boxer Claressa Shields from Flint, Michigan to the gold medal at the London Olympics. Her work has been broadcast on PBS, NPR, WNY and published in the New York Times and The Washington Post
She studied visual arts at Harvard University and interactive telecommunications at New York University. She lives in New York City with radio producer and frequent collaborator Joe Richman and their two daughters.

More profile about the speaker
Sue Jaye Johnson | Speaker | TED.com