I have a 12 year old boy who has recently started to masturbate. We have a good relationship, but we haven’t yet talked about sex or sexuality. I want to make sure that he knows he can always talk to his parents about this and think it’s time to talk about safer sex with him. How can I talk to him about sex without embarrassing him or making him feel ashamed about his body and sex?

co-authored by Ashish Darji

Masturbation in adolescence is a natural exploration of one’s sexuality. It is common to see young adolescents start exploring masturbation around the age of 12 in Western society (and even earlier in other cultures). It seems that you are aware that your child must feel comfortable enough with his parents to talk to you about the sexually related experiences that he’s going through. An important part of parenting is to help guide your children as they grow so that they can make the decisions that are right for them. Open, clear, and honest communication between the child and parents is something that can help facilitate healthier decision making as the child gets older.

A child’s mind is very perceptive and receptive to minute emotions that parents elicit. Adults often don’t realize the influence they have over adolescents; they should use their power for positive youth development.[1] Feelings of shame and guilt can really stunt the sexual growth of adolescents.[2] A child’s home should be a space for open communication pertaining to the subject of sexuality. The most important thing that you can do is to meet your son at his level and view the world from his perspective. Be compassionate in that regard.

Open communication is central to healthy sexual development. No topic should be ‘off limits’ to talk about at home. As a parent, it’s important to communicate to your son by not simply making empty promises about open communication or saying things like “it’s okay to talk about anything” without following through. There is a vast and noticeable difference between saying you are allowed to talk about anything and actual honest and authentic communication, both verbal and non-verbal.

A child’s sexual development is proportional to that of his parents.[3] That is where he will learn the majority of decision making when it comes to sexuality. Your son may need you to approach him at his level of communication. Use what you know from your own experience and learning and be compassionate in answering his questions and supporting his sexual curiosity, to the point where his sexuality makes sense and fits in with his world view.

Discovering your sexuality as an adolescent can be a wonderful journey and open communication can help facilitate that. As a parent, you can help mitigate sexual risks through open communication about sexuality.[4] Open communication will do more than help your son navigate his own sexuality, it will also allow him to be more aware of the risks he may face in the future, such as unplanned pregnancies and contracting sexually transmitted infections. According to a study on parental monitoring and communication, constructive parental monitoring and effective parent-youth communication can play an important role in preventing risky behaviour during early to middle adolescence.[5] In the Netherlands, the societal and cultural narratives around adolescent sexuality are liberal and open minded. As a result, Dutch youth enjoy the benefit of having the fewest number of unplanned pregnancies and lowest rates of sexual infections.

Open communication about sexuality, social anxiety, intimacy, and sexual satisfaction are very closely linked.[6] When masturbation is considered by both the child and parents to be a healthy response to sexual development, it will benefit the child in many ways. Your son will have lower levels of social anxiety, greater intimacy and sexual satisfaction in the future if he is able to adopt and embody an honest and authentic dialogue about his sexuality.

Masturbation in adolescence is a complicated subject to navigate and must be approached with care as a parent. As a parent, you should first be aware of the intricacies that come with masturbation and how it affects the person both physically and psychologically. To allow your son to expand his sexual awareness properly, examine your parenting style so as to not impose any feelings of guilt or shame around sexual expression. Authentic and open communication between you and your child is the most important facet that will help your son navigate his way through any questions that he may have. It’s in your interest to inform him when he is seeking that knowledge.

[1] Clary, E. Gil, Rhodes, Jean E. (2006). Mobilizing Adults for Positive Youth Development: Strategies for Closing the Gap between Beliefs and Behaviors. The Search Institute.

[2] Aneja, J., Grover, S., Avasthi, A., Mahajan, S., Pokhrel, P., & Triveni, D. (2015). Can Masturbatory Guilt Lead to Severe Psychopathology: A Case Series.Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 37(1), 81–86. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.150848

[3] Wang, B., Stanton, B., Li, X., Cottrell, L., Deveaux, L., & Kaljee, L. (2013). The influence of parental monitoring and parent–adolescent communication on bahamian adolescent risk involvement: A three-year longitudinal examination. Social Science & Medicine, 97(Complete), 161-169. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.08.013

[4] Looze, M., Constantine, A. N., Jerman, P., Vermeulen-Smit, E., Bogt, T., Parent–Adolescent sexual communication and its association with adolescent sexual behaviors: A nationally representative analysis in the Netherlands – Routledge. doi:- 10.1080/00224499.2013.858307

[5] Wang, B., Stanton, B., Li, X., Cottrell, L., Deveaux, L., & Kaljee, L. (2013). The influence of parental monitoring and parent–adolescent communication on bahamian adolescent risk involvement: A three-year longitudinal examination. Social Science & Medicine, 97(Complete), 161-169. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.08.013

[6] Montesi, J., Conner, B., Gordon, E., Fauber, R., Kim, K., & Heimberg, R. (2013). On the relationship among social anxiety, intimacy, sexual communication, and sexual satisfaction in young couples. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(1), 81-91. doi:10.1007/s10508-012-9929-3


Back to School on Language: Making Sex Ed More Inclusive

It’s that time of year again and lots of high school students across Canada have headed back with big changes this year! Ontario has introduced a new sex ed curriculum that includes gender and sexuality from elementary school on; Quebec is piloting its new sex ed program; and the Vancouver school board is continuing to implement a very progressive trans inclusion policy. Championed together with huge victories for gay marriage in the US and giant media coverage of trans issues across Canada, this means that youth are bringing new questions to the table. With so many efforts going into making spaces as safe as possible for diverse groups of students and the people around them, teachers, parents, and school administrators are navigating new and murky waters trying to find ways to make it work. One such technique is adapting language to make it more inclusive.

I coordinate a program called SextEd, where people in Montreal can anonymously text questions that they have about sex, gender, and relationships and a team sends back researched, non-judgmental answers within 24 hours. While this is fantastic for answering questions that young people are too afraid to ask in person, 160 characters doesn’t tell us a lot about who is texting in. Early on, we knew that we would need to check our language to make sure that we weren’t making assumptions and accidentally hurting anyone coming to us for help. After working on this new challenge over a few months, we’ve found a few solid suggestions that work well, and we’re writing here to share them and potentially gain other tips from you in the comment section below! These tips were originally made with sex ed teachers in mind, but anyone who loves talking about sexual health can use them to adapt their own language!

Focus on Body Parts, not the Gender of People who Have Them

First off, as a general practice, we try to talk about body parts and what they do rather than assuming what body parts they have and what information they would need based on their gender. For example, trans women don’t need to get PAP smears, and many men don’t have Adam’s apples. Instead of making assumptions, we talk about body parts and say “people who have [insert body part here],” which takes gender out of the equation and makes what we say into simple truths: “people who have a cervix should get regular PAP tests,” “when penises ejaculate semen, they can release millions of sperm”—easy!

Look out for Gendered Safer Sex or Contraception Messages

Some men take the pill, and there’s a lot of unnecessary gendering when it comes to talking about safer sex. In some cases, this is really easy to fix! Saying “internal condoms” rather than “female condoms” is not only trans-inclusive, it makes it easier to talk about using them for anal sex! For other contraception, sticking to phrases like “people with ovaries” or “people who ejaculate semen” can let you explain what risks are relevant and how people can reduce them—all while staying gender neutral. Talking about safer sex in a gender neutral way can help you be more specific with your content, for example, “Giving analingus” tells your audience a lot more than “giving a woman oral sex.” This lets you talk about the specific risks involved and strategies to minimize them.

Open Up Limiting Statements

Another helpful tip is to avoid making limited statements. Adding words like ‘may,’ ‘might,’ or ‘could,’ can help include needs that are often overlooked. For example, “During puberty, people may start feeling sexually attracted to others” ensures that people who are asexual are not excluded. Saying that ‘many’ or ‘some’ people have experiences helps in the same way—“Many people have penises and vaginas that look like these diagrams” can acknowledge the experiences of people who are intersex without making them the focus. Having direct conversations around intersex anatomy can run the risk of peers reacting strongly and saying hurtful things, but small changes to language are a great way to normalize the incredible diversity of bodies and experiences!

Make a Difference with Inclusive Sex Ed Language!

Changing everyday language can seem daunting to a lot of people, but ultimately, it’s worth the rewards. Sex ed classes or conversations are already tense for most kids. While many can giggle that tension away, it can make a big impact when someone feels that that the information you’re giving doesn’t apply to them or makes something that discounts a big part of their life. Not being considered “normal” can lead anyone to disengage, no matter how relevant the information. When you make small changes in how you talk about sex, people will recognize the effort you’re making and will feel safer, more welcome, and more likely to ask questions that are important to them.

Learning More

If you’re interested in finding more ways to adapt your language, there’s a lot already out there that can help! Cory Silverberg’s fantastic sex ed books for younger kids make sure that a variety of experiences are included and encourage all kids to start learning what’s important to them. Scarleteen works to make its sex ed articles inclusive too! Planned Parenthood Toronto even has a whole website dedicated to sex ed for queer and trans people, giving key information that is usually left out of sex ed. The SextEd website also has a long list of answers to sex ed questions we’ve been asked and Action Canada will be launching a third edition of Beyond the Basics next fall, a great resource for educators on sexuality and sexual health with inclusive language and activities!

Still want more?

Check out our checklist for inclusive sex ed language and these helpful infographics below! (click on the images to enlarge)



The Subtle Shift: Transforming Boys into WiseGuyz

The Calgary Sexual Health Centre (CSHC) specializes in helping young people learn about sensitive and emotional topics and more importantly, how these learnings can translate into behavioural change. Typically, education about sexual violence prevention and empowerment has been focused on women and girls, unintentionally ignoring the value of men and boys and their role in helping to create solutions. Research is now pointing to young boys as a key population for which to foster healthy, respectful and non-violent behaviours.


In 2010, the CSHC launched WiseGuyz, a school-based program created for junior high boys, who are at a critical point in their gender identity development. The program is voluntary and facilitated by male instructors, helping to create a relaxed and safe environment where the boys can examine their beliefs and assumptions about what it means to be a man in the world today.

WiseGuyz uses a progressive model, with significant attention placed on trust building. In the initial phase of the program, the focus is on creating a safe space and building rapport among participants. WiseGuyz curriculum is comprised of four step-by-step modules: 1) Human Rights; 2) Sexual Health; 3) Gender; and 4) Healthy Relationships

Masculinity and Sexuality are Intrinsically Bound

WiseGuyz encourages boys to be open, curious and not feel shame in asking questions about sex and sexual health. Ensuring boys are developing not only the knowledge about appropriate resources, but also the confidence to access them is critical to their sexual health and engagement in healthy relationships.

The research underscores the fact that masculinity and sexuality are intertwined and that sexual health programming must include education about masculine beliefs and stereotypes, and vice versa. The research explored topics like sexual relationships, safe sex, and sexual health care – and how each intersects with healthy masculinity concepts, such as confidence, self-expression and communication.

Research Findings: There was a 19% improvement in confidence in sexual relations for the participants of WiseGuyz. The increase in confidence indicates that the boys understand the importance of communication, boundary setting and discussing mutual expectations within sexual relationships.

Including sexual health within the curriculum provides students with the tools and resources required to inform and empower positive choices. By implementing this subtle, yet significant, shift in approach to educating young males about their sexual health and emotional literacy, WiseGuyz has earned a reputation for being a promising model for relationship change and a reduction in homophobia, bullying and violence.


Insight Theatre: Peer-to-peer, youth-led sex ed theatre troupe

For the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve been heading up a peer-to-peer, youth-led sex ed theatre troupe with Planned Parenthood Ottawa called Insight Theatre. Each year, we train a new group of high school youth in sexual and reproductive health, anti-oppression and performance skills. Once the youth are trained, they take the lead in creating a series of 15 or so skits on sex ed topics that they present to other youth at schools and community centres.

I’ve learned a lot in working with this project, but one of the most valuable lessons has been how youth access sexual health info and who they trust to get it right. In 2011, the Ontario Student Trustees Association reported that nearly half of all students were dissatisfied with the school-based sexual health education that they had received. The organization surveyed middle school and high school students across Ontario and found that 45% of respondents did not find their sex education classes to be useful or relevant to their own experiences. At the local level, the Ottawa Youth Sex Survey 2.0 found that 47% of participants did not feel comfortable seeking sexual health information from their teachers. But, this same group of respondents ranked schools as one of the top five locations in which they were likely to seek sexual health information.

Study after study has shown us that youth predominately get their information from peers and the internet. It is of course important to arm teachers, parents and other adults with accurate, evidence-based sexual health information, but we also need to equip youth with detailed sexual health info so that they can make the best use of this tendency toward peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing.

In my first year in this job, I started noticing how much casual, day-to-day peer education was happening between the Insight troupe members and their friends and classmates. In the bathroom at school and on a couch at a party, the troupe members were handing out free condoms, correcting misinformation and giving people info on where to go for STI testing, abortion care and affordable contraception. So we decided to formalize that part of the program. We gave the troupe members condoms to keep in their backpacks and created an information package so that they had the info they needed to refer their peers to local sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services as questions came up.

If youth are more comfortable talking to other youth about sex, then let’s train youth to talk to other youth about sex. There are lots of great sex education initiatives out there but, when it comes to really engaging youth, you have to pay attention to what they do and why. Youth trust word of mouth. They trust their friends. They trust the internet. Unless someone they trust has vouched for you, or you’ve proven upside down and sideways that you can be trusted, you’re not likely to get very far in terms of giving advice or being seen to have credible information.

Another big lesson I’ve learned in this job is that sex ed tends to go better when you indulge in a little infotainment. Over my last 15 years as an educator, I’ve noticed how much deeper arts-based educational initiatives go when it comes to youth and the ways they integrate information. Want to talk about anti-oppression? Analyze pop songs. Want to discuss consent? Show clips of TV shows. And, if you want them to listen when you talk about sex, present them with scenes that look and sound like their lives. Quote the TV shows they like, make reference to the songs they’re listening to and give them a chance to talk to their peers about what they’re thinking and feeling.