Children and Adult Sexuality in an Activist Context

When sex positivity comes up, I think one argument that is often made by those who don’t want a culture where sex is positive, natural, okay, and moral is the “what about the children?” argument.  I’ve been thinking about that argument for the past few days and trying to understand its purpose.  I came up with three reasons that you might make that argument, after the hemming and the hawing and the “well talking about sex around children is just wrong” response.

First, there’s the argument that talking openly about sexuality and allowing children to be exposed to sex will bring adults and children too close sexually, running a risk of higher rates of child molestation and abuse.  Second, there’s the argument that children might start having sex with each other too early, leading to unintended consequences like pregnancy, STIs, rape, and emotional trauma.  And third is an argument that children should be allowed to grow up in a sex-free, child-centered, “family friendly” safe space.

I’d like to address each of these arguments in turn, because I think that all of these things make sense (discouraging child abuse, avoiding unintended consequences of sex, encouraging safe spaces), and I think that all of these things are best served by a sex positive society and sex positive activism.

  1. The child abuse argument.  I don’t think that being open and honest about sex encourages child abuse.  In fact, I think it does the opposite.  When kids grow up in secretive environments where sex is something shameful that you Don’t Talk About, it’s hard for a kid to know what to do when abuse occurs.  Education can’t prevent abuse entirely, but it can arm kids with some strategies that will help, including a sense of bodily autonomy, knowledge about what sex is and why sexual touch between kids and adults is not okay, and the understanding that it’s okay for something to feel good even if you really don’t want it–that’s natural, and no still means no.  A sex positive culture also can be helpful in situations where a family uses the silence and shame around sex to molest children without anyone finding out (because the family, after all, is supposed to teach the kids about sex, and no one else has the right to interfere) and in situations where one family member being unable to educate a child because of hir own discomfort and shame surrounding sex perpetuates abuse by another family member or adult.  The more sources of information, the better, I think.
  2. The unintended consequences argument.  Kind of like making abortion illegal doesn’t prevent abortions, not talking to kids about sex doesn’t mean they don’t have any.  It does mean, however, that kids go into sex blind–not having factual information about contraception, not feeling positive about their bodies, not knowing how to communicate or consent, and getting their information about sex from sexist, homophobic, racist media sources and textbooks.  It’s important to teach kids early on that sex is okay and natural, that sexual desires will come up, and that it’s important to learn yourself and your body so that you can authentically say not just “yes” and “no” but when, where, how much, with whom, etc.  When we’re so freaked out about kids having sex, we encourage it to happen quietly, in unsafe places, without support.
  3. The safe spaces argument.  I strongly believe that children should have safe spaces to exercise autonomy, learn, and grow.  This is why I don’t think that adults should actually engage in sex in the presence of children.  Children and adults all have a right not to see things that they don’t want to see–of course, this can’t always be avoided, but when it comes to sex, I do think there should be boundaries.  (I also think there should be boundaries for other things, like violence, by the way.)  But I don’t think that talking about sex destroys a safe space.  Kids will ignore things that they don’t care about and things that don’t interest them.  The same goes for nudity–if we behaved sanely about things like half-dressed men in leather at Pride parades, for example, then kids wouldn’t blink an eye.  Kids would just think that the guys were dressed kind of funny.  It’s because adults freak out, moralize, and present the image as a shameful, sexual, taboo thing that kids feel embarrassed when comforted with such an image.  The same is true of what parents do in the bedroom.  It’s just not relevant to children.  People shouldn’t lose their kids because they’re out among adults as kinky, for example.  There’s simply no connection.

This post was originally published on the blog Sex Positive Activism, which has now merged to become the sex & relationships section of Queer & Now.


  1. You’ve succinctly covered several things in this post that I’ve been dancing around for years but haven’t actual said. As responsible adults, we drive in front of our children, we handle money in front of them, we vote, shop, and some of us even drink and/or smoke. We live our lives and let our children watch. We explain what we’re doing and expect that they can understand that there are some things they’re just not old enough for… yet. Why do we (as a culture) treat sex differently?

    Looking forward to sharing this post. Thank you for writing it.

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