NYC-Parents in Action 2024 Benefit


On Thursday, April 18th, 2024, Benefit Committee Member Tara Johnson welcomed attendees to the annual Coffee and Conversations Benefit, “Talking with Your Kids about Sex, Porn & Relationships.” Tara reviewed the history of NYC-Parents in Action’s founding: following a 1980 surge in drug and alcohol abuse among NYC independent school teens, Lynn Manger and a group of concerned mothers took action by forming our organization. 


After introducing Benefit Co-Chairs David Caluori, Nicole Katcher, Caroline Meade and Margot Takian, Tara extended a warm welcome to guest speakers Vanessa Croll Benett and Dr. Cara Natterson, co-authors of their book, This is So Awkward and co-hosts of “The Puberty Podcast.” Tara noted their discussion would focus on Chapter 16: “Sex, Hook Up Culture and Porn” and would be moderated by Stephanie Ruhle, mother of three and moderator of MSNBC’s “The 11th Hour.” Tara added that Stephanie “isn’t afraid to ask the hard questions” and that the three women “are all really funny which makes it much easier!”


Stephanie: This is a really important topic, sex, hook up culture and porn, and there’s a good chance it’s in our kids’ lives. The hard thing for all of us is, how to tackle these topics with our kids, and at what age do we start?


Cara: This is exactly what I talk to my kids [about] over breakfast everyday. Start with a little data: the average age of porn exposure is 12. They aren’t looking for it. It’s looking for them. This conversation is for all of us. 


Vanessa: Sometimes the conversation takes longer, sometimes it’s only 10 seconds. So, you start small. Take a deep breath. You’ve got this. You are going to start with one small topic and a quiet moment –  walking the dog, lying on the couch, driving in the car. Pick a quiet time.


Stephanie: So many of us are panicked: what if we are pushing these conversations too young? We could have an innocent kid, and bringing it up could raise the topic for the first time.

The answer is it’s never too young to start the conversation and lean in. – Dr. Cara Natterson

Cara: The answer is it’s never too young to start the conversation and lean in. You will know when they’re done with the conversation. At best they tune you out – but as they get older, they leave the room! When Vanessa and I speak at school we tell parents, you have to have a conversation about sex before you have one about porn. 

Vanessa does a role play:

Vanessa: “Do you know what sex is?” They say “yeah.” V: “What is it?”  They’ll say “I don’t know. It’s people doing stuff I’m not supposed to do yet.”


Ok, we have a starting point. Next thing you say is, there are lots of ways people have sex. One way people may choose to have sex is they will put a penis inside a vagina. It should be consensual, you should have permission. Hopefully it’s fun and feels good. Your kids will look at you and say ok, thank you very much I’m out of here. That was three sentences. We are not going to have a kumbaya moment. The point is the little breadcrumbs of info that you can revisit. Some may not want to hear it now, but will come back.

The important piece of this is that you have permission to get it wrong. You can start the conversation and it can fall completely flat. – Dr. Cara Natterson

Cara: The important piece of this is that you have permission to get it wrong. You can start the conversation and it can fall completely flat. They may walk out of the room, but you will have hundreds of other opportunities to do it. The most powerful tool we can teach you is to use the language we are going to give you, such as:  “Hey, that conversation we had the other day didn’t go so well. I want to take a do-over. It didn’t go the way I envisioned it.”  Some kids will say they don’t want to do it again. You can do what Vanessa did in two sentences. “This is so important. I am going to talk to you and then we are going to try again when you are ready to engage.”  You are going to mess this up a bunch of times! 


Vanessa:  Narrate what is going on with you. “My pits are sweaty, my heart is racing. I think I may vomit a little bit. This is so important we talk about this. I am going to get over my discomfort and I am going to talk to you about this. I can set a timer for 5 minutes.” Make sure they know they are not in for a seminar. They are in for a quickie conversation.


Stephanie: Is part of our paralysis that sex today and hookup culture and porn are so much further along than in the world we grew up in? Now it feels like we are in the most hyper- sexualized environment.


Vanessa: Well, we are and we get the question all the time: “Can we curate my kids porn? Can I give them an old Playboy?”  No, that  is not a good solution. When they see porn, what they are seeing is free porn and here is what free porn looks like: it’s generally violent, aggressive and misogynistic. It looks nothing like the sex you hope your kids will one day have. It’s video after video after video. They are being inundated with this visual language. And this is before they have their first kiss. It’s writing the narrative of what they think sex looks like. We don’t want pornographers writing the narrative of their sex lives. We want THEM writing the narrative of their sex lives.

We don’t want pornographers writing the narrative of their sex lives. We want THEM writing the narrative of their sex lives. – Vanessa Croll Benett

Cara: We know there are certain elements to a healthy, loving relationship and we hope someday they will have a consensual, respectful, meaningful, connected, loving relationship with someone. There are so many amazing building blocks we can give kids about how to create those kinds of connections in relationships before sex is even in the picture. 


Think about what you teach kids about consent in school and preschool –  we teach them that you need to ask your friend before you play with their hair, or ask permission before you take a bite of their sandwich. There are tons of tiny moments in the day where you and your kids’ teachers can help them understand what it means to be respectful and consensual in a relationship with other people. The most important thing is that we are having conversations with our kids, so if they see something or experience something, they know we can handle it and that we’re there to talk to them about what they see, hear. If we don’t talk to them about it, they don’t see us as a safe place to go.


Stephanie: Consent is such an important and hot topic. When you think back about your own sexual experiences in high school or college, consent was a sliding scale. I think it’s a little hazy now. How do you talk to your sons or daughters about this but also not put them in a panic situation, especially for sons?


Cara: You start where Vanessa started. Start practicing the non-sexual consent lesson in a more direct way. For young kids, start with teaching them not to steal a bite of sandwich without asking permission. Puberty starts younger now – at age 8 to 9 for girls on average, at 9 to 10 for boys. It takes a couple years of hormone surging before crushes form full force, and sexual desire kicks in. Kids are being raised in a society that is fear-based, with adults telling them consent is about a legal obligation, and you can get in trouble – but consent is about respecting the other person and the other person respecting you. Regardless of the gender, you both give it and receive it. Over the last decade we’ve done a good job emboldening females to get consent but we have a long way to go to embolden our males to get consent, and for females to ask, ‘Is this ok?’ It should be very bilateral. If you start the conversation with no shame or judgment, which is key, they will eventually start asking questions about ways to engage in conversation. 


Vanessa: The conversation I had with my teenage boys is that your first responsibility is that your partner has pleasure.


Stephanie:  Your number one responsibility is to please your partner? You said that to your kid? How did that go?


Vanessa: He sort of looked at me and nodded and that was it. And then he said, but how do you do that? Ok, if anyone isn’t offended, now you will be offended. This was a kid who declared he was heterosexual. This isn’t the conversation I would have if I wasn’t sure how they identified. I told him you find her clitoris. He said, how do I do that? I said, you ask her. 


Stephanie: You think that 15 year old girl knows the answer?


Vanessa: That’s a great question. But when we get back to consent he is asking about her and thinking about her. The other conversation is – this should be fun. You can talk, laugh, feel awkward, ask questions and have the conversation. They may look at you and follow none of the advice. The whole point is that they are thinking about the other person as they engage – the feelings and physicality of that.


Cara: I want to circle back to questions about what girls know and don’t know. With free porn, it doesn’t look pleasurable for the females involved. It looks painful generally. If you ask any teenagers who have seen porn (by high school graduation the data is about 95% and for 12 year olds, 50%) then what they’ve seen is not female pleasure. I think schools are doing a better job integrating female anatomy. The clitoris was never even taught as part of female reproductive anatomy because it doesn’t have a reproductive role. Its only job is to feel pleasure. Use anatomical terms so everyone can understand what you’re saying. 


Stephanie: We believe things are so far gone. But are we mistaken? I just went on a college tour and felt like every girl on campus was wearing booty shorts and a bra and that is it. Are things not so bad? Is this just the way of the world?


Cara: I think standards have changed quite dramatically with what kids wear to school.  It’s natural for adolescents to push back, to give middle fingers to standards. On the other hand, there is incredible social pressure from peers on how to act and dress. It’s amplified by technology and social media. It is never too late to reset standards and have conversations  about what is going on. Everyone in this room is thinking of what they wish they had done differently with their kid. It is never too late!


Vanessa: There is tension between the way girls dress and body confidence, and this is confusing. You don’t want to shame a kid who feels great about their body. What you are reacting to is the way the world perceives that kid and the attention that kid might get because of the way they are sharing their body. This is a hard conversation.


Stephanie: Isn’t this complicated? For a teenage girl (we assume she is heterosexual) she lives in a world with boys who like porn, who like hypersexualized images and so that girl who we might think is normally dressed is now invisible to her male counterparts because what teenage boys are looking for is a junior version of “Only fans.”


Cara: You’ve hit it on the head. If you go further down this road, we see erectile dysfunction in teenage and 20-something boys at rates that were unimaginable 20 years ago. It wasn’t a teen issue, it was an issue for 60 – 70 year old men. We owe it to our kids to have a conversation. 


Vanessa: You can find podcasts, articles, social media posts that say porn addiction can lead to less satisfaction with a partner in real life – and to erectile dysfunction. Talk to your kids about this. We see boys all the time who say nobody had that conversation with them. All of a sudden porn became a huge part of their sexual identity and they didn’t want it to be. For those raising daughters, you can say “Hey, I know you feel so much pressure to look this way or have this kind of hair, but I’m just going to tell you that you are so much more than that. You are your intelligence, your passions, your kindness. It may not feel that way now but someday you will realize that and I hope you find a partner who sees that too.” And with boys, the conversation is, “I get it, I see what’s sexy and appealing, but for the people you choose to be with, it’s about who they are and how they treat you and how they make you feel inside. You should love them.” We should be talking about love and emotions with boys, and with girls, all of the ways they’re valued in the world. Not just the way they look.

We should be talking about love and emotions with boys, and with girls, all of the ways they’re valued in the world. Not just the way they look. -Vanessa Croll Benett

Stephanie:  Are their eyes glazing over because they aren’t in a relationship town – they live in hookup culture?


Cara: Right, they live in situationship town. Do you know that word? It’s the best world. It includes everything. We did a podcast with our interns and they walked through the order of operations of relationships, which is backwards but typical for this generation. Short version is sex first and then maybe go on a date. Very interesting.  My point being, they are not going to have relationships that look familiar to us. Things evolve and change. But as Vanessa said, the need and desire for personal connection is there. I don’t care how much a kid is pushing you away, the human being is a social animal who craves and wants deep and meaningful connection. Your job is to honor that, acknowledge it and have conversations with them as many times as you can. At age 20, 25, 30 they will come back and say, thank you for laying that groundwork. They may not thank you in the moment but they will thank you later. We need to keep putting healthy conversational nutrients out there.


Stephanie: When is it a red flag that things are quiet in the house? Back in the day we were crawling out windows and back doors to sneak outside and now we have teens that aren’t leaving the house. Our kids are home on weekends. When does that get to a place where it’s scary? Maybe they are taking pics of themselves and sending them or posting them online? When do we tell them to get off the phone and find that human connection?


Cara: You’ve asked an enormous question because their devices are social for them and there is a lot of data that shows there is tremendous connection that happens on these devices. Social media is not all bad.  But like anything else, you have to do it in moderation. It will look different in every home, but we always say: if that little gut feeling tells you the door has been closed too long, and my kid is slipping away – that’s when it’s on you to ask the questions. They don’t know we are concerned or there for them unless we ask.


Stephanie: I have one more question. If they’ve self-identified as heterosexual, is that a thing? Is that what we are expecting our kids to walk out of their room and say?


Vanessa: Some kids might, but don’t make assumptions about them. You can say, “Is there anyone you’re interested in at school?” If it’s my daughter, I am not going to say, “Are there any boys you are interested in?” Maybe she doesn’t like boys. In talking to sons: “Is there anyone you’re attracted to?” It’s super easy to keep it gender neutral. They know I won’t judge them because I haven’t immediately assumed their sexuality.  It’s just being inclusive so my kids know whatever they choose, I am still an available trusted adult to talk to.  Most kids won’t walk out and declare their preferences. They don’t know who they are or what they want to be. Kids are under so much pressure these days to specialize. 

This rich, sometimes embarrassing, but always riveting discussion gave us much to think about!


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