Rosie: Sex education is one of the most important empowerment tools we can give our children. When I was writing Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina, I was stunned to learn how little sex education happens within the family. Of the women that I interviewed, only 6% had parents who talked to them about sex in any way that constituted an attempt at sex education. One study showed that when Latina mothers discussed sexuality and their personal beliefs and values regarding sexuality with their mid-adolescent teens, their children were more likely, a year later, to report abstaining from or delaying initiation of sex. A bonus? They also reported having better relationships with their mothers. We all know that this fact would be true for a mother of any ethnicity.
Amy: I do not have children of my own. . . I think that it is time to talk with children about sex when they are exposed to things with sexual content that they may not understand. This might be a Disney movie or it might be neighborhood kids or seeing pornography. I think the most important thing is to start the discussion as soon as something happens to make the act of talking comfortable…if you talk about the “little” things it will set the stage to talk about more difficult things later.
Donna: Wow… this one is tough and I have nieces and nephews but no kids of my own so I am not really faced with this on a day in/day out basis. But I have worked closely with work with several girls organizations over the past five years so I DO know that younger and younger, sex is a topic. So the ‘when’ to me, would be to address the issue when the child starts asking about it—I think this would vary from child to child.
Crystal: As soon as responsibly possible. I don’t have children but I believe education and open communication is the key. I try to actively listen to the young people who are in my life. If they need information or guidance, I do what I offer what I can, with their parents’ permission, of course.
Rosie: Ultimately, we put our children, perhaps especially our daughters, in vulnerable positions if we do not empower them with sex education. Uneducated, they can be swayed by someone else’s reasoning—someone who may not have accurate information or who may not have their best interest in mind. Studies and statistics showing what happens when a child is not educated about sex are heartbreaking and shameful. Shameful because we so often preach the importance of education in changing a life and then deny them this important information that one pregnancy or one experience with an HIV+ partner has the power to negate any other “book” learning they have received. We marginalize young people when we deny them information, making them more vulnerable to the pleas of adolescent partners who pretend to know more about sex and its implications than they really do. Tell our children nothing about their bodies, and they become more susceptible to the whims of others, a tendency that’s difficult to escape once it’s an ingrained behavior.
Amy: My parents didn’t talk to me at all. They gave me a set of books to read. I felt shameful while reading them, like it was something dirty or not ok to actually talk about. To this day I have never talked to my mother about sex in any meaningful or enjoyable way. I am sure this reflects her discomfort with her own sexuality and the books she provided me were miles ahead of her own sexual education. So hats off to my parents for providing the information but we can do better. Now, I regularly talk with my clients about sex and hope that if I am ever blessed with children I will be able to talk with them too.
Jenee: I honestly don’t remember my parents ever talking to me about sex. I also don’t remember ever wanting them too, but I also had an older sister I went to with all my questions. I don’t feel like this was the best route though. I think it’s important to start off slow but to give them the necessary information before they find themselves in sexual situations. The reality is that young girls have a maturing body and it feels good to kiss…let them know its ok to kiss but you need a different maturity level and emotional level for sex.
Donna: As far as the ‘how’, honesty is going to be the best thing to go with here, and the talk should be straightforward and non- clinical, like what you get in biology class. Wait a second… do kids even get this talk in biology anymore? The immediate reaction of the parent or the adult is also important—if you act evasive, nervous or embarrassed, obviously the child will pick up on it and it will shape their long term views and thoughts about sex and sexuality.
Jenee: I think its very important for children to know the correct terms for their body. Whowho is not an important term for your vagina and even worse if some kind of abuse happened and they told a teacher or another adult about their “whowho” they wouldn’t understand the travesty of the situation.
Rosie: So what can you do? First and foremost, talk to your children about sex. From day one, use the appropriate terms for body parts. Don’t be bashful about what our bodies do. Then, as your children age, begin to have age appropriate conversations. Do your homework, research books that can help you think through it, surf on-line for parent resources, many will tell you at what age kids should know different things. Then, go there.
Jenee: Once in a Women’s Studies class we discussed this issue. The idea was thrown out that starting in middle school you give your daughter a journal with questions. Questions like “How is your first kiss going to be” or “What type of qualities do you want the boy to have to whom you lose your virginity too” and “How do you want to lose your virginity.” I know these may seem like pretty heavy questions for a 12 year old but the point is to get them thinking about it so when they wind up at a party when they are 15 or 16 they think “Wait…this isn’t how I wanted it, this isn’t how I planned it.” I think that my main viewpoint is too much information can never hurt anyone but that values and morals need to come along with respecting your needs, your body, and your self.
Donna: Sex issues, especially for women, are VERY directly related to body image issues so it makes it that much more important to be honest and open and to speak to that point. Teaching the children around us to have respect for themselves is a huge part of this too.
It’s a tough topic, that’s for sure.