I am often asked about my decision to become an advocate for sexual and reproductive rights. Before I became involved in this line of work through volunteering and activism in college, I didn’t think much about these issues. In fact, I entered college to study music. Classical music, to be exact. I began playing the violin during the 6th grade, and I carried my love of music with me until my sophomore year of college. My mother was perhaps my biggest supporter, attending all of my concerts and recitals, driving me to my private violin lessons, dropping me off at orchestra auditions, and taking me to the music store to buy new strings or sheet music. I spent 10 years prepping myself for a career in music, and everyone else thought I was headed in that direction too. I used to believe that the sexual and reproductive rights movement was something I just happen to fall into during college, but my introduction began before I even picked up a violin. My mom may have been my biggest supporter in music, but it was what she did (and didn’t do) that planted the seed into the passions and mindset I have today.
I was in middle school, and one day my mother and I were headed back home from a day of being out and about. While listening to the radio, I heard a commercial about bikini area waxing. Of course, I knew what a bikini was, but had not a clue as to what a bikini line was, so I asked my mom…who didn’t give me an answer. At that time, I figured she didn’t hear me, but I know now that not only did she hear me clearly (the radio definitely wasn’t loud) she didn’t respond because she probably didn’t know how to.
Later on, my mom signed my sister and I up for a “pregnancy prevention” module (and that’s probably not the actual name). These classes were taught by our middle school teachers, who clearly weren’t as comfortable teaching the subject matter compared to their routine algebra, language arts, and science classes. And these classes had more to do with anatomy, knowing how babies were made, and what diseases you could catch if you start having sex early (complete with graphic images).
I never had a conversation with my mother about sex or sexual health. While I was more comfortable going to her when my first menstrual cycle began, our talks consisted mainly of the consequences of having sex (pregnancy), if they ever did come up. No HIV, no sexually transmitted infections (STIs), no what to do and where to go for more information about sexual health. In fact, as a high school student, my mother took me to the pediatrician for a routine exam, and when the nurse asked me if I were having sex, my mother answered “No!” for me. (I wanted to play around with her and asked how could she know if I were having sex or not…but I knew not to go there.)
More than ever, I see that my story mirrors many people who get into this movement. There was a lack of parent-child communication regarding sexual health and wellness, and possibly not because our parents and guardians just don’t want to talk about it (though there are some that fall into this category). Oftentimes, parents don’t know how to talk about it. Some parents go for the doom and gloom, focusing more on the after-effects of sex in an attempt to prevent their child from having sex. Some parents (like my mother) believe that schools have curriculums in place to teach students about sex, and rely on these schools to supply information on sexual health and believe that what their kids are getting is accurate information. But we can’t place the blame solely on parents. I can honestly say that I didn’t ask my mother about sex because, just like her, I didn’t know how to bring it up. I wasn’t having sex in middle school or high school, but I didn’t want to put myself in a position where I could lose her trust. Kids are just as afraid to speak to their parents as parents are to speak with their kids.
Thanks to my mother, I am on the path to do what I can to make sure that parents, children, and even couples become comfortable opening up the lines of communication when it comes to sexual health. We spend so much time making sure that kids know the book and classroom skills needed to get into college (and most of it we don’t use after high school anyway), when we should also be discussing sex, which is a natural part of being human and can prepare children for becoming responsible about their health, knowing about their bodies before someone else gets near it.
Here are some things to consider when you decide to begin speaking with your parent or child about sexual health. It may be easier said than done, but with practice, it’ll get better:
1) Remember that it’s about mutual respect. Kids (and parents) will listen more if they know that they are speaking to someone who won’t put them down, shut them up, or disregard their feelings.
2) Don’t assume. Just because your child brings up the subject of sex doesn’t really mean that they’re doing it. It could be that they may have watched a TV show, or now have a peer at school who is pregnant and want to know more about sex and sexuality. Focus more on the questions being asked, and not on your knee-jerk reaction or experiences you had as a teen. And teens, don’t assume that your parent may not have the answer to your question or that they don’t know what it’s like to be a teen. It may be years since they were a teenager, but you’d be surprised when you realize that things you and your friends are going through now are not that different from when your parents were your age.
3) Don’t act like you know. Parents, if you really don’t know know the answer to your child’s question, don’t make something up. Seek out a more knowledgeable source for your child’s question. Tell your child that you don’t have the answer to their question, but will find someone who does know.
4) It’s never too late (or too early). With a sexually charged society we live in today, we often get mixed messages about sex. It’s never to early or too late to talk to your children about sex. Sex is a natural part of being human, and the more it’s discussed out in the open, the more the associated stigma will melt away.
5) And PLEASE stop using slang! Gee whiz, nothing burns my biscuits more than hearing adults refer to their anatomy by goofy nicknames, especially with young children. Start early by addressing their penis and vagina as penises and vaginas. This also goes for more explicit names adults tend to use as nicknames for their sexual parts. If your hands are just hands, then your breasts and vagina should be given their proper names as well. There’s no shame in using their actual names. Advocates for Youth recommends practicing in the mirror aloud to become more comfortable saying proper names for body parts. We don’t want you stuttering or sweating bullets in front of your kids.
Parents are the most influential people in a child’s life, and whether my mother knew it or not, her not speaking to me about sex and sexuality propelled me on a path to choose this as a life career. While I’m not upset with her, I do believe that I ended up being fortunate in getting the most accurate information possible, which is something a lot of kids (and adults for that matter) fail to do. At times I wonder where I would be now if my mother and I had discussed sex, but I do feel that having this experience has encouraged me to become a future “askable” parent when I have a child in the future.