[Editor's note: Bianca wrote this piece explicitly for those who parent and counsel youth of color, but, as usual, her words have much broader application.]
written by Love Isn’t Enough columnist Bianca Laureano
When I visited with my mentee of over 17 years, Candy, this year I met her boyfriend of one year for the first time. Over dinner she asked me if I was dating anyone. I told her not really, but that I did have a lover. I made it clear that he wasn’t my boyfriend, just someone I’ve chosen to have a sexual relationship with. It was at that moment that I realized we never really talked about what I did or chose to do in my partnerships and relationships. I strategically selected what lessons about sexuality I wanted to share with her over these years based on my personal experiences, yet didn’t share with her what those experiences were. I chose what I wanted to share, which was probably not what she needed to know.
Because she is the youngest of three daughters, her eldest sister has three children, and became pregnant for the first time in high school, Candy knows about the challenges of having children prior to planning for them. Yet, we never really talked about what it means to select a lover, when is it the “right” time to have sex, and can you be in a relationship with someone and not have intimate sexual contact with them? I assumed she was having sex with her boyfriend, but I realized that might not be a fair assumption after I shared with her my decision to have a lover. Thank goodness we worked on the self-esteem/I’m-worthy-of-more-than-your-attention-and-affection ideology these 17 years!
Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way mentoring Candy (we met when she was in first grade) and what I’ve discovered and think could have helped facilitate fruitful discussions about sex and sexuality.
- It’s going to take more than one “talk”
- Your child probably knows more than you think they do about sexuality and relationships. Youth pay attention and are astute.
- You don’t need to know or have all the answers. Saying “I don’t know let’s look that up together” is all right and often the right thing to say and do.
- Youth may have sex (oral, anal, or vaginal) at a young age, but not all of them are consistently having sex. I know many 12-16 year olds who have sex one time to “see what it was like” or “because I felt like it” and decide not to have sex again for several years. So identifying a young person who has had sex once as “sexually active” may not be 100% accurate or appropriate.
I hate to write this, I really do, but you’ll need to talk about police harassment, the criminal justice system, and the criminalization of bodies of color. This may be a conversation for a teenager (13 or so), but for many youth of color their sexuality is criminalized and they are often already seen as over-sexual even if they are not engaging in any sex. This goes double for youth who are gender non-conforming, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer, as well as for young girls who “develop quickly” and experience street harassment by older/adult men. I think this deserves an entirely separate post as this is something I’ve discovered is missing in “comprehensive” sexuality education curriculums. Then again race, class, ethnicity in general is missing from such “comprehensive” curriculums.
- From a pregnancy prevention and limiting/decreasing disease transmission standpoint: masturbation is a great option for youth. I’m not going to go as far as to say that every parent of a 15 year old daughter needs to buy them a vibrator as some (white) sexologists have suggested, but I will say that encouraging your daughter, especially your daughter of color to explore her body, to understand what may bring her pleasure, what may bring her pain, to recognize that touch and affection is healthy, normal, and can bring happiness is a radical form of love. I wholeheartedly believe that we need to teach girls of color that their bodies are valuable and one of the most valuable things they can do is love their own body for all that it can and will be able to do. Masturbation, I believe, is also a good exercise in power as it is a persons’ decision to do whatever they want to do with their body. You do not need to answer personal questions about masturbation if your child asks you about it. I think comments like “Our bodies are different and what brings me pleasure may not bring you pleasure, and what may be painful for me may not be for you. So I encourage you to try something. Be patient with yourself and with your body. This is a relationship you have with yourself and it is an important and valuable relationship to create and maintain.” This is also important to say to boys and young men.
Messages About Love & Sex
- Often parents send messages to their children to wait until they are married or in love to have sex. I think this sends mixed messages to young people. Often I hear youth come to me and say that they are “in love” with their partner and choose to have unprotected sex with them. This is not because they do not know about condoms or contraceptives. This is more so because they do not get good strong messages that separate sex from love. Some youth I work with see “love” as a reason to have sex. They do not know how else to express or experience love because they have not been exposed to or provided with alternatives. Often in our society, where married couples have many privileges, the assumption is that married couples don’t use contraceptives among many young people. I think this idea comes to young people because we are socialized to tell them that asking about sex, sexuality, and relationships among people they know and love (especially adults) is wrong and disrespectful. As a result, they do not know that couples in committed relationships use contraception or condoms. This came to me after my conversation this year with Candy.
- Consider how youth may interpret having multiple sexual partners and limited experiences with love. How do you hope for your child to respond/react/envision his/her/their own experiences? Do you want your child to use terms such as “slut,” “whore,” or other terms that are not only gendered, but others that are also very racialized? How do you think your family can discuss such topics?
- Often when youth have healthy self-image and self-esteem their ability to separate love and sex seems to be “healthy.” I’ve told Candy all her life that she is loved, intelligent, missed, important, responsible and other traits I believed and hoped she would continue to develop. When she came to visit me when she graduated high school she shared that she was still a “virgin.” We never discussed what that meant but I remember her telling me that “no boy was good enough for her” to have sex with yet. Her ego is one that I know I stroked and helped form and I think there is a connection to her ability to separate her love for her life with the love for a partner.
If I could do it over here’s what I’d tell Candy:
- You have power. Your body and your femininity/masculinity/ambiguity will give you power in ways that may not make sense so be careful with how you use that power. It is yours and if you misuse it you may lose it forever. If you use it properly you may have it for the rest of your life. Part of that power is the ability to choose what you want to do with your body and when. This is also called consent. You do not have to do anything you don’t want to do with your body.
- You will know you are “ready” for sex when you’re comfortable enough to share your body with someone else and understand (not just know) the consequences that may occur. Consequences are not all negative, they are also positive and may include: pregnancy, STI, pain, discomfort, confusion, fear, anxiety, but also experiencing intimacy, passion, pleasure, happiness, comfort, strength, relaxation, and exhaustion.
- I’d choose not to use the term “private parts” to describe genitals (at any age). I’ve noticed youth usually translate this phrase into thinking their genitals are so private they are not for them to understand or get to know either. That’s hard to unlearn or teach through, it’s possible, but a challenge. Instead I’d encourage you to teach your child the scientific terms for their genitals and then if you and your family choose, pick a code name. One of my mentors, a sexologist, who is married to a sex researcher, chose the term “who-ha” with their daughters and it worked well for them. I like this move because it changes the boundaries of “privacy” to ones that don’t make you or the kids feel like there’s something to hide. It’s also a “code” between you and your kids and I always think that’s a good move because if your child doesn’t feel safe or needs to get your attention right away there are words/phrases/sounds that they know they can use (my aunt has a whistle to get her boys attention and 2 decades later it STILL works!). I think it also can give children confidence to ask for what they need. For example if you are at a party at a friends house and your child needs to use the restroom and doesn’t know where it is they can find you and say “dad my who-ha needs help” and you know what it means.
Part 2 coming Monday: When is the right time to begin talking about sex? How do you talk to pre-teens? What are some useful sex education resources for parents?
Bianca I Laureano is a sexologist, consultant, educator, and activist. Her interests include representations of the sexuality of people of Color in media and popular culture, Latina feminisms, and positive youth development. She is an adjunct instructor and a freelance writer. She hosts LatinoSexuality.com and all her writings and reviews can be seen at her website BiancaLaureano.com .