[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; Part I of this post can be found here
10 to12-year-olds have lots of questions about dating and creating relationships. I’ve discovered that crushes and desires to emulate relationships they are socialized to believe are “right” are on the minds of some youth.
- What does it mean to have a boyfriend or girlfriend?
- What do boyfriends and girlfriends do?
- How do boyfriends and girlfriends have good relationships?
- How do people find or get a boyfriend or girlfriend?
- If a boyfriend or girlfriend wanted to end the relationship or date someone else how would that happen? (This may also be a good question for people who are in polyamorous adult relationships and not sure how/if to share with their children).
- How do you know when you find someone attractive?
- What are things about someone you don’t find attractive? (I’d encourage you to take this beyond physical characteristics to character traits)
When do I start to talk to my child about sex?
Honestly, when you begin to want children, trying to become pregnant or initiating adoption is when you need to start talking about sex. Understanding what your partner thinks and believes about sexuality for children and for your child is most helpful before you have children together. This does not often happen prior to pregnancy, but know that the sooner the better! Having those conversations with your partner can really help the both of you create a firm value and belief system that works for your family early, versus having to do harm reduction too late. It’s harder to initiate rules in reaction to something your child has done.There are many ways that parents prepare for pregnancy and childbirth, often those do not include how to discuss sexuality. Being born, held, experiencing affection and touch is part of socialization of an infant, it is also a necessity for all of us as we age.
Often I suggest that parents talk about sexuality to their infant or to the child growing inside them, not for their child, but for them. It is important to get into a comfortable mode and tone when discussing topics of sexuality. Like I shared above and in part one of this post, children and youth are astute. They pick up on the slightest increase in tone, body movements and know when you disapprove of something or that you were the wrong person to ask. Deep breaths work! If you practice saying terms such as “vulva,” “penis,” and other terms associated with our bodies and sexuality, they will be easier to say as your child ages because you have socialized yourself to find them normal to say aloud.
Carmen emailed me a question early last year and I want to share some of what I shared with her regarding infant and younger children’s sexuality. I’ve been searching for some type of diagram or image that helps parents understand the sexual development of infants and children and I haven’t found one that I like (which means I’ll have to make it myself right?!), but thus far I’m appreciating this overview of child sexual development by Perdue .
If you have a small child, now may be a good time to talk out/practice what you would want to say to them. For example, when you bathe your child you may practice saying the proper terms for their body to get more comfortable with them as you wash those parts. For example, “this is your vulva and we call it [insert “code” name here]. (See part one “private parts” convo).” You may also build on that and say things such as: “and this is your vulva and the parts are the clitoris, labia, urethra, vagina.” Then build on that to say “one day you may touch your vulva and like the way it feels and that is what we call sexual pleasure” or whatever you want to say. It could also be a good activity for you and your partner to do together to figure out what messages you want to send your child about their body, about feelings, good touch/bad touch, and know where you both stand on those topics if it hasn’t come up before.
Once you are comfortable with that part, I’d take it another step and talk about skin color and texture of the body. For example, I have several young people of color who come to me asking me why they don’t have “pink parts” or diagnosing themselves with an STI when they really have an ingrown hair from shaving. Practice sharing some of the things that worked for you such as: “this is your penis and the tip of your penis is called the urethra. Your penis is brown/black/[whatever color you choose] and inside your urethra it is pink and that is normal.” And “Right here above your penis is where you may one day grown hair. I remember I tried to shave/trim this area during the summer and you have to be very careful and have a steady hand. I’d like for you to come to me if/when you want to do this and I’ll give you the proper tools so you can care for your body and have it look the way you like.”
It may sound silly or intimidating, but I think there’s some safety in knowing that your child may not 100% understand what you are saying and that makes it a good time to practice for both of you, but your child may also pick up on your tone when you touch certain parts of their body that can be comforting. These send messages to your child as well. If your infant hasn’t yet, they will start touching their genitals especially during bath time or when you change their diaper (or if you’re like my hippie parents, who just let the kids run around naked). This is totally normal! Try not to be too shocked when you first notice it, because your child will pick up on those reactions. If you see your child doing this, it may be a good time to practice talking to them about pleasure. Again, more practice for you and your partner to build up comfort. An affirming or exciting tone I think is best, but I think that in general with youth.
Sometimes parents forget that it’s us who teach our kids what to do with their bodies (don’t touch, sit down, be quiet, etc.) and this can also transfer to sexuality and sexual health!
I will be the first to admit that resources for youth of color specifically, and especially directed towards boys, is limited when it comes to sexuality. Please know sexologists of color like myself are working to change that, because we know there is a need that is not being met. In the meantime, here are some suggested resources for age appropriate information:
BrainPop (You need a subscription for many features (i.e. videos, quiz, etc.), but it is well worth the cost in my opinion. Check out the free stuff.)
GayTeens (My homegirl Ellen, who I went to grad school with, runs this site. She’s a parent and answers questions honestly and directly from youth and parents. She’s the real deal).
MySistahs (Run by young women of color for young women of color. I’ve had the opportunity to meet them all and some of them participated in a training I did. Youth can ask the peer educators questions directly. They focus on teens, but they are open to also working with younger and older populations.)
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (This is under this age group because I think it’s important that young people know that their safety and consent is theirs at every age.)
Scenarios, USA One of my absolute favorite resources, which has films that were written and created by youth under the mentorship of various professional directors. The films are high quality, accessible and great conversation starters!
Gurl (Ellen from GayTeens is also the “sexpert” for this site)
Sex, etc. (They have a specific area devoted to boys)
It’s Your Sex Life
Youth Resource (For LGBTQ youth. See my note above for MySistahs.)
Go Ask Alice!
Center for Young Women’s Health
NotMeNotNow (Focuses on abstinence)
AmbienteJoven (Information in Spanish)
Older Youth & Adults
I’ve read all of these books and I have them in my own library. I’d like to encourage parents and people with youth in their lives to consider getting books that are not just geared toward the gender of that particular young person. For example, all youth should know about menstruation, nocturnal emission, anatomy of the opposite sex and hygiene.
Period: A Girls Guide (For youth in grades 5-7. This book has been around for decades and I have to say that I like its accessibility. It has the “big girl” feel with just the right touch of adolescence to reach young people.
Deal with It! A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain, and Life as a gURL (This book goes together with the site gURL mentioned above. I learned about this book several years ago when a young woman of color brought it with her to our health education session. She shared it with me. She said that she enjoyed reading it and had completed the text. We had good conversations about the book even though I noticed that a majority of the images resemble racially White girls.
Changing Bodies, Changing Lives (This is similar to “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” but for youth. It is extremely comprehensive and I’d even suggest getting this book for a tween who may be a little more advanced for some of the books above. This is because I’d actually encourage you to get an 18 year old the book Our Bodies, Ourselves.
Doing It Right: Making Smart, Safe, and Satisfying Choices About Sex (This is a book by another friend who I went to graduate school with. (Yes, I was one of two people of color in the sexuality program and am one of the only practicing sexologists who have yet to be offered a “book deal.” Says something about how publishers view youth of color and their ability to learn about their bodies, no?). Bronwen does a great job of outlining all of the reproductive health options, experiences, and choices youth of all genders may experience. My only suggestion about this book is that her take on the IUD for youth is a bit outdated, but that’s another post.
My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely (This is a classic that I wish youth were exposed to sooner rather than later. The first time I heard about the book was when I was in college (granted that was around the same time it was published), but in hindsight I should have bought this for my mentee.)
Love Listography (If you have youth in your life that like to write, or if you run groups of any sort, this book can be helpful in thinking things out regarding relationships, intimacy, friendship and love. It’s a workbook. You can make copies of the pages and encourage youth to complete and share as a group, or as homework. Not all of the pages are age-appropriate, but many ask good questions (i.e. describe the perfect date, best kisses, etc.).)
Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (I suggest readers buy this for themselves to read for education and understanding and then share it with youth in their lives. The text is not necessarily intended for young readers, however, that does not mean that some youth will not find this book literally and figuratively life-saving. Having this book available in your personal library can also send a message that you are educating yourself and open to discussion of the topics of gender identity, sexism, and transgender activism.
The Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology (I’ve assigned readings from this book to my students when we discuss violence. If you are not talking about consent, power, violence, and current events with the youth in your life, you are missing a HUGE part of their sexual health, development and socialization. Consider using this text to help begin such conversations. Perspectives included range from survivors of violence who are immigrants, youth, people of color, queer, poor, parents, sex workers, and people from a spectrum of gender identities.
I’m a believer that youth can learn through various forms of media. Here are some texts that the young people I worked with in East Harlem connected to the most. I’ve added a bit about their plots and the connection to health and sexuality.
Conception by Kalisha Buckhanon (A book about pregnancy from the perspective of the spirit of a black baby who is seeking to be born. I know it sounds odd, and perhaps anti-choice, but it is neither of those. There are a lot of historical connections to black women’s bodies in the US and you follow the soul of this young black girl trying to be born in three different eras in the US to three different black women. You learn why she was never successful in being born. The book centers on a 15-year-old black girl named Shivana She is in an inter-generational relationship with an older man and becomes pregnant. I’ll warn you that the ending broke my heart because of its truth.
The Sista Hood: On The Mic by E-Fierce (This book is geared toward youth of color who are high school-aged. It uses elements of hip hop to convey a story about a 14-year-old Latina, who dreams of being an MC and creates a friendship with several girls in her school for a talent show. One of the few books where friendships among girls of color today where lesbian and heterosexual characters of color are featured. This focus alone makes this book a classic in my opinion. There is also a curriculum that has been created by E-Fierce and Black Artemis (author of Explicit Content, Picture Me Rollin’, and Burn) on using their texts in the classroom. The text is called Conscious Women Rock The Page: Using Hip-Hop Fiction To Incite Social Change)
Miracle’s Boys by Jacqueline Woodson Is a book about three brothers who live together and have lost both their parents. We learn about each brother, their challenges, and how they support, fight, and nurture one another. This book was made into a film directed by Bill Duke and Spike Lee, which is very well done. I’d encourage you to check out the multiple books by Woodson as they all center black youth.
YELL-Oh Girls! Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American is a book I’ve taught from in the past. I find the writing in the book accessible, entertaining and honest. This book is now ten-years-old, and I have yet to come across an anthology that offers young Asian American women (and men) such a space to share their experiences. Suggested for grades 8 and up.
Please leave suggestions if you know of other texts and resources.
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.