Sex education starts at home

Thursday, May 12, 2011

[This post is part of a Mama’s Day Series by The Strong Families Initiative. To follow all of the Mama's Day events, visit us on Facebook and Twitter.]

By Aimée Thorne-Thomsen

Before I was a reproductive health, rights and justice activist, or even pro-choice, I was a little brown girl from the Bronx. I grew up in racially and economically diverse communities in Washington Heights and Marble Hill surrounded by my clan - my very large, very loud, mostly Puerto Rican family. They raised me with an enormous amount of unconditional love and provided my mother all the support she needed as a single parent. Through some luck and hard work, I attended a private Catholic school with other working class kids from all over the city, whose families and communities were pretty similar to mine. This was around the time that crack cocaine was wreaking havoc across the city and HIV/AIDS would soon do the same.

My friends and I were pretty average teenagers, except in one way. We all knew someone who had gotten pregnant or gotten someone pregnant as a teenager. Some of them were our classmates; some of them were family or other friends. Most of the girls carried their pregnancies to term and became “teen moms,” as if that all they ever were or ever would be. There was nothing glamorous about being a teenage parent when I was growing up. In fact, it was scary. Girls were often kicked out of their homes. Sooner or later they would drop out of school because the educational system didn’t really think they mattered anymore. Society treated them as disposable, and they would soon disappear from our lives.

Some girls had abortions. We whispered about them in the hallways of school mostly because we didn’t know what abortions were, except that it meant that our friends were no longer pregnant. Those girls were treated differently, too, because now it was common knowledge that they were sexually active.

When my friend Sonia became pregnant the summer after graduation, our principal persuaded her to place the baby up for adoption. It broke her heart, if not her spirit. A year later, when she was pregnant again by the same man, she decided to become a mom. We weren’t even sixteen years old.

I was luckier than most, not because I didn’t get pregnant, but because I had a mother and grandmother who believed that I needed to know about my body. For me, sex education started at home and consisted of open, honest communication with my family. When puberty hit (and it did with a vengeance), my mother was the first person I turned to. She not only explained what was happening to me, she shared her own stories – what it was like when she got her first bra or how afraid she was when she started menstruating. I had a connection to all the other women in my family and understood that what was happening to me was all right.

More than that, my mother also created a safe space for me to ask questions and talk about sex. I didn’t have to wait until junior high school to watch Nova’s “Miracle of Life” to know where babies came from. If not for the week-long sex education program we had at our Catholic school, many of my friends would have had no information about pregnancy, STIs, birth control or even a basic understanding of their own bodies. My mother and I had talked about pregnancy and birth control. I also understood my mother’s expectations of me when it came to sex. My mother taught me to value myself, both my heart and my body, and to treat both of them with respect. And if I got pregnant, I knew she would support me with any decision I made, including abortion. So when I eventually did become sexually active, I told my mom. Regardless of how grown-up or independent I thought I was, I needed my mother to know that I was having sex so she could support me and help me take care of myself.

That’s the way it was for me and my friends more than 20 years ago. Unfortunately not enough has changed. Young people still need safe places where they can ask questions, get information, and share their experiences. There is still widespread shame and stigma surrounding young people’s sexual behavior. If we want young people to make good, healthy decisions about sexual activity, then we have to give them all the tools we can to support them. And if we want take care of our families, we need sex education in our schools and open communication about sex, sexuality, and relationships at home.

Aimée Thorne-Thomsen brings her passion and extensive experience in coalition-building, leadership development and communications to the reproductive justice movement. Her work focuses on elevating the voices of young people in sexual and reproductive health and rights.

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