Bringing Comprehensive Sex Ed Home


For almost twenty years, I've worked in the area of reproductive rights. In fact, my career path often mirrored my personal life – working at NARAL in my late 20s as I took guaranteeing a woman's right to choose very personally. I worked for Planned Parenthood Federation of America in my early 30s as I considered conceiving, went through a blissful pregnancy and gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. As Hannah approached her third birthday, I freely made the choice to stay home with her, working as a consultant as she attended preschool. Each year I vowed to return to full-time work, but it wasn't until after her bat mitzvah at age 13 that I made good on that promise.

Now, two years later, as Vice President of Communications at Population Action International, I spend my days developing messages that will ensure sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and their families in the developing world. Meanwhile, my evenings are spent fretting over the sexual health and rights of my now 15-year-old daughter. It's ironic that my openness in talking about sex and my unwavering belief in the rights of women to be healthy sexual beings is put to the test in my own home. It's one thing to believe in contraceptives for all who want them and another thing altogether when you find out your own child is buying condoms at the self-serve checkout counter of the local grocery store "for my friends."

Parenting a teenager is the hardest work I've ever done. It helps that she's a good girl – smart and funny and beautiful – who still is willing to talk to me about most of the issues in her life. But a teen's life today is so very different than when I was growing up in the 1970s. She is in instant communication with dozens of her friends simultaneously through IM, email, her cell phone and our home phone. I've seen her deftly interact with up to eight people at the same time using various devices. Sex is talked about openly as early as fifth grade, and terms like "ho" and "player" are bandied about easily and often based on rumor. "Hooking up" has various meanings, most of them not particularly savory. And for many, sexual activities are viewed as a rite of passage that is unconnected to emotions. (Okay, some things haven't changed much since the seventies…) The major difference is that it is all so open and so darned early. The media and Internet have provided an unending soundtrack about sex for our teens to rock out to, but the information is frequently "romanticized" and rarely in context. The "but everyone is doing it" teenage whine has some validity when kids as young as 10 are watching R-rated movies on DVD or listening to song lyrics that explicitly describe sexual acts. In their world where sex appears to be everywhere, abstinence-only education is a joke and the best that educators and parents can do is address the topic directly and in terms our kids will understand. Whether framed in morality or religious beliefs or consequences or delayed gratification, our abstinence messages are not enough. We owe it to kids much savvier than we were at their age, to listen without judgment, and to offer guidance with love.

As I've relaxed into my role as mom to a teenager, I've learned that being able to talk about and listen to anything is integral. While an emphasis on abstinence education sounds good to me intellectually, I know for a fact that it doesn't work and is ridiculed by the teens it seeks to reach. I also know, in a way I didn't when I was childless at NARAL, that keeping our children safe is a parent's overriding charge. That means telling the truth, accepting that teens are sexual, and ensuring that they have all the information and resources they need to keep them from harm. Even when the child is my own.
My daughter and several of her girlfriends have spent time in PAI's offices on school holidays. Recently, when I was driving a bunch of girls to crew practice, one of Hannah's friends told another that I had the coolest job in Washington. When asked why, she responded, "Because Hannah's mom works in an office that has condoms everywhere." I couldn't be prouder.

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