April is STD Awareness Month. All too often, conversations around health only happen when someone’s health is threatened by a disease or disorder. When discussing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), it is important to take a more proactive approach. Why? Early conversations help shape healthy attitudes and knowledge about STDs and sexual health. That’s especially true for youth.
When it comes to helping youth develop healthy attitudes about sex, we as adults must first overcome our own fears and anxieties around the subject. All of us who interact with youth have a role to play in STD prevention. I run an LGBTQ organization called Lions Pride, which provides diversity resources, including sexual health education. I remember having a conversation with a youth member of Lion’s Pride about teen pregnancy at the young person’s school. Because of the sexual health information she received as a member of Lion’s Pride, she knew more about sexual health than all her straight friends and they were always coming to her for advice and help. While I think it is great that youth are helping each other out, my thought was: How unfortunate that these teens do not feel they can come to adults in their lives with questions about sex, pregnancy, and prevention. The question we must ask is: What can we do to make youth feel safe coming to adults with their sexual health questions?
As youth leaders, educators, adult family members, religious leaders, health workers, and role models we must be sure to educate ourselves enough on the sexual health issues that our youth face today, and be willing to have those difficult discussions with our youth. These conversations can be especially difficult for parents, since parents may not want to embrace the thought that their kids may be having sex. The difficult truth is that many are, and we need to make sure our youth have the knowledge to keep themselves STD-free.
Talking to youth about sexual health always requires medically accurate information. Sometimes the parents of Lion’s Pride LGBTQ youth ask for advice on talking to their child about sexual health. They are especially concerned because many of these parent are straight, and that can add another layer of difficulty as they talk to their gay teen. The advice I like to give to these parents is simple: If you don’t know how to have “the talk” with you LGBTQ teen, then sit down and discuss what you do know about sex and relationships in general and then make a commitment with your teen to take an educational journey together so the tough issues can be worked out with one another. I think that’s pretty good advice regardless of the sexual orientation of the parent or youth. If parents do not take an active role in their kid’s sexual education, the youth will seek it out on their own, and who knows if the information they find is accurate, healthy, and safe.
For those parents who don’t know where to go for information, your local or state health department is a great place to start. The health department can often provide information and other local resources that can help you get started in pointing your youth in a healthy direction. Moreover, the STD programs at local and state health departments are staffed by experts in sexual health who can answer any question your youth ask!
I know that talking about sexual health with your youth, regardless of the information that you have at your disposal, is tough. Believe me, I know. The youth in Lion’s Pride ask some pretty challenging questions. But we need to be willing to create safe places for youth to ask their questions before they step out and explore their sexuality. If we don’t talk to our kids about sex, then we’re not doing our part to make certain they have the tools and the information to develop into healthy, happy adults.