My family didn’t talk to us about sex, and it quite literally broke us apart.
One of my family members was friends with the boy next door. Let’s call my family member “John” and the boy next door “Luke.” John and Luke spent lots of time together, even though Luke was 6 years older. Years later, John told me that Luke had been sexually abusing him.
These things tend to be cyclical, unfortunately. When John entered puberty, he became sexually curious, and he unwisely experimented with me and my best friend. My friend and I were 8; John was 13.
John swore us to secrecy. When he learned I wrote about it in my diary, he tore out the pages and burned them in the fireplace. I could tell he was scared. I loved John, so I didn’t tell, but my best friend did.
A social worker came to my school. I was pulled out of my second grade class and sent to the principal’s office to meet with her. Then she came to my house and met with my parents.
I remember being taken to the police station and interviewed by a lieutenant. I was examined by a nurse, but I couldn’t answer her questions. I didn’t know the words anus, erection, ejaculation, and so on.
This was a big deal for my parents. They disagreed about what should be done about John and about me. One parent wrote it off as normal childhood exploration. The other was freaked out, didn’t want John anywhere near me, and demanded we both be sent to therapy (I went, John didn’t). Shortly after this thing came to light, after 19 years together, my parents divorced.
I took refuge at school. School was a stable environment, predictable and safe, and home never was. After the divorce, I was still navigating John’s inappropriate behavior, since with the custody arrangement, I saw him regularly. As I developed breasts, he’d come up behind me and grab them. He’d go up on the roof and peak through the skylight as I was changing clothes. He showed me pornographic magazines and videos. Things like that.
I liked school. Maybe that explains why I became a teacher. Providing that safe space for my students felt like the most important work I could do. I taught biology and chemistry to high-school kids for 11 years. We played with chemicals and fire, microscopes and petri dishes. I designed labs with goldfish and rolly pollies. We studied bioethics and we genetically modified bacteria. We did a lot of really cool things in biology class, but what my students really got excited about was the unit on the human reproductive system.
The first couple times, I muddled through the content and the student questions, and then I got used to it. We talked about sex, the anatomy, the menstrual cycle, fetal development, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.
In my time as a teacher, I worked at three schools, and the last one was a Catholic school. I know I blushed with embarrassment when the Sister who worked in the school’s office came into my class to deliver a note and up on the screen was projected a picture of a condom on an erect penis. I know she saw, but she never said a word about it. A couple years later, a different Sister in charge of all the Catholic schools in our region came in with a film crew. I was answering a question about anal sex (they definitely didn’t use that footage). To their credit, neither of those women asked me to change what I was doing. I’m lucky to have gone through those shame attacks and to have had it all turn out well.
Sex-ed is great, but after that unit, my students didn’t have anyone to ask their questions. We moved on to genetics and evolution, and they didn’t ask me those questions anymore. When I had them the next year in Chemistry, no further discussion there either. It felt like they grew so much when we had that container and those discussions, and then it stopped.
That’s why I’m now educating parents. Parents are a kid’s life-long ally and teachers just aren’t; kids move on to new grades and new schools. Parents are always there. I can’t be there for your kid the way you can.
It drives me crazy that parents can’t talk to their kids about sex, because I know what can happen. I was that kid, and I’ll be damned before I’m that parent. I can do a better job with my children than my folks did with me and my siblings, but that doesn’t feel like enough – I want all the students I taught to be safe and supported too.
The thing I can’t take anymore is kids flying blind, turning to peers and porn to guide their sexual exploration.
Because I saw the effects of that. At that Catholic school, several of the girls dropped out pregnant. A sophomore who didn’t come back; one who did, and pumped breast milk in a closet; others who made it to college, but their peers told me they’d had a kid and didn’t graduate.
I taught them about condoms. I have their tests, so I know they knew the content! What these kids were missing were the skills, not the facts. And those are exactly what you can’t test on a quiz, what you probably can’t teach in a few classes. I wasn’t able to teach about healthy relationships, or getting out of abusive ones, in science class. And for these kids, it wasn’t happening anywhere else either.
Towards the end of my teaching career, I started the Senior Speech program at that Catholic School. The idea was to help the kids learn some public speaking skills, and use assembly time for the upperclassmen to share their wisdom with the younger grades. But you know what poured out of them? Stories of having been bullied, stories of starving themselves, of being suicidal, of being physically abused by a romantic partner.
I was doing good work with them, but none of us – not the middle school, not the health teacher, not me, not their parents – were teaching them how to navigate all that.
That skill-building happens over a long time, and with a parent who’s willing to teach the difference between media messages and real life, how to feel and defend your boundaries. That’s what I’m interested in creating and disseminating, so that you can be your child’s primary sex educator, not just about the facts and the slang, but about these skills.
Think about what you were feeling and doing when you were 10, 13, 16. Now look at your kids. Don’t you want your kid to go to you for guidance, not their friends or the internet? How long have you got to create the kind of relationship where your kid can ask you their questions about sex and relationships?
The earlier you normalize conversations about sex, the more likely they’ll be able to use your guidance. To get you firmly on this path, register for one of my upcoming webinars on what topics to address with your child and when.
- For parents of children 0-8 years old: The Birds & Bees and Beyond: 3 essential conversations to have with your young child about sex and relationships, April 27th at 9 am PST
- For parents of 9-12 year olds: Talking to Preteens about Sex & Relationships: preparing them for a safe and healthy adolescence, May 11th at 9 am PST
- For parents of teens: Talking with Teens about Sex: how to have deep and connected conversations, May 25th at 9 am PST
In support of you,
P.S. Need more than a webinar? If you know you’re ready to be having conversations about sex and relationships with your child, but something’s getting in the way, I’d love to help. Grab a spot on my calendar here. Sometimes just one call can move you off the side streets and onto the highway, and I’d love for you to experience the closeness that comes with having these conversations.