Guest: Answering those difficult sex questions


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“If we talk to teenagers and young adults about sex and birth control, isn’t that going to encourage them to have sex or condone sexual experimentation?” I hear this question — or some variation of it — at almost every presentation I make to civic organizations in Iowa.

In sharp contrast, when I talk with students on college campuses, I ask what message they think I should tell their parents and grandparents about sexuality issues for young adults. They say, “Tell them that we left home without the information we needed to make wise decisions about intimate relationships.” Some tell of good sex education in their schools. Others talk about parents and grandparents who speak openly with them about sexual intimacy. Most, however, tell stories of teachers, parents, or faith leaders who used scare tactics or keep silent on the subject.

Talking about sex at age-appropriate levels doesn’t cause promiscuity or encourage young people to engage in sexual intimacy sooner than they might otherwise. In fact, a study conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that young people armed with information put off their first sexual experiences.

Just as parents are their children’s first and best teachers as babies and toddlers, they continue to teach even when their teenager stomps out of a room and slams a door in frustration. We have a precious opportunity to talk with our children about relationships like “falling in love” or sexual attraction. Studies also tell us that most of us don’t want to talk about sex with our adolescent children because we don’t want to talk about our own sexual behavior at their age, our own insecurities, conquests, or perceived mistakes.

Many of us simply wish someone else would take care of this for us. It’s not easy to have “the conversation,” but it doesn’t have to be so hard, and it needs to be numerous conversations.

If parents started talking correctly about basic body parts (the ones we can’t see) when children are very young, they could learn right along with their children. Our health-care professionals and daycare and preschool teachers can help us with this.

For Janice, the opportunity presented itself unexpectedly when her seventh-grade daughter interrupted dinner preparations to ask Janice if she would answer some questions for a class. Janice, an involved parent in small-town Iowa, immediately agreed. First question: “Tell me about your first sexual experience.” The question caught Janice completely off guard. “Whose class did you say this was for?” she stammered. The teacher was someone she knew well, and she immediately conjured up an image of the teacher’s late-night reading of her daughter’s report and having to face her at parent-teacher conferences or at the grocery store.

As a School Board member, Janice had been part of approving this life-skills class as part of a community effort to reduce teen pregnancies and improve the district’s graduation rate. With a few questions of her own, Janice realized this survey was meant to stimulate conversation but wouldn’t be turned in. She breathed a sign of relief, reminded herself to encourage her daughter to also ask her father the question, and proceeded to consider an appropriate response.

Christie Vilsack is executive director of the Iowa Initiative to Reduce Unintended Pregnancies.

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