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There were two people who spoke to me about sex when I was an adolescent. The first was my mother, who one day asked, “Do you have any questions about fallopian tubes or that kind of thing?” I, of course, had a million questions about anatomy, puberty, and reproduction (though very few about actual fallopian tubes) but instead said, “Nope, I’m good.”

The second, an older female teacher at my private, religious school, offered up cringe-worthy comments to a room full of middle school girls, reinforcing gender stereotypes and the message that our bodies were something to protect and guard, with “purity” (defined as abstinence until marriage) as the end goal. She never communicated to us that our bodies were our own, that we were in charge of the decisions we made about our bodies and that our bodies were to be understood and celebrated.

In 2016, Congress provided $176 million in federal funding for medically accurate and age appropriate sex education programs. However, there is still no required standard for sex education in this country and what students learn varies widely, depending on which state they reside and their school district. Only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education and only 13 of those states require that students be taught medically accurate information. Even within the two main types of sex education provided- abstinence until marriage versus comprehensive sex education- there is a wide spectrum of curriculum available and varying themes of emphasis. Even the comedian John Oliver was unable to truly summarize what sex education looked like in the United States, saying, “It turns out that’s a very difficult question to answer.”

And it’s too bad, because our kids have good questions and they deserve good answers.

Equipping our children with age appropriate and medically accurate knowledge about sex and their bodies has always been important but seems increasingly so today. I feel inundated with sexualized images and content from the television to the internet, and even with parental controls and filters, there is no way I can control all the messages and content my son and daughter receive about sex, their bodies and their self worth. I can, however, provide them with knowledge. And knowledge gives them power.

My son knows he has a penis and my daughter knows the difference between her vagina and her vulva. Both understand how babies are made. Both understand what is appropriate and inappropriate touch. Some of my friends were shocked to learn that my son, at the age of 3 ½, was already paging through “It’s Not the Stork!”, the first book in the thoughtfully written series by Robbie Harris, illustrated by Michael Emberly. I, however, felt proud and grateful for the opportunity to teach him about the wonders of the human body and the deep power and beauty present in both the male and female anatomy. 

I have heard some people voice concern that knowledge of your body and sex at a young age will encourage premature exploration or sexual experimentation but researchers out of Georgetown University, have actually uncovered the opposite, stating kids who receive comprehensive sex education are more likely to delay sex as well as have a deeper understanding of the issues related to sex. In addition, since kids’ sexuality and gender identity typically begin emerging during “very young adolescence,” defined as the period between the ages of 10 and 14, researchers recommend targeting sex education messages to children at the beginning of puberty, when they’re most receptive to messages that could shape their future attitudes toward sex. 

One thing I’ve learned as a parent is that I don’t have all the answers. But I do know my kids have questions and I don’t feel comfortable passing the responsibility to their school and teachers to answer those questions. Conversations are always a great way to start a dialogue about sex and changing bodies, but let’s be honest, sometimes kids are embarrassed to ask certain questions and sometimes adults feel the same way providing answers. Some great books I found helpful include the amazing series written by Robbie Harris and illustrated by Michael Emberly. These three books, “It’s Not the Stork”, “It’s so Amazing”, and “It’s Perfectly Normal” offer thorough, medically accurate and age appropriate information. I’d also recommend Mayim Bialik’s Girling Up: How to be Strong, Smart and Spectacular, especially for tween girls. 

I want to foster an environment in which my kids feel safe talking to me about their changing bodies. And if they still feel like they can’t go to mom with a question, then I have to provide them with sources of accurate information to supplement (or combat!) the sex education they receive in school and support them through these transformative and beautiful years.

And that's why I support COHI's sexual and reproductive health trainings for young girls and boys, especially in humanitarian crisis settings. With all the uncertainty at play during crises, it's good to know adolescents at least have the information they need to understand their bodies and how to stay healthy. Often, these trainings push against the country's existing shame and stigma young girls in particular feel about their bodies, while transforming the role of young boys to also be respectful future partners through conversations about consent. These trainings and conversations are essential for any child in any country to lead a healthy, safe and happy reproductive life. 

-Ann Van Zee