I got into a pretty interesting debate a few weeks ago about teens and sex, more specifically birth control and whether or not it should be available to teens without parental permission. I am not going to go too far into that debate right now but I would like to touch on a subject that came up during this debate regarding sex education.
For the record I whole heartedly believe that teens NEED to have access to birth control and information about sexual health in order to stay safe, and I believe that forcing kids to seek parental permission limits their access to these resources. Would I like my teens to come to me to discuss these things? Of course, but I accept the fact that they may not feel comfortable doing so.
That being said, the person on the other side of this debate brought up a fair point: Can you really expect a teenager to have enough awareness and reasoning skills to make an informed decision about their medical care?
My basic answer is that if a teen has enough information and initiative to seek birth control before having intercourse they probably have a good understanding of the stakes they are dealing with. My longer answer is that we cannot and should not leave the answer to this question up to chance.
Will my teenagers come to me to talk about their sexual health? Maybe, maybe not. Will I take the time to sit down with them and talk about sexual health? Absolutely. And not just once, not when they reach a certain age, not with partial information or half truths designed to ‘shield’ them from reality or ‘avoid temptation’. Right now my son is 2 ½ years old, and I have already started this process. If he doesn’t choose to talk to me about this stuff as a teenager, I will at least know that he does in fact have the information he needs to make good decisions and I hope that I will have the faith needed to trust him to do so whether I am there with him or not.
Some of you may be asking yourself what I could possibly be teaching a toddler about sex. Right now we focus a lot on using proper names for body parts. There are no cutesy nick names here. Not only is this an important part of creating open and trusting communication about these issues but many advocacy groups maintain that children who know the proper names for all their body parts are less likely to be sexually abused in their life time. I am also very careful to take all of my son’s questions seriously and provide clear answers as much as possible. Because I am a labour doula my son has a lot of questions about what I do when I am away and ‘going to help a baby’ just doesn’t seem to cut it all the time so we watch birth videos, we talk about how babies grow in their mother’s uterus which is in their tummy and when the time comes the mother needs lots of love and support as she works really hard to bring baby out. We talk about breastfeeding, about how women have breasts that make milk for their babies and men don’t.
We also talk a lot about personal space. About how we need permission to touch other people and we teach that no means no. We don’t only talk about these things, we practice them. When my son doesn’t want to be picked up, we do not pick him up, when I am feeling too touched out to nurse him, I explain that my body is my own and he can ask me again in a little while. When we play tickle games or any other kind of rough housing we routinely check in with each other to make sure everyone is having fun and when someone says ‘stop’ we stop, no questions asked. This may not seem like sex education to everyone, but I believe that a healthy sex life starts with being empowered and expecting nothing less than respect for your autonomy. And in a culture that tries to tell us that victims invite assault by dressing and acting certain ways I want to make for damn sure my children know that people make decisions for their own bodies and that ‘No’ means ‘No’ even if you're 'just playing', even if 'they said yes before', even if they 'thought it was part of the game', no.matter.what.
As my son gets older I will continue to answer all of his questions honestly, we will continue to teach him that his body is his own. We will continue to talk about anatomy, not only his own, but also that of the opposite sex. We will talk about gender. We will talk about attraction. We will talk about love. We will talk about health. We will talk about responsibility. We will talk about these things as they come up, not as one sit down serious talk but as a series of discussions over the course of his life. So that when the time comes, and he is faced with decisions he may not feel comfortable coming to us with, he will at least have a lifetime of lessons to draw on to make decisions for himself.
Of course, my plans to educate my own child does not mean that every teenager seeking birth control will have as much information or as much support. Not every parent is equipped or willing to take this kind of proactive approach. So the question remains, even if I’ve prepared MY teenager to make informed decisions about his sexual health, does every teenager possess the awareness and reasoning to make these decisions without a parent’s permission?
That’s a tough question to answer. By and large I don’t think teens are given much credit, we are so filled with dread over stories of rebellious teens and all of the ‘trouble’ we got into when we ourselves were teens that imagining your own child as a teen can be terrifying. But in my experience, teenagers are just people, some are more responsible than others, some are more impulsive than others, but they are all at their core good people. They are not aliens from outer space who speak a totally different language, there is no secret method of management one needs to learn to ‘handle’ them. They are people, on the cusp of being self sufficient and functioning members of society.
If we as a society have not come together to ensure that these kids can make important decisions for themselves by the time they’re getting a drivers license or their first job then we have failed them. End of story. Where some would argue that we need to restrict access to sexual health services until the knowledge fairy comes on a kid’s 18th birthday to magically implant the wisdom to make informed choices, I would argue that we need to make sure every child in our society is given an honest and comprehensive health education so that when someone asks ‘Does a teenager in your community possess the awareness and reasoning to make decisions about their health’ the answer can always be ‘yes’.