August 15th, 2011
Culturally Relevant Sex Ed – It’s Not What We Get At Home

By a show of hands, how many of you have had “the talk” with your children or remember “the talk” with your parents?

I thought so; it’s not something we Latinos do well. Latinos learn about sex much in the same way we learn to swim – someone throws us into the deep end and yells: MOVE YOUR ARMS!

My experience was slightly different and you’d have to have known my mother to understand. She was a Spock/Donahue mom – that’s about the best way I can explain it. But I’ll get back to that.

All this comes up because I read that, beginning this year, the City of New York will mandate sex education in it’s classrooms. The New York Times says the plan uses

a curriculum that includes lessons on how to use a condom and the appropriate age for sexual activity.

This is all part of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initiative to improve the lives of black and Latino children. Teen pregnancy rates among blacks and Latinos is high in New York city, but that’s no different than it is anywhere else in the U.S. The Backersfiled Californian reports:

While nationwide, three out of 10 teen girls will become pregnant, for Hispanic teens, the chances are a full 50 percent. More than half of Hispanic women have their first child before the age of 20.

For some reason – culture, religion, propriety – Latinos tend to stay at arms-length from confronting sex in a head-on conversation. No one is better at the double entendre, but we’re oddly stumped (…stop!) when it comes to talking about sex with our kids.

Back to my mom. She was a registered nurse and I was eight years old when she announced that we’d soon have a new baby in the family. She sat my brother and me at the dinning room table, took out her Ob/Gyn text book from the 1950’s and proceeded to give us what amounted to a plumbing lesson: you know, a very clinical “insert tab a into slot b.” I thought it was interesting, but was antsy that the lesson end quickly – my buddies and I were digging a tunnel in the empty lot across the street and I was worried mom would see the dirt under my fingernails; she was a hand washing task master. The lesson came in handy later in life when middle school kids began to spread the myths of how people get pregnant. I had the goods, the scientific explanation of how babies are made, and I spoke my truth with pubescent authority. I held court and kept my all boy audience in rapt attention as I described girl parts (I’d seen the drawings in my mom’s book and been lured into a game of I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-your’s by a girl cousin thrice removed, but that’s another story) what those parts were for and how they worked.

I was reared according to Doctor Benjamin Spock and Phil Donahue;  a latch-key kid before the term was invented. My mother’s strategy was to arm me with as much information as she could and trust that I would use it. This was, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, not a typical Latino upbringing.

Stacy Shepard gives us a thought provoking perspective in the Bakersfiled Californian piece:

Recent research that has begun to focus more on Hispanics has found that one explanation for their stubbornly high teen birthrates may have to do with the failure of traditional prevention messages to connect with the community.

Standard prevention messages often characterize teen pregnancy as destructive behavior that can jeopardize future ambitions…Consequently, “a lot of teen pregnancy messages have been seen in the Latino community as anti-family, anti-baby, anti-child messages,” said Bill Albert, chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

The idea that babies ruin your future doesn’t travel well in many Latino communities. But the idea of a planned family does. A University of Texas study found:

Unlike parents within other ethnic groups, the study found that Spanish-speaking Latino parents expressed a desire to get help to better explain sex, healthy relationships and contraception to their children. Hopkins said each parent group expressed interest in speaking with their kids about sex, but Spanish-speaking Latino parents want help with the appropriate language to do so.

“They expressed a desire to take courses from the school or the community to learn how to talk to their kids,” (research assistant sociology professor and research associate at the Population Research Center Kristine) Hopkins said.

That’s an enormous shift from when I was a kid, and I’m hoping it’s what the NYC schools have in mind. Culturally appropriate sex education, and a little slot a and slot b, should make a huge difference.

Follow Victor Landa on Twitter: @vlanda

[Photo by knittymarie]

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