I begged my way into my first real date at fifteen. I begged my mom, I mean. Not the guy, I promise.
And as soon as permission had passed my mamacita’s lips, I ran to my bedroom to begin the three hours of preparation necessary for a teenage girl’s first date. What did I do during those three hours? I didn’t wear makeup or blow dry my hair so my time was spent on two things: trying on every outfit I owned to decide which one was casually cool enough and lipsynching REM, most likely “You are the Everything” (don’t know this song? Go download it. It’s gorgeous and my favorite all-time REM song).
A knock on my door ninety minutes into my ritual revealed my father. Surely, he was presenting himself to apologize for my mother’s ceaseless grilling earlier (why does he want to go out with you? she kept asking. So he can kiss me mom, I wanted to say.), but instead he sat on my bed and looked at my wall, a vivid collage of words and images I’d been working on for three years.
“We gotta talk, nena,” he said without shifting his gaze.
Until then I’d been spared a sex talk from my parents, and I assumed that our devout Catholicism meant I wouldn’t be subjected to any uncomfortable conversations on this topic. Certainly, there was nothing worse than hell, so why bother with warning me about STDs and teenage pregnancy? But eyeing my nervous father sitting on my bed, holding something cupped in his hand, nausea licked at my stomach lining. His eyes left the wall, perhaps satisfied that there were no words related to sex plastered up there, and he opened his hand. In his palm, he held a quarter (yes, I was just as surprised as you are).
“This quarter is for you to keep between your knees. Put it there tonight and do not let it drop until you are married. ¿Comprendes?”
He stared at me, expectant. This was not a joke.
I nodded, silent. It would be years before I could laugh at this incident, before it could be an antecdote in our family’s folklore that I delivered to great guffaws. Eventually, my close friends mailed my fathers’ quarters as they got married. Every semester, I tell my students this story as we talk sexuality and body image (what do body image and sexuality have to do with each other? As it turns out, girls and women with healthy body image and self-image engage in the least risky behavior).
In that moment, though, I sat there stunned and silent. I already had clear intentions—convictions, even—to follow the rules of Catholicism. I had never disappointed my parents before, never acted in a way that would shame them, and I certainly did not want them pondering between themselves whether I was having sex. But that is what every kid probably wants—a free pass from talking about sex to their parents—and even though my lesson did not include the details of how the sperm meets the egg, their way of going about things was an attempt to let me know their expectations and there was something to be said for that.
Years later, one of the more ironic storylines in my life is that despite my naivete as a girl, I am now a vocal proponent of sex education- not because I think all kids are having sex (although I learned today that 25% of high schoolers will have had 4 sexual partners before they graduate), but because I believe that it is unacceptable to not know what is happening to your body, what impact your decisions can have on your body, your health, and your life while you might possibly be making decisions that put you at risk. Kids need to know what is happening with their bodies as they approach and go through puberty. They need to know what happens during sex and what can happen because of sex. If we don’t tell them those things, they make up their own storylines- storylines that include “you can’t get pregnant your first time” and “you can’t get pregnant standing up” among other things. Storylines that put them in jeopardy not just that day but for the rest of their lives. Moreover, I think parents need to share their expectations with their kids (which is what my father successfully did even though he wasn’t able to tell me much more) and parents need to know that talking to your kids about sex does not mean they are going to have it. I promise that if your kid was that highly suggestible, then you’d never need to ask them to do something twice- like clean their rooms. In fact, the number one reason a young person abstains from sex? Not fear of pregancy. Not fear of disease. They abstain because it goes against their values.
Most importantly, though, I think it’s dangerous to keep empowering information from a person at any age. And this sort of statistic: 53% of Latinas get pregnant befor the age of 20- is a statistic that lets me know we’re failing too many girls (the overall teen pregnanty rate shows us that, too). And so I was gungho when the Circle de Luz board decided that we needed to do a Teen Health workshop not just with our Circle de Luz girls but with their parents, too. Then, as it turns out, I was the board member who drew the straw of being at the parent workshop (let me just go ahead and say that we had a very capable physician, Dr. Kristin Rager, whose specialty area is adolescent medicine do the workshop; not me). Then, I was less gungho and mostly nauseous, reminiscent of the teenage girl facing her father over a quarter so many years ago.
Turns out, though, that these parents were receptive and already on top of it and wise and not at all offended that we wanted to have this talk and so my 15 year old girl stomachace went away in short order. The most important advice that Dr. Rager gave our parents was that they didn’t have to know the right scientific answer to every question that their daughters had. The most valuable thing to show their daughters is their willingness to talk about it, to be present, to not shy away from the subject, and to share with them what their hopes were for their daughters’ futures as well as the information they need to be safe no matter their decisions. Sure, this can be done with a quarter, but it’s so much better when it is done with actual words.
The other thing that Dr. Rager said that I have seen echoed in both research that I have done (for Hijas), read (for teaching), and witnessed (with Circle de Luz and as a teacher) is that the best thing a kid has going for them is the feeling that a number of adults care for and are invested in them (they do not have to be related adults) and are available for earnest, open conversations. So think about the young people in your life who you care about and be one more unafraid, supportive, open adult in their fold.
* I went looking for a circa 15 year old photo and found this one which is not from my first date at all but, I believe, is totally the outfit I wore on that first date. That coincidence totally cracked me up.