Like many girls before me, I was unnerved by puberty. I needed someone to talk with me and not at me. I needed someone to show me how to navigate this unfamiliar territory. And had my Mother been herself, had she been the woman that she was when I was young child, I’m confident that she would have done just that. But my Mother was battling issues of her own at the time, and it was not possible for her to be there for me. That meant that the job of guiding me through puberty would fall on her extended family.
As noted in previous entries, my maternal family is Baptist and has Southern roots. And though my Grandma left Mississippi years before either my mother or I were born, our family was steeped in the traditions and ways of the place our matriarch came from. I was born in 1980, and as an adolescent I resided in one of the most progressive cities in America. However my home and my church were so far removed from the time and place that I could have been below the Mason-Dixon line. The ultimate authority on all things was to be the Bible. God’s way was the only way. For the women in my family, this meant that what girls needed to know once they hit puberty was quite simple:
- Boys are TROUBLE; avoid them
- Save yourself until marriage; all sexual expression outside of marriage is SIN, and finally
- ‘You had bet not bring no babies in this house out of wedlock! You bet not shame yo’ family like that!’
That was the extent of the comprehensive sex education that I received from my family.And had I been completely dependent on what they told me, I would have been appallingly ignorant in terms of basic knowledge regarding reproduction. I wouldn’t have been able to even draw a basic sketch of my own womb. My saving grace was 1) the fact that I’m an avid reader and naturally inquisitive and 2) being educated in public school.
I can still recall the first session of sex education when I was in middle school. I see my beautiful art teacher telling us to hush so that she could start. As the giggling ceased, she walked to the front of the class, holding a medium-sized lemon in her hand. She said that we’d be starting with the female reproductive system and that the lemon she held was comparable in size to a uterus. At the mention of the word ‘uterus’ a few boys started laughing again. Ms. D silenced them with one glare. As she continued the lecture, I listened attentively and took notes. Later I would go to the public library and check out books on sex and reproduction. I wanted to read everything that I could get my hands about the human reproductive system. I needed to know how and why our bodies worked the way that they did sexually, and I knew I wasn’t going to get that knowledge at home or at church.
My elders did not appreciate public schools when it came to sex education. Comprehensive sex education and access to condoms and birth control for older teens was bemoaned as yet another sign of how America had deviated from the “truth” and become mired in sin. What kind of country is this where the schools cannot sponsor prayer but can discuss menstruation and semen with twelve-year olds? The schools are taking over the role of the parents and family, it our job to teach kids this stuff! Never mind the fact that my family actually taught me nothing about reproduction. Never mind the fact that the women in my family burdened the issue of sex with such mystery, judgment and shame that I was completely uncomfortable discussing it with them. They felt it was their job and their responsibility alone, but when it came down to it they were not willing to handle that responsibility at all.
The sex education that I received in middle school gave me a decent foundational knowledge to work with. In high school this foundation would be strengthened by the efforts of another organization: Planned Parenthood. During my freshman and sophomore year of high school, representatives from PP came to speak to us twice during health class. The lecture, roughly an hour long, covered sexually transmitted infections(with special attention given to HIV) and birth control. Though I had not become sexually active at the time-my anxiety and terror trumped my raging hormones-I found the lecture to be informative and useful. And when I made the decision to become sexually active as an adult, I was armed with the necessary knowledge to make responsible decisions and empowered to take control of my reproductive health.
There are those who continue to push for “abstinence-only” types of sexual education for teenagers in school, arguing that teaching teens about condoms and birth control will cause teenagers to ‘misbehave’. Well I can only speak for myself and share my own experiences. When I was an adolescent, I didn’t need to see a box of Trojans or read a pamphlet on Depo-Provera injections to feel sexual desire. The simple fact-and this is one that we don’t like hearing as adult and parents-is that I felt sexual desire because it was innate in me to do so. Back then ALL of my peers-even those of us from devout families-struggled with our sexual appetites. We were not these asexual beings, dead to desire until sex education came along and somehow “corrupted” us. All sex ed did was teach us about our bodies and how to protect ourselves if and when we chose to become sexually active.
Ignorance is not bliss. When it comes to sex, ignorance can be deadly and destructive. When I look at the Black community and the statistics regarding abortion, unplanned pregnancies and STIs, I feel that our willful ignorance is a luxury that we can no longer afford. We cannot continue to miseducate our boys and girls about sex, the price to be paid is too high.