By Lulu Feingold and Casey McAndrew
For many students, both their formal and informal sex education occurs at school. As COVID-19 forced schools across the country to abruptly close, many parents took on an additional role as teachers. This sudden pressure on both children and adults has undoubtedly created stress for families, but it has also created a unique opportunity.
As families spend more time together at home, parents have a chance to connect with their kids and delve into sexual health in a meaningful and more intentional way. Countless studies have shown that having a trusted adult to approach in a shame-free environment empowers young people to make informed decisions about their own sexual health.
Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center has been a trusted local provider of reproductive health care since 1973 and comprehensive sexual health education in our surrounding middle and high schools since the 1990s. In recent years, we have seen enormous advances in how we understand gender and sexuality. We’ve learned more about the intersections of race, class and ability, and how these affect a person’s access to reproductive and sexual health services. Our society is adapting and evolving to address deep-seated social issues, and sex education should do the same.
When adults think of sex ed, many recall flustered gym teachers, separate rooms for boys and girls, horrifying photos of genitalia infections, condoms being applied to bananas — or maybe no sex ed at all. Even today, sex ed is mandatory in only 29 states. (Colorado is not one of them.) Some parents are survivors of sexual abuse or other trauma related to sexual health, and the prospect of raising these issues with their children now is deeply triggering.
A person’s own sex ed experience and the conversations they had (or did not have) about sex as a young person can directly inform how they approach their own children about sex. Parents are the single largest influence on their child’s decisions about their sexual health, and often underestimate this impact. For example, talking to one’s child about sexually explicit media such as pornography may seem daunting at first, but this conversation can be used as an opportunity to explore healthy relationships, boundaries, pleasure, consent and broader topics such as internet safety.
Responsible sexual health education has expanded far beyond “the birds and the bees”; school districts in Colorado that choose to provide comprehensive sex ed collaborate with organizations such as our clinic to inform students of the myriad birth control options (including abstinence), STI prevention and treatment, consent, healthy relationships, LGBTQ+ issues, gender fluidity and sex positivity. Now that our society is shifting to more home-based learning, well-meaning and eager parents may be realizing that they are not equipped with the language and/or resources to discuss sexual health holistically with their child. In addition to the issues mentioned above, topics such as pornography, pleasure, masturbation, and puberty are all crucial aspects of sexual health that are too often overlooked.
The internet is now the leading source of sexuality education in young people’s lives — long gone are the days of sex ed in the form of an outdated VHS tape. And with the knowledge that internet use will continue to expand, it’s crucial for the well-being of all young people and their families to acknowledge the needs and desires that the internet can fulfill, while simultaneously learning about online safety and media literacy. As we are called to stay at home, the internet has also become the default source of connection that we desperately crave. So, while quarantine and social distancing have pulled us away from so many healthy and positive forms of connection, this pandemic has presented us with a wonderful opportunity to reshape family connections, reestablish household values, and initiate important conversations.
As we increasingly rely on the internet for both education and connection, Boulder Valley Women’s Health has developed various digital resources to promote sexual and reproductive health. In addition to our TeenClinic.org website Q&A and our anonymous text line, designed specifically to answer teen questions about sexual health, BVWHC is offering a free webinar for parents on how to talk to their teens about sex as well as personalized, one-on-one, or small group discussions. We encourage parents to take advantage of this opportunity to learn, gain resources and reflect on their own values around sexual health and the messages they wish their children to internalize. To register for the webinar, visit bit.ly/sexedathome or find the link in our Instagram account @bvwhc.
Lulu Feingold is director of education and outreach at the Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center, and Casey McAndrew is the center’s education and outreach coordinator, and co-leads the sex ed programs.