Facts of Life

When my sixth-grade “little sister” asked me some tough questions, I had some of my own: How do you talk to teenagers about sex?

“You get pregnant,” eleven-year-old Maria told me, “if you have a boyfriend.” Her friend Reyna nodded in agreement.

We were sitting in the noisy cafeteria of an East Austin middle school, where I visited Maria once a week as her mentor through a local program. When I had started mentoring, five years earlier, she had been much more likely to talk about chocolate milk or recess. Then came discussing her crushes on the Jonas brothers, followed by obsessions with boys in her class, and now more challenging conversations, which I wasn’t quite sure how to handle.

This one had started with her asking about boyfriends and how some of the eighth-grade girls had ended up with babies. “Now, wait a second,” I said, blushing a little. “What else has to happen to get pregnant and have a baby?” The girls looked at each other and tittered. Maria pulled at her long, chestnut-brown hair nervously. “I’m not sure,” said Reyna, who was dating a much older boy.

She was probably being shy, but I believed her that she wasn’t exactly sure. More than 96 percent of Texas school districts don’t give medically accurate information on pregnancy and disease prevention to their students. And 41 percent of the sexual education materials that are taught contain some sort of factual error, whether about condoms, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), or even simple anatomy.

The girls still giggling, I decided not to push the conversation any further. They were young, and I thought I’d let their parents tell them what they felt comfortable with.

Maria and Reyna chattered away, ignoring me for the rest of the lunch period. I knew it wasn’t really my place to give them details, but it worried me that they thought the order of things was boyfriend and then boom!—you were pregnant.

With abstinence-only a set-in-stone policy in Texas schools and less than half of parents talking to their kids about sex, where could tweens and teens get accurate information and protection? I’ve volunteered at Planned Parenthood events before, handing out condoms and pamphlets to adults, but the idea of giving prophylactics to anyone aged thirteen to eighteen made me cringe a little. Why? Philosophically, I didn’t have a problem with teenagers having sex. When I thought about it, it was really the weightiness of sex that worried me. Were sixteen-year-olds mature enough to handle the emotional implications of this very intimate act?

Regardless of any of our opinions on the subject, though, they’re doing it. Fifty-two percent of Texas teens have had intercourse, and almost 40 percent are currently sexually active. And for the first time in almost a decade, the national teen pregnancy rate is on the rise.

As a teenager, I had imagined that when I “grew up,” knowledge about sex, love, and relationships would fall magically into place. As a grown-up, I understood that it was a constant learning process. Teenagers in particular faced an interesting crossroads: They were still children in a lot of ways, yet they were starting to be adults in others. And they needed some help navigating that tricky space.

This was more than clear when I volunteered with Planned Parenthood in June. Teens had alarmingly basic questions for us. “Where does the penis go?” a fourteen-year-old girl asked. “Can I die from any of those STIs?” an older boy wondered.

In the movie version, the soundtrack would have screeched to a halt. Did I hear that right? HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and syphilis were listed on the board. It was terrifying that these teens wouldn’t already know the answers to these questions, especially considering that each year, almost three million more Texas teenagers are infected with an STI. How were they expected to keep themselves safe if they didn’t have access to this information? The PP representative didn’t skip a beat, though. She gave age-appropriate, straightforward responses, treating the teens respectfully, like they were, well, adults.

I hoped that at least a few of these kids attended the same school as Maria. She had confided that each sixth-grader was “assigned” to an eighth-grade “mom,” who would tell her everything she needed to know. Maria didn’t elaborate, but it seemed clear enough that “everything” included information about sex and drugs, among other things. I had immediately flashed back to the eighth-grade girl who had brought her baby into the cafeteria one day to show him off, a huge crowd of girls oohing and aahing around her.

Maria and her friends had been too busy chatting about their latest crushes and who had sent whom which dirty text message to go look at the baby. But they just stared past me, eyes glazed over, when I interrupted to suggest they talk to their parents about some of these more-serious issues. Then, they turned back to each other and resumed talking about boys.

Finally, I caught Maria’s eye. “Let me ask you something,” I said. She shrugged, which I took to mean, “Go ahead.”

“Why is it so important to have a boyfriend?”

“I want someone who will, like, listen to me, who I can tell things to,” Maria told me. Her tweenage bravado was broken for a moment. “Who will understand my feelings.”

It was a precocious statement, but it made me sad. I wished she could see that there were other people, like me, like her parents, who would try to listen. It also made me realize that she was growing up and might soon be in an intimate relationship.

Maria tilted her head and looked at me carefully before her next statement, maybe weighing whether or not I could be trusted. “And, you know,” she said, “someone to hug and kiss.”

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