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Clark, who lives in Oakland with her two teen sons, runs the Sex-Positive Parent blog and offers private consultations and workshops where she coaches parents on having healthy conversations about sexuality with their kids. She recommends providing a specific style of sex education at home that deconstructs media and social messages about sexuality with kids in developmentally appropriate ways, an idea that at once seems awkward and practical at the same time.
Yet talking about sex can be tricky for parents with even the most open-minded of intentions. As Clark points out, they can either learn from us or from the myriad conflicting messages they receive through mainstream media.
Clark says she took a look at "all of the different things that kids are being told about heterosexuality and compulsive masculinity" and thought, "Wow, I'm gonna raise date-rapists if I don't intervene. And I also wanted them to know that they were not immune to exploitation or immune to abuse. I wanted them to know 'your body matters' and make consent a personal issue, not some external issue that I think we see too much of, like 'Oh, consent is something that girls have to worry about and boys don't.'
- WE NEED TO TALK Speaking to your teen about sex can be scary business, says parenting coach Airial Clark, but is key to altering our sexually violent culture.
"I wanted to take the gender out of that dynamic, so they know that human beings are vulnerable and bodies deserve respect and protection at all times, no matter whose body it is."
In a country sharply divided over how we educate our kids about sex and contraception, this might all seem progressive and liberating to us here in California's endless summer. Yet when it comes to actually talking to our kids about the realities of sexuality and the different ways relationships manifest when clothes come off and body fluids and feelings are involved, it's only natural for parents to freeze up.
"It's usually based in fear, and I try to validate them," Clark says. "How can you raise children in this society and not be freaking terrified? You live in a rape culture. We feel super-helpless because victims are blamed. So if your kid does get hurt, the whole planet is gonna tell your kid that it's their fault—and by extension, its your fault. And if you experienced any kind of sexual trauma, you were told it was your fault.
"So I try to tell them," Clark continues, "'Yeah, you should be scared. If you weren't scared, I'd be worried. It's normal.' But the question is, what are you going to do with it? Are you going to allow it to shut you down? Or are you going to take steps to do self-care on your own end so you can be available to educate and support your kids?"
Several studies, including one conducted by the CDC, show that teens who talk with their parents about sex, relationships, birth control and pregnancy begin to have sex at later ages, use condoms and birth control more often if they do have sex, have better communication with romantic partners and have sex less often. It seems that parents—or other trusted adults—can have a huge impact on the sexual literacy of our kids. But according to Abigail Barajas, a youth program coordinator with the Santa Rosa Community Health Centers, parents aren't having those much-needed conversations.
"There is no conversation going on between the kids and the parents," she says. "It's like, 'I don't want to talk about it,' or if we do talk about it, it's going to be me telling you how horrible it is and all of these horrible things are going to happen to you.'
"Who teaches us about relationships? Who teaches us about communication? Parents. They are role models. I don't understand how parents, in this day and age, are still so narrow-minded about sexuality."
The Santa Rosa Community Health Centers, which runs a clinic at Elsie Allen High School, is doing its best to fill in the dialogue gap with limited funding and through peer-education groups. But as Barajas points out, the rate of teen pregnancies and cases of STIs in Sonoma County has increased since her outreach and education program underwent major funding cuts three years ago—right at the very time she felt the programs were making a positive impact on incidents of teen pregnancy. Still, her efforts are making a difference, which she attributes to open, honest and normalized conversations about sexuality.
"We got money maybe 10 years ago to start a teen pregnancy-prevention program," says Barajas, "and in the group that I started, [teens] came and we got all of the information we needed to start the teen services. Then after that, they didn't want to go away. They wanted to learn more, they wanted us to teach them life skills so when they were out with their friends, they could help them.
"It has been an ongoing group for 10 years and I've had about 300 youth go through the group," Barajas adds. "Some of them are now working in our center, and some of them went on to become educators with health education. I've seen that it works because they are constantly texting me and we are constantly in contact with them. It does work."