Breaking Barriers Around Sexual Health

It started when I turned ten. I was one of the three girls in my elementary school who had their period. Eww, what is a period? Why am I bleeding? Why does my body hurt? Why is hair growing here and there? My parents were mortified by the fact that they were going to have to have “the talk.” Like most of my cousins, I was handed three things: bras, pads, and The Care and Keeping of You. No discussion--that’s it!

Photo Courtesy of Kid Stuff I LOVE      

The Care and Keeping of You is described as the “body book for girls” by American girl. It touched on topics of boobs, periods, sweating, bras, and acne. There was absolutely no mention of masturbation, sexual attraction, or sex--these were left in the dark.

 

When I was younger, movie nights with my family were some of the most awkward experiences of my life. While I was left in the dark about matters concerning romantic and/or sexual attraction, I was also not allowed to watch any physical gesture of this attraction. They were holding hands, COVER YOUR EYES! They were kissing, COVER YOUR EYES! The words “I like a boy” couldn’t leave my lips without a barrage of derision. I would never dare say the word “sex.” I vividly remember asking my parents what it meant to be a virgin, and the visible discomfort was all I needed to know that I couldn’t ask questions of this matter with them. After a brief pause, my parents told me that virgins were saints like the Virgin Mary and quickly shifted the conversation.  

 

Even as I got older, my parents would still tease me if I saw a kissing scene. With time, this embarrassment and uncomfortability intensified to the point that even alone as an adult I felt the creeping awkwardness building up during these scenes. It wasn’t until recently that I stopped fast-forwarding through most of these scenes. Their uncomfortability to deal with matters of they deemed “grown-up” affected my perception about personal intimacy and comfortability with my own body.

 

 I thought that this was just the way that my family dealt with these issues. Upon entering high school with the school population predominantly students of color,  these issues were again raised. Amongst my Mexican friends,, we talked about periods, boys, and sex. It felt weirdly exciting to talk freely about things that even with my female cousins we wouldn’t discuss. My friend who had become sexually active would share her experiences and concerns with us as she felt she could not communicate them to her mother. I remember the fear she had when she had to ask her mother about birth control. The conversation that immediately followed insured was riddled with shame and guilt. While she was being proactive about her sexual health, her mom initially could not have an open dialogue about it.

 

Sexuality and puberty are cloaked in a blanket of secrecy in Mexican culture. My parents both emigrated from Mexico at respective times of their childhood and adolescence. They were raised with the idea that sexuality wasn’t a topic that was discussed between children and parents. In a traditionalist point of view, sex was seen as an act between married couples and virginity was sacred. These were the attitudes that my parents brought to the States. To elucidate this point, it is helpful to refer to hit TV series Jane the Virgin. While the show does not focus on a Mexican family, Alba, the grandma, continuously reminds Jane about the sacrality of virginity. There is a flashback within the show where Alba makes young Jane hold a white flower in her hand. She instructs Jane to crush it and then to immediately try to repair it back to its original state. To Alba, the flower is analogous to Jane’s virginity. Once it’s gone, it’s permanently lost. There is also a strong association between virginity, marriage, and religion. Alba perfectly captures what a conversation if I had one with my grandma about virginity would be and while my parents never openly expressed their feelings like Alba, it was always implicitly implied.

 

Photo Courtesy of Channel Guide

 

Masturbation? Sexual Attraction? Boyfriends?  Those were thoughts I would never have expressed out loud. I usually told my mom everything, but there were clear boundaries. Now being in college, I have made it a point to being open and honest about these topics. It first started amongst my female cousins as we talked about our sexualities and our sexual health. It was initially uncomfortable as all of us were raised with the similar mentality of embarrassment of sexual desires and bodily functions, but we could now rely on one another for advice and support in situations we didn’t see fit for our parents. After realizing how rewarding it was to express or ask questions that I have been too scared to before or too embarrassed to google (and eventually end on sites like What’sWrongWithMyBody.com), I knew it was time to talk to my parents. I finally broached the subject of birth control and sex with my mother and despite the constant beating of my chest, she reciprocated interest in wanting to be more present and available. While my dad has been a little harder to approach, I still have hopes of starting a dialogue between my dad about matters such as these.

 

I understand that beginning to have these types of conversations may be hard to start with even your friends, but  I do believe that shouldn’t discourage you from trying. For clarification purposes, when I talk about communicating to your parents, these discussions do not only apply to safe sex and birth control. It applies to menstruation, relationships, and bodily issues of the genitalia. They may not have all the answers, but they could have the resources or simply the support to guide you through unsure times. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends or family! If you were like me growing up with these issues that led to their manifestations of feelings of shame and embarrassment surrounding sexual health, starting conversations are key.  Women shouldn’t feel ashamed about their bodies nor their desires!