#TalkingIsPower: Advocating for High-Quality Sex Ed—at Home and in Schools

#TalkingIsPower: Advocating for High-Quality Sex Ed
Clockwise from top left: Mackenzie Piper, Roxy Szal, Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley and Vanessa Geffrard.

Throughout the month of May, a coalition of reproductive justice, sexual health and feminist organizations came together to celebrate #SexEdForAll month, designed to highlight the importance of high quality sex ed.

Under the current U.S. education system, sex ed is often highly stigmatized, devalued or even factually incorrect. Only 29 states require any sex education to be taught at all. Even when sex ed is taught, only nine states require curriculums be LGBTQ inclusive, and only 18 require that the information be medically accurate. As a result, too many students are taught abstinence-based curriculums that are often misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic.

But the importance of access to evidence-based sex ed is undeniable. Even though nearly all teens say they don’t want to get pregnant, roughly one in four young women will become pregnant at least once by the age of 20. Most of these pregnant people under the age of 20 say they have never really thought about how getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant would affect their lives. 

Clearly, we as a society need to be better about normalizing sex talks in the home and ensuring high-quality sex ed in schools in order to ensure everyone has the power to decide if, when and under what circumstances to get pregnant and have a child.

In addition to preventing unplanned pregnancies, comprehensive K-12 sex ed also equips kids to be better prepared for life’s complicated situations. It promotes more respectful views of women and girls, which then sets them up to raise their children without rigid gender norms. Ultimately, it will help create a more equitable society with lower rates of violence against women, men and the trans community. Acccess to sex ed must be a priority, because all young people deserve access to inclusive, non-stigmatized and medically-accurate information about sex, love and relationships.

In honor of #SexEdIsForAll month and Power to Decide’s #TalkingisPower campaign, Ms.’s Roxy Szal spoke with four experts about how to support young people as they navigate sex ed, consent and relationships. The virtual panel featured:

  • Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley, CEO of Power to Decide. Dr. McDonald-Mosley is a widely recognized expert in sexual and reproductive health, with experience as a practicing OB/GYN. She has a deep commitment to reproductive health and justice, and worked in various roles at both Planned Parenthood of Maryland and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America prior to joining Power to Decide.
  • Mackenzie Piper, senior manager of programs of Power to Decide and a certified health education specialist with a masters in public health. Piper supports the One Key Question initiative, which provides a framework for healthcare providers on starting the conversation with patients about pregnancy desires, whatever they may be, and outside of Power to Decide, Mackenzie also teaches the Our Whole Lives sex ed curriculum to middle and high schoolers in DC. Prior to joining Power to Decide, she worked with Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands, and has also worked at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and provided support for the vaccine delivery team.
  • Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, who runs a virtual sex ed class for her almost 2 million followers on TikTok. She is fighting public health misinformation and calls her videos “The Health Class You Wish You Had in High School.” Dr. Lincoln is also a board-certified ob-gyn and attending physician, as well as the author of the forthcoming book Let’s Talk About Down There: An OB-GYN Answers All Your Burning Questions…Without Making You Feel Embarrassed for Asking
  • Vanessa Geffrard, the founder of VagEsteem, a workshop series and podcast that encourages healthy sex through courageous conversation about love, sex, relationships and everything in between. She is a sex educator who manages and implements middle school programming, adult training and community workshops. She also trains and educates adults, parents and community groups around sexual health topics like consent, boundaries, STI prevention, contraception, teen pregnancy, abortion stigma, LGBTQ inclusion and more.

The Power Talk, hosted by Power to Decide, was part of a series that engages leaders in the sexual and reproductive health field. Watch the full Power Talk here, or read the Q&A below:

Roxy Szal: What were your experiences with sex ed like? What is high quality, evidence-based sex ed, and would you consider the sex ed that you got to meet that standard? I certainly wouldn’t.

Vanessa Geffrard: When it comes to high quality sex ed, I think the first thing we’ve got to think about is having sex ed from “life-affirming sex educators,” and when I say a person’s a life-affirming sex educator, I mean people who are equipped, who are comfortable, and are able to work through their biases in a classroom.

I think, oftentimes, we think sex ed is just as simple as “We’re going to read the curriculum,” but it really matters who’s doing it. Because we are in such a taboo society, a lot of times the people that are teaching our children may not feel comfortable, have not worked through their biases, have not had talks about equity and racism in the classroom and how that impacts our sexuality and so much more.

When I think about high quality sex education, it has to be comprehensive, meaning that we are hitting everything, not only just the biology, but abuse, healthy relationships, body confidence, how we interact with each other, what respect looks like, and so much more.

I went to an all-girls Catholic school. In 12th grade, we had a class called “morality,” and the nurse came in and told us that couples that use contraception will break up within four to five years. Condoms don’t work. Birth control doesn’t work. And so, I essentially thought, “Well, we never had to talk about this for the last four years, so I guess what this woman is saying is true. Let me go out and spread this information.”

And it wasn’t until I got to college and I was talking to a group of friends, and I was like, “I’m never using birth control. I’m never using condoms.” And they were like, “Who hurt you? Where did you get that from?” I had no knowledge of STIs. I had no knowledge of relationships. I had no knowledge of keeping my body healthy. And so, when I think about this work and why it’s so important, we need to be equipping the next generation with all of these tools that a lot of us never had, and being open to having a lot of these taboo conversations.

“When I think about this work and why it’s so important, we need to be equipping the next generation with all of these tools that a lot of us never had, and being open to having a lot of these taboo conversations.”

—Vanessa Geffrard

Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley: I will cosign on everything that Vanessa said. It’s critically important that young people have access to information from a competent, knowledgeable, non-judgmental adult who’s willing to have conversations with them that they may not be able to get anywhere else, and it should include topics around a range of things, including consent, healthy relationships, gender identity.

And it should be age-appropriate. We should start early with age-appropriate information, making sure people know the right technical terms to use so that they can communicate with you if something’s wrong or if someone touches them inappropriately at a young age, and then expanding the conversation. So, it’s not a one-and-done thing, but a series of conversations that should be had.

I was really lucky. I started to get sexual health education in my middle school. From my recollection, it was very focused on sort of exposure to sexually transmitted infections and risks, but it did provide me with the tools to have these conversations and to ask questions.

I was also super lucky that, even though I came from a very religious, pretty traditional family with older parents, that I was the youngest of nine. So, probably, my parents had made all of the sort of wrong decisions first and went about it the wrong way, but in their ninth time practicing, they sat me down and had some very candid conversations with me when I was in high school about healthy relationships, sexual health and pleasure—which, as a 13-, 14-year-old, was super awkward to be having these conversations with my parents, but guess what? I knew that they were trusted individuals that I could come to and ask the tough questions, and I knew they weren’t going to judge me, and that was critically important. And now that I have my own teenagers, that’s something that I’m trying to replicate in my household now. 

So, I would say that for the time period, I probably had a better experience than most. But what we can offer today is way better, and I really encourage all parents and champions and aunties and uncles to have these conversations with their young people because the reality is that young people want to hear this information, not only in their schools and from their health educators, but from you, as well.

“It’s critically important that young people have access to information from a competent, knowledgeable, non-judgmental adult who’s willing to have conversations with them that they may not be able to get anywhere else, and it should include topics around a range of things, including consent, healthy relationships, gender identity.”

Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley

Dr. Jennifer Lincoln: I’m a former all-girls Catholic high school person, too. So I had the same morality class. The woman who taught us about sex probably wasn’t that informed, and she told us that if our boyfriend asked us to have sex, that, instead, we should suggest making a salad together. And that has been a joke that lives on in infamy with my friends. 

It was just, like, “Don’t do it, don’t talk about it.” That’s not comprehensive sex education, and I think this dichotomy that we set up, especially for young girls and people with vaginas is “sex is evil, sex is evil, sex is evil. Oh, now you’re married? Well, you better be a sex kitten because that’s what’s expected of you,” and we don’t ever teach how to feel good or that you should speak up if it hurts.

Mackenzie Piper: I think the first thing that comes to mind is the need for the wide range of topics. We’re talking about everything from healthy relationships to decision making, gender identity, body image, STIs, dare I say pleasure, and so much more.

What I would love to see, and what is happening with amazing sex educators across the country, is being able to let young people have the space to explore their own values and beliefs as it relates to sex, love, and relationships. It’s one thing to get information and hace an instructor pour their cup of wisdom into your empty cup, but it’s another thing for the conversation to be interactive, and also for young people to have that space to gain and practice skills like navigating relationships and talking about consent.

I, too, went to a Catholic school. It was very disease prevention focused, very teen pregnancy prevention focused, based in “morality.” I’m using that in quotes because that was morality through a certain lens, and a lot of abstinence until marriage. I remember pictures of STIs used as a scare tactic rather than having a conversation, which would’ve helped me place myself in the context rather than seeing pictures of biology and anatomy. My humanity wasn’t a part of that conversation. So I want to make sure young people have a different experience of sex ed growing up.

‘This dichotomy that we set up, especially for young girls and people with vaginas is “sex is evil, sex is evil, sex is evil. Oh, now you’re married? Well, you better be a sex kitten because that’s what’s expected of you,” and we don’t ever teach how to feel good or that you should speak up if it hurts.’

Dr. Jennifer Lincoln

Szal: What are some of the major components that are lacking in the sex education young people are receiving today?

Piper: One thing in particular that comes to mind for me is reframing what we’re saying. Understanding the aspects of sexuality through a strengths-based lens rather than a risk prevention lens or a deficit-based lens, and talking about it in a more complete way.

When I was kind of first getting facilitated in sex ed, I was given this great diagram, created originally by Dr. Dennis Dailey. It shows these five circles of sexuality. It includes everything from sensuality, sexualization, sexual health and reproduction, intimacy, and sexual identity—and when we think about how sex ed often plays out in a classroom setting, we’re focused so much on that sexual health and reproduction piece of sexuality. So, my hope and dream for what sex ed could be is less of that biomedical prevention lens and more talking about how to be more positive around sexuality, healthy relationships, pleasure, and really centering body autonomy.

(Interagency Gender Working Group, or IGWG)

Lincoln: I think, for me, the biggest thing that I see lacking is the whole conversation. That, in so many schools, it doesn’t even happen, and if it does, only 18 states require it to even be medically accurate. I see it on TikTok where people will say, “Well, my health teacher said this. The nurse said that,” and it’s information that is totally incorrect. Why are educators being given this pass? We say that people have to be taught the Common Core math. But for sexuality, sex ed, health education, we say, “Sorry, no big deal.” So when it is even broached, it is often not done to a level that we should demand when we want our kids to understand how their bodies work.

McDonald-Mosley: We need more appreciation that decisions that people make about sex and sexuality happen in the full context of their lives, and treating people as complete individuals with bodily autonomy and self-determination. And just to reiterate, practice. Practice having those consent conversations. Practice how to put the condom on so that when it’s game time, that you’re comfortable doing it. So, both the practical components as well as sort of the more esoteric components of contextualizing sexuality as part of our whole humanness. I think those pieces are really missing.

Geffrard: The number one thing that comes to the forefront is that we teach what to do, but we don’t teach people how to do it. So, for instance, in consent education. We teach people, “You should say no, you should say yes,” but nobody actually practices with you about what to say when you’re in a situation and you like the person, they like you back, but it’s a little complicated. No one really teaches you nuance and language. So, a lot of the disservice we do to our students, we say “say yes, say no”—but do we really say yes or no? That’s not the way that we speak. That’s not the language that we use in everyday settings. 

So, for example, we say things like, “Yeah, sure, I’ll come over,” or we’ll say, “I’m okay. Call me later.” That’s essentially saying no, but we don’t do this thing where we are explicitly saying yes or no in our language. So, I think sex education, as a whole, leaves out culture. It leaves out nuance. It leaves out language, and it leaves out the skills and the role-plays that we need to actually know how to do the thing when the moment pops up. 

And only 28 states mandate sex education. So, like Dr. Lincoln was saying, not everybody is getting the same information. A lot of people aren’t getting medically accurate information. When we are also talking about LGBT students, only seven states require teachers to explicitly portray LGBT people in a positive light. Six states require education to include information about consent. When we are talking about race as it relates to sex education, a lot of times, we just give everybody the same things without understanding the culture nuance, and so, what we find is that a lot of abstinence-only education programs are being pushed to targeted low-income school districts, which are disproportionately filled up with Black and Latinx students.

Szal: Anecdotally, I went to an all-girls Catholic school in Pennsylvania, where you think that empowerment would be at the forefront, but even still, consent and taking control of my own body just weren’t covered. And today, even in “liberal states,” like California and Oregon, consent is either covered in a very limited way or is just not part of the statewide sex ed curriculum at all. But one in five women will experience completed or attempted rape in their lifetime. For the trans community, that number is more like three in five, and for men, that number is about one in 33. So why isn’t consent a priority in education curriculums? 

McDonald-Mosley: I think we have to not only talk about consent, but recognize the nuances and the ways that consent is given, and to talk about informative consent and to make that sexy. So, really, teaching young people very early on to ask their friends if they can consent to give each other a hug in kindergarten, not forcing very young people in our families to kiss and hug people that they’re not comfortable kissing and hugging, and making sure that people understand that they have full bodily autonomy from a very early age.

And then, as they progress through the conversations, talking through what consent should look like with sexual activity and having it be affirmative. And then having tough conversations about when it’s not consent, when someone is under the influence or when they’re unsure or just quiet. We have to model that for people and go through all these different scenarios. So, it needs to be much more of a focus of sexual education, and that’s the only way we’re going to get to undoing those statistics that you lifted up for us.

Lincoln: Consent involves choice, and in places where we have politicized choice and in a patriarchal society, where women are supposed to be a certain way, look a certain way, act a certain way, implying consent, well, that takes some power away from the people who are typically running the show. Quite frankly, in my high school, we didn’t talk about consent because it also meant that you might actually choose to have sex, and that’s not a choices we were allowed to have. So, the topic of even covering consent was too controversial and still is, in many places.

I’ve got two small boys, and we do it like Dr. McDonald-Mosley. “Can I hug you? Can I kiss you? Oh, your brother said it was okay to touch you. Now he’s saying no. You need to stop.” No means no, and it’s not waiting just to talk about it when we’re talking about sex or asking if you can kiss a girl or something like that. It starts so young.

And for me, I tell people it starts early. You might sound silly talking to your baby, and saying “I’m going to change your diaper now. Can I change your diaper?” I mean, babies have a way of communicating, and it really starts because then you start to internalize that. So, I think the reason we don’t talk about it enough is because consent makes some people uncomfortable.

Geffrard: I can talk for days around consent, but I think that we think that it’s an easy concept. When I’m in front of a group of college students, I always tell them, everyone understands the concept of consent. We just choose to act like we don’t understand when we get to sexual situations, but as young as when we’re 5 years old, we were all taught, “hey, you cannot take that person’s toy without asking them first. Hey, you can’t play doctor with that person without asking them first.”

We all have the foundations, but for some reason, we feel that it is not sexy to talk when we’re having sex, and a lot of that I feel is rooted in shame. It’s rooted in the idea that we shouldn’t be doing this anyway. It’s rooted in how we view sex and sexuality and our wants and our need to do it, and so, there’s a lot of nuance when it comes to shame in that conversation.

Something that is super paramount to me is, again, doing the role-play. So I put up a scenario, and I say, you know, “one person wants to do something. The other person’s kind of on the fence. That one person’s body is saying something, but the other person can’t really read it. What do they do?” This is part of that speaking and practice and critical thinking.

I have all of my students go around, and I ask them “how would you, in your own words, ask for consent?” Whatever they say, like “hey, can I hit it?” or “hey, you want to do this? “ whatever that is, I want to affirm them in that. That is the way that they, in their own language, are asking for consent, and that’s what we need to do a lot more practice on so that when the situation pops up, they know this is the time that I got to ask for this consent.

“I’ve got two small boys. … No means no, and it’s not waiting just to talk about it when we’re talking about sex or asking if you can kiss a girl or something like that. It starts so young. … ‘Can I hug you?’ ‘Can I kiss you?’ ‘Oh, your brother said it was okay to touch you. Now he’s saying no. You need to stop.'”

—Dr. Jennifer Lincoln

 Piper: I think it’s been a journey of evolving and refining over time, and something that has happened for a long time is just offering this textbook definition of consent. And as Vanessa just lifted up, sexuality doesn’t boil down to textbook definitions. It is the practice of skills. It’s the practice of asking for and receiving content. It’s the practice of naming how someone might navigate a situation before the situation ever occurs.

And I think sex educators who have their ear to the ground have been implementing consent conversations for a long time, and I’ve been seeing the positive impact of them, and I think the conversation has evolved and refined, and will continue to over time, as we learn what’s effective and what’s not. So for a while, there was no means no, and then it turned to, yes means yes, and then it turned to enthusiastic consent, and now we’re moving to authentic consent.

There’s an amazing sex educator named Nadine Thornhill, and her definition is “real consent happens when everyone involved in the sexual encounter has agreed to the kind of intimacy or sex they want to be having,” and at the basic minimum, everyone involved wants to be there, they want to be doing what they’re doing, and they have to care that the other person involved, or people involved, want those things as well. And so there’s no picking and choosing of the content, which happens a lot now. We can just fit this in two sessions. This has to be of top priority, and unfortunately, that hasn’t happened universally. 

Geffrard: I think, also, with the emergence of the #MeToo movement and so many of the situations where we’re seeing sexual assault coming to the limelight and people are really talking about it, a lot of folks think that our kids aren’t paying attention, but what comes up for me constantly in the classroom is, “Well, these people are just after money, and this woman just wants this,” and so, those messages are working through our young people. And this is affecting a new generation of believing survivors and really speaking up. When we think our young people aren’t paying attention, they are. They know all about these movements. They hear about the news scandals.

Szal: The reality is that so many students don’t have parents or guardians at home that they can turn to, and not all these adults have the skills to be the best sexuality educators for their kids. So, how can parents, champions, and mentors make themselves an “askable person” to the young people in their life? 

Piper: I think to be an askable adult, we have to recognize that it takes time, it takes building trust, and it takes the repetition of showing up again and again and again and again. That boils down to taking the anticipation off of the talk and recognizing that it is talking early and often. Hopefully, that does take some pressure off. They don’t have to get it perfect that one time; these are long, long conversations.

I also think having non-judgmental curiosity is so important in these conversations. Maybe a parent is driving the car and they hear some kids talking and later say, “hey, I heard you and your friend talking about how babies are born. Do you have questions about that? Do you want to talk to me about that?” I also think that’s really related to checking for understanding, because a lot of trusted adults may jump to conclusions. Like, I overheard my kids saying that they’re hanging out with someone, and all of a sudden, I’m imagining them dating someone who’s five years older, but hanging out may be a different definition for the young person. So, how do you check for understanding, check what is it they already know about something, and then how can you build on that? 

I also think the best trick in the book is naming when we don’t know something. We are not these superheroes who have every answer. I think it makes it vulnerable and honest to say “I can come back to you later when I have a better answer.” Especially during this time of COVID when folks are spending a lot of time with their young people, use shared experiences, shared events, even shared media to spark conversations.

“To be an askable adult, we have to recognize that it takes time, it takes building trust, and it takes the repetition of showing up again and again and again and again. That boils down to taking the anticipation off of the talk and recognizing that it is talking early and often. … They don’t have to get it perfect that one time; these are long, long conversations.”

—Mackenzie Piper

Szal: Why don’t we have a standard federal sex ed curriculum, and is there a federal policy that could create some sort of uniform approach? What legislation should we be keeping an eye out for?

McDonald-Mosley: There is no federal policy that would require evidence-based sex ed across the country, and in fact, as we’ve lifted up today, many states don’t even have a policy requiring sex ed. So, we have a long way to go here. However, the silver lining is there are some evidence-based programs out there that are sponsored by the federal government. For example, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and the Personal Responsibility Education Program that provide grants to states, tribes, and communities to replicate high quality evidence-based programs. 

One piece of legislation that we are keeping an eye on is the Real Education and Access for Healthy Youth Act (REAHYA) that would make needed investments and inclusive and honest sex education programs and create linkages to sexual health services for young people who face the greatest barriers to information and access in our country. So, this is super exciting. We urge you to reach out to your members of Congress and ask them to support this legislation.

Szal: While we wait for these types of bills, lives are literally hanging in the balance. In the meantime, do you have any advice for listeners who want to become advocates for quality sex ed in their local communities, in the schools, where they live, work, send their kids?

Lincoln: Our voices have power, and on the local level, that is not insignificant. So, if you’re a parent and you have kids in school, you’re paying taxes. It’s your right to know what is your child being taught or not being taught, and reaching out to the principal or the teacher and saying, “we need comprehensive sex education. Can you tell me, what does that look like in this school?”

And if they’re like, “yeah, we have that one hour that one time where we separate the girls and the boys,” maybe that’s not ideal. Maybe you could get together with other people and say, “hey, this is really important. Let’s look at this.” And maybe you’re not going to take over the school board and be able to change it, but you still have an effect. You can get together with other parents and say, “hey, this Vanessa Geffrard, she’s got these great courses, let’s get a group of kids together, and let’s do this.” You can take it into your own hands. 

Szal: In the absence of quality sex ed in schools or quality conversations with knowledgeable adults, many young people have been getting their sex education and information from social media sites, such as TikTok. How is social media playing such a big role in education for topics on sexual and reproductive health?

Lincoln: I didn’t want to be the TikTok doc. But when I saw what was there, I was somewhat horrified, and I still am on the daily because some stuff out there is so bad. And it’s so hard to know what’s good and what’s bad. They’re accessing social media, and they’re not in school full time right now. They’re not getting the conversation at home because, and so they go on TikTok. They see something. Something goes viral. A lot of people are watching it, so it must be real, right? And no, that’s not the case. When it comes to social media, it can be great from reliable sources, but it’s really important to know that not everything is reliable.

And so parents and educators can sit down and scroll with your kid and say, “okay, let’s see what comes up. What do we think about this? How do you know it’s good information? How do you know it isn’t? Where do you go to find that out?” And also say “if you see something online and you’re not so sure, just show it to me, and let’s talk about it,” because then you can dispel those myths.

When it comes to the LGBTQ community, that is even more important, because so few classrooms are even covering it, and there are even six states that require that homosexuality and trans people only be covered in a negative way and that heterosexuality be presented as the norm and the ideal. So, these people are being told that they’re not valid, and we know that they have a limited number of trusted adults. So, they’re going to social media even more, and again, we know it’s not always reliable. And that really contributes to hostile school environments, hostile home environments, and so it can be really dangerous.

Szal: What are some of the top myths or misinformation you hear from young people? 

Lincoln: The number one thing that I see is people don’t know what normal vaginas look like. People are so worried because we don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about the range of what a vulva can look like or what vaginal discharge is. And then this whole industry swoops in and tries to convince you that you’re dirty and you’re supposed to smell like morning dew. So if you’re 14, you think you’re supposed to look like what you see in porn, and you’re supposed to smell like this, and you’re supposed to be hairless and pre-pubescent, and it’s ridiculous.

And then just a ton of myths about how birth control works. There’s so much shaming about people who use birth control. Like, “if you use birth control, you’ll be infertile forever because you’re going straight to hell, and you deserve it.” And so people think that, “well, that’s the reason I couldn’t get pregnant,” and I’m like, “no, that’s not why.” People don’t know what their bodies should look like or what’s normal, and they don’t know how to operate their bodies in a way that is evidence based.

Szal: May is Talking Is Power month, and it’s so important to talk to the young person in your life. What is your one go-to tip for starting that conversation? 

Geffrard: I would say it is not just a conversation. This is not a one-time thing. What your child needs to know when they’re 6 is not the same thing they need to know when they’re 15, is not the same thing that we need to know when we’re 34. Our bodies are constantly changing, we are constantly changing, information’s constantly changing, so we constantly have to have this conversation.

We don’t have to make eye contact to do it. We can do it in the car. We can do it picking people up from school. We could do it in so many different ways. We can do a passive approach by reading a book on the bed and then coming back a week later to say, “I left a book for you. Let’s talk about it. What questions do you have from reading it?” It does not have to be this intense.That’s the way we see it on television, but it makes everybody super scared to have the conversation, when these are things that just happen every single day, and we will find teachable moments to have these conversations every day. So, you can do it. Don’t be afraid. You’ve got it.

McDonald-Mosley: Don’t be scared. We did a survey of adults recently about their experiences talking to young people in their lives, and the vast majority of adults who responded to the survey said that the conversation went really well. In fact, only 3 percent of people said the conversation did not go well, and guess what? Even if you’re in that small minority where the conversation didn’t go well, you can revisit the conversation. So, don’t be scared.

Visit our website, PowerToDecide.org. Look at our Talking Is Power resources. We have some really great conversation starters. Educate yourself, and so that when that teachable moment comes up when you’re watching that TV show, when you hear a conversation between your young person and someone else, you can circle back to them and say, “hey, do you want more information about that?” or “I heard you talking about a friend who had a question about condoms. What did you learn from that, and would you like more information?” So, start early, and talk often, and visit our website for resources, and don’t be scared.

Lincoln: Use the words, so that you don’t have to erase shame from words later on. It’s a vagina, vulva, uterus, nipples, penis, scrotum, just like it’s a nose, chin, eyes, ears, mouth. Because when you do that and you’re able to say those words, your kids don’t have that internalized shame, they’re going to talk to you, and they’re going to come to you with questions because they see you as that trusted adult who’s not going to get all ruffled right off the bat. It’s not going to be perfect. We can laugh. You can have fun with it. It’s okay. It’s not that serious, but take the shame out of it.

Piper: Don’t underestimate the impact that a series of connections will have. Those, oftentimes, will stand out for young people, even if they don’t recognize it in the moment. They may reflect back and say, “gosh, I just have the coolest mom, the coolest auntie, who is willing to meet me where I was at.” I think, too, just recognizing the stages of development that young people are in. There’s so much self-discovery that’s happening. There’s so much curiosity, and there’s so much comparing themselves to other people and trying to figure out where they sit in their own universe, and so, young people deserve to have at least one consistent, non-judgmental source of information who can affirm their identity, affirm their humanity, encourage their curiosity, and just be willing to be vulnerable and say, “gosh, that seems really tough. I’ve been there before, or I haven’t been there before, but I’d love to talk to you about this.”

You can join the conversation on social media using the hashtag  #TalkingIsPower!

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About and

Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.
Katie Fleischer (she/they) is a Ms. editorial assistant working on the Front and Center series and Keeping Score.