Twenty five years ago, the world was stunned when LA Laker and basketball great Magic Johnson made the announcement that he had tested positive for the HIV virus. At the time, HIV had no cure and the stigma attached to the virus was devastating. Johnson was the first well-known celebrity to put HIV on the map and his admission took discussions about safe sex and HIV transmission to a whole new level. I was a teen when Johnson made his announcement, and thanks in part to him, programs to educate teens on safe sex and proper condom use became more widespread.
Today, Magic Johnson is doing well on an HIV regimen and has no detectable virus in his body, thanks to massive advances in HIV research. And he’s become a tireless advocate for teaching teens and adults about safe sex, STD symptoms and treatment, and living life as an HIV-positive man.
As a mother of teens, I know all too well that my kids will experiment with sex, whether I want them to or not. While my kids are still in their early teens, I know the time is coming where I will have to have a frank, clear discussion with them about not only their own sexual health but also that of others. And because I grew up in an age when HIV and other STDs were more openly discussed, thanks to Magic Johnson and his courage, I knew I’d be a parent who would always be open with my kids about safe sex.
My kids know they can ask their father and me anything, and we will give them an honest, direct answer. We don’t use cutesy terms, and we don’t mince words. My kids know the mechanics of sex, and as sexual topics have come up in conversation, we’ve openly explained slang terms like “blow job” and “going down.” And yes, I’ve needed a stiff drink afterwards.
Does it make me want to pass out sometimes when my kid directly asks me about blow jobs?
Of course, it does.
But I will continue to answer my kids’ questions because, as a parent, I take their sexual health as seriously as I do their physical, social, and mental health. I recognize that my kids will grow up very soon and be adults who are making choices about what feels good (and what doesn’t) when they are with their partners. I want them to have all the information available so that they can make informed decisions in their bedrooms.
Don’t get me wrong: This doesn’t mean I’m telling them to go out and screw like rabbits. Rather, we have conversations about committed relationships, the consequences and responsibility of casual sex and sexual reciprocation with their partners. I have used the phrase “if you get one, you give one” with my teenage son to drive home the fact that his partner should leave satisfied too.
I want to make sure that my kids not only own their bodies when they are intimate with someone but also that they are considerate to their partners. Accidents happen, condoms aren’t always foolproof, and someday, they could contract an STD. I want them to know that if they do, they owe it to their partners to speak up if they have a disease that could hurt another person.
And I want “Have you tested positive for an STD?” and “When was your last HIV test?” to be questions that comfortably come out of their mouths.
Talking to your kids about sex and STDs takes practice, and it’s not something that you can do in just one conversation. Building an honest dialogue means putting your big girl panties on and having the tough talks when your kids are asking the honest questions. Because if they are asking you, they are willing to listen to the answers. Lecturing your kids about abstinence alone isn’t going to cut it.
You have to talk to them. You have to listen to them.
And that means telling them that their partner might have an STD and they need to ask about their partner’s sexual history before they engage in sexual intercourse. Talking to your kids about the signs and symptoms of diseases like herpes and genital warts will likely help them say “hard pass” to having sex with someone who has open lesions on their genitalia. And reminding them that not all of their partners will necessarily be honest about their health, or may not know they are infected (some STDs have no symptoms), so protection is not optional and is always nonnegotiable.
Parenting teens is hard and scary, and it’s okay if you don’t have all the answers. Sometimes you have to learn together because STD information is always being updated. But keeping the lines of communication open and letting your kids know early on they can ask you anything will ensure that when they need help and guidance, they’ll come to you for support.
And if you pour yourself a stiff drink (or three) after you’ve had your honest talk with them, that’s okay too. I’m not here to judge. Cheers.