For several years, I’ve made it my mission to educate families about puberty in order to empower their kids as they enter their teen years. On The Puberty Podcast my co-host, Dr. Cara Natterson, and I speak to thousands of adults each week about the roller coaster of raising tweens and adolescents, a spiraling journey filled with increasingly complex conversations to have with kids as they mature.
In the puberty workshops we also run, we teach kids about ovulation and menstruation, describing the story of an egg’s journey from an ovary each month through the fallopian tubes and into the uterus. We explain that, more often than not, the egg does not grow into a baby and a person gets a period, but sometimes a baby does grow inside a uterus. However, we always say to the kids: “You never have to have a baby if you don’t want to.”
In a post-Roe v. Wade world, I’m not sure we can make that claim anymore.
Today, in a 6-3 decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — written by Samuel Alito — the Supreme Court effectively overturned Roe, which has guaranteed the right to an abortion since 1973. This despite the fact that more two-thirds of American support upholding Roe v. Wade.
Much of my generation took our right to contraception, abortion, and the morning-after-pill for granted. The generations before us had no such luxury, and now, the generations after us won’t, either. When I was in college, one night the condom broke. Without much fanfare, my partner and I made our way over to the campus health center to get the morning-after pill. A nurse at campus health explained the side effects of the pill, gave me my dosage, and sent us on our way. The most challenging part of the experience was the few hours in the early morning I spent vomiting as hormones flooded my body to prevent a pregnancy.
We knew that the morning-after pill was an option because many of us who grew up in the 1990s were lucky enough to have good sex-ed classes, where we were taught to practice safe sex, which was partially about avoiding pregnancy, but was a lot about not contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The science in treating HIV+ was eons behind where it is today and the possibility of AIDS took center stage in our sex-ed classes, ahead of pregnancy, because pregnancy was reversible but AIDS was not.
In this generation, that prioritization in sex ed classes will shift again (if teens are even receiving sex ed, which in many states is not a given) — not just because people can now live full lives as HIV+ but also because in many states, people will likely lose our legal rights to a surgical abortion.
My entire perspective on contraception and abortion is being upended, so it’s time to reflect on how we teach kids about these issues in the new reality. Sure, those of us who live in liberal states can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that abortion will remain legal in our state, but what does sex ed it look like in a country with a scant patchwork of reproductive rights? What conversations are ever more important in this changing landscape? What are parents supposed to tell their kids about sex in a post-Roe world?
Here are a few basic principles to remember:
1. Open lines of communication are critical.
Having conversations with our kids early and often about how their bodies work, how their bodies change and how to keep their bodies safe has never been so important. By building the muscle of talking about these issues now, as kids mature into teens and young adults who will have sex, they understand that their trusted adults can provide them with reliable information and are available to field the difficult and confusing questions.
2. Teach them about sex, because it will keep them safer.
Study after study tell us that teens who receive a sex education are more likely to have safe sex; abstinence-only sex education doesn’t lead to less sex, it just leads to less safe sex. It’s a parent’s responsibility to understand what kind of sex-ed is taught in your teens’ school because chances are, there is some home-schooling to do on pregnancy prevention, consent and contraception. This is one job you can’t delegate to someone else.
3. Where they go to college matters, just not in that way.
I used to say that I didn’t care where my kids went to college as long as they were happy, but that’s no longer the case. I don’t care the name of the college, but I do care what state that college is in. It is my job, in partnership with my kids, to understand the reproductive rights where their school is situated and what services are available through their campus health center. I benefited from going to school where ample reproductive resources were available and I want the same thing for my kids.
4. Open the door gently.
As hard as it is to imagine your baby having sex, at some point or another it’s going to happen. (Fun fact, studies show that vaginal intercourse is actually happening later these days.) If you have a sense that your kid is engaging in some kind of sexual activity, get ahead of it in a non-intrusive, nonjudgemental way. Less: Are you having sex? If you are, I'm going to kill you. More: I’m not sure where you are in your relationship, but there are some things I want to cover so I know you’re staying healthy and safe. That way, if your kid needs help, they can come to you. The ability to talk to a trusted adult is more important than ever if abortion becomes illegal in many places across the country.
While the best practices of talking to kids about sex won’t change much in a post-Roe world — keep lines of communication open, get ahead of the issue, don’t just delegate to the schools — there will be new logistical and legal considerations that will come into play. Teens and young adults need help navigating this new reality and we are their best guides through the maze. Our job is to keep our kids healthy and safe, and the most powerful way to do that is making sure they know they can come to us for help.
Vanessa Kroll Bennett is the co-host of The Puberty Podcast; the founder of Dynamo Girl, a company using sports and puberty education to empower kids; and the author of the Uncertain Parenting Newsletter, musings on raising adolescents. You can follow her on Instagram @vanessakrollbennett.