Teens benefit from talking openly about sexuality with their families
By Lillian Shirley, RN, MPH, MPA
Multnomah County Health Department Director
Ismael García remembers the day in sixth grade that his mother sat him down at their kitchen table in Northeast Portland to talk about sex. He was going to start a sexuality education program at middle school that day, and his mother, Isabel, wanted to talk to him first. The conversation made both of them uncomfortable, but García did have questions and Isabel had some answers.
There are few things that are harder for some people to do than talk about sex and sexuality. Parents often hesitate because they are embarrassed or feel that they don’t have enough information. Sometimes cultural or religious reasons keep them from talking openly. And children would often rather be anywhere other than talking with their parents, especially about sex.
García, now 25, is helping to make talking about sexuality a little easier for members of the Latino community. He works as a community health specialist for the Multnomah County Health Department and as part of a team that is helping the community talk more openly and positively about the sexual health of adolescents.
“I’m here to open up a dialogue,” he says. “… With kids, with their parents and with the community.”
García works with the Opciones y Educación (OYE) and Cuidate programs to provide information and resources to teens and their parents and to break down barriers that prevent families from talking openly about sex and sexuality.
OYE is a project of a coalition of community members and organizations that includes the Multnomah County Health Department, Cascade AIDS Project, Teatro Milagro, and Edúcate Ya. The purpose of the coalition is to promote sexual health in Latino communities by increasing open discussion of sexuality, homophobia, the traditional roles of men and women, and social issues that affect sexual health. Documentation status and discrimination can be significant barriers for youth in obtaining education, employment, and health care, all of which have implications for sexual health. Through OYE, community health workers use dialogue, role playing, theater, and more to engage community members in conversations about sexuality.
Nationwide, Latino teens have the same rates of sexual activity as their white, non-Hispanic peers, but are less likely to use contraception and more likely to get pregnant.
According to the latest Report Card on Racial and Health Disparities (April 2011), Hispanic teenage girls in Multnomah County are almost seven times more likely to give birth than white, non-Hispanic girls. Also, the rate for chlamydia, a sexually-transmitted infection, is much higher in Hispanic teens than in white teens.
By getting the community comfortable with the topic and exploring the root causes of these disparities, OYE hopes to make it easier for teens to feel supported by their families and their community and to make active, informed choices about their own health.
“Sexuality is a normal part of who we are,” says Molly Franks, health educator with the STD, HIV, Hepatitis C Program and a co-worker of García. “We want to encourage individuals young or old to understand that and to get comfortable with talking about it.”
Vanessa La Torre, from Cascade AIDS Project, notes that when program staff talk about sexuality, they aren’t just talking about the mechanics of sex and disease prevention. The program covers all aspects of sexuality including personal identity, healthy relationships, sexual interests, traditional roles of men and women, personal and family values, cultural values, and more.
“All of these play a role in who we are and how we make choices about what we do and don’t do,” she says.
Franks notes that the stereotype of the Latino community being conservative and not wanting to talk about these issues doesn’t hold up in her experience.
“The parents we talk with want their kids to have good information. It’s inspiring how eager people are and how engaged they get,” Franks says.
According to García, his work is like a conversation. “Everybody has information to share and add to the conversation.”
García says a workshop for single mothers held recently in Gresham is a good example of how receptive the community has been. “The moms wanted information and were looking for suggestions about how to talk to their teens about these issues,” he says.
Whether it is from a booth at a community fair, with leaders in the Latino community, or with a group of parents from a school, the OYE program promotes information and conversation that help teens have a healthy sense of themselves and good communication with their parents and their partners. The goal is to have teens actively make choices about their sexuality, their health, and their lives.
Este artículo también está disponible en / This post is also available in: Spanish
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