The Lack of Sex Education Among Immigrant Parents and Teens
With city lawmakers advancing the Essential Sex Education Mandate across the United States, parents nationwide have raised concerns on what's appropriate in the classroom. The new bill mandates a comprehensive sexual health education every year from kindergarten through 12th grade. Topics range from gender identity to sex, with requirements to be "age-appropriate, medically accurate and inclusive of all students."
In a study of who would be more reluctant to approve the bill, parents in rural areas or with conservative or religious views were seemingly most likely to disapprove. However, additional studies show immigrant parents are more likely to decline sex education for their children due to cultural differences.
A lack of sex conversations at home and in school has psychological and behavioral repercussions linked to an individual's perception of sex. Children of immigrant parents face an additional barrier compared to their counterparts when learning about gender, sexuality and intimacy.
How does a lack of sex education affect teens?
Jennifer Litner, sexologist and founder of Embrace Sexual Wellness, explains the connection between sex and mental health.
"Sex is a social-emotional experience that can impact our thoughts and feelings and physiological state," Litner said. "When teens do not receive quality sexuality education, they are prone to feelings of shame about sex and are unprepared to navigate sexual situations in safe and healthy ways."
Additionally, without thorough and inclusive sex education, teens are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior. A study in PLOS One, the peer-reviewed journal of the Public Library of Science, found abstinence-only education correlated positively with teenage pregnancy and birth rates. Research indicated the more abstinence is emphasized in state laws and policies, the higher the average teenage pregnancy and birth rate.
Suntia Smith, a relationship therapist and coach, adds how media interpretation of sex can affect anyone, but specifically teens without sex education.
"If teens do not know what healthy sex practices look like, they may rely on friends, television and social media to create an image/blueprint in their mind of what sex should be," Smith stated. "As a result, they create a non-realistic perception of sex, which can lead them to enter into risky sexual behaviors."
How do cultural differences affect sex education?
According to Forward Together, many immigrant parents are interested in educating their children about sex but are unsure of the appropriate time to start the conversation. Questions include: How early should we begin? What do we say? Will discussing the topic give them the green light to experiment?
Litner said that despite these doubts, it's beneficial to have a conversation with your teenager.
"While some parents and caregivers feel anxious about approaching conversations about sexuality with their teenagers, there's evidence to suggest their teens want to hear it from them," Litner said.
However, not every parent is inclined toward "the talk," which may set up a teenager for later difficulties.
"Depending on the culture, parents may feel talking about sex gives teens permission to become sexually active," Smith said. "Some cultures believe in no sex before marriage and, therefore, sex education is not needed. [However] without sex education, teens have a disconnection with their body, creating poor self-image, self-confidence and self-efficacy."
And the relationship between caregiver and teen?
Student Ivana Xie discusses how growing up in a Chinese household affected her perception of sex. Like other teens, Xie wished for more personal conversations with her mother as she entered college.
"I grew up with a single mom, and she's never discussed sex with my sisters or me," Xie explained. "I've noticed with my culture, people are more reluctant to talk about any form of intimacy."
Xie said sex education and knowledge of social constructs would have been helpful in her intimate relationships, especially about expressing vulnerability.
"I could have received more guidance from my mom or sister," Xie said. "Sex is not just intercourse, but involves processing new emotions and feelings. For me specifically, I felt impure after losing my virginity because I didn't feel special or reserved anymore. If there wasn't stigma and criticism toward sex, I think my mom could have implemented a much healthier setting and conversation."
According to research published in Patient Education and Counseling, healthcare professionals should provide informational sessions that meet the needs of immigrant parents in particular to prevent sexual problems among adolescents at an early age.
"Creating space in parent-teen relationships for conversations about sexual health, bodies, consent, boundaries, healthy relationships, sexuality and more can be strongly beneficial for teens," Litner said. "Caregivers need to take the initiative with these conversations and foster a sex-positive and approachable environment."
If you're a parent unsure of where to start, the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine has made sexual and reproductive health resources available, including videos, campaigns and additional information.