Growing up as a young Filipino and Puerto Rican woman in the Bronx with strict Catholic parents, conversations about sex were off the table. The message was, “Just don’t do it,” driven by the logic: “If I talk to you about it, you might want to do it.”
In my family, abortion was one of the biggest conversations to avoid. Every Saturday morning at the abortion clinic near my house, dozens of protesters stood outside praying in Spanish with their rosaries, with some white people scattered in the mix.
In my high school, sex education was little to none. I went to a low-resource school in the Bronx with mostly black and brown students, where the school didn’t even have the budget to take the students on trips or buy brand new textbooks. Sex education was the least of their concerns.
This made teenage pregnancy a serious problem. Many Bronx high schools suffer from the borough’s history of understaffing and underinvestment. And nevertheless teenage pregnancy rates had gone down in New York City, the Bronx remained the municipality with the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion at the time. According to an report 2011teenage pregnancy in the Bronx is linked to poverty, lack of access to health care, and low levels of education.
New York City remains the city with the greatest wealth inequality in the United States. And the Bronx, especially the South Bronx, is the poorest congressional district in the country.
To see this as a young person is discouraging. Along with my natural curiosity about sex, it inspired me to become a sex educator in my community.
I wanted to become a sex educator to destigmatize sexual health in the Latinx community because the stigma only hurt it. So I trained to be a peer educator in college and started teaching about sex in the Black and Brown communities of the Bronx.
While the intent to create programming in marginalized neighborhoods was good, most of the peer educators were white students who came from Ivy League schools and were economically well-off. There was definitely a white rescue complex. The students couldn’t empathize with many of the peer educators because they didn’t see themselves reflected, and so the cycle continued.
After college, I became a full-time sex educator because I felt there should be better representation. I have worked in public schools in New York City, especially teaching young Latinas. The first nonprofit I worked for focused on Latinx communities, so I taught in schools with a majority of the Latinx population. I taught high school students ages 16 and up about everything from healthy relationships and consent to condom use and birth control options.
When I first started, I was greeted with a lot of giggles and whispers. It was clear that the young people felt uncomfortable with certain conversations, but I created the safest environment possible.
I practice what are called “brave space matches” in my classrooms. This is essentially a set of ground rules for conversations that allow for participation of all people of all backgrounds, while taking into account the inherent power dynamics.
In my time teaching, I have encountered many challenges. First, it can even be difficult to implement sex education programs due to pushback by parents or school administrators. Sex education is not considered as important as other subjects, and when it is offered it is usually only taught for a few weeks by the general health teacher. And unfortunately there are still people who believe that sex education will encourage young people to have sex, even if research says otherwise.
It is important to note that in New York State there is no mandate for sex education, only HIV education. In addition, there is a suggested curriculum for health teachers to follow, but they actually don’t mustoh follow it. And health educators don’t need to be certified in a reproductive health or sex education program to teach the subject.
While this was challenging, I created allies in schools that had a high resistance to sex education programs. Being a Latina from the community allowed me to make real connections with the community teachers who really wanted to help the students. The relationships I built allowed me to go to schools that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend.
The second challenge became apparent when we heard students comment on the importance of virginity. Unfortunately, virginity is a big problem for the Latinx community because of: marianism, the role that women should fulfill, which is to imitate the Virgin Mary by committing to chastity.
The concept of virginity is a social construct and perpetuates the unequal power dynamics between men and women. So I try to challenge students’ cultural views on virginity. I always ask students, “Well, who does it hurt and who benefits when we talk about the importance of virginity? Are men asked about their virginity? Is it as important to them as it is to women?”
There is also a strong stigma attached to sexually transmitted diseases. Some students make unsavory jokes, perpetuating that stigma. When I explain that most STDs are curable, and those that aren’t have been managed by today’s medical breakthroughs, the laughter stops.
We also talk about gender identity and sexual orientation. Many Latinx religious community members still do not believe in equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community. When these beliefs come up in class, I always ask the student, “Can we think about how you would feel if that same comment were made about you?” Usually students answer with silence.
As a sex educator, my job is to provide medically accurate, comprehensive, inclusive, and intersectional sex education. Providing sex education in the Latinx community means overcoming cultural barriers that have been reinforced time and again by patriarchal systems. To counter this, when I talk to young Latinas about sexual health, I normalize the idea of physical autonomy and the importance of making informed choices by letting them know they can say “no.”
As a sex educator in Latina, I understand the roles and expectations that are placed on us so that I can build trust with the youth I work with. Because of our shared cultural knowledge, they don’t have to explain anything to me. That is why it is important to have sex educators from different backgrounds in schools. Students should see themselves in their teachers.
Much work remains to be done to convince all communities of the importance of sex education. For the Latinx community, I intend to continue to disrupt and dismantle the patriarchy and sexism in the community, class by class.
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