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 that was to be avoided. Every Saturday morning, the abortion clinic near my house would have dozens of protesters standing outside praying in Spanish with their rosary beads, with some white folks scattered in the mix.
In my high school, sex education was little to none. I went to an underresourced school in the Bronx with primarily Black and Brown students, where the school didn’t even have the budget to take the students out on trips or buy brand-new textbooks. Sex education was the least of their concerns.
Because of this, teen pregnancy was a serious issue. A lot of Bronx high schools suffer from the borough’s history of redlining and underinvestment. And although teen pregnancy rates had been going down in New York City, the Bronx remained the borough with the highest teen pregnancy and abortion rates at the time. According to a 2011 report, teen pregnancy in the Bronx has ties to poverty, lack of access to health care services and low education levels.
New York City remains the city with the highest wealth disparity in the United States. And the Bronx, specifically the South Bronx, is the poorest congressional district in the nation.
Witnessing this as a young person is daunting. 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 was only hurting it. So I underwent training to become a peer educator during college and started teaching sex ed in Black and Brown communities of the Bronx.
Although 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 well-off economically. There was definitely a white savior complex. The students couldn’t relate to a lot of the peer educators because they did not see themselves reflected, and so the cycle continued.
After college, I became a full-time sex educator because I felt there needed to be better representation. I worked in public schools across New York City, specifically teaching young Latinas sex ed. The first nonprofit I worked for focused on Latinx communities, so I taught in schools with majority-Latinx populations. I taught high schoolers ages 16 and up about everything from healthy relationships and consent to condom usage and birth control options.
When I first started, I was met with lots of giggles and whispers. It was clear that the young people were uncomfortable with certain conversations, but I created as safe of an environment as I possibly could.
I practice what are called “brave space agreements” in my classrooms. This is essentially a set of ground rules for conversation that allow for participation from all folks of all backgrounds, keeping in mind inherent power dynamics.
In the time that I’ve been teaching, I’ve run into a lot of challenges. First, even being able to implement sex education programming can be difficult due to pushback by parents or school administrators. Sex education is not considered as important as other subjects, and if it is offered, it’s usually taught by the general health teacher for a just few weeks. And unfortunately, there are still some people who believe sex education will encourage youth to have sex, even though research says otherwise.
It’s important to note that in New York state, there’s no mandate for sex education, only for HIV education. On top of that, there is a suggested curriculum for health teachers to follow, but they don’t actually have to follow it. And health teachers don’t have to be certified in any type of reproductive health or sex education program to be able to teach the topic.
Although this was a challenge, I created allies in schools that had high resistance to sex education programs. Being a Latina from the community allowed me to create real connections with the teachers from the community who genuinely wanted to help the students. The relationships I built allowed me to enter schools I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.
The second challenge became clear from hearing students make comments about the importance of virginity. Unfortunately, virginity is a huge deal to the Latinx community because of marianismo, the role women must embody, which is to emulate the Virgin Mary by committing to chastity.
The concept of virginity is a social construct, and it perpetuates uneven gender power dynamics. So I try to challenge students’ cultural beliefs about virginity. I always ask students, “Well, who does it hurt and who does it benefit when we talk about the importance of virginity? Do men get asked about their virginity? Is it as important to them as it is for women?”
There also is a strong stigma about sexually transmitted infections. Some students crack distasteful jokes, perpetuating that stigma. When I explain that most STIs are curable, and the ones that aren’t have become manageable because of today’s medical breakthroughs, the laughter stops.
We also talk about gender identity and sexual orientation. A lot of religious Latinx community members still don’t 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 was made about you?” Usually, students reply with silence.
As a sex educator, it is my job to deliver medically accurate, comprehensive, inclusive and intersectional sex education. Teaching sex education in the Latinx community means overcoming cultural barriers that have been reinforced by patriarchal systems time and time again. To combat this, when talking to young Latinas about sexual health, I normalize the idea of bodily autonomy and the importance of making informed choices by letting them know that they are allowed to say “no.”
As a Latina sex educator, I understand the roles and expectations put upon us, so I am able to build trust with the young people I work with. Because of our shared cultural knowledge, they don’t have to explain anything to me. This is why it’s important to have sex educators of diverse backgrounds in schools. Students need to see themselves in their teachers.
There’s still a lot of work that has to be done to convince all communities of the importance of sex education. For the Latinx community, I plan to continue disrupting and dismantling patriarchy and sexism in the community, one class at a time.