Telenovelas, Erections, and Raising Sexually Healthy Teens

When Enrique first joined our family, we agreed to one hour of television per night. He was 13 and had been used to non-stop TV, so this was a big change. He didn't resist, but I realize now that to him, one hour was a shocking restriction. Spanish was still his dominant language, and he chose his then-favorite nightly telenovela, Sin senos no hay paraíso. I disguised my horror when he provided the translation (he said "boobies," which my partner and I immediately corrected with anatomically correct English).

We were just becoming a family, and we needed time to simply be together, so I committed to watching Sin senos with him each night. (I never, ever watch television.) We sat on the sofa and watched; in a few days or weeks we had a habit of sitting with my arm around him, and during the commercials he would update me with translations of the plot. For my part I would tease, question, and even scold him about the glamorized portrayals of sex and violence. And over time, Sin senos opened up the possibility of talking about not only sexism and violence but gender, relationships, and, of course, sex.

Much like driving in the car, watching television is an ideal time for parents and teens to talk about complicated topics. In both settings there is often great prompting material (lyrics from popular songs, or news and world events). The key is that such discussions can happen without eye contact: focused on the highway or some television commercial, one can muster the nerve to confront the edges of embarrassment or shame.

One night, leaning into me, with my arm around his shoulder, he turned his head into my chest in apparent embarrassment and held out a fist. He blurted, "Why does it always go like this?" and from his fist poked out his index finger. I asked him what he meant. He repeated his question and gesture: "Why does it always go like this?"

I asked if he was talking about his penis (he nodded), and I explained what an erection is. I sighed, even chuckled a little, and told him that it was absolutely completely, totally normal, that at age 13 nearly every boy in the world experiences what he was experiencing. "Really?" he asked? Unequivocally yes, I answered. He said, "But it happens a lot," to which I replied, "And that's totally normal." And he said, "I mean a lot." And I said, "Really? It's normal." And he said, "I mean... a lot." And I said, "I promise you, at your age, 20 times a day is still completely normal."

I laughed a bit, but he kept his head in my chest, not looking at me. He was clearly worried and embarrassed. I asked whether he was OK, and what he thought about it.

My memory of his gesture with his finger, and of that initial dialogue, is so crystal clear -- and yet I can't remember the words he used when he told me that his uncle had told him that he was sick, that it was a sign that he was gay, that it meant that he was a sinner. I could hardly bear to hear him say it. Whatever he told me, with his face in my chest, conveyed desperate, questioning shame.

Over the following commercial breaks and later that evening, we talked about what it means to be a boy at 13. I told him that he wasn't the only boy at school to have unwelcome erections at inopportune times; that it was not only totally normal but healthy; that it was the same for heterosexual boys and gay boys and therefore had nothing to do with being gay; that he was not sick; and that his uncle had not told the truth. What I do remember is how his body felt like it melted in tired relief.

I'm supposed to be an expert on adolescent sexuality -- but I never fully understood that every single day, boys and girls everywhere are taught unthinkable shame and guilt. But there are other visions for youth and sexuality; for example, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) affirms that sexuality is a fundamental part of being human, and its new strategic plan puts sexual health and well-being as the leading vision for creating a sexually healthy America. Shouldn't that be our vision for young people?