When it comes to broaching the topic of sex with your kids, no one is perfect. It’s an awkward, goofy and almost painfully real conversation to have. And, of course, paired with the layers of stigma, anxiety, and patriarchy of-it-all, it’s a fraught issue that leaves a lot of room for discomfort and misunderstandings.
Rest assured, though, you can’t botch a conversation about sex any more than rapper and actor T.I. In an interview with Nazanin Mandi and Nadia Moham on Ladies Like Us, as reported by BuzzFeed, T.I. claimed he’s gone to the gynecologist with his 18-year-old daughter to “check her hymen” — even detailing how he got her to agree to share that intimate information about her sexual health.
First of all: ew. And, second of all: nope.
The hymen, for the uninitiated, per the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), is a “thin membrane that partially covers the entrance to the vagina.” Because vaginas are unique, hymens are also unique, a hymen might be different depending on the person. And not every person with a vagina is born with a hymen, anyway. We don’t really have answers for why, biologically, a body has a hymen — but we do know that it is not a thing meant to stay “intact” until a person has had penis in vagina, penetrative sex and that it is not a means for determining whether a person is a virgin (which is a social construct and not a real thing).
In short, virginity tests are bullshit.
“Virginity tests aren’t real,” Cassandra Corrado, an independent sex educator tells SheKnows. “You can’t actually measure or monitor virginity (which is something that most people only care about when it concerns a hymen). The hymen, or vaginal corona, can be damaged or stretched in a number of ways that have nothing to do with penetrative sex. It could happen using a tampon, doing gymnastics, falling particularly hard, riding a bike or horse, masturbating, or any number of other things.”
Despite the weird archaic cultural fixation on “blood on the sheets” after (supposed) first-time intercourse, the membrane can tear or be stretched over time because of any of the activities above. And the state of a hymen says nothing about a person’s sexual activity. The obsession with it by a parent, though — and how they choose to respond to their kid being sexually active — speaks volumes about their priorities.
“When we talk about virginity testing (or in this case, virginity policing), we’re really saying ‘has a penis entered this vagina?’ and using that as our framework for defining if someone is sexually experienced not only erases queerness, but it implicitly tells people with vaginas that their worth is tied to their sexual behaviors,” Cassandra Corrado, an independent sex educator tells SheKnows. “That message runs deep — when a kid hears that their worth is implicitly tied to their sexuality purity, they’re more likely to experience body shame, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and to feel uncomfortable talking about their sexual desires and boundaries.”
Behavior like T.I’s prioritizes the supposed state of his daughter’s hymen (and, more specifically, his feelings about it) over her privacy, autonomy and sexual health — and that can have a lasting impact. After all, the way a parent approaches sex will undoubtedly leave a mark on their kids and affect the kind of sexual being they become.
“I want parents to know that this type of behavior is traumatizing,” Corrado says. “It reduces the amount of autonomy that kids have and limits their ability to speak with their doctors privately, which ultimately can put their health and well-being at risk. Prioritize open spaces for conversation, not shaming — that’s how you help your kids grow into healthy, autonomous adults. “
So, how can parents do right by their kids when we talk about sex?
Talking about sex in a way that doesn’t turn it into something your kid needs to try hide or be ashamed of is a good start. And not subjecting them to dehumanizing, stigmatizing and shame-based tests — if that’s not obvious by now.
“I think that parents should start talking about what they can do for their children to provide them with a healthy sex life,” Dr. Emily Rymland, DNP FNP-C and Clinical Development Manager at Nurx tells SheKnows. “They should talk to the kids the way the kids want to be spoken to. There are kids who do not want to discuss it with their parents, but you can still say ‘I want you to control it and I want you to enjoy it, it should be an experience that empowers you.’ Make space for your kids to come forward and just say ‘I’m here with what you need.’ That’s what a parent should be doing.”
Corrado adds that it’s not uncommon for parents to be afraid to bring up sex or to be worried they won’t have the right answers or the right words to stumble through the conversation. But you can’t let that fear of an awkward unknown keep you from giving your kid access to the information they’ll inevitably need.
“Talking about sex is essential if you want your children to grow up learning about their body and knowing how to set boundaries around it,” she says. “When parents are uncomfortable talking about sex, I first tell them to mind their gut reactions — your kid might ask something that could shock or surprise you, but have a plan in place so that you don’t act based off of the first thing your gut tells you. Instead, ask open-ended questions or offer to research it together.”
The willingness to make “the talk” an ongoing dialogue makes all the difference in making sure your kid knows they can trust you when it comes to their sexual health. And, in a super smart #CommunicationHack, Corrado adds that you can also plan your talks around another activity— “like coloring, baking cookies, or folding laundry” — because it can make it all a little less awkward or uncomfy for everyone involved if you have something to do with your hands.
“‘The talk’ isn’t just a one-time thing — it’s something that you must do on an ongoing basis throughout your kid’s life,” Corrado says. “And it’s going to look different depending on how old they are. So, have conversations early and often.”
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