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Women with HIV, after years of isolation, coming out of shadows

Patti Radigan kisses daughter Angelica after a memorial in San Francisco’s Castro to remember those who died of AIDS.

By Erin Allday

Anita Schools wakes at dawn most days, though she usually lazes in bed, watching videos on her phone, until she has to get up to take the HIV meds that keep her alive. The morning solitude ends abruptly when her granddaughter bursts in and they curl up, bonding over graham crackers.

Schools, 59, lives in Emeryville near the foot of the Bay Bridge, walking distance from a Nordstrom Rack and other big chain stores she can’t afford. Off and on since April, her granddaughter has lived there too, sleeping on a blow-up mattress with Schools’ daughter and son-in-law and another grandchild.

Five is too many for the one-bedroom apartment. But they’re family. They kept her going during the worst times, and that she can help them now is a blessing.

Nearly 20 years ago, when Schools was diagnosed with HIV, it was her daughter Bonnie — then 12 and living in foster care — who gave her hope, saying, “Mama, you don’t have to worry. You’re not going to die, you’re going to be able to live a long, long time.”

“It was her that gave me the push and the courage to keep on,” Schools said.

She had contracted HIV from a man who’d been in jail, who beat her repeatedly until she fled. By then she’d already left another abusive relationship and lost all four of her daughters to child protective services. HIV was just one more burden.

At the time, the disease was a death sentence. That Schools is still here — helping her family, getting to know her grandchildren — is wonderful, she said. But for her, as with tens of thousands of others who have lived two decades or more with HIV, survival comes with its own hardships.

Gay men made up the bulk of the casualties of the early AIDS epidemic, and as the male survivors grow older, they’re dealing with profound complications, including physical and mental health problems. But the women have their own loads to bear.

Whereas gay men were at risk simply by being gay, women often were infected through intravenous drug use or sex work, or by male partners who lied about having unsafe sex with other men. The same issues that put them at risk for HIV made their very survival a challenge.

Today, many women like Schools who are long-term survivors cope with challenges caused or compounded by HIV: financial and housing insecurity, depression and anxiety, physical disability and emotional isolation.

“We’re talking about mostly women of color, living in poverty,” said Naina Khanna, executive director of Oakland’s Positive Women’s Network, a national advocacy group for women with HIV. “And there’s not really a social safety net for them. Gay men diagnosed with HIV already historically had a built-in community to lean on. Women tend to be more isolated around their diagnosis.”

There are far fewer women aging with HIV than men. In San Francisco, nearly 10,000 people age 50 or older are living with HIV; about 500 are women. Not all women survivors have histories of trauma and abuse, of course, and many have done well in spite of their diagnosis.

But studies have found that women with HIV are more than twice as likely as the average American woman to have suffered domestic violence. They have higher rates of mental illness and substance abuse.

What keeps them going now, decades after their diagnoses, varies widely. For some, connections with their families, especially their now-adult children, are critical. For others, HIV advocacy work keeps them motivated and hopeful.

Patti Radigan (righ) instructs daughter Angelica and Angelica’s boyfriend, Jayson Cabanas, on preparing green beans for Thanksgiving while Roman Tom Pierce, 8, watches.

Patti Radigan was living in a cardboard box on South Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco when she tested positive in 1992. By then, she’d lost her husband to a heart attack while a young mother, and not long after that she lost her daughter, too, when her drug use got out of control and her sister-in-law took in the child.

She turned to prostitution in the late 1980s to support a heroin addiction. She’d heard of HIV by then and knew it was deadly. She’d seen people on the streets in the Mission where she worked, wasting away and then disappearing altogether. But she still thought of it as something that affected gay men, not women, even those living on the margins.

Women then, and now, were much more likely than men to contract HIV from intravenous drug use rather than sex — though in Radigan’s case, it could have been either. IV drug use is the cause of transmission for nearly half of all women, according to San Francisco public health reports. It’s the cause for less than 20 percent for men.

Still, when Radigan finally got tested, it wasn’t because she was worried she might be positive, but because the clinic was offering subjects $20. She needed the cash for drugs.

She was scared enough after the diagnosis — and then she got pregnant. It was the early 1990s, and HIV experts at UCSF were just starting to believe they could finesse women through pregnancy and help them deliver healthy babies. Today, it’s widely understood that women with HIV can safely have children; San Francisco hasn’t seen a baby born with HIV since 2004.

But in the 1990s, getting pregnant was considered selfish — even if the baby survived, its mother most certainly wouldn’t live long enough to raise her. For women infected at the time, having children was something else they had to give up.

And so Radigan had an abortion. But she got pregnant again in 1995, and she was desperate to have this child. She was living by then with 10 gay men in a boarding house for recovering addicts. Bracing herself for an onslaught of criticism, she told her housemates. First they were quiet, then someone yelled, “Oh my God, we’re having a baby!”

“It was like having 10 big brothers,” Radigan said, smiling at the memory. Buoyed by their support, she kept the pregnancy and had a healthy girl.

Radigan is 59 now; her daughter, Angelica Tom, is 20. They both live in San Francisco after moving to the East Coast for a while. It was because of her daughter that Radigan stayed sober, that she consistently took her meds, and that she went back to school to tend to her future.

For a long time she told people she just wanted to live long enough to see her daughter graduate high school. Now her daughter is in art school and Radigan is healthy enough to hold a part-time job, to lead yoga classes on weekends, to go out with friends for a Friday night concert.

“Because of HIV, I thought I was never going to do a lot of things,” Radigan said. “The universe is aligning for me. And now I feel like I deserve it. For a long time, I didn’t feel like I deserved anything.”

Anita Schools, who says she is most troubled by finances, listens to an HIV-positive woman speak about her experiences and fears at an Oakland support group that Schools organized.

Anita Schools got tested for HIV because her ex-boyfriend kept telling her she should. That should have been a warning sign, she knows now.

She was first diagnosed in 1998 at a neighborhood clinic in Oakland, but it took two more tests at San Francisco General Hospital for her to accept she was positive. People told her that HIV wasn’t necessarily fatal, but she had trouble believing she was going to live. All she could think was, “Why me? What did I do?”

It was only after her daughter Bonnie reassured her that Schools started to think beyond the immediate anxiety and anger. She joined a support group for HIV-positive women, finding comfort in their stories and shared experiences. Ten years later, she was leading her own group.

She’s never had problems with drugs or alcohol, and she has a network of friends and family for emotional support, she said. Even the HIV hasn’t hit her too hard, physically, though the drugs to treat it have attacked her kidneys, leaving her ill and fatigued.

Like so many of the women she advises in her support group, Schools is most troubled by her finances. She gets by on Social Security and has bounced among Section 8 housing all over the Bay Area for most of her adult life.

Schools’ current apartment is supposed to be permanent, but she worries she could lose it if her daughter’s family stays with her too long. So earlier this month they moved out and are now sleeping in homeless shelters or, some nights, in their car. She hates letting them leave but doesn’t feel she has any other choice.

Reports show that women with HIV are far more likely to live in poverty than men. Khanna, with the Positive Women’s Network, said surveys of her members found that 85 percent make less than $25,000 a year, and roughly half take home less than $10,000.

Schools can’t always afford the bus or BART tickets she needs to get to doctor appointments and support group meetings, relying instead on rides from friends — or sometimes skipping events altogether. She gets her food primarily from food banks. Her wardrobe is dominated by T-shirts she gets from the HIV organizations with which she volunteers.

“With Social Security, $889 a month, that ain’t enough,” Schools said. “You got to pay your rent, and then PG&E, and then you got to pay your cell phone, buy clothes — it’s all hard.”

At a time when other women her age might be thinking about retirement or at least slowing down, advocacy work has taken over Schools’ life. She speaks out for women with HIV and their needs, demanding financial and health resources for them. In her support group and at AIDS conferences, she offers her story of survival as a sort of jagged road map for other women struggling to navigate the complex warren of services they’ll need to get by.

The work gives her confidence and purpose. She feels she can directly influence women’s lives in a way that seemed beyond her when she was young, unemployed and directionless.

“As long as I’m getting help and support,” Schools said, “I want to help other women — help them get somewhere.”

Billie Cooper is tall and striking, loud and brash. Her makeup is polished, her nails flawless. She is, she says with a booming laugh that makes heads turn, “the ultimate senior woman.”

For Cooper, 58, HIV was transformative. Like Radigan, she had to find her way out from under addiction and prostitution to get healthy, and stay healthy. Like Schools, she came to understand the importance of role-modeling and advocacy.

Cooper arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1980 — almost a year to the day before the first reports of HIV surfaced in the United States. She was fresh out of the Navy and eager to explore her gender identity and sexuality in San Francisco’s burgeoning gay and transgender communities.

Growing up in Philadelphia, she’d known she was different from the boys around her, though it was decades before she found the language to express it and identified as a transgender woman. But seeing the “divas on Post Street, the ladies in the Tenderloin, the transsexual women prostituting on Eddy” — Cooper was awestruck.

She slipped quickly into prostitution and drug use. When she tested positive in 1985, she wasn’t surprised and barely wasted a thought worrying about what it meant for her future — or whether she’d have any future at all.

“I felt as though I still had to keep it moving,” Cooper said. “I didn’t slow down and cry or nothing.”

Transgender women have always been at heightened risk of HIV. Some studies have found that more than 1 in 5 transgender women is infected, and today about 340 HIV-positive trans women live in San Francisco.

What makes them more vulnerable is complicated. Trans women often have less access to health care and less stable housing than others, and they face higher rates of drug addiction and sexual violence, all of which are associated with risk of HIV infection.

Cooper was homeless off and on through the 1980s and ’90s, trapped in a world of drugs and sex work that felt glamorous at the time but in hindsight was crippling. “I was doing things out of loneliness,” she said, “and I was doing things to feel love. That’s why I prostituted, why I did drugs.”

She began to clean up around 2000, though it would take five or six years to fully quit using. She found a permanent place to live. She collected Social Security. She started working in support services for other transgender women battling HIV. In 2013, she founded TransLife, a support group at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

“I was coming out as the activist, the warrior, the determined woman I was always meant to be,” she said.

Cooper never developed any of the common, often fatal complications of HIV — including opportunistic infections like pneumonia — that killed millions in the 1980s and 1990s. But she does have neuropathy, an HIV-related nerve condition that causes a constant pins-and-needles sensation in her feet and legs and sometimes makes it hard to walk.

Far more traumatic for her was her cancer diagnosis in 2006. The cancer, which may have been related to HIV, was isolated to her left eye, but after traditional therapies failed, the eye was surgically removed on Thanksgiving Day in 2009.

The cancer and the loss of her eye was a devastating setback for a woman who had always focused on her appearance, on looking as gorgeous as the transgender women she so admired in the Tenderloin, on being loved and wanted for her beauty.

Rising from that loss has been difficult, she said. And she’s continued to suffer new health problems, including blood clots in one of her legs. Recently, she’s fallen several times, in frightening episodes that may be related to the clots, the HIV or something else entirely.

Since Thanksgiving she’s been in and out of the hospital, and though she tries to stay upbeat, it’s clearly trying her patience.

But if HIV and cancer and everything else have tested Cooper’s survival in ways she never anticipated, these trials also have strengthened her resolve. She’s becoming the person she always wanted to be.

“A week before they took my eye, I got my breasts,” she said coyly one recent afternoon, thrusting out her chest. Behind the sunglasses she wears almost constantly now, she was smiling and crying, all at once.

Aging with HIV has been strangely calming, in some ways, giving her a confidence that in her wild youth was elusive.

Now she exults in being a respected elder in the HIV and transgender communities. She loves it when people open doors for her or help her cross the street, offer to carry her bags or give up a seat on a bus.

Simply, she said, “I love being Ms. Billie Cooper.”

Complete Article HERE!

Inside the fascinating world of a feeder fetish

By Mamamia Team

“I wanna enjoy every single pound,” says Tammy Jung, “and every inch of me that grows.”

Tammy Jung is a ‘feedee’ or a ‘gainer’. That is to say, she engages in Feeder Fetishism.

Feederism is a sub-category of fat fetishism, where individuals harbour a strong or even exclusive sexual attraction to people who are overweight or obese. Feederism involves sexual gratification in regards to gaining or helping others gain weight.

Tammy Jung

“I like to feed. I like to make sure other people are full and happy and satisfied. I like to be full and happy and satisfied,” says Jung.

Jung and her boyfriend Johan Uberman make adult films, in which Uberman feeds Jung large amounts of food, sometimes, while engaging in sexual acts. They have so far made over 300 videos.

Tammy drinks a triple serving of chocolate milk protein shake through a funnel.

A feeder/feedee relationship is often kept private, but Jung and Uberman broadcast the fetish on the internet for the enjoyment of others. So what doses Uberman think of the idea of other people enjoying Jung being fed as much as he does?

“It’s great,” he says. “It makes me feel like I have…more of a trophy than I already had.”

Uberman says his goal, when it comes to feeding Jung, is “metamorphosis.”

The couple feel the relationship and association between food and sex is entirely natural. Uberman refers to ancient Roman orgies, where groups of people would binge before sex.

Jung’s original goal was to reach 300lbs (136kgs). She has achieved that, setting her next goal to gain 50lb (22kgs) in six-months. Uberman sees things a  little more big-picture. “Honestly,” he says,”there is no limit”. But he says he will be happy as long as his partner is comfortable.

The “metamorphosis” of Tammy Jung.

Tammy has told the Daily Mail that her decisions about her body are her own and they are no one else’s business: “I’ve never been happier than I am working to put on weight – nothing will stop me achieving my dream. I’m making lots of money doing what I love – and I want to make even more.”

She says that for the first time, she feels great about herself: “After I gave up sports, I began putting on weight. At first I was in denial. But one day I looked in the mirror and realised I was fat – and I felt great about it. My body looks so sexy and I feel more womanly the heavier I get.”

It costs the couple up to $150 AUD per day to keep up Tammy’s unique diet: “I start the day with a huge breakfast of waffles, cream cheese, bacon and sausage then head to McDonalds for a few burgers in the afternoon. I can snack on cheese all day, a couple of blocks is no problem, then for dinner I’ll either eat pizzas or make Mexican food. At the end of the day I make a weight gain shake from heavy whipped cream and a whole tub of ice cream, which Yohan feeds me through a funnel.”

Tammy explains, “the funnel forces me to drink the shake even when I’m full after a day of eating.”

The fetish is discussed frequently on Reddit, where concerns about a lack of education and understanding in regards to health have been raised. However, the general consensus within the community appears to be in favour of two consenting adults making their own choices.

“Of the feeder/feedee relationship blogs I keep up with, too often does there seem to be this lingering sense of ignorance (e.i. I think many of the feedees, and even the feeders, don’t have a complete understanding of the health risks associated with obesity and weight gain.)” said one Reddit user. “That being said, If two completely consenting adults are fully aware of the health concerns but still think it’s worth it, then more power to them. I like to equate it to a smoking fetish. There are plenty of people who willingly accept the risks because it’s simply worth it to them.”

Complete Article HERE!

How I Went From Being a Psych Major to a Sex-Toy Creator

By

alex-fine-janet-lieberman

Like many little girls, Alex Fine wanted to change the world.

Her approach was a little uncouth — by young adulthood she decided the best way to make things better would be to give people a better understanding of human sexuality. Alex and her partner Janet Lieberman founded Dame Products in 2011 to do just that — and to ensure every single woman could have an orgasm when she wanted one.

The women designed toys that could work WITH couples during sex to ignite arousal and pleasure. Their first product, Eva, launched on Indiegogo and quickly became the most successful crowdsourced sex toy in history. And Dame’s latest invention, the Fin, made news as Kickstarter’s first-ever sex-toy crowdfunding campaign.

“I grew up empowered by sexuality, but aware of its dark side. I have felt empowered by my sexuality since I was very young…”

Even very young, I was aware of my femininity. The only epiphany I ever had about sex was when I grew boobs. I remember waking up and being like, “Oh my God! I officially have boobs.”

I first experienced slut-shaming in sixth grade, when I kissed three boys in one night. They were all my good guy friends and they were like, “What would it feel like to kiss a girl?” and I said, “I’m a girl, I could show you what it feels like to kiss.” I’m an open person. That’s me.

It only bothered me the next day, when I got to school and everybody was talking about it. People were so mean to me that day and called me a slut. I did not kiss a boy for like two years after that.

I caught on early to the power of sharing stories about sexual experiences

In high school, I dated the same guy from freshman to senior year. I lost my virginity to him… and got HPV. I wanted to share what I went through with my health class. My teacher told me not to — she said it would be a really awful idea because kids can be so cruel. I told her that was wrong: “You are telling me not to share my experience and you are perpetuating the cycle.” I refused to shut down and pretend these things hadn’t happened. So I kept talking — and other girls started coming to me to talk through their own stuff.

As high school graduation approached, I was seriously considering becoming a sex therapist. I am so fascinated by the psychology of gender and sex and how it shapes our society. I wanted to be a part of this conversation. I ended up going to Columbia University for a masters in clinical psychology. It was during that time I realized this dialogue was one I wanted to have.

My goal was to figure out how to make the biggest impact

Growing up, my father really instilled in me the entrepreneurial spirit. It was a belief that there were no limitations on what I could do — and if I didn’t know how to do something, I could look it up on the internet and get the answers I needed. I think a good entrepreneur has this really ridiculous belief that they can figure out how to do anything.

I remember mapping possible futures out for myself in grad school. I could become a sex therapist, sex educator, teacher… And then I added, “I could make a vibrator.”

I circled that last sentence on my idea board. The thought resonated with me. My goal has always been to help people — especially women — feel empowered and aware of their own sexual identities.

So, it was in that headspace that I ended up working in a consumer goods company. I wanted to learn about what it means to be a brand and sell a product around the world — and that’s when I started drawing out what would eventually become the Eva hands-free vibrator for women to wear during sex in order to close the orgasm gap.

Complete Article HERE!

Girls Gone Wild: Why Straight Girls Engage In Same-Gender Sexual Experiences

By

black-lesbian-couple

“Straight girls kissing” has become something of a curious and controversial cultural phenomenon over the last 15 years.

Madonna and Britney Spears famously locked lips in front of millions during the 2003 Video Music Awards, with Scarlett Johansson and Sandra Bullock following suit seven years later at the MTV Movie Awards. In 2008, Katy Perry went platinum singing that she “kissed a girl” and “liked it.” Meanwhile, we’ve seen portrayals of otherwise unlabeled women acting on same-gender desire in a number of popular primetime shows, from “Orphan Black” to “The Good Wife.”

In one sense, this reflects real life. Many young women who identify as straight have had sexual or romantic experiences with other women. Research on sexual fluidity, hooking up and straight girls kissing has mainly focused on women living on college campuses: privileged, affluent, white women.

But studies have found that same-gender sexual experiences between straight women are common across all socioeconomic backgrounds. This means existing studies have been ignoring a lot of women.

As recent surveys have shown, women outside of the privileged spaces of college campuses actually report higher rates of same-gender sex. This happens even though they’re more likely to start families at a younger age. They also have different types of same-gender sexual experiences and views of sexuality, all of which we know less about because they’re often underrepresented in most academic studies of the issue.

As a sociologist who studies gender and sexuality, I wanted to know: How do straight women who don’t match the privileged, affluent and white stereotype we see in the media make sense of their same-gender sexual experiences?

‘Straight girls kissing’ in social science

Some social scientists have followed the media’s fixation on straight girls kissing to further explore theories of female bisexuality.

In her 2008 book, psychologist Lisa Diamond developed the influential model of “sexual fluidity” to explain women’s context-dependent or changing sexual desire. Meanwhile, sociologist Laura Hamilton argued that making out at college parties served as an effective, albeit homophobic, “gender strategy” to simultaneously attract men and shirk lesbians. And historian Leila Rupp, with a group of sociologists, theorized that the college hookup scene operates as an “opportunity structure” for queer women to explore their attractions and affirm their identities.

All of these scholars are quick to recognize that these ideas – and the studies on which they are based – focus mostly on a certain type of person: privileged women living on the progressive campuses of selective universities. In part, it is easier to recruit study participants from classes and student groups, but it leaves us with a picture that reinforces stereotypes.

Around the same time I conducted my study, the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) found that women with the lowest levels of educational attainment reported the highest lifetime prevalence of same-gender sex. The New York Times correctly observed that these findings challenged “the popular stereotype of college as a hive of same-sex experimentation.” A 2016 update of the survey did not find a statistically significant pattern that varied by education level, but reiterated the high prevalence among women who didn’t go to college.

Just Below the Surface

In 2008, I started work as a research assistant on the Relationship Dynamics and Social Life (RDSL) study, which surveyed young women weekly for two-and-a-half years to learn about the prevalence, causes and consequences of unintended pregnancy. It was my job to handle participants’ questions, comments and complaints. Most of the inquiries from the participants were about how to complete the surveys or receive the incentive payment.

But a few came from women unsure about how to answer questions on sex and relationships. They wondered: Were they supposed to include their girlfriends?

Many demographic surveys focused on health or risk do not explicitly collect data on sexual orientation or same-gender relationships. But valuable information on these topics often exists just below the surface.

In 2010, I decided to write new RDSL survey questions about sexual identity, behavior and attraction. Nearly one-third of participants gave some type of nonheterosexual response (including women who said they “rejected” labels or that gender was not a determining factor in their attractions). In 2013, I recruited 35 of these women to interview. Because RDSL had a racially and socioeconomically diverse population-based sample, I was able to interview women that many sexualities scholars struggle to access.

What Happens After Motherhood?

Many women I interviewed had become mothers in their teens or early 20’s. All of these moms had hooked up with a woman, had a girlfriend in the past or said they were still attracted to women. Nonetheless, most identified as straight.

They explained that it was more important to be a “good mother” than anything else, and claiming a nonheterosexual identity just wasn’t a priority once kids were in the picture.

senior lesbiansFor example, Jayla (a black mom with a four-year degree from a state school) broke ties with her group of LGBTQ friends after her daughter was born. As she explained, “I think what our relationship didn’t survive was me becoming a mom… I kind of shifted away from them, because I know how I want to raise my daughter.”

Women who married men or settled down in their early 20’s also felt that their previous lesbian or bisexual identities were no longer relevant.

Noel, a white married mom with a General Educational Development certificate, dated girls in high school. Back then, being bisexual was a big part of her identity. Today, she doesn’t use that term. Noel said monogamy made identity labels irrelevant: “I’m with my husband, and I don’t intend on being with anybody else for my future.”

Sexual Friendships Emerge

Being a young mom can foreclose some possibilities to fully embrace an LGBTQ identity. But in other ways it created space to act on same-gender desire. I came to call these intimacies “sexual friendships.”

Chantelle, a black mom with a high school diploma, was struggling to co-parent with her ex-boyfriend. In the midst of her frustrating situation, she had found intimacy and satisfaction in a sexual friendship with a woman. As she put it, “relationships have a different degree and different standards. But with a friendship it’s kind of like everything is an open book.”

Amy, a white woman working on her associate’s degree, has had sex a few times with her best friend. They don’t talk about that, but they have daydreamed together about getting married, contrasting their feelings with their experiences dating men: “I feel like a man will never understand me. I don’t think they could. Or I don’t think that most men would care to. That’s just how I feel from the experiences I’ve had.”

Some of the women I interviewed told me they strategically chose hookups with women because they thought it would be safer – safer for their reputation and a safeguard against sexual assault.

Tara, a white woman attending a regional public university, explained: “I’m a very physical person and it’s not all emotional, but that doesn’t go over well with people, and you get ‘the player,’ ‘whore,’ whatever. But when you do it more with girls, there’s no negative side effects to it.”

Tara also said that men often misinterpret interest for more than it was: “Like if I want to make out with you, it doesn’t mean I want to have sex with you. But in a lot of guys in party scenes, that’s their mentality.” I asked her if this happened to anyone she knew, and she uncomfortably said yes – “Not that they ever called it rape or anything like that.”

Less Exciting, More Real

lesbian pronIntersectional studies like the one I conducted can upend the way we frame the world and categorize people. It’s not binary: Women don’t kiss each other only for either the attention of men or on their way to a proud bisexual or lesbian identity. There is a lot of rich meaning in the middle, not to mention structural constraints.

And what about that popular image equating “straight girls kissing” with “girls gone wild”? It’s more provocative cliché than reality. Many are at home with their kids – the father gone – looking for companionship and connection.

By using large-scale surveys as both a source of puzzles and a tool for recruiting a more diverse group of participants, the picture of “straight girls kissing” gets a little less exciting – but a lot more real.

Complete Article HERE!

How To Have The ‘Sex Talk’ with Your Kids

USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Mother with daughter (8-9) talking on bed

By

Let’s talk about “the talk.” Yep! The birds and the bees.

At some point, every parent needs to give their kids a heads up on what’s going on with their bodies and their sexuality, right? In a perfect world, that would be true, but even well-meaning parents may not know how to approach the topic. In my family, for example, I never even heard my mother or father say the word “s-e-x” until I was in my 30s!

I want to equip ESSENCE moms with a cheat sheet on how to give your kids “the talk.” After all, sexuality is a natural part of life, and loving your sexual self is important to having high self-esteem overall. Since I’m not yet a mom, I called on a friend who is also a parenting specialist to weigh in on the topic.

Parenting expert Erickka Sy Savané was once an international model and host of her own video countdown show on MTV Europe. These days, the woman who has also written for almost every major publication can be seen as the host of a new digital series called POP MOM. She says that the show and accompanying blog is a way to get African American mothers to share and discuss hot topics. Erickka lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters, ages 6 and 4.

Sex ed is such an important topic. Consequences of poor sexual education at home may include unintentional pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, body hatred and low self-esteem. My parents told me absolutely nothing about love, sex, dating and relationships. Were your parents open about sex and sexuality?

I grew up with a single mom talked to me about my period after it happened, and I vaguely remember her telling me something about sex when I was in high school. She might have mentioned getting on birth control pills if I felt like I was going to have sex. But it wasn’t a talk that started when I was young, like I’m starting to do with my daughter who is 6 years old. For instance, my daughter asked me about my current POP MOM episode that talks about ‘the sex talk and dads,’ so I had a conversation with her.

I want to be honest and I want sexuality to be something that is viewed as normal, while also letting her know that it is something for when she is much older. I wish my mom would have talked to me about sex as I was growing up so by the time I was in high school it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. I think it’s important to take the taboo out of it because as humans we are here to reproduce.

When parents ask me about how to talk to their kids about their bodies and sex, I generally advise them to begin early with age appropriate topics, as you’re doing with your daughter. How young is too young to have these conversations?

I say, if they’re asking give them answers that they can handle, while maintaining certain levels of truth. I had to start the sex talk with my daughter when she was in kindergarten because she had a classmate and best friend that started telling her all these inappropriate stories that she was observing either in her home or on TV. I didn’t want my daughter learning about sex through a 5-year-old. Psychologist Dr. Kristin Carothers says that appropriate sex conversation should begin as early as 8 or 9 years old.

Whenever we have thought about sex ed at home previously, as a culture, it has been mom talking to girls and dad talking to boys. I am so grateful for you approaching the topic of daddies talking to daughters as our relationships with our fathers define, to some extent, our de facto relationships with men.

I decided to address the sex talk from a dad’s perspective when I realized that, “Oh! I have a husband.” Unlike my mom, who was a single parent and had to do it alone, I was able to see that I can share this experience with him so it made me ask my own husband about his plans with our two daughters, and from there I wanted to hear from other dads. I was able to see that dads do have plans, even if they don’t verbalize them. I was also able to see that just by posing the question to dads, they were able to more clearly define their plans. It’s a conversation that moms and dads should be having, and having with their girls together because dads do have a different perspective that girls need to hear. It’s real value.

Growing up, my mom gave me a stack of pamphlets and books to answer my questions. How does a parent who is nervous and uncomfortable about the topic themselves bring up the issue?

Good question. Books and youtube videos give good advice. Also, a parent doesn’t have to go all-in, from the first conversation. They can start by talking about related topics like dating boys and what that means to them and their friends. Start slow and build up.

What do you advise moms say to their sons?

I think they should be honest about how babies are born. Like the technical and emotional aspects of it. I think moms should talk about respecting a woman’s body, the consequences of sex (pregnancy and disease), and I think women and men should be big on discussing consent. I read that Nate Parker [who was accused of rape] had no talks about consent beyond if a woman says yes or no. How about if a woman is drunk, unconscious? It’s still a no. I think that needs to be addressed with boys for sure. Women can do it.

Great conversation, Erickka. I am thankful for your work. Why do you feel that this topic so important?

It’s important because we were put on this planet to reproduce; so sex is a natural part of our lives like eating and sleeping. If we normalize it from a young age by talking about it, with all it’s grey areas, kids will have a better time. I find myself having identity, gay and transgender talks with my daughters because there’s no way around it

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