Dear Em & Lo: Should I Teach My Goddaughter Sex Ed?

Dear Em & Lo,

My goddaughter has reached the age where sexual exploration is something she might be considering delving into (if she hasn’t already). I’m not sure how to approach the issue of birth control with her. If she is wanting to have, or already is having sex then I want to support her getting on birth control.

However, I fear that by encouraging oral contraceptives, she may later fall, or be pressured, into believing that a condom isn’t really necessary because she won’t get pregnant and he must be clean because people wouldn’t lie about that sort of thing. In other words, I don’t want her to trade off using a condom just because she’s on the pill. I’d much rather her use a condom than the pill because at least you have options with an unplanned pregnancy, unlike many STDs.

Also, I think she’s still too young for sex, although I know many girls her age are engaging in sexual acts (she’s still a young teen), and I don’t want her to think that supporting birth control equals supporting sex. The basic question here is: Is supporting birth control risking giving her an excuse not to use a condom? If so, how do I counteract that?

— Confused Godmother

Dear Confused Godmother,

Wow, we wish we’d had a godmother like you when we were growing up! Kudos for modernizing the role of godmother and taking your role in her life seriously.

You won’t be surprised to hear that we are entirely in favor of sexuality education. Because its opposite — ignorant sex — has consequences too dire to ignore. And any godmother would be foolish to think she was the one introducing her goddaughter to the idea of sex. We’re pretty sure the cat’s out of the bag on that one.

For encouragement, we’d look to the Netherlands, where they have the lowest teen pregnancy rates and abortion rates in the West (as well as incredibly low STD rates among young people compared to countries like the US and the UK). Not surprisingly, they have excellent comprehensive and very open sex education that starts young (a series of sex education books for kids starting as young as 5 are considered classics there).

We know there are people in the abstinence-only camp who believe that if you think it’s too early for a teen or pre-teen to be having sex, then teaching them sex ed is like telling them “Don’t drive the car” — but leaving the keys in the Corvette and saying, “But if you do, buckle up.” This assumes, however, that parents (or godparents) and kids see things as black and white as neo-cons. Most people probably feel that their kids become sexually active way too early, but, when given the choice, would prefer they do it safely. And we like to think that most kids can tell the difference between education and permission.

Speaking of permission, it’s a touchy issue, and something you’ve probably already considered, but it’s probably a good idea (not to mention respectful) to give your goddaughter’s parents a heads-up that you’d like to have an honest conversation with her about sex — they’d probably want to know. We don’t think you need to go into graphic detail about which condom brand you’re going to recommend — just a simple, “Hey, I’d love to take out my goddaughter for a little chat about the birds and bees.” Most parents we know would welcome this from their kids’ godparents with open arms!  Not only do they clearly trust you as a role model, but the thought of discussing sex with their own kids is most likely terrifying to them!

Should the parents unexpectedly heisman this good idea (maybe they want to be the ones to handle the talks), then we’d recommend you gently put the ball in your goddaughter’s court, letting her know that she can come to you with any questions, about sex or anything, and that you’ll be very, very discreet. If you get the sense that she would like — or needs — someone to turn to (and her parents aren’t open to it), then we’d say your loyalty is to her and your priority is her safety and well-being.

But assuming the ‘rents will jump at the chance to have someone else participate in their daughter’s sex education, then we DO think you should go into graphic detail with her. We think you should tell her about masturbation and respecting her own body and being her own sexual agent. We think you should tell her that WHEN SHE’S READY — and say that at least ten times, WHEN SHE’S READY, which could be years from now and that’s totally cool — she needs to insist on using a condom correctly every time. Talk about STDs and unplanned pregnancies and how common they are. Explain that while condoms are the best defense against STDs and can really lower the risk of transmission, they cannot protect you from all STDs. Be prepared to give her resources she can go check out on her own, online: Planned Parenthood, AshaSTD.org, gURL.com. Tell her you’ll always be happy to buy condoms for her in the future (or buy her some if you think she may need them imminently). And teach her that she’s just as responsible for having protection on hand as the guy is.

As for the question about the pill, we think you should definitely encourage her to have a backup form of birth control because it’s the best defense against unplanned pregnancies when the condom breaks — explain to her that condoms DO break sometimes (especially when used incorrectly, hence the emphasis on “correct use”). You could even use the Planned Parenthood widget we mentioned earlier today to help figure out what might be the best backup methods of birth control for her. Tell her how, when she eventually becomes sexually active, having two forms of protection (condoms + some other form) will make her safer, give her more peace of mind, and thus make the experiences more enjoyable. But emphasize how this is a backup form of birth control that cannot take the place of condoms when it comes to STD protection, even with her first true love who she believes is a virgin. This is the point where you explain, very scientifically, “Hey, you really can never know!”

Finally, do tell your goddaughter what postponing sex may save her from: the post-prom disappointment, the pathetic fumblings of inexperienced, immature boys with no staying power; the various viral STDs going around that have no cure… You can certainly talk up waiting: abstinence-only education sucks, but abstinence itself can be great and empowering and stress-relieving! And then admit that once she actually gets around to sex — WHEN SHE’S READY — it’s (meant to be) pretty fun.

The seat belt police,
Em & Lo