“You don’t have a penis, Mommy!?”
Even though I’ve worked in HIV, sexual health, and education for over 20 years, I never imagined I’d be having a conversation like this with my 3-year-old son. We were playing with his cars before dinner and out of the blue, he started talking about how we both had penises. When I broke the news to him that I didn’t have one, he was shocked. I found myself shocked, too, that as with him as young as 3, we would be having conversations about our bodies and sexual health.
This conversation made me realize how important it is to create an open, safe, and non-judgmental space to talk with our kids about sexual health. I have to admit, it’s a lot easier staying at arms-length as a professional and discussing “populations at risk,” or how “people” can protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections, HIV or unintended pregnancies.
This Mother’s Day, I realize that even though it’s hard to talk about sexual health (especially when you get questions that you’re not prepared for), having the conversations early on lays the foundation for values like consent, honesty, and openness. I want my son to know that his body is his own, and have all the knowledge and skills he needs to be healthy and whole. At 3, this is the beginning of a lifetime of communication. I don’t ever want him to feel afraid to ask me any questions, even ones like, “do you have a penis?”
Antigone H. Dempsey, M.Ed.
Director of the HIV and Sexual Health Center at Altarum Institute