Sexual health is about more than our body parts. The youth I work with understand this inherently.
In my role as Sexuality and Reproductive Health Facilitator at Sexuality Education Resource Centre Manitoba, I work on a number of different projects, one of which is focused exclusively on newcomer youth in Winnipeg. It is called the Our Families Can Talk About Anything project, which brings together parents and youth from newcomer families to talk about sexuality and sexual health and work to build bridges of communication between parents and their teens about these topics.
During these newcomer youth workshops, we spend as much time exploring topics of broken hearts, relationships with parents and consent as much as vaginas, condoms and STIs. Sexuality is a complex and dynamic aspect of our humanity and includes physical, emotional, mental and spiritual components, all interconnected.
I really believe that I have the best job in the province. I get to host sexual health workshops and discussions with newcomer youth who are navigating the challenges of being young in Winnipeg in 2018, learning about themselves as they transition to adulthood and struggling with their roles as children of parents who maybe just don’t understand. Add to this the pressures and stresses of puberty, social media and hallway crushes. There is so much to navigate.
With these pieces put together, it becomes clear how mental health plays an integral part of the story. Our hearts, minds and bodies are all connected.
In our sessions, the youth talk about relationships with parents and their struggle to be independent. We explore LGBT2SQ* identities, respect for diversity and how these intersect with religious beliefs. We share about consent, cat-calling and abusive relationships. We explore body image, self-image, valuing ourselves. We dissect the intricacies of decision-making, how to trust ourselves, when to trust in others. We talk about what respect means, how we respect our own bodies and how we respect the bodies of others. We discuss racism, cultural adaptation, bullying and community. We talk about birth control choices, STIs and the science of how bodies work.
We also talk about broken hearts. If there were one thing I would love to communicate fully to you it would be these amazing conversations about broken hearts. Youth understand how mental health connects to physical health. Hearts and feelings directly affect thoughts and actions. They speak with great articulation on feeling the grief of broken relationships and their need to devise strategies to get out of bed on mornings when they are so sad they can barely breathe. They know and experience the pain of breakups and the cloud that hovers above them for months, sometimes years afterwards. They know that hearts and minds are connected; they are working so hard to find a way through this.
We cannot afford to ignore the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of sexual health. Talking about bodies as if they are separate from our relationships, separate from our thoughts and feelings would be missing most of the story.
The 16-year-old woman who is asking for condoms because she feels pressured into sex by her boyfriend, the boyfriend she cannot tell her parents about because they do not want her dating until she is 18, is facing immense pressure from many sides of her life. We let her know that contraceptives are available to her, and with those we also provide information on her sexual rights, on her inherent value as a person, on her agency to use her body the way that she thinks best, on what healthy relationships look and feel like. Providing birth control options is important but not the only part of sexual health that needs attention; all of these are connected.
Sexual health is about more than our body parts. It is about how our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual selves interact in terms of our sexuality and our understanding of ourselves. It is about mental health, reproductive rights, birth control access, consent, bodies, healthy relationships, body image, smashing the patriarchy, social justice and all of the things that affect our bodies and relationships.
We cannot separate the physical from the mental or the spiritual; it just would not make sense. Effective sexual health education encompasses all of these aspects of our sexuality, while we assist youth in the skills they need to effectively Mind Their “Business”.