“13 Reasons Why” Gave Me an Opportunity to Have a Candid Conversation with My Child About Sexuality and Adolescence

“What? Are you studying Shakespeare already?” That was my reaction when my 12-year-old daughter asked if she could watch 13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s controversial series. I, of course, was confusing it with 10 Things I Hate About You, a 1990s retelling of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, which introduced many of us to the late Heath Ledger’s charms.

“Huh?” she replied. “No, mom. 13 Reasons Why is a new show on Netflix. Everyone is watching it.” Like any metiche mom, I quickly unlocked my iPhone and asked Siri to clarify. As it turned out, 13 Reasons Why had been causing a buzz across middle and high schools everywhere this spring and plenty of controversy for graphically depicting bullying, rape, and suicide. Whoa. I pulled my husband in. “Oye, que la niña quiere ver this 13 Reasons Why thing,” I told him in our code-switching shorthand. “Oh, yeah. My students have been talking about it. What do you think?” We spent a few minutes strategizing — the type that parents engage in when they’re entering unchartered territory and don’t know what to do.

First, we asked our daughter why she wanted to watch the show. “All the kids at school are talking about it, and I want to be able to participate in the conversation,” she said. Fair enough. Then, we set some ground rules. My husband would sit down and watch each episode with her, pausing to explain where necessary. Because Netflix tracks each user’s viewing, we would know if she used any of our profiles to watch ahead without supervision. We also agreed that she and I would to sit down to discuss the topics presented in the series and the information she would need to understand those topics. I’ll be honest: I had been avoiding this conversation, not because me daba pena, but because I felt that she was still not mature enough to hear it. But, I knew that she was studying anatomy in her biology class and that I had to beat her teacher to the section on the reproductive systems. So, while my husband and our other daughter were out on a Saturday morning, she and I sat down with my women’s health and human anatomy college textbooks (I knew there was a reason I had lugged them on various moves throughout the years) and my laptop. Here’s what we covered and a condensed version of how I explained it.

  1. Female anatomy. Our body is magnificent. It’s strong enough to grow and nurture life. And, it changes beautifully and, sometimes painfully, during our teen years. Our breasts grow, our hips widen, and we grow some additional hair. Here’s a diagram of what makes us anatomically different from males: we have a uterus, two ovaries, a vagina, a vulva, and a clitoris. And, here’s a diagram of what all of this looks like from the outside. Yes, we have three holes. You didn’t know that, did you?  Yes, it’s completely normal that other girls in your grade already shop for bras in the women’s section, and you don’t.
  2. Male anatomy. Boys don’t get periods or develop the way we do but they do have their own struggles so let’s be a little sympathetic and not make fun of them, okay? They have a penis and testicles, and they are very sensitive and this is why they double over in pain when they get hit in that area. It’s funny, but we really shouldn’t laugh (too loudly). I’ll explain why this happens in a bit but boys get erections, which means their penis becomes hard and it can sometimes happen when they least expect it. How embarrassing, right? Well, when a penis is hard, it feels like there’s a bone in there. No, it’s not a real bone and it can’t be broken (I think). It’s just tissue that gets filled with blood.
  3. Reproduction.  Each part of the male and female reproductive systems play a role in making a baby. The ovaries produce egg cells, the testicles produce sperm cells, and the two cells have to come together in order for a baby to start developing. The ovaries release one egg each month. Then, the egg travels through the fallopian tube. Now, this is where it gets interesting. Remember how we talked about a man’s penis becoming erect? Well, it needs to be hard in order to be able to penetrate a woman’s vagina so that it can deposit the sperm inside her body so that the sperm can meet the egg. This is called sexual intercourse or sex. Is it painful? Usually not, but it can be painful the first time a woman has sex or if there are other conditions or diseases affecting a woman, but we’ll talk a little more about that in a bit. A fluid called semen helps the sperm along. When the sperm meets the egg, this is called fertilization and, once fertilization happens, the new fertilized egg settles on some nice padding in the uterus.
  4. The Menstrual Cycle. The nice padding in the uterus is actually made of blood and tissue that accumulates each month. When there is no pregnancy, your body will know that it doesn’t need the padding and it will break it down and release it through your vagina. This is your period. If a woman is pregnant, she will not get her period. Your period will last anywhere from 3 to 7 days and you will need something to absorb the blood. For now, you should be fine with pads. They come in their own wrapper and you unwrap it, peel of the backing, and stick it to your underwear. When you get older, you may want to use tampons, which you insert into your vagina and have to remember to pull out every few hours. When you’re much, much, older, you may want to try a menstrual cup. I know…it looks scary but you don’t need to worry about that now.
  5. Pregnancy. All I need you to know for now is that just because your reproductive system is ready for a baby, the rest of your body and your mind probably are not. There are devices and medication that can prevent pregnancy but none of them are 100% guaranteed to prevent it and only a couple devices can stop diseases, which you can get through sex. And, they’re pretty nasty and can be painful. Here are some pictures of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and herpes.
  6. Sexuality. You may have noticed that you get a little tingle in your tummy or your private areas when you see people kissing on television or when you see someone you like. This is your sexuality and it is a normal, healthy, and wonderful thing to experience. Each person’s sexuality is different. Some women are attracted to men and vice versa, some women are attracted to women, some men are attracted to men, and some men and women are attracted to both men AND women. It’s all normal. You don’t have to explain your sexuality to anyone, and you don’t need to be ashamed.
  7. Virginity. Sex can be a beautiful thing when you experience it with someone you love. That’s why your first time should be with someone who loves you, respects you, takes the time to be gentle and patient, and is willing to carry the responsibility of a sexual relationship with you. Some people may tell you that as long as you are not having intercourse, meaning that the penis does not enter the vagina, it’s not really sex and therefore you’re still a virgin. You’ll have to make that determination for yourself, but I believe that if you are intimate with someone else, you are having sex. There are other ways people, especially young people, may have sex in order to prevent pregnancy or “stay a virgin,” and it will be up to you to decide what other forms of sex you are comfortable with and enjoy. If it sounds gross, don’t do it. Also, remember that diseases can be spread through all other forms of sex as well.
  8. Pleasure. Your body is able to feel immense pleasure, and you should not be ashamed to experience it or request it from your partner. I encourage you to explore your body and find out what feels good and what doesn’t. Sex should be pleasurable for you AND your partner. In a healthy relationship, you and your partner will consider the other and make sure you are both enjoying it.
  9. Assault. That said, no one should force you into having sex. Even if you’ve been kissing and touching and feel super tingly, you can change your mind and decide to stop, and your partner should respect this. Some boys will say they have to continue or something painful will happen to their testicles. They’re lying. You, and only you, have a right to say who touches your body and where and when they can touch it. If someone refuses to listen when you say no and touches or enters your body without your permission, this is called assault or rape and it is morally and legally wrong. Assault or rape is not your fault. You should always report assault whether it happens to you or you saw it happen to someone else.
  10. Mental Illness. Along with our bodies, our brains also undergo major changes during the teen years. Sometimes, the chemicals in our brains don’t balance out correctly and that throws everything else in our body off. You may feel sad, tired, anxious, hopeless, or alone. You may feel really happy and energetic for a bit and then feel really, really, down. These are symptoms of mental illness. Mental illness runs on both sides of your family so, unfortunately, your chances of experiencing it are higher. The important thing to know is that mental illness should not be shameful and that it can be treated, just like any other illness. And, no matter how alone or hopeless you may feel, you are definitely not alone, and there is ALWAYS hope. Please reach out to your dad, me, or anyone else you trust if you ever feel this way. We’ll hold you as long as you need to be held and get you the care you need to feel better.
  11. Support network. With so many changes in your body and mind, and so many things to deal with at school, the teen years will undoubtedly be rough. Honestly, it was NOT my favorite time, but I got through it and so will you. I hope you know that you can trust me. I’ve been very open during this conversation so that you understand that nothing fazes me and that I will never judge you. That I will support you if you find yourself in a difficult situation, are feeling sad or unhappy, or feel like you are in a hopeless situation. I hope you will wait until you’re in college to be intimate with someone else, but if you decide you’re mature enough at an earlier age, I hope you will be safe and healthy about it. Know that I will drive you to the doctor’s office to be examined or purchase birth control but if you decide you’d rather keep me out of it, here’s the number to the appointment center and here is your medical record number. As with all other things, your aunts, grandmas, and godmother will continue to be a part of your support network and help answer questions you may have and offer advice when you need it. Always remember that you are not alone and you are loved, no matter what.
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Edna Becerra

Edna Becerra

Edna Becerra is the Associate Director of Web Strategy and Multimedia at Whittier College. With more than a decade of experience in the higher education realm, she has a deep understanding of the college preparation and admission processes, and the unique challenges that first-generation students and students of color face in pursuing and completing a college education. Together with her husband, Edna is raising two daughters.