Recently, I had to comfort a student over a situation in which she and another girl were competing for the attention of a boy in their class. There were tears, drama, recriminations and some revenge fantasizing involving passionate language. They were 9-year-old third-graders.
In September, I had to talk to my students about not swapping speculation over who were boyfriends or girlfriends with whom. These were my first-graders.
My sons are now grown and, thankfully, after years of awkward conversations about hygiene, interpersonal relations, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases and vaccinations, we can have relaxed, factual conversations about such topics when the need arises.
I sure don't remember having to broach those issues in primary school, but I'd have to reconsider that if my kids were young now -- childhood innocence ends so swiftly these days.
Despite similar rates of sexual activity among both male and female adolescents, males are twice as likely to have their first sexual intercourse before the age of 13 -- or seventh grade -- according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Pediatrics.
The study's findings underscore that male identities are associated with their experiences and that their "age at first sexual intercourse is associated with identifiable systemic barriers in communities, such as racial segregation and neighborhood disadvantage," according to Laura D. Lindberg, Isaac Maddow-Zimet and Arik V. Marcell, authors of "Prevalence of Sexual Initiation Before Age 13 Years Among Male Adolescents and Young Adults in the United States."
Although, as with every other marker of well-being, boys of color in this country are at higher risk for the downsides of an early sexual debut, this turns out to have far more to do with their mothers' education level -- a proxy for a family's eventual level of education -- than with race, ethnicity or even geography.
The authors underscore that young men, especially young men of color, need comprehensive, culturally informed sex education before their first sexual encounter -- preferably from a health-care practitioner -- starting in middle-school or earlier.
This is a tall order. And, according to the authors, best practice calls for comprehensive sex education to start at least by kindergarten in the schools. The gold standard is for medical practitioners to set time alone with young patients in office-visit settings to address confidential care -- including sexual health -- starting in early adolescence.
Unfortunately, this is radical.
Citing numbers from the National Institutes of Health, the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress (CAP) estimates that "only about half of adolescents receive school instruction about contraception before they first have sex. Only 20 states require information on condoms or contraception, and only 20 states and the District of Columbia require sex and/or HIV education to be medically, factually and technically accurate."
In an era of "helicopter" parents who hover around through college and first jobs, "steamroller" parents who clear the path for their kids, anti-vaxxers and ideological home-schoolers, it seems likely that, according to the authors, most males will start having sex before receiving sex education. (Some parenting styles are associated with higher incidences of depression and anxiety, which in turn, are associated with early sexual debut.)
"Broad cultural scripts about masculinity and sex hold that men should start having sex early and have sex often. For young men of color, particularly black males, racist stereotypes of hypermasculinity may also contribute to expectations of early sexual initiation," the study authors wrote. "Yet research highlights that males in early and middle adolescence do not necessarily follow such scripts, and a later transition to first sexual intercourse may be valued. Understanding males' wantedness of the sexual experience may be particularly important for interpreting early sexual activity."
Decent sex education that includes explicit training in pregnancy and STD prevention and is delivered with cultural competency for the students involved is rare. And the situation is only getting worse under the Trump administration.
"While the American public is demanding ways to tackle teen pregnancy and other issues such as unhealthy relationships, the federal government is reducing access to critical intervention tools -- an important one being comprehensive sex education," wrote Sarah Shapiro and Catherine Brown on the CAP website. "Sex education across the country is being underutilized and even misused."
Now is the time to reach out to young boys and ensure that they have an adolescence with culturally appropriate mentoring and meaningful sex education -- especially in a government led by a man who has made crude comments about women and has boasted of sexually grabbing them without their consent.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.