So I woke up the next day after having sex for the first time like, “Hmmm that was interesting.” Not exactly what I’d expected but everything leading up to it was exhilarating. It was physically uncomfortable the first time and in Hind sight understandably so. Now what?
Joyce, (not her real name), was a 15 year old teen in our program called The S Word Project. The S Word Project sets teens up to win at life by creating a safe space to talk about sex and relationships. Joyce called me after having sex for the first time and was worried and afraid. I could relate to the anxiety of not knowing that I’d unlocked a part of me that I didn’t even know existed. The years that followed would be full of all types of romances, short ones, long ones, and situation ships etc., all preparing me for the moment when Joyce would come to me to confess her sin.
I felt like that too my first time like Whoa ooooh! Now I had broken promises to my parents a couple of times and had sneaked and done somethings that I shouldn’t have, what teen hasn’t, but never had I ever broken a promise this big. I mean I had gone through the virtuous woman classes in church, and had a wedding ceremony with Jesus and everything. I even had a promise ring. So, the next day in addition to the physical discomfort I was also riddled with guilt. I was sure God was not messing with me anymore at this point. This is before I knew what grace was and before my community and I started what is called The S Word Project.
Here’s what I told Joyce:
1) God doesn’t love you any less for what has happened. He loves us unconditionally, so give you some compassion.
2) Your parents love you, have been where you are and if you want to tell them, I’ll go with you so they don’t kill you.
3) You have just opened up Pandora’s Box. We have a lot to talk about.
4) You need to schedule a doctor’s appointment and talk to your doctor about sexually transmitted diseases and birth control.
5) If you did not give consent for this sex act then you were raped and you need to get some support with reporting what happened.
6) Sex can be really pleasurable and healthy under the right circumstances.
I was a safe space for Joyce that day. Joyce was courageous enough to reach out for help. She didn’t have to make that phone call. I consider it an honor that she came to me at her time of fear and desperation. I had several options for handling that call. I could have condemned her and went on telling her how she shouldn’t be having sex in the first place and to keep her legs closed but then I remembered what it was like for me and chose to just skip the lecture and be there for her. A safe space is more likely to have your teens open up instead of the alternative which has them to shut down, hide, sneak around and end up suffering unnecessarily out of fear of not being gotten. That’s Step One to achieving a safe space: Choose to be one. I highly recommend it if you work with youth and especially if you’re raising teens.
Step Two: Tell on yourself. I had to tell Joyce I’d been where she was. Teens don’t mentally grasp that adults were once sperm and egg which matured into a baby, a child and a teen before reaching adulthood. Unless you tell them, they think we’ve been whatever age we are forever. I definitely spared some of the details when sharing my story but I told her I had sex for the first time at 17 and I remember being afraid too. It was as vague as that and then I had her attention. Joyce later told me that’s what makes her continue to reach out when she finds herself in a peculiar circumstance. Believe you me I’d rather have her have The S Word Project than not, and be out there all alone.
Step Three: Setting up a structure for future conversations. A safe space is created by declaration and agreements. America has something similar called the Declaration of Independence that establishes this country and sets forth how things go. Joyce is part of a teen after-school workshop series that allows me and people in my community with a particular heart for helping teens through whatever they could potentially be dealing with related to sex and relationships. We start The S Word Project programs by declaring the following guidelines for anyone in the room participating in the conversation:
SAFE SPACE GUIDELINES:
1) We neither encourage nor discourage sexual activity. You will be presented with stories of real life people, case studies, data, resources and information to help you create a powerful relationship to your own sexuality. Through your participation in The S Word Project you will be able to confidently MAKE the best CHOICES for you, your family and community.
2) We are not a religious organization but we recognize that spirituality is directly related to sex therefore many presenters and speakers may make references to their spiritual sources, experiences and practices. We are in no way intending to influence your spirituality, but we encourage you to LISTEN from an unconditionally loving and tolerant place.
3) In creating a safe space for teens to talk about sex we will encourage the development of both critical thinking skills, and full self-expression. You will experience lectures, interactive activities and sharing from fellow participants. Please PARTICIPATE & be respectful of everyone’s contribution. Although we hope you will tell others about the program it is important to keep the identities of those who share confidential, and to be non-judgmental about the past decisions, current considerations or future possibilities that are disclosed in the space.
Then a master of ceremonies, someone skilled with interacting and enrolling teens into a discussion, introduces a speaker. Our speaker’s bureau includes some of the most courageous, passionate and dynamic people I have the honor to know. We instantly fall in love with any group of teens we get in front of. On program days, we all get to be a safe space. So far, we’ve covered the following topics in our sessions:
1) The Importance of Authentic and Transparent Communication – Presented by me, Erin E. Thompson
2) Hygiene & Anatomy: Knowing Your Parts, What They Do & Keeping Them Clean – Presented by Nicole “Sala” Spenser, R.N. & Certified Doula
3) We Go Together: Teen Dating and Foundations for Quality Romantic Relationship – Presented by William A. Eaddy II
4) I’m A Boss: Identifying Your True Self and Setting the Standards That Will Take You Where You Want “To Be In Life” – Brandi N. Williams
5) Conflict Resolution: The Impact of Domestic Violence – Presented by Yolan Henry-Corner and Jeffery Beckham
6) Keys to Strong, Long & Satisfying Relationships – Presented by Afyna Troy & Sunette Sahlah
7) Loving the Skin I’m In: Self Image Check – Presented by Brandi N. Williams
8) Everything Comes with A Cost: Discovering the Actual Bottom Line of Engaging in Sexual Activity- Presented by Domini Gamble M Ed.
9) Pregnant in High School: What I Wish I Would Have Known Then, That I Know Now – Presented by Jasmine Jenkins
10) Healing from a Broken Heart – Presented by William A. Eaddy II
11) Choosing a Partner that Compliments You -Presented by Mr. & Mrs. Ervin and Shatoria Woods and Mr. & Mrs. Larry and Tanya Biggers
12) Self-Control: Tools for Being Successful at Abstinence & Celibacy – Presented by Kenyatta Scott
13) AIDS IS REAL DAMN IT! – Presented by Rae Lewis Thornton (The Diva Living with AIDS)
14) Choices, Choices: Maximizing the Hand You’re Dealt – Presented by Darius Jenkins
We’re fortunate to have worked with several amazing teens that are as courageous and generous with their experiences as our speakers. We get just as much out of sharing as the teens do. We’re proud to be a safe space. What’s next is to:
1) Make it so youth leaders and parents can reduplicate these safe space experiences through publishing curricula and books,
2) Provide teens like Joyce with easy access to solid information about sex and relationships and job training skills by producing a teen run web series and maintaining our social media statuses (@swordprjct on IG and The S Word Project on FB).
3) Raise funds to continue creating safe spaces all over the world. To donate or get involved with our Fall Athletic Fundraising Outing go to www.theswordproject.org.
Erin Thompson is the Founder of The S Word Project, a fiscally sponsored non-profit organization in Chicago and Los Angeles that utilizes media, events and publishing to provide comprehensive sex education to teen boys and girls between the ages of 14 and 19. She’s a graduate of Columbia College Chicago and John Marshall Law School and author of Teen Pregnancy “That’s All I Want” featured in the May/June 2017 Desire Health Magazine, Inc. – link to article: http://dhmi.org/thats-want-teen-pregnancy/. Here’s a link to the founder and speaker Kenyatta Scott discussing The S Word Project and Celibacy and Abstinence or WVON radio in Chicago (starts at 52 minute mark) https://soundcloud.com/user-711066815/full-radio-show-04-30-2017-kenyatta-scott-erin-thompson?utm_source=soundcloud&utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=facebook.