Last month, Kim Kardashian sat for a much talked about interview with Oprah Winfrey. I didn’t watch, but oh, did I hear about it. Kardashian confessed that her mother Kris Jenner put her on birth control when she was just 14 years old. Apparently, Kardashian conveyed to her mother that she was ready to have sex after dating the same boy for two years.
Oprah’s response: a stunned “Wow.” Around the Internet, there was a collective gasp of horror. Jenner, a mother of five daughters, defended her decision on the “Bethenny Frankel Show.”
“When I felt like it was that time in their life that they were going to that step … I drove as fast as I could to the gynecologist’s office,” Jenner said. “You can try and talk your kids out of [having sex], but unless you lock your child in the closet and throw the key away, they’re going to do what they feel.”
I get the knee-jerk reaction to Jenner’s decision. Fourteen doesn’t just sound incredibly young, it is. But Jenner had to be doing something right if her daughter was comfortable enough to discuss sex with her. I wonder, when it’s thought about more carefully, what all those Jenner critics would have done in the same scenario since it’s not like you can stop a kid from having sex if that’s what she wants to do. And, too, if the way our mothers handled our budding interest in sex — if it was even addressed/discussed — was any better.
“I actually think it’s a great thing that Kris Jenner put Kim on birth control,” said Larissa Vasquez, a friend who works at a family planning clinic. “I don’t think it promotes promiscuity. I believe it opens the door for conversation between mothers and daughters. Is it uncomfortable? Awkward? Yes. But isn’t a few moments of discomfort worth knowing your daughter is being safe and coming to you for answers instead of a know-it-all friend?”
A few of my friends had moms who took the Jenner approach. One friend was put on birth control when she was 12. “I was tall and developed early, she explained. “I had hips, butt, and boobs when I was around 10.” Her mother took her to the ob/gyn and my girl left with an Ortho packet. Another friend confessed to her mother that she was having sex at 14. Initially, Mom went into shock, but upon recovery, she drove her daughter to the doctor for a Pap smear and birth control pills. “The doctor kept it real gangsta with me and had a good little talk about STDs and boys,” she recalled. “I already knew being a teenage mom wasn’t in the cards for me.”
I don’t remember really discussing sex with my mother. When I was a preteen, she gave me some books that explained the basics of how babies are made. I recall her insisting that I could always talk to her about anything, but I didn’t really believe her. When I was about 14, an older relative gave me just-in-case condoms. My PE teacher said that to get out of wearing a condom, a boy would say it was too small, which was impossible. “You can fit a human head in one!” she’d declared. So I blew one up like a balloon to test the theory. (Yes, she was right.) My mother found the one I’d opened to explore and stopped speaking to me for a few days, but never addressed if I’d been having sex.
I vaguely recall my mother telling me (at what teen age, I don’t remember) how boys would want me to do “things” and that I should keep my legs closed. There was never a mention that I would want to do things because, like, girls don’t have those urges, too, right? When I got my driver’s license at 16, I got two things: a speech from my father about “not riding no boys around in my car!” and the number to my mother’s ob/gyn. “You’re on my insurance, so if there’s something you need, just go to the doctor and tell him, and I’ll pay for it when the bill comes, OK?” she said. In retrospect, she was alluding to birth control, but that totally flew over my head at the time. I thought she meant an abortion, you know, like Tami from “The Real World.”
A friend who did her college thesis and dissertation on the sexual health of black girls urged me not to be too hard on black moms who didn’t advise their daughters about safe sex. “We have so many other societal assaults — racism, sexism, poverty, sexual abuse — to contend with. Unfortunately the sex talk is not something all black mothers have the fortitude to address,” she said. “When you have sole responsibility for the financial and emotional responsibility for a household, as in the case of my mother, you must prioritize the lessons you impart on your children.”
Many of our mothers (but not all) just didn’t know what to say, so they literally said nothing. “Sex, birth control, relationships, crushes were never discussed in my household. Ever,” said a 20-something friend. Another friend’s sex talk was being instructed to look up “maturation” in the dictionary. “What a complete joke.” she said. Long after she began having sex, she had her first ob/gyn appointment and birth control prescription from Planned Parenthood. She added, “I paid for it on my own and my mother knew nothing about it.
Another mom insisted sex was for married people, period. But she did consent for her daughter, now 30, to attend a sex ed forum when she was in fifth grade. “That taught me about sex and STD and pregnancy prevention,” she said. “My mother wanted me to be informed, but not from a conversation with her.”
Some moms did talk about sex, though what they said seemed more hostile than informative. “My mother always spoke to me in a very accusatory way about sex as early as middle school,” a 30-something told me. “She didn’t so much ask if I was having it as much as make declarative statements that I was and then not believing my denials.”
Another woman also in her thirties explained that when she was young, her mother had been very open in discussing sex, but had all but shut down by the time she began dating in high school. “One day, my mother, father, brother, and his young son and I were in the kitchen and the topic of my sweetheart came up,” she said. “In what I remember to be a very cold and insensitive matter, my mother said, ‘Your virginity is the family’s and we’re not giving it up.’ I died a thousand deaths in that moment.”
Perhaps Kris Jenner’s approach wasn’t so bad after all.
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life, available for download and now in paperback. Follow her on Twitter at @abelleinbk.