Ambassador Estrada’s Sex Education Talk

Ambassador John L. Estrada with Emile Elias and Gerry Brooks.

Good evening.

I’d like to start on a note of appreciation.

I am grateful for this moment.  This moment when a disadvantaged boy from Laventille gets to return to his birth place, stand before his community and speak about what is most important to him;. . . teaching our children respect for self and others and empowering them to make good choices.

I am also grateful for you, for each of you here this evening.  Your presence is an expression of your support for the Family Planning Association.  It is also a sign that you are the type of person who stands up for what you believe in – even when it is not popular, or easy.  The type of person who gives voice to those who don’t have a voice.

It is not often that one is in a room surrounded by hundreds of courageous people…  It’s a special thing. I’m lucky, I experienced it often in the Marine Corps when I spoke to my Marines. . . It’s a special thing. . . .It’s happening tonight and its effects will embolden our work going forward.

I’m thankful to the Family Planning Association . . .

For their pioneering efforts in Reproductive Health,. .

and for inviting me tonight . . .

For putting me in a room with hundreds of courageous people.

For giving me a podium where I can stand for what I believe in…

a microphone so I can give my voice to the voiceless. . .

and airtime, so that my message can be heard.

Now, above all, what I value most about this moment is the gift that each of you hearing this address are giving me over the next 15 minutes or so. . .

The gift of listening.

Opening your ears AND your minds AND your hearts to listen to what I . . .a boy from Laventille. . . has to say about what matters to me most . . . teaching children respect for self and others and empowering them to make good choices.

And so with humility and gratitude, I’d like to address you, those of you in this room, those of you who might listen to a rebroadcast, those of you in Trinidad and Tobago and those of you in the United States, my colleagues, my community, my family and my own children.

Please keep an open heart and an open mind as you listen, as I use this unique opportunity. . . to deliver the MOST personal and MOST important speech of my career.   I was born at the Port of Spain General Hospital and educated in Roman Catholic and public schools here in Trinidad.  At the age of 14 I immigrated to the United States and graduated from high school there.  By 17 I’d enlisted in the Marine Corps where I spent 34 years of continuous active duty service before retiring and eventually returning here to my birthplace as the United States Ambassador.

I learned about sex along the way.  I learned about respect for self and others in the Marine Corps and it was not until very late in life that I finally succeeded at figuring out how to have the loving marital relationship I long sought.

I’m lucky I managed to make good choices, for the most part, even with this hodge-podge education about something so central to being human.  Of course, there was no formal sex education when I went to school here in Trinidad.  So, I learned from what I saw around me. And most of it was not healthy.

As a father, I want something better for my children. I want them to learn about sex in a careful, intentional, values driven, evidence-based way.

As a leader, I believe that sexual education is one of the most critical pieces of moral and civil education we can give to our children.

Because ultimately, sexual education is about teaching our children to respect themselves, to respect others and to respect the integrity of the family.

Research has shown that one of the most impactful ways we can raise the standard of living of a society is by educating our children.  And one of the most effective ways we can reduce teen pregnancy and promote responsible family life is by giving young people information about their reproductive health and their choices.

Sexual education has been controversial in both Trinidad and Tobago and the United States for a long time.  It’s hard to a talk about sex, much less agree about how to talk about sex.  It’s no wonder that diverse citizens, with their diverse religious and cultural backgrounds have struggled to agree how and when and even if they should talk to their young people about sex.  No wonder we generally prefer that sex education happen at home.

But. . . if every Dad feels as shy about giving the “sex talk” to their daughter as I do. . . I guarantee that it’s being avoided, that it’s not always happening, that it’s not happening as candidly as it could and that some parents simply aren’t prepared to give it.

We can see by high teen pregnancy rates, the unacceptable incidence of domestic violence, bullying of the LGBTI community and occurrence of human trafficking that our default position, leaving sexual education to be done in the home, be those homes in the U.S. or T&T, simply doesn’t work. Our kids deserve better.

While it may be ideal for sexual education to happen at home. . . it might not be done there at all.  And it is our responsibility as a society, not to leave something so important to chance.

The other reality we must face is that our young people are learning about sex outside the home all the time.  From the images they see in the media –at Carnival time in Trinidad, during the Super Bowl half-time show in the U.S., from the lyrics they hear on the radio, from the pressures they feel in society.

Think about how you learned about sex.   Did you learn what you needed to know to make the best decisions?  Did you learn to respect yourself and others?  Did you learn about the importance of family?

We need to counter the sexual education which our children are exposed to . . .  we collectively need to be more engaged on this important topic…. with purposeful conversation around the dinner table, in community meetings, at church, in public debates, and most importantly, in schools.

I say most importantly in schools, because it is only through formal sex education in government schools that we can guarantee all children have the information they deserve and need to make responsible choices about their bodies, to learn what rights they have as human beings to be safe from harm and exploitation, to realize the possible consequences of acting on impulses that are perfectly natural, but also powerful, and sometimes even dangerous.

In the United States, most adolescents receive some form of sex education at school—although it’s not perfect there is some form of intentional reproductive health curriculum in their education.  My wish is for effective, evidence-based formal sex education to further improve and reach all the children growing up in the United States and Trinidad and Tobago.

Instead, we need to educate and empower our children.

A girl needs to know that her body is her own.

A young man must learn how to respect and protect women.  Even if he doesn’t see that in his own home.

Adolescents who struggle with their sexual identity should know that they are not alone, and they have nothing to be ashamed of.

Teenagers need to know that love doesn’t have to hurt. And that there is no tolerance for domestic violence.

A young couple dealing with an unintended pregnancy should know the resources and options available to them in addition to marriage.

But how will our young people learn about respecting themselves and others, about the importance of family, about sexual health, if we don’t teach them?  They will learn from media, marketing, peers, experimentation, here-say, and forces that do not necessarily have their moral and civic education in mind.  They may learn from sources that do not love and value them as much as we do.  They may even learn about sexuality from people that do not respect them, or worse, wish to exploit them.

Today, there is no safeguard to prevent this from happening.  Sexual education is not standardized or formalized.

That’s why tonight, I’m going to use this opportunity, this platform, this microphone to give the most personal and important talk of my career.  The sex education talk that I want my children to hear and which I think all children deserve to hear.

That’s how important my daughters are to me.  That’s how highly I think of their worth.   That’s how critical I think it is that they are educated about their bodies, their reproductive health and their choices.

THE TALK

Children:

Your mother and I believe that even before you were born God had a special plan for you, a special way that he knew you would help show his love to the world.  From the moment we learned that we would be your parents we knew we would be lucky to help you find the unique way you would shine and watch you grow to be your best selves.  It’s fair to say we loved you before you were born and we love you more each day, even on the bad days. . . especially on the bad days.

Our hope for you is that you find loving relationships, in which you can shine, in which you feel more like your best self, in which you feel confident that you are loved…even and especially on the bad days.

We had the freedom to choose if and when and with whom we would have relationships.  We had the freedom to choose if and when we would have children.  Because we had those freedoms and knew about our choices we were able to create this family life that we have and love so much today.

We want you to have these freedoms.  The only way that we can give you these freedoms and give you the chance to make loving choices is to teach you. 

So we are going to teach you how your body is capable of making a new life.  With specifics, not just generalities – because you are that smart and we respect you that much.  We are going to explain to you that humans experience both love and desire, and how humans use the gift of their bodies to express love and desire.

And we will get into the confusing part that love and desire don’t always go together – we will tell you about that conflict because it is real and because you can handle it and because we respect you that much. 

We will also teach you the key to telling if love and desire are going together. The key to knowing if a sexual act is loving and life-giving.  That key is respect. 

We will go into the details of how men and women show respect for each other and how they don’t.  We will point out examples of respectful acts and respectful relationships, because sometimes it can get hard to tell. 

The best way to get good at recognizing respect is to practice it. We expect you to treat others with love and respect.  Not just sometimes – all the time.

We are going to help you use your scientific brain to understand not just how your body works but to understand the choices you have about your healthcare. 

We are going to help you develop your sense of self-worth so that you know not only your value in our eyes and God’s eyes, but so that you see that value reflected back in your own eyes when you look in the mirror.  

We will keep reminding you that help and support are available when you get stuck, stuck in relationships where you don’t feel valued or might be hurt.  Stuck in thoughts about yourself or your body that might not be healthy or helpful.  Stuck in situations in which you just don’t know what to do.  We all get stuck sometimes.  And at those times we will work extra hard to help you remember your self-worth.

We also want you to stand up for others. Help them shine with self-respect like you do. Teach them what you have learned.  Work to empower others so that they are as free as you are.

CONCLUSION

In the blink of an eye my girls will be old enough to hear this talk.  And I hope by going on record tonight, this talk, imbued with love and respect and responsibility, will be the first talk they hear in their sexual education.

I’m also hopeful that by the time they come of age, sexual education will be a formal part of school curricula, making sure that all children learn about their self-worth, their sexual health and rights in such an intentional way.

Don’t you think every child deserves it?  I do.

It is only as a society that we can reach all our children.  It is only with the commitment of our community leaders and the investment of our government that we make sure that every child –from Laventille to the United States gets the education they deserve about their self-worth, their reproductive health and their choices.

Feature Address by Ambassador John L. Estrada at the Family Planning Association’s Report to the Nation at the Hilton Trinidad.