For black and Latino fathers, talking to sons about sex is awkward but might prevent STIs

Adolescents actually want fathers to give them specific guidance on condom use, according to a new study.
Image: Father and son embrace
Father and son embracedigitalskillet / Getty Images/iStockphoto

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By Gwen Aviles

Teenagers are increasingly turning to the internet for information about sex, allowing them to bypass potentially awkward conversations with their parents. While many fathers may feel uncomfortable about having “the birds and the bees” talk with their sons, they may be surprised to learn that their children actually want fathers to give them specific guidance on condom use, according to a new study.

Led by Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, the founding director of New York University’s Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health, “Father-Son Communication About Consistent and Correct Condom Use” looked at how African-American and Latino fathers in particular approached conversations about sexual health.

Guilamo-Ramos honed in on this demographic because fathers are an underutilized resource in teenage boys’ sexual health education, and black and Latino adolescents are the most at risk for sexually transmitted diseases and infections.

“Most of the work in sexual and reproductive health has focused on mothers, not fathers,” Guilamo-Ramos told NBC News. “There’s a lot of work about dads being financial providers, and to me, that didn’t make sense. Young people want to hear from their fathers [about sex].”

Many sexual and reproductive health campaigns have also focused on young women. These campaigns have certainly been effective: According to the Center for Disease Control, teen birth rates declined for nearly all races in 2017.

Declining condom use, more sexually transmitted diseases

But while teen birth rates have been falling, condom use among teenagers has been steadily declining. Nearly 60 percent of high school seniors have had sex, yet only 54 percent of sexually active teenagers report using a condom during their most recent sexual encounter—an 8 percent decrease from 2005.

As a result, rates of STDs are noticeably rising, affecting a higher number of boys than girls. A 2016 Center for Disease Control and Prevention analysis shows that gonorrhea diagnoses have increased by 67 percent and syphilis diagnoses have increased by 76 percent over the last four years.

Struck by these numbers, Guilamo-Ramos and his team completed comprehensive interviews with 25 African American or Latino father-son pairs, all of whom lived in the Mott Haven neighborhood of New York City’s South Bronx. This is Guilamo-Ramos’ hometown, and it’s a community that has high rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

Guilamo-Ramos found that while most fathers had already spoken to their sons about sex in a general way and believed in the importance of safe sex, they felt vastly unprepared for teaching their boys about condom use and having more in-depth conversations about sexual health.

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“Fathers want their sons to be safe, but they’re not even sure if they know the correct way to teach them,” he said.

They also fear that their sons will perceive them as intrusive or lose respect for them if they talk about sex.

Sons, on the other hand, are concerned that “if they ask a question about sex, it will lead to a negative outcome, like their parents shutting them down,” Guilamo-Ramos explained.

Make it personal

Guilamo-Ramos’ research found that both “fathers and sons have specific preferences and needs for teaching and learning about consistent and correct condom use.”

Adolescents are receptive to “experiential instruction,” meaning they want their fathers to demonstrate how to correctly use a condom on a physical object. They also want their fathers to speak from personal experience.

“The core message of the study is profound,” Dr. Kate Lucey and Dr. Craig Garfield wrote in a Pediatrics article. “Fathers intuitively know this is a tough topic to discuss, and despite lacking knowledge at times, they nonetheless possess some innate communication skills that can be supported and reinforced, such as using humor and starting conversations when they will not be interrupted or overheard.”

Though the study shows that both fathers and sons are willing and interested in having these conversations, Guilamo-Ramos said “fathers need support in helping sons.”

To that end, Guilamo-Ramos explained that this research is the first part of a larger study underway called Fathers Raising Responsible Men.

The father-based intervention program is designed to reduce the number of unprotected sex acts among older adolescent males, specifically African-American and Latino youth and will provide fathers with resources, including a “father coach,” workbooks and videos to help them broach difficult sexual health conversations with their sons.

The young males who participate in the clinical trial will be encouraged to get tested for HIV and STIs.

Guilamo-Ramos also plans to partner with national organizations to spread the message that fathers play an important role in their sons’ sexual well-being.

While this recent research focuses on adolescents, Nicole Cushman, the executive director of Answer, an organization that promotes and provides sex education to young people, said it’s never too early for a parent to educate their child about sex.

“Parents really matter and make a difference in children’s decisions,” Cushman said. “It’s important for parents to start young and to teach their children about sex in age-appropriate ways. You can lay the groundwork for toddlers by simply teaching them the proper names for genitals and showing them to respect boundaries."

Teaching your child to ask to share a toy or a hug can be an early lesson about consent, according to Cushman.

“That way when they’re in middle school or older they can develop a more advanced language,” she said.