Sexual health education is often an uncomfortable topic to address, one that can be surrounded with stigma and shame, said Trish Hecker. So she stepped into the gap and founded Open Door Support, a program that helps parents engage with their kids on the topic.
“For generations, sexual health in relation to how our body works, how body autonomy and consent works, how diversity works in who we love, how gender identity works—none of those topics were openly discussed, and most of the time they have been completely misunderstood,” Hecker said.
As a mom to two teenagers, 15 and 17, Hecker wanted to create a comfortable and safe space for her kids to ask questions about sexual health, she said.
“Sexual health conversations should absolutely be had primarily with families because families have their own values, but it’s important to have medically accurate, current information for their kids to combat false and damaging information they are getting on the internet,” Hecker said.
Hecker was a stay-at-home mom who then worked in the hospitality industry. When the pandemic hit she decided it was time for a career change. She went back to school and completed her bachelor’s degree, eventually earning her master’s degree in social sciences with an emphasis in human development and educational studies as well as a certificate in sexuality education, she said.
“Prior to my degree, I thought people weren’t listening so I’m getting my degree so I can be an expert in this field,” Hecker said. “I have my own passionate feelings of getting this education out there, and I realized that I needed to become somewhat of an expert to really connect with people and parents.”
In December, Hecker began Open Door Support offering one-on-one consulting, workshops, and speaking engagements to help parents, caregivers, and/or educators to address sexual education with their children or students. Although she’s currently based in the Santa Ynez Valley, she’d like to expand her services to the entire county.
Her workshops go over consent, body autotomy, healthy relationships, puberty, healthy bodies, sexual orientation and identity, gender identity and expression, and sexual media. Hecker said she’ll typically present information about the topic and follow it up with conversations between the participants.
“The environment that the workshops are aiming to provide is a comfortable place to talk about things our society has deemed uncomfortable. I want to change that messaging so that this doesn’t have to be uncomfortable,” she said. “Of course people are confused about where to start, what age, what is too much, what’s not enough, [but] it’s the lack of information that leaves us confused. Then it just puts a freeze on everything, and nothing is said.”
She added that not holding space for this dialogue could hurt the child’s future relationships with romantic partners or themselves, as well as cause mental health issues due to the shame and stigma surrounding sexual health education and its many components.
“Imagine a kid [who] thinks they’re dying because no one has talked to them about their period. They are bullied because they are LGBTQ—that’s sexuality and sexual health,” she said. “Our mental health is directly affected by our sexual health.”
Although it’s up to every family to figure out how to navigate these discussions, Hecker said it can begin when they are infants or toddlers by using the medically accurate terms for genitals to show that they are just another body part, she said. Children’s books are also a great resource because many discuss topics like different types of families, consent, body acceptance, and self-love.
“These all fall under the umbrella of having sexual health conversations. Parents also need to think, ‘How am I talking about myself when I’m around my kids? Do I say stuff like I’m so fat, or do I edit my photos?’” Hecker said. “These are things kids are listening to and the messages they are getting about self-love, body image, and sexual safety.”
Before stepping into conversations with children, parents, educators, and caregivers should check in with themselves to see how they feel about their own sexual health and if there’s any shame, issues, or trauma that would get in the way of having an open dialogue, she added.
“When we don’t know who to talk to and we feel alone, we either ignore it or we feel shame and isolation around this topic, and I don’t want anybody to feel like that,” she said. “That is my purpose, passion, and mission so people don’t feel alone exploring and talking about sexual health.”
Visit opendoorsupport.com to find a schedule of Open Door Support’s upcoming workshops, a breakdown of the one-on-one sessions, testimonies from community members, and Hecker’s contact information.
• The Santa Maria/Santa Barbara Continuum of Care, in partnership with Santa Barbara County and the Santa Barbara Alliance for Community Transformation, hosted the annual Homeless Point-In-Time Count on Jan. 25 from 5 to 9 a.m. Teams of volunteers were assigned routes throughout the county and tasked with briefly documenting who was experiencing homelessness. The information will be used to plan local homeless assistance systems, justify state and federal funding, and raise public awareness.
Staff WriterTaylor O’Connor wrote this week’s Spotlight. Reach her at [email protected].