The possibilities and pedagogy of sex ed

Last week, one of my colleagues told me a hilarious story about his sixth grade sex ed class. It involved: 

  1. separating the class by gender
  2. an overly earnest vice principal stepping in, who had no rapport with the students,
  3. and who set himself up by asking a poorly worded opening question
  4. and one boy that invited a falsely naive and very naughty question...
  5. that the VP then had to answer, undermining the whole rest of his I'm-a-cool-teacher jam sesh

It got me thinking about the pedagogy of sexuality education, and the wild and woolly nature of this kind of teaching and learning. Before I became a librarian, I spent a year as an Americorps VISTA administering a puberty education workshop program for a women's health organization. Volunteer educators would spend an evening with prepubescent kids and their parents, going over the basic physiological and emotional changes of puberty, and creating a space for everyone to talk about their values and ask questions. Perhaps you once got a demonstration of a tampon being dropped into a glass of water? That kind of thing. Basically, the most innocuous and heartwarming sexuality education out there, and still folks had so many anxieties about it. Parents, who recognize puberty as the gateway to adult sexuality, often came in terrified of what their children would ask about sex. Children may have heard whispers on the playground or picked up cues within the family. But I was consistently surprised by how little families had talked about puberty before coming to the class. Because sex ed is often framed as "the talk," parents sometimes think that it can be achieved in a single content dump, very much in line with the banking model as described by Paulo Freire. Educators of all kinds know that repetition is important for pretty much any learning, why would that be different just because this subject matter is sensitive? 

The anonymous question box is an important, and pretty consistent, in my experience, aspect of sexuality education. Most of the educators I've known will read all the questions out loud, even pointedly silly ones. Unlike in my coworker's story, when the educator, rather than the student, says the question out loud, they can control the tone of their voice and purposefully frame their answer. Even patently silly or obnoxious questions demonstrate that the educator values student questions and interests, and can give an opportunity for students to hear a usually forbidden word out loud for the first time. One of the educators I knew during my Americorps days told me about a workshop about menopause she had done for an older crowd. After the workshop, one participant came up and said that she had never heard the word "masturbation" spoken out loud before, and it had been very powerful for her. Sex positivity can start with just saying things out loud, and avoiding euphemism.

Sexuality education makes an interesting test case for some of the approaches proposed by critical pedagogy. We all bring lived experience of our own sexuality, plus tacit cultural knowledge. How is that knowledge honored or dismissed in the classroom? While there is generally clear content to be shared (e.g. the ways HIV can/can't be transmitted), the applied aspect is so crucial to understanding. Statistics presented in a classroom are probably the last thing on your mind when you're getting cozy with a new sweetie. But if you've had opportunities to clarify your values, devise strategies, and really chew over the issues, hey, maybe that makes it easier to get real when things get real. 

Another interesting aspect of sexuality education is that adults freak out about it. This can create opportunities, as in the story my coworker shared, for students to flip the typical classroom power dynamic. I'm going to keep thinking about this, because there's something of the Carnival here, something potentially fruitful or at least interesting.

Do you have a great/awful sex ed story? Leave it in the comments, maybe I'll compile something out of 'em.


If you're looking for sexuality information for yourself or for youth, I recommend you check out Scarleteen. They've been doing awesome grassroots education since 1998, and have developed excellent materials.