What do you think of when you think of sex ed? Graphic pictures of sexually transmitted infections? Teachers sharing overly-personal information? A brief discussion of human reproduction that somehow leaves out sex entirely? Maybe you didn’t get any formal sex ed at all. Would it surprise you if we told you these were things that young people had actually experienced? The fact is, these are all real-life experiences that young people reported to us.
Unfortunately, we weren’t surprised! So many people have experienced sex ed as awkward, fear-based, shaming, or totally absent in their own lives. Even the media depicts it this way. (You might recall that one scene in the movie, Mean Girls, where the gym teacher says, “If you have sex, you WILL get pregnant, and DIE!”) And the problem persists across generations. Parents who never learned about sexuality in a positive way struggle to know how to talk to their kids about sex.
So where does this leave young people as they navigate our sexualized world?
CLUES talked to young people, parents, and community partner agencies to find answers to this question as we started to build a multi-generational sexual health education program for Latinx families. We host workshops with parents and young people in a variety of settings (schools, churches, etc.). Often, the families we work with include first-generation immigrant parents raising second-generation immigrant children who were born in the U.S. To better understand how to support healthy sexuality in the families we serve, last summer we spent time conducting focus groups with Latinx youth and interviewing Latinx parents. We gathered perspectives on what sex ed looks like in schools and in the home. We asked youth to share what they wish sex ed or parent-child communication looked like, and we asked parents to describe the challenges of talking about sexuality with their children.
What we learned has been invaluable to our work as sexual health educators. Parents, youth, and community agencies all advocated for aspects of comprehensive sexuality education—going beyond STI and pregnancy prevention to include discussions of gender, sexual orientation, media messages, healthy relationships, communication, and consent.
Here are five pieces of wisdom we gleaned from the youth focus groups and parent interviews– lessons that will help reach more young people with the type of sex ed they want and deserve:
- (This may seem obvious but) It is incredibly important and beneficial to listen to the communities you work with. In addition to surveys and program evaluations, focus groups and personal interviews can further highlight a community’s perspectives and needs. Directly quoting youth helped us better advocate for more classroom hours with school administration, and has helped us encourage parents to understand the culture and needs of their children’s generation. Additionally, many parents we interviewed expressed a strong desire for more sex ed for themselves and their children – this is also super helpful to mention when working with school administration, especially if they are fearful of parents’ disapproval of sex ed initiatives.
- Work WITH parents any time you are doing sex ed with young people. Parents may initially be tentative about having someone talk about sex with their kids. Having a parent orientation session as they do in the Our Whole Lives curriculum, or hosting a series of parent workshops using the “It’s That Easy” curriculum, are two great ways to include parents in the conversation. Giving parents the opportunity to explore the root of their hesitations and learn about sexuality themselves increases the likelihood that they will support sex ed initiatives. It is even more helpful if they have the chance to meet the person who’ll be teaching their kids, to build trust and thus feel more comfortable.
- Frame sex ed lessons as life skills – to use now, later, or to help a friend! Some parents and schools are concerned that sex ed encourages students to explore sexual activity. There’s a misconception that showing students how to properly use a condom, for example, is like telling them, “Oh, sex is no big deal!” In fact, research shows that the opposite is true—by learning factual information about sexual health, young people are better able to make responsible decisions. The goal of sex ed is not to promote casual sex among teens but, rather, to give young people tools – tools they can put in their pocket to use if and when it becomes relevant to their lives. The FLASH training offers a helpful talking point to use when this concern arises— “Everyone needs accurate information about STIs and birth control – to use now, later, or to help a friend.”
- Talk about values. Including opportunities for young people to explore and reflect on their own values can help reassure schools and parents that the facilitators are only teaching factual information and critical thinking skills, not pushing any particular agenda. It’s not uncommon for students to ask values-based questions like, “Is abortion good or bad?” or, “Is it ok for a teen to have sex?” In situations like this, we’ve found it extremely helpful to respond with, “For some … for others … for you.” Acknowledging that there is a wide range of perspectives on any issue is a way to be inclusive of diverse beliefs and encourage young people to define their own personal values. These values, together with the factual information provided, will guide their sexual decision-making.
- Discuss the social and emotional components of sexual relationships. Why might it be hard to talk about condom use with a partner? How can you recognize the less-assertive ways in which someone might be saying ‘no’ in a sexual situation? Why might a person decide to have sex? Talking only about STIs and unintended pregnancy is doing a disservice to students. They want to know how to have healthy relationships. They want to know if it’s true that sex can be pleasurable, if it can ever be an okay thing to do (vs. always a grave mistake). They want to know about consent and sexual coercion.
When families and schools perpetuate the tradition of treating sexuality as a taboo, children get this message from a very young age. Young people are incredibly perceptive and realize that sex isn’t something they can openly ask questions about to most of the adults in their lives. Fear and silence surrounding sexual health only magnify sexual violence and the very risk behaviors that can lead to heightened rates of STI transmission and unintended pregnancy. But listening to our school partners, youth, and their parents made it so clear that this wasn’t a world that anyone wanted to create. Listening to our community partners, youth, and parents helped us to craft sex ed programming that builds toward the shared aspiration of healthy sexuality for all people. And more importantly, it’s pushed us toward continuing to listen and learn how to do better! So ask questions…what would good sex ed look like to my community? It’s the first step toward making it happen.