Sexuality education in U.S. public schools is a subject of importance that often gets overlooked. Because sexuality is often deemed ‘taboo’ in our society, it can be difficult to ensure students in public schools receive factual and effective sexuality education. The purpose of this piece is to share my thoughts on the different types of education employed in public schools and to offer some basic sexuality education “do’s” for beginning educators.
While I understand abstinence is the only 100% effective method to avoid pregnancy and/or STI’s, it is not the only method. This is one of the many reasons why I support comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) over abstinence-only education. Telling a teenager abstinence is the only method to prevent pregnancy and/or STI’s is like saying not driving a car is the only way to avoid an accident. Teenagers deserve to learn about contraceptives, and other aspects of sexuality often neglected by abstinence-only curricula. Another reason to support CSE over abstinence-only education can be seen through the statistics. In a study by Walcott, Chenneville, and Tarquini (2011), they found students receiving CSE retained more positive attitudes toward safer sex practices as well as scored better on HIV knowledge questions than students who received an abstinence-only curricula. The National Survey of Family Growth found teenagers 15-19 who received CSE were 50% less likely to become pregnant than those teens who received abstinence-only education. These statistics show more favor toward CSE as being more effective.
Some people may wonder, why do youths need sexuality education? A quick look at some U.S. teen statistics relating to sexuality can answer that question. Hedgepeth and Helmich (1996) state American adolescents are exposed to nearly 14,000 instances of sexual material each year. This number may be even higher when fast-forwarded to present day. According to Kempner (2007), by senior year of high school, over 60 percent of students report participating in sexual intercourse. One in four of sexually active teens will contract an STI each year (Kantor, 2009). With all the sexual exposure adolescents receive and the majority of teens participating in some form of sexual activity, it is important that they know sexual risks and prevention strategies. It is equally important for them to learn how to communicate effectively in relationships, be able to identify their own values and beliefs regarding sexuality, and begin to retain a ‘sex positive’ attitude that will promote healthy bodies, minds, and relationships. Another important issue is that the majority of Americans support CSE!
In a study conducted in 2008, Yarber, Sayad, and Strong (2010) reported 82% of Americans supported CSE in public schools. With this kind of statistic, you would think the majority of schools would employ this type of education. You would be wrong. Irvine (2011) reported that only 10% of public school programs in the U.S. offered CSE.
While I find CSE programs to be favorable over abstinence-only, I know many educators do not have a choice in the material they are allowed to present to their classrooms. For those educators, I suggest trying to find any way to incorporate as much accurate information as possible, as well as offering resources to students where they might be able to find out more information you are not allowed to teach.
Ten Classroom “Do’s” for Sexuality Educators
This next section discusses ten “do’s” sexuality educators should employ in the classroom. These steps primarily support a CSE curriculum, but hopefully abstinence-only educators will be able to incorporate many of these steps as well. These are primarily geared toward the beginner sexuality educator, such as myself, who are just starting out in the field. Feel free to add any more important points in the comments section that I may have missed or overlooked!
The ten “do’s” I will propose primarily come from principles discussed by Hedgepeth and Helmich (1996). Many of these are supported by 17 characteristics Kirby (2007) found common to effective programs that fall into three categories: curricula development processes, design and teaching strategies of the curricula, and the process of implementing the curricula. I also incorporated a couple of the steps myself based on readings and my own knowledge.
These are the “do’s” sexuality educators should follow:
1.) Offer positive and accurate information.
- Giving positive messages about sexuality promotes safer behaviors. A study of contraceptive use that found the participants who were more positive and comfortable with their sexuality were more likely to use contraception effectively (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996).
- Offering accurate information is just as important. When I was in high school, I was told condoms broke about 50% of the time. Because of this, I used to think that condoms were not an effective method when it comes to preventing pregnancy and/or STIs (until I did my own research). This attitude may also have been mirrored by my classmates. When I was a junior in high school, there were six girls in my grade alone who became pregnant. I cannot say that they may not have used condoms because of the statistic we were given, but I do wonder if all those pregnancies still would have occurred had we been given accurate information.
2.) Respect and empower your students.
- Respecting your students fosters a healthy learning environment where all parties feel safe (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996).
- There are several ways to foster empowerment in the classroom. These include: asking students about what they want to learn, helping students get to know each other better, promoting open and constructive communications, and serving not only as an educator and facilitator, but as a guide, resource, and co-learner (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996).
- There were so many things I wanted to learn in high school about sexuality that always went unanswered. I began to feel ashamed about the questions that I had, which fostered more shame in my own sexuality.
3.) Respect cultural pluralism and sexual pluralism.
- You should not assume that everyone in the class has the same cultural or sexual experiences, even if demographics of a particular class show many similarities. Be mindful and respectful of all differences, culturally and sexually.
- Here are some ways to respect sexual and cultural diversity: Use inclusive language (using ‘partner’ over ‘spouse’ or ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’, and ‘caregivers’ instead of ‘parents’). Employ materials that reflect racial, gender, family, and relationship diversity. Discuss diversity from a myriad of perspectives, even inviting guest speakers offering differing perspectives (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996).
4.) Address a diversity of learning styles and abilities.
- There are many different kinds of learners, including: kinesthetic, visual, aural, and psychomotor. Utilizing different learning styles and employing them in the classroom will ensure all students can learn in the ways that work best for them. One of my professors recently said, “An activity that you hated or thought was useless was life-changing for someone else.” It is important not to skip over something you might deem unimportant when someone else might feel the opposite.
5.) Address all three learning domains.
- The three learning domains are cognitive (thinking), affective (feeling), and behavioral (acting). The cognitive domain tends to be more emphasized in sexuality education, but it is important to incorporate the other two domains to facilitate behavior change. These domains can also be translated to: knowledge, attitudes, and skills.
6.) Make a program interdisciplinary.
- Sexuality is not just its own subject. It spills into almost all other subjects in many ways. A good example of this comes from teaching about HIV. You have to learn about the etiology and epidemiology of HIV (biology), the impact it has on an individual (psychology), groups in society that are more ‘at risk’ (sociology), politics of fighting HIV (political science), and a culture’s previous experiences with HIV epidemics (history) (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996).
7.) Make the program age and experientially appropriate.
- It is important to ensure the age group you are working with can understand the material you are trying to teach.
- SIECUS offers guidelines for age-appropriate material.
8.) Be willing, comfortable, and well-trained.
- One of the biggest opposition arguments to sexuality education is that educators are not trained to handle the material (Bruess & Greenberg, 2008). Someone who is not prepared is likely to do more harm than good. Make sure you want to teach the material, are comfortable with the material, and have the appropriate training to educate that material to an audience. It is impossible to know everything. A student may ask a question that you do not know the answer to. This is okay, as long as you are prepared on the bulk of the material. Address that you do not know this specific topic well enough, and offer them resources to answer the question or find out the answer yourself and bring it up in the next class.
9.) Employ theories and methodologies with your teaching.
- Education well-grounded in an educational theory can greatly enhance learning. Curricula and programs with a strong, valid theory base are more likely to affect behavior than those without (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996).
- You should be able to discuss what theories and methods you prefer most in teaching and the rationale for using those theories and methods in specific lesson plans.
10.) Establish ground rules.
- In any effective sexuality class I have taken, ground rules have been established in the first session.
- Hedgepeth and Helmich (1996) say ground rules are “a set of agreements, or explicit group norms, about how a group will operate to protect both individual and group rights” (p. 44).
- Ground rules ensure what can and can’t be discussed, promotes a safe learning environment, and offers respect to the students and teacher.
- One of the most important ground rules that have been established in my classes is the use of “I” statements. This means you are not making generalizations about a certain population, but acknowledge that something that happened in your experience may be different from how someone else would perceive that experience. A lot of the time this has to do with feelings. So, you would say “I feel..” rather than saying “We feel..,” which would be making a generalization about the entire group. Not everyone may feel the way you feel.
These are my top ten ‘do’s’ for the beginning sexuality educator. Please feel free to add to the list. Stay tuned for another post on ten ‘don’ts’ for sexuality educators!
Advocates for Youth. (2009). Comprehensive sex education: Research and results. Washington, DC: Advocates for Youth.
Bruess, C.E., & Greenberg, J.S. (2008). Sexuality Education: Theory and Practice (5th Ed.). Sudury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.
Hedgepeth, E., & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV. New York, NY: NYU Press.
Irvine, J. (2011). Politics of sex education. In S. Seidman, N. Fisher, & C. Meeks (2nd Ed.), Introducing the new sexuality studies (pp. 486-491). New York, NY: Routledge.
Kantor, L. (2009). Does sexuality education “work”? An overview of the research. In E. Schroeder & J. Kuriansky (1st Ed.), Sexuality education: past, present, and future (pp. 125-135). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
Kempner, M. (2007). The rise of the abstinence-only until marriage movement. In G. Herdt & C. Howe (1st Ed.), 21st century sexualities (pp. 124-129). New York, NY: Routledge.
National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. (2007). Emerging answers: Research findings on programs to reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Washington, DC: Kirby, D.
Walcott, C. M., Chenneville, T., & Tarquini, S. (2011). Relationship between recall of sex education and college students’ sexual attitudes and behavior. Psychology in the Schools, 48(8), 828-842. doi:10.1002/pits.20592
Yarber, W., Sayad, B., & Strong, B. (2010). Human sexuality: Diversity in contemporary America. (7th Ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.