Tips for Sexuality Educators: What you SHOULDN’T do!

do-not-reply In my last blog post, I discussed my preference for comprehensive sexuality education in the public school setting, and I included a list of the top ten ‘do’s’ for beginning sexuality educators. In this post I would like to introduce ten tips for what educators should not do when teaching sexuality education. Many of these tips intertwine, and the overall theme is to not provide inaccurate or misleading information!

Here are the ten ‘don’t do’s’ for sexuality educators:

1.) Do not use fear or shame-based curricula.

Making a teenager feel ashamed or afraid of their sexuality won’t prevent anything, except perhaps for the teen being able to make informed choices, that is.

So what is wrong with these types of curricula? Let me tell you. According to Hedgepeth and Helmich (1996), fear and shame-based curricula distort facts, omit important information, and often exaggerate risks pertaining to sexual activities and condom use to “scare” teenagers into remaining celibate.

Bruess and Greenberg (2008) note similar findings about fear and shame-based curricula, and they also offer specific examples. The curriculum Sex Respect used biased opinions rather than facts, offered insufficient and inaccurate information, used scare tactics heavily, reinforced gender stereotypes, were not sensitive to economic and cultural differences, and provided only one side of serious issues.

In my last post, I discussed the distorted information I received in my high school education saying that condoms broke 50% of the time. We were also told if we had sex we would probably wind up with STD’s and/or pregnant. These scare tactics did not stop my fellow peers and I from engaging in sexual activities, but it did instill a feeling of shame for being a sexual person. No one should ever feel ashamed about being sexual; it’s a natural part of life.

2.) Do not give out inaccurate information, or even risk doing so.

This one should be a ‘no-brainer’, but since it happens so often it is important to include it.

As the instructor, you should be coming prepared with a more than competent amount of knowledge on the sexuality topic/s you are teaching. However, it is impossible to know everything. If a student asks a question, and you aren’t exactly sure of the answer, acknowledge it! Don’t try to guess the answer and risk passing on inaccurate information to the class. Be honest and say that you will look it up and find out the answer for the next class session.

Here are some examples of misinformation pointed out by Hedgepeth and Helmich (1996) that could have been prevented had proper and accurate information been provided. First, 30-50% of adults believe condoms are less effective in preventing STD’s and HIV than research indicates they actually are. Also, an assumption made by a college-aged author said her heterosexual peers believed “being heterosexual and contracting HIV is about as likely as having a piano fall on your head” (p. 75). In reality, HIV transmission through heterosexual intercourse was estimated to account for 71% of AIDS cases worldwide, a number that may be even higher today.

3.) Do not assume government-funded curricula is necessarily accurate and/or effective.

People may assume if the government is funding it, it has to be the correct information, right? WRONG!

In 2004, Congressman Henry Waxman commissioned a report examining 13 of the most commonly used government-funded curricula.

Eleven of the curricula contained major distortions and errors regarding public health information. They provided false or misleading information about reproductive health, and many seemed to employ scare or shame tactics (Young, 2009). Two programs without distortions were Sex Can Wait and Managing Pressures Before Marriage. Both programs did not use scare tactics, and they approached topics from a health behavioral perspective (Young, 2009). (This reinforced my first point about not using fear-based curricula!)

Title V is one of the most funded government programs, offering 50 million dollars per year to states. It supports abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula with an eight-point definition. This definition tends to be restrictive. Federal requirement (c) prevents teaching about condoms and contraception. The federal definition of abstinence-only education does not mention homosexuality at all, which can be problematic for LGBT youths (Advocates for Youth and SIECUS, 2001).

Fisher (2009) conducted a study interviewing several gay and bisexual males claiming to have had abstinence-only-until-marriage educations in high school. These men felt ostracized by their school’s sexuality curricula. One participant said, “If you aren’t represented when they talk about human sexuality, you’re not human. You can’t be because you’re not included” (p.11). These men all felt excluded by their high schools and essentially, by the government.

States have even started to reject Title V funding. In 2008, Iowa was the 17th state to do so (Young, 2009). It should tell you something is wrong if states are rejecting free curricula from the government! President Obama has recently started taking funding away from Title V programs, but these curricula still exist and are still employed.

4.) Do not use abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula (if you can help it).

The abstinence-only-until-marriage definition employed by Title V imposes a moral standard many Americans might not agree with. It also lacks clarity regarding definitions of abstinence and sexual activity (Young, 2009).

Many abstinence-only-until-marriage programs discourage the use of contraception, particularly condoms. Students are told correct use of contraceptives can be really difficult, and they are provided with inaccurate information (Advocates for Youth & SIECUS, 2001, p.3). One person who participated in one of these programs remembered learning 57 percent of condoms broke (Fisher, 2009). With misleading information, adolescents may feel like using contraception is unnecessary. If they become sexually active or already are, they may be prone to not use condoms or other forms of birth control. Again, this takes us back to my point about offering inaccurate information. Without accurate information, we can’t expect teens to make informed choices regarding their sexual health and behaviors.

5.) Do not use a lesson plan without fact-checking first.

The field of sexuality is constantly changing as time goes on and research leads to new discoveries. If you are using a lesson plan that you did not develop, especially one that is a few years old, it is important to research the information you will be providing to make sure it is up-to-date and accurate.

In my Human Sexuality for the Education and Counseling Professional class, we looked through different books containing several lesson plans. One classmate pointed out a lesson plan on abortion that was very out-of-date and inaccurate. This lesson plan came from Planned Parenthood, so many people may assume it would have been accurate. Unfortunately, I could not find a copy of the lesson plan, but just be wary of any plan that is not created by you. Make sure you do your research before employing it.

This isn’t from a lesson plan, but is just an example of how things can change over time. In Hedgepeth and Helmich’s (1996) text, they state that one in six sexually active adolescents contract an STI each year. Today, that statistic is one in four (Kantor, 2009). Make sure any statistics or factual information you are offering is up-to-date and accurate, especially if the lesson plan is not very recent.

6.) Do not make a student feel embarrassed or ashamed about a question or inquiry.

In sexuality education, especially working with teenagers, you might get asked questions that are meant to shock you rather than being a serious inquiry, or that might not make sense to you based on how the student uses his or her wording. It is important to not make any student feel embarrassed or ashamed about something they ask. If you do, you risk making the student tune out, feel humiliated in front of peers, and you might have missed out on a great teaching opportunity.

I want to summarize an example of this from Hedgepeth and Helmich (1996). A male student, known for being disruptive, kept asking the teacher questions during the AIDS unit. He first asked, “Can you get AIDS from yourself?” The teacher told the student that AIDS is serious, and there should only be serious inquiries about it. Next the student asked, “Can a person get AIDS if he’s alone?” This prompted the teacher to tell the student if he didn’t stop he would be sent to the principal’s office. Finally, the student asked “Can a person get AIDS having sex with himself?” The teacher dismissed the student once again and made him sit in a corner for the remainder of class. The student did not know the correct language to use, but he was trying to ask if a person could get AIDS through masturbating. Because the teacher didn’t realize the question within the student’s question, he missed out on a teaching opportunity and also made the student feel embarrassed.

You should be aware that the levels of education regarding sexuality may vary greatly within a classroom, and you also don’t know the education (accurate or not, formal or informal) these students may have already received. So, a question that might seem ludicrous to you might be something the student really does not know or understand. Making them feel ashamed or embarrassed will only foster a sex-negative attitude, and may put the student off from learning anymore from you.

7.) Do not employ a lesson plan without having sound rationale.

If you don’t know why you are using your lesson plan, then why would you use it in the first place?

Eggen says your rationale will display an awareness of the physical, social, and cognitive needs of the learners. You should be able to describe the importance of learning the material, and the skills and concepts that will be gained after learning it. Your rationale serves as a guide as to why you are implementing this lesson plan. One way you can identify your rationale is to create a statement with a few paragraphs discussing the reasoning behind your choice in goals, objectives, and subject matter.

Essentially, there is no reason for a lesson plan if you don’t know why you are using it. You can help provide rationale by looking up statistics. For example, if you are teaching a lesson plan to teens about STI prevention and want rationale on why you should be doing this, you can use the statistic that one in four sexually active teens will contract an STI each year. This gives your lesson plan a purpose.

8.) Do not use incorrect terminology.

One way to help learners feel comfortable with sexual terms is to teach the correct, socially acceptable terminology (Bruess & Greenburg, 208).
Bruess and Greenburg (2008) cite from Kilander (1968) several reasons why it is important to teach accurate and socially acceptable terminology to students. These include:

  1. In order for students to learn to respect their bodies and body functions and organs, they should know the correct terms to use as they speak and ask questions.
  2. Normal body functions, such as urination and defecation, are less likely to seem undesirable or shameful if the words that are associated with them are objective and unemotional.
  3. It is important to reinforce the proper terms, so students know that words like ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ aren’t dirty, but are anatomically correct words.
  4. Parents and children can be more objective and less emotional about sex and its vocabulary if the correct terms are learned before children have formed an emotional attitude toward sex.
  5. Being able to use the correct terminology makes it easier for students to formulate questions they may have.

One of my classmates told a story that represents the importance of using proper terminology. A mom always referred to her daughter’s vagina as her ‘purse’. One day the girl was at school and complained to the teacher that one of the boys was doing something bad. When the teacher asked what, the girl said he was touching her ‘purse’. The teacher told the girl if she didn’t want to share what was in her purse, she shouldn’t have brought it to school. This is just one example of how correct terminology could have helped the girl express to the teacher what the boy was actually doing.

9.) Do not let emotions get in the way of your opponents. (There will be many!)

cartoon of child cryingcartoon angry face

As a sexuality educator, you will more than likely come across individuals who oppose the work you do. It is important to keep your emotions in check when talking to these individuals. Staying calm and rational will make you appear much more professional than if you fly off your handle and scream at your opponents (even though the second option might sound more fun).

No one is going to take you seriously if you can’t keep your cool when in confrontation with people whose beliefs don’t align with yours.

As emotional level goes up, the level of functioning intelligence tends to go down (Bruess & Greenburg, 2008). Keep that in mind when you are becoming heated by something an opponent has said. Bruess and Greenburg’s text Sexuality Education: Theory and Practice offers many opposing viewpoints, and how you can effectively counter those views.

10.) Do not take yourself too seriously.

Yes, sexuality is a serious field with many serious subjects. However, it’s okay to have fun with it and make the material interesting.

In one of my first sexuality classes as a graduate student, the professor put up words on different posters such as: sexual intercourse, penis, vagina, breasts, masturbation, homosexual, and ear. It was the students’ task to go to each of the posters and write as many words they could think of that meant that particular term. Every word other than ‘ear’ ended up being filled with alternate terms and slang. This led into a discussion about the importance of accurate terminology, as well as our society’s tendency to create alternate terms for words that make people uncomfortable. It was a great way to open up the lesson, lighten the mood, and it made it interesting for us to see what incorrect terms and jargon everyone else has heard.

Incorporating interactive games and role-playing scenarios can get students involved, and they can have fun while they learn!

In conclusion…

That’s what I have for my top ten ‘don’t do’s’ for sexuality educators. Feel free to add more to the list in the comments below!


Advocates for Youth & Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. (2001). ‘Abstinence only’ sex education: A reality check. Education Digest, 67(2), 46.

Bruess, C.E., & Greenberg, J.S. (2008). Sexuality Education: Theory and Practice (5th Ed.). Sudury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.

Fisher, C. M. (2009). Queer youth experiences with abstinence-only-until-marriage sexuality education: “I can’t get married so where does that leave me?” Journal of LGBT Youth, 6(1), 61-79. doi:10.1080/19361650802396775

Hedgepeth, E., & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV. New York, NY: NYU Press.

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.

Young, M. (2009). Federal Involvement in abstinence-only education: Has the buck been passed too far? In E. Schroeder & J. Kuriansky (1st Ed.), Sexuality education: past, present, and future (pp. 136-149). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.


One response to “Tips for Sexuality Educators: What you SHOULDN’T do!

  1. Thanks for this post, Sarah!! You brought up some great points. A few of which, I’d like to speak to.

    Don’t give out inaccurate information: YES. So many people are terrified to say “I don’t know,” and that is harmful. Not only does “I don’t know” prevent the spread of misinformation, it also humanizes the educator. Everyone cannot know everything, you’re right, and I’m glad that you noted that when someone DOES say “I don’t know,” they need to ACTUALLY follow up. They can’t just leave the student/participant hanging: that’s really disrespectful.

    Do not make a student feel ashamed: I live by the philosophy that the first two words you should say after any question, are “Good question” and then answer the question. If you say “good question” you’re acknowledging that it’s okay to ask anything, that you’re a reliable person to answer questions, and that the student/participant isn’t alone.

    Do not use incorrect terminology: I co-faciliated with a person who used the phrase “private parts” with students. This horrified me. We should be teaching kiddos that their body parts are nothing to be ashamed of, and the phrase “private parts” is, for me, associated with shame, secrecy, and guilt. It also implies that anatomically correct language isn’t appropriate…

    I hope more people will realize that actually doing these “don’t dos” is really harmful.

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