Cultural Competency: An Overlooked Requirement for Sex Educators

Author: Nicole Albanese

If you had to come up with a list of the qualities a sex educator should have, what would this list include? Maybe some of these qualities could include openness, having knowledge of the content, cultural competency, being reasonable, humorous and flexible, having appropriate boundaries and so on. From this list, what qualities are necessities? All too often, culturally competency is a consideration but not a necessity. Part of the job of being an educator is being able to teach a variety of people at the same time. Sexuality educators must be able to deal with sensitive topics that arise frequently and must be able to teach these same topics to a variety of people. Ultimately, sexuality educators must be able to embody the ability to be culturally competent and to have the skills to put this to work.

Pic 1 for Albanese Blog

Cultural competency in this context does not just refer to race or ethnicity. According to Bruess and Schroeder (2014) it includes gender, ethnicity, race, religion, societal mores, physical ability, personal histories, socioeconomic level, and family compositions. Other contextual variables include age, disability, physical health, and sexual orientation. All of these aspects contribute to how one’s attitudes and values of sexuality are formed. Sexuality educators’ understanding of multiple perspectives, abilities, and reactions to topics are conducive to meaningful and effective sexuality education (Bruess & Schroeder, 2014).

Pic 2 for Albanese BlogMany topics in sexuality education naturally bring out different reactions in people. Being flexible, intuitive, and conscious of the material being presented as well as the participants in the room can be a challenge for an educator but essential. Often educators must work with limited material and have to meet certain requirements. This does not mean that the educator cannot be creative and adjust the actual lesson plan to fit the population they are teaching. For example, sexuality educators must be able to adjust a lesson written from a hetero-normative perspective for LGBQ participants in the room, an activity that involves multiple movements for an immobile individual in the room, and topics pertaining to reproduction or family planning for participants that cannot have children. Other examples include adapting a curriculum that has been written by white suburban women for white suburban students for inner-city multiracial students, and discussing gender norms from a Western curriculum/lesson plan for participants who are first or second generation Muslim students from non-Western immigrant families.

A good learning community is a warm, friendly, and accommodating environment. Within this community, students feel safe, and they are physically and psychologically free to take risks that deep learning requires. Students learn best in an accepting, positive, and safe environment” (Estes, Mintz, & Gunter, 2011, p.9).

Sex educators NEED to be flexible enough to change activities in the moment to create this environment, and intuitive enough to notice how an activity or lesson is affecting participants.Pic 4 for Albanese Blog In other words, they must be conscious of the material being presented in terms of their participants’ cultural contexts.  Imagine there is a disclaimer on every curriculum or lesson plan stating, “Please appropriately adjust to fit the population.”

However, this does not mean that educators have to be “psychic.” Knowing everyone’s background and being aware of all the cultural differences is not an easy task to achieve.  Allowing yourself to be conscious of differences and being sensitive to them is, however, a requirement. How are you supposed to know the different ways that diversity is present in my room?

Gilbert, Sawyer, and McNeill (2001) suggest using social indicators such as public records, surveys and questionnaires already collected by educators on targeted populations, and contacting community leaders or agency representatives. Another suggestion, with a more intimate approach, is sending out a needs assessment to the participants (if possible) before the class/workshop to get a sense of what participants hope to get out of the workshop/class, why they are there, things they hope to be covered or believe they will have issues with being covered, and asking if there is anything the educator needs or should know about them. This can also be done in the beginning of the class/workshop. If this is an ongoing class/workshop giving an evaluation with prepared questions about the lesson or teacher at the end creates an opportunity for participants to reveal information once they feel more comfortable (E. Schroeder, personal communication, September 6, 2014).

Pic 3 for Albanese Blog

The first step sexuality educators must take to be more culturally competent is to become aware of their own biases and what issues are sensitive to them (Gilbert et al., 2011). This helps to ensure the material that is being presented is not being influenced by the educator’s values and views. The point is not to eliminate the effect of cultural influences or biases or to pretend that educators are not affected by them. Instead, the goal is to not let them influence how the material is taught and to elicit other cultural influences. Having a higher level of self-awareness is not easily acquired. Being a sexuality educator is not a job that just anyone can do because it comes with a lot of responsibility. An essential aspect of this responsibility is undergoing training to explore their cultures, biases, and views on sexuality. This enables the educator to have the ability to notice and respect the differences of others, and to act accordingly while teaching sexuality.

 “Diversity is the mix. Inclusion is making the mix work,” Andres Tapia



Bruess, C., & Schroeder, E. (2011). Sexuality education: Theory and practice (Sixth ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Estes, Mintz, Gunter. (2009). Instruction: A models approach (Sixth ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, INC.

Gilbert, Sawyer, McNeill. (2011). Health education: Creating strategies for school and community health (Third ed.). Sudbury, Massachusetts: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.

8 responses to “Cultural Competency: An Overlooked Requirement for Sex Educators

  1. I agree with you Nicole. I think there needs to be a standard in which all teachers should be held to ensure they are cultural component within the environment they are teaching, Prior to school starting just as teachers have staff development day, they should be mandated to participate in a workshop from a professional educating them on the specifics of the cultural makeup of their students and their community. In today’s society cultural competence is a needed and important aspect of teaching because it forms how students will look at education and help students make decision if they are going to participate in the lesson or not. I remember having a biochemistry teacher in high school and his initial approach to the class was a turn off for me. For the school year, I did not listen to anything he said and did not learn any thing from his class. I totally checked out. I checkout the moment he introduced his self saying how he worked at prestigious school etc.
    Now knowing that he was not cultural competent to come and work with an African American private school in the inner city. I think he realized from the beginning of the school year that he was in a different world and he was not equipped to handle or understand us. The teacher to, gave up and would sit at his desk and read the newspaper until the class was over.
    Without cultural training, all parties involved lost and there was no benefit for us, the students.

  2. Nicole,

    Excellent work. You brought awareness to a critical issue that unfortunately tends to get overlooked. I appreciated your comprehensive approach in connecting the issue of cultural competency to several aspects of education: the role of the educator, the needs of the participants, and adapting a lesson plan. I thought your post was unique in that it acknowledged the importance of self-awareness, and how it is vital for educators to be conscious and mindful of their own beliefs and values in order to be sensitive to the beliefs and values of the target population. I think that many times, people fear that being “culturally competent” means abandoning their own beliefs or values—but reading your post was helpful for knowing how to maintain a sense of authenticity as an educator while also being attentive to the needs of others.

    The practical examples that you provided—i.e., how to translate a heteronormative lesson plan to speak to the needs of LGBTQ participants, or examples of methods that can be used to gather information about a population—were exceedingly helpful. This post encouraged me to be more cognizant and responsive to context and culture, especially when I work in different environments and with diverse populations, and it provided me with strategies and examples of ways that I can navigate this. Thank you!


  3. Nicole,
    You presented some valid points. You stated that the first step is for sexuality educators to admit their own biases and be aware of what is sensitive to them. After taking 592 and 593 I was able to better understand what my biases are. It is also important for sexuality educators to understand that each culture is going to have other cultures within it. For example, within the black culture, there are the Christian culture and non-Christian culture; there are also the elite culture and impoverish cultures within the black cultures. Thank you again for presenting this information.

  4. Nicole,

    I thought your blog was very well targeted to sex-educators but also let other types of educators understand the pressure and demands we are required to meet in order to have successful outcomes in our educational environments. In the majority of instances teachers are able to measure their lessons through standardized testing. Unfortunately there is no standardized test for teaching sexual health to our audiences. We have to rely on the ability to enhance or alter our messages for varying audiences, and we have to rely on strong objectives and goals to ensure that we are maximizing our platforms with our unique audiences. You were able to sum this up in this blog. I also appreciate the imagery as it matches and communicates effectively the message you are trying to engender. It communicates to other teachers and educators that our messages and lessons cannot be monolithic and understanding sexual health is not a one size fits all and lends itself to ensure that audiences are acknowledged and welcomed.


  5. Several of the blog posts in this series have discussed the importance of educators adjusting to the needs, learning styles, and cultural expectations of their students, and I’m finding in my own teaching that cultural competence is both vitally important and extremely difficult to achieve for several reasons:

    1) As Nicole points out, we can’t always know the cultural profile of our students before we enter the classroom. In my needs assessment interview, I spent some time talking to the organization’s director about the types of students his workshops serve and the types of facilitators he prefers, but this is not always possible. In my writing classrooms (at a large, urban community college), I often don’t know ahead of time who my students will be–in addition, students often drop/add the class in the first week or two.

    2) As sex educators serving the general public, we may have incredibly diverse cohorts of students. This for me is the biggest challenge of all. If I’m teaching a classroom full of people I know are highly religious, or non-religious, or working class, or Latino, I can do a much better job of adjusting to the needs of that group (what in HSED 501 we might call adaptation) that I can when I have to consider multiple cultures’ potential needs. In essence, the sex ed classroom can become an exercise in intercultural communication.

    3) The more I teach, the more I realize the importance of the affective elements of learning. This has been eye opening for me because I myself am not a particularly affective learner, so I can’t completely empathize with people who are. I can try to understand how that learning preference operates, and I can read the research showing why it matters, but I’ve had to work very hard to internalize a new set of values regarding the importance of affective teaching/learning. Anyway, I was struck by Nicole’s statement that, “Sex educators NEED to be flexible enough to change activities in the moment to create this environment, and intuitive enough to notice how an activity or lesson is affecting participants.” As she said earlier, this is an important skill for all educators to possess. Well said, Nicole!

  6. I like how you draw attention to the many individual and cultural differences that educators should strive to be culturally competent around (also a reason why I honed in on foster youth!). I especially liked how you acknowledged the limitations and demands that many educators have to teach within, but you still stress being creative and adjusting what needs to be adjusted! Sometimes I, myself, can become stiff while teaching and forget the necessity of being flexible in the moment. Cultural competency, in all its diversity, can be fun by exploring creative ways to promote inclusion, instead of feeling like a stressful expectation at times.

  7. As an adult who comes from a privileged background, I wonder what the effect of sitting down with students and asking, “What do you want me to know about you?” would have.

    I think showing genuine engagement with students can have a really positive effect. This ties in to cultural competency because it’s about respecting people for who they are.

  8. Great post Nicole! Cultural competency in education is often overlooked or touched on as an afterthought. I didn’t critically think about incorporating culture or making adjustments to lessons I was creating prior to taking Dr. Sitron’s class.
    However, it is so important to address different cultural components if an educator hopes to reach and resonate with their audience. I find myself often struggling how to accommodate this, especially if I’m just being thrown into a classroom where I don’t know the cultural makeup of the class. I’ve just started entering classes with an open-mind and try to prepare myself as best I can to be able to tweak the lesson to better fit the culture and learning style of the students.
    I also think that cultural competency can be enforced by monitoring things that might not seem so important, like the language we use. I used to ‘gender’ when I spoke to my classes; typically by addressing them as ‘guys.’ Growing up, teachings commonly addressed my classes as ‘guys,’ so it’s something that comes out naturally for me. However, this can make people who don’t identify as a ‘guy’ or who don’t ascribe to a gender binary feel excluded. I now try to address the class as ‘folks’ or ‘learners’ or ‘students.’
    When creating lesson plans and activities, I try to make my examples more diverse. I might also try to incorporate things like gender-neutral names. I know I have a long way to go and a lot to learn about being culturally competent. However, I am now more aware of how to recognize cultural differences, and I can not better try to accommodate them.

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