Cooter. Peepee. Cookie. Most children learn some sort of slang for their genitals and it is not until much later that they learn proper anatomical terms (Martin, Baker, Torres, & Luke, 2011). My mother, who is a physician, tells the story of an adult patient’s chief reason for a hospital visit being that she had a “pearl in her pocket.” It wasn’t until after much coaxing and prodding that my mother was able to glean that the woman had gotten something stuck inside her vagina; the woman did not know the proper word for her own anatomy. As such, it becomes clear that the knowledge of proper anatomical terminology is important not just for the purpose of sexuality and satisfaction but for personal health as well. One study asserts that learning proper anatomy in school from a young age allows students to build a foundation for their future sexual education, thus providing students with more agency when the times comes (Kenny & Wurtele, 2008). Another study links the discovery of instances of child sexual abuse to the child’s ability to correctly label their genitals in order to better describe inappropriate activity (Wurtele, 1998). These are just two examples of how understanding sexual anatomy and knowing proper nomenclature can lead to a healthier adult.
According to one study, the majority of parents surveyed claimed to have taught their children the correct anatomical terms, but less than half of the children surveyed were able to properly name their sexual anatomy (Deblinger, Thakkar-Kolar, Berry, & Shroeder, 2010). Another study showed that parents often use vague terms like “privates” to describe all genitalia rather than their actual names (Martin, Baker, Torres, & Luke, 2011). This goes to show that it is of utmost importance that teaching anatomically correct sexual anatomy be a part of school sex education curriculums. Since students are not getting the information at home, if they do not get the information at school, they may not be getting it at all. The problem is, even though schools should be including sex education from a young age, they often do not. Indeed, historically speaking, it is not until students are well into their teens that they actually had a grasp on some important elements of sexual anatomy (Gartrell & Mosbacher, 1984). While it is ideal to begin the teaching process at a younger age, it is also important to not assume that older students have learned the proper information already. Until all schools include proper anatomy lessons for elementary school students, it is important to create anatomy lessons that will allow high school students to be brought up to speed.
Making Anatomy Engaging
Hedgepath and Helmich claim that anatomical information is often presented in a very dry manner or in a way that simply does not seem relevant to young people (1996). As a result, the question becomes how to best teach young people about their anatomy in a way that will be engaging and informative, yet will allow the students to feel at ease with a topic that can be sensitive or uncomfortable. One of the first steps is to incorporate students into the learning process; if students are able to describe what they would like to know about, educators can more easily explain why something like understanding their anatomy is important to their own personal sexual education goals (Hedgepath & Helmich, 1996).
Using active teaching techniques can turn something that can be dry and boring, like an anatomy lesson, into something that is exciting and interesting. Silberman (2006) describes ways to turn even a lecture into something with which students can actively participate:
- make sure to begin with an interesting story or visual
- ask questions at the beginning so that students will be motivated to listen for an answer
- give highlights of the lecture before beginning to raise the class’s general enthusiasm
- use visual aids throughout so students can both hear and see the material
- provide instructions on HOW to take notes
- encourage students to reflect on their learning in groups so that students can learn from each other as well
- provide a closing activity which will allow students to evaluate what they have learned and what their next steps should be in the learning process (p. 71-93)
Too often sexual anatomy lessons simply include a fill-in-the-blank diagram for students to complete (most likely while they roll their eyes and pretend to be anywhere else). The following are examples of and resources for exciting anatomy lessons.
This page allows students to navigate their questions personally so that they can explore the body changes associated with puberty without having to raise their hand and ask their questions to class. It does a good job of showing how the whole body is affected during puberty so that when the student comes to the section on genital development it just seems like yet another part of the body to learn about.
Though this site includes links to websites like Wikipedia and WebMD, it also has interactive diagrams and videos that really explain the elements of sexual anatomy and how they connect to each other. This gives students a context for the anatomy that they are learning. One of my favorite links details the passage of sperm through the male reproductive system; it has good information but also manages to be pretty unintentionally funny. This is not something educators should be afraid of—acknowledging that in subject matter can be humorous and yet is still important increases how relatable the information is. The site also links to a number of different games surrounding both male and female sexual anatomy, which make the review process more exciting and engaging.
This page provides a lesson plan that does an excellent job of incorporating the elements of an active training lecture. It begins with a pre-test where students are encouraged to fill out diagrams of sexual anatomy using whatever terms they know for each part. In going over the diagrams, the use of slang terms is addressed and part of the lesson becomes the educator explaining the importance of proper anatomical terms. It also includes a section of discussion questions where students are encouraged to think of anatomy as a starting point for understanding sexuality, rather than the only important piece of information.
By making anatomy something fun and interesting to learn about, educators can give their students the keys to understanding their own sexuality and maybe open the door to easier discussions in the future. If these lessons can teach students to replace “cookie” with “vulva” or “pocket” with “vagina” it will be a step in the right direction.
Deblinger, E., Thakkar-Kolar, R. R., Berry, E. J., & Schroeder, C. M. (2010). Caregivers’ efforts to educate their children about child sexual abuse: A replication study. Child Maltreat, 15, 91-100. doi: 10.1177/1077559509337408
Gartrell, N. & Masbacher, D. (1984). Sex differences in the naming of children’s genitalia. Sex Roles, 10, 869-876. doi: 10.1007/BF00288510
Hedgepath, E. & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV. New York, NY: New York University Press
Kenny, M. C., & Wurtele, S. K. (2008). Preschoolers’ knowledge of genital terminology: A comparison of English and Spanish speakers. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 3, 354-354. doi: 10.1080/15546120802372008
Martin, K., Baker, L. V., Torres, J., & Luke, K. (2001). Privates, pee-pees, and coochies: Gender and genital labeling for/with young children. Feminism Psychology, 21, 420-430. doi: 10.1177/0959353510384832
Silberman, M. L. (2006). Active training: A handbook of techniques, designs, case examples, and tips. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer
Wurtele, S. K. (1998). School-based child sexual abuse prevention: Questions, answers, and more questions. In J. R. Lutzker (Ed.): Handbook of child abuse research and treatment (pp. 501-516). New York: Plenum Press.