Talk about a frustrating read! In her article “This Sex Educator Was Not Allowed to Say ‘Clitoris’ in the Classroom,” Diana Spechler writes about some of the prohibitions sex educators face in classrooms across the United States.
Reading it, I felt grateful to teach in a district that fully embraces comprehensive sexuality education. Standing in front of a room of teens talking about condoms or vulvas is challenging enough without worrying that you might say the wrong word and put your job on the line.
San Francisco Unified School District’s high school curriculum includes the information teenagers need to understand their sexuality. We talk about relationships, sexual orientation, gender identity, masturbation, orgasm, birth control, and pregnancy options. We use an inclusive, sex-positive approach to our education, but focus on health and safety, stick to the facts, and steer clear of sharing our personal values. As long as they follow those guidelines, I am able to reassure high school teachers that “Yes, we actually can say that in class!”
Although sharing anecdotes sometimes seems like a good way to connect with students, we train our health education teachers never talk about their own sexual or dating practices. Instead, we encourage teachers to create a safe space for students to address the facts of comprehensive sexuality, understand the multiple topics involved, and help them find additional information and support.
When I first introduce myself to students, I make a pledge to them – I will never lie to them, I won’t exaggerate things to make them seem worse than they are, and if they ask about something I don’t know about, I will do my best to get them a real answer.
We can only expect students to make responsible decisions if they have truthful, reliable information on which to base those decisions. Our job is to give that to them.
There is overwhelming evidence that that “abstinence-only” programs fail to keep anyone abstinent or safe. The alternative that is backed by research is comprehensive sexuality education – a full set of lessons that includes information about abstinence, but also provide young people with medically accurate information about human anatomy, birth control options, sexually transmitted infections, safer sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual choices.
Studies show that most parents in our country support comprehensive sex education, but that’s not always reflected in what’s being taught in the classroom. There is lots of room for change on this issue. Find out what’s being taught in your community, and if you don’t like it, advocate for change. Advocates for Youth has some great advice about how to do this. Take a look at the National Sexuality Education Standards for ideas about what should be taught, and check out some of the wonderful curriculum that is available free online, like Be Real. Be Ready. and 3Rs: Rights, Respect, Responsibility. If the laws in your state need to change, take a look at California’s Health Youth Act (which requires districts for teach comprehensive sex ed at middle school and high school) as a model. Parents, teachers and students should all have a voice on this issue!