Quick, think of a message about avoiding risky behaviors and making healthy decisions that you received when you were growing up.
Now think about that message…how did it make you feel? did it make you afraid of doing said behavior? did it prevent you from doing it? if you did it anyways, how did you feel after?
Didn’t think of anything at all? How about some of these…
- The public service announcement (PSA) featuring the cooking egg, “This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs.”
- Or more recently the graphic and deadly car crash that happens because of a teenager texting while driving.
- How about the gym teacher in the movie Mean Girls telling his class, “Don’t have sex because you will get pregnant and die!”
Many very well-intentioned educators, policy-makers, and PSA designers resort to the use of fear to try and scare people out of engaging in risky behaviors. I argue that while it is essential that people understand the potential consequences of any action, using fear is not an effective educational tool for sexuality education, especially when the overall educational goal is for the participant to learn about making healthy sexual decisions and developing a healthy sexual self.
Why? Here are five reasons why I do not use fear in my role as a sexuality educator:
- Using fear is a simplistic approach. It discounts the complexity of sexual decisions, which are enmeshed in relationship dynamics and individual emotions and desires.
- Using fear could result in the individual removing themselves from the possibility of risk in their own life, since many people will think that the awful consequence could never happen to them.
- Using fear prescribes the same decision to all scenarios and life situations, and assumes that an individual is incapable of making an informed decision.
- Using fear eliminates the opportunity for an individual to develop critical thinking skills for themselves. (The PSA announcer won’t be there when two people are about to have sex!)
- Using fear only highlights the negative consequences of sexual activity, ignoring the reality that sexual activity can be a fun and pleasurable experience.
Instead of messages that are fearful and scary, I prefer to use educational approaches that encourage critical thinking, especially in realistic ways. It is possible to teach about all sorts of things that could result from engaging in sexual activity, such as STIs, unintended pregnancy, HIV, emotional backlash, without using fear- but it is the more difficult route.
So the challenge for sexuality educators is to be very cautious about the messages conveyed, both explicitly and implicitly, in order to ensure that those messages will help the participant feel empowered, not afraid. And, it might mean examining, and possibly changing activities and approaches that have been long implemented in highly acclaimed comprehensive sexuality education programs.
Stay tuned for more thoughts on how we do this!