At parent orientations and teacher trainings, I often get the chance to ask adults what they remember about the messages they received about sexuality when they were growing up. Inevitably, a good chunk of the group shares that they received simple, direct messages such as…
- Don’t have sex.
- Sex isn’t something people talk about.
- Sex is meant for a man and a woman, who are married.
In essence, these messages end up serving as concrete rules for an individual’s sexuality. However, placing strict, rigid rules on sexual activity has some potential disadvantages, especially from a teaching perspective. For example, rules are applied to everyone, every situation, every relationship, regardless of the diversity of experience. Not to mention that rules ignore the passing of time, and sexuality is a component of human nature that develops and changes and shifts over our entire lives. In addition, as we have all heard in some context or another, rules are meant to be broken. I am not immune to this human characteristic- if I tell myself to not eat chocolate ever again, I will likely eat chocolate before the day is out!! Apply the theory to rules about sexual activity, and you can infer the rest.
In my experience both as a student and a professional, many teachers fall into the routine of prescribing rules as a method of imparting key messages to their students. True, some messages do need to be articulated in a strong, strict manner, such as “Do not force someone to engage in an activity they do not want to.” However, many messages conveyed during a sexuality education program need to be framed as an individual decision that will promote critical thinking. For example, rather than telling students to “not have sex unless x, y, z is accounted for,” ask students to define for themselves, “how will you know that you are comfortable having sex in x, y, z situation?”
Basically, help students establish their own boundaries, rather than forcing them to adhere to rules. Boundaries are flexible, unique, and can be different in a variety of situations and relationships. They can also be highly individualized, honoring the diversity of sexual experience. One catch is that because of all these characteristics, boundaries are more difficult to define. Educators need to be patient and creative in this endeavor, and provide students with many scenarios in which to examine the influences and decision-making factors in each that may affect their boundaries.
All in all, boundaries are meant to be respected vs. rules, which are meant to be broken.