Rules are meant to be broken

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.

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Being Intentional about Language

Language is a wonderful, and powerful tool.  It’s how we communicate among each other, how we learn new things, and how we pose philosophical questions.  It’s what sets humans apart from most other mammals.  Language carries with it the possibility of enlightenment, and/or destruction.  Words can make an individual think, or they can shut someone down. Words can make you excited, or afraid!!

In sexuality education, it is absolutely essential that an educator be 100% intentional about language.  Not just in what words are said, but how they are said. Body language and facial expressions can carry just as much weight as words themselves (if not more!).  When educators are careless with their words, participants will perceive and imitate that carelessness. Additionally, positive modeling of consistent, intentional language will help the participants develop their own intentionality.

What are some examples of intentional language?

  • Using gender neutral language and names throughout an educational program.
  • Consistently offering praise and positive reinforcement, even when correcting mistakes.
  • Avoiding blaming statements.
  • Acknowledging diversity in culture, types of relationships, sexual orientation, sexual practices, etc.

Here are some tips for being intentional about language:

  1. Be prepared.  Be overprepared.  Be so prepared you could lead the lesson in your sleep.
  2. Know the topic, as well as you can.
  3. Know the limits of your expertise and be willing to admit that someone else (or google) might know more than you.
  4. If possible, participate in the activity before you lead it.  This will help you…(read on!)
  5. …Anticipate the responses from participants, so that you are unflappable.
  6. If you are flapped, have a recovery strategy.
  7. Be OK with pausing.  Take a moment to breathe and slow down (you might be talking too fast anyways).
  8. Have a list of general, open-ended questions in your ‘back pocket’.
  9. Remember, the activity should be about the participants, not you- make sure that you’re not doing all the talking!
  10. Use positively-framed questions.  For example, instead of asking, “How can you avoid STIs”, try asking, “How can you make healthy decisions”.
  11. Listen carefully to the participants- to what they are saying, and possibly what they are not saying.
  12. Smile.  Not only does smiling disarm participants and demonstrate that you are enjoying yourself, it also is a great way for you to stop and think carefully about the best way to frame your statement/question.

In essence, being intentional about language is a state of mind, which educators should all embrace when in any educational capacity.  It’s not always easy, and it doesn’t always happen, but it’s a goal that we can strive to achieve.

Why be Fearless about sexuality education?

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…

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:

  1. Using fear is a simplistic approach.  It discounts the complexity of sexual decisions, which are enmeshed in relationship dynamics and individual emotions and desires.
  2. 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.
  3. Using fear prescribes the same decision to all scenarios and life situations, and assumes that an individual is incapable of making an informed decision.
  4. 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!)
  5. 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! 🙂

My backstory- how I decided on a career in sexuality education.

I had just started 8th grade at Byrd middle school in Richmond, VA.  It was the beginning of the school year, so must have been September.  My parents told me that I would be taking a class at church called About Your Sexuality (AYS).  They said it would be every Sunday, during church, for the ENTIRE school year.  I was not excited.  I believe I even refused to go.  To that, my parents said that if I went to the first few classes and was really unhappy, that I didn’t have to keep going.  I figured that was a good compromise, so I agreed.  And thank goodness!  Because that class was probably one of the best things that I did as I was entering the tumultuous time of being a teenager.  Not only did I learn about REALLY important stuff, I also developed some wonderful friendships with the other kids in the class, and I’m proud to say that many of them are still my friends today, almost 20 years later.

That was in 8th grade, and it wasn’t until my senior year of college that I realized what the impact that AYS class would have on my entire life.  I was in my final semester of college at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, pursuing a double major in flute performance and religious studies, when a professor suggested that I get an internship for the summer.  As I was searching for positions in the DC area, I stumbled upon several intriguing opportunities at organizations such as the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.  While I had always been vocal about sexual health issues such as abortion, I had always argued that we should be trying to reduce the need for abortion in the first place- an approach of prevention and education.  In this search for a summer internship, I realized two things- that first of all there actually was a professional field of sexuality education, and second, I was really comfortable talking about sexuality with pretty much anyone- and that is a skill that not many people have.  I recalled my own positive educational experience attending AYS, and thought, I would love to provide the others with a similarly comfortable, safe environment in which to learn about and explore the complicated topic of sexuality.  That summer I did land an internship in the government relations department at the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL, now Pro-Choice America). While it wasn’t quite sexuality education, it was in the right direction!

So, in the midst of preparing for my senior flute recital and wrapping up my degree in religious studies, I figured out that the career path of sexuality education fit me like a glove.  On discussing this decision with friends, they all agreed that my ‘skill’ of talking openly and honestly about sexuality would be put to good use!

The next steps on this path included working as a consultant updating sex ed resources for the Virginia Department of Education, volunteering as a sex educator for Richmond’s Planned Parenthood, teaching the 4th-6th grade Our Whole Lives program at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Arlington, VA, and then moving to NYC to get my masters of public health in sexuality and health at Columbia University.  Since finishing my masters in 2006, I have become a trainer for the adult/young adult age groups of the Our Whole Lives program in addition to teaching almost all of the OWL levels (learn more about this comprehensive sexuality education program for humans of all ages at http://www.uua.org/owl), among other professional accomplishments.

And this blog represents the next steps on my path to sexuality education stardom.  I look forward to sharing my thoughts and ideas about sexuality education approaches and methods, as well as engaging in dialogue with other professionals about best practices.

Ps. I have been known to occasionally pick up my flute from time to time, so all that practice doesn’t go completely down the drain!