Overcoming Sex-Shaming Rhetoric at the CFLE Sex Ed Conference 2012

At the CFLE’s annual National Sex Ed Conference I had the pleasure of facilitating a workshop titled Dare to be Shameless! Overcoming Sex-Shaming Rhetoric in Sexuality Education.  During this one-hour workshop we listed examples of sex-shaming rhetoric, identified ways that sex-shaming rhetoric can impact an educational environment, and described strategies for countering sex-shaming rhetoric.  Yep, we did all that in just one hour.  Phew!

It was a wonderful experience being able to engage other sexuality education professionals in a conversation about how our language can make someone feel ashamed about their sexuality, sometimes without that intention.  What even is sex-shaming rhetoric?  As far as I know (and please correct me if I’m wrong), it’s a new concept that needs descriptions and definitions.  During this workshop, I had the help of 75 participants in outlining how sex-shaming rhetoric may be characterized.  photoMy own working definition of sex-shaming rhetoric is:

Language used that makes an individual feel ashamed of a healthy sexual experience, feeling, or act.

This definition may be too straight-forward, or maybe its brevity allows essential room for interpretation.  In short, we as educators must be aware of how our rhetoric around sexuality, including our educational lesson plans, may make someone feel ashamed of their sexuality.

As part of the workshop, I asked participants to write down an example of something someone might say that could be considered sex-shaming, thinking especially of something a sexuality educator might say.  Here are some of the examples they came up with:

  • “If you get pregnant/get a girl pregnant, your life will be ruined.”
  • “There is a time and a place to talk about sex and sex topics, and this isn’t it.”
  • “Clean” = STI negative
  • “When you have a new partner, you must use protection.” (It’s fear-based rhetoric and shaming for people.)
  • A person with multiple partners is nasty.
  • “Sexting is a horrible thing and doing it can ruin your life.”
  • Heterosexual sex is ‘normal’ sex.
  • “You shouldn’t be thinking about sex, you should be thinking about college.”
  • “You’re not old enough to ask those questions!”
  • “If you can’t see something without a mirror, it probably means you shouldn’t be looking at it.”
  • “You’re stupid if you get pregnant.”
  • “You will regret it.”
  • “Boys don’t respect girls that have sex too soon.”
  • “Males tend to be more focused on sex than females.”
  • “…not something [that] good boys and girls do.”
  • “If you sleep with someone too soon, you might smear your reputation.”
  • “What would your parents say if they found out you were having sex?”
  • “You shouldn’t have sex unless you’re in love.”

These examples depict characteristics of sex-shaming rhetoric, and yet they are things that we have all probably heard at least once in our lives from someone of authority.  Being a sexuality educator is an honor, a privilege, and a responsibility.  It is up to us to help people feel comfortable asking questions about sexuality, and learn more about themselves, rather than making someone feel bad and ashamed.  Certainly, there are behaviors that need to be deemed as not OK, and that someone should feel ashamed about, such as engaging in any sexual behavior without consent.  However educators (not just sexuality educators, but anyone who is potentially educating others) need to be aware of how their language can be interpreted.  Our educational approaches can be affirming, rather than shame-inducing.

Thank you to all who attended this workshop, and I look forward to continuing this work on improving our sexuality education rhetoric.

What does it take to be a GREAT sexuality educator?

I am always really enthused to hear about projects describing the motivations behind individuals pursuing a career in sexuality education. For example, the Center for Family Life Education is featuring a story once a week about Why I teach Sex Ed on their blog (and they are accepting submissions!).  I love reading about other people’s experiences- not only is it eye-opening, it’s just fun to think about the different ways people arrive at the same field of interest.  My first blog post was even a short story of what inspired me to become a sexuality educator.

But what does it really take to become a great sexuality educator?

A few obvious answers come to mind, including:

  • Passion
  • Dedication
  • Extensive knowledge about sexuality
  • Good teaching/facilitation skills
  • Willingness to work for little or no money

However, I think there are a few more characteristics that might not be so obvious that are vital to really excelling in this role:

Open-minded.  Having an open-mind about individuals’ experiences (or lack thereof), opinions, likes, dislikes, behaviors, fetishes, and so on is absolutely essential in order for the participants to feel comfortable in a learning environment about sexuality.  If a teacher lays judgment on something that a person says, feels, does, or doesn’t do, that individual will be less likely to participate fully in the learning environment.

Flexible. Being flexible, not just with the structure and logistics of a lesson, but also with your own beliefs and values, will model for the participants that human beings change.  Sexuality is fluid, and someone with rigid beliefs will contradict that message.

Accepting.  Accepting participants for who they are, even if they are challenging, disruptive, rude, contrary, or just plain difficult, will emphasize the importance of honoring individuality.  It’s possible to challenge someone’s flaws without putting them down, if we can accept them for who they are.

Personable.  It helps a lot to have a teacher that people are likely to get along with.  No one really likes a Negative Nancy!  And making a personal connection (while honoring teacher-student boundaries) can improve the likelihood that participants will respond in a positive way.

Honest. Someone who is honest about themselves, including their personal opinions, the role that they serve, and how they can (or cannot) help will improve the teacher-student relationship.  If you do not know the answer, the worst thing you can do is make something up!  Showing that you are a human being and also have limitations and flaws will help participants become more comfortable with themselves.

Intentional. Someone who is intentional about the words they say, the actions they make, the body language they use, the resources provided- all the way down to the way they set up a room, will be more likely to think carefully about how they teach and respond to participants.  Sexuality can be a very sensitive topic, and having a teacher who is intentional will decrease the chances of misinterpretation and misinformation.

Comfortable.  Of course, being comfortable with the topic that you are teaching about is crucial.  Too many times I hear stories about people having learned about sexuality from their awkward high school gym teacher or old persnickety health ed teacher.  One of the ways I knew this would be a good field for me is that I was comfortable  talking to anyone about sex.  My friends came to me with questions about all sorts of things, some of which I had to say, you need to ask a Dr!  You want your participants to come to you with questions, and see you as an expert, not the weirdo who doesn’t know what they are doing.

These are just 7 qualities that make a sexuality educator awesome, and I’m sure there are more.  However, if you’re looking for someone to fill that spot (or ways that you can improve on your own rock-star self), I encourage you to think about whether they are up to snuff by these standards!