What Would Maria Do? One Sex Educator's Ever-Evolving Manifesto
One of the things that has a great influence in both how I enact sexuality education and how I conceptualized my approach from the get-go is my background with teaching in the Montessori Method.
Overall, the primary way Montessori works is this: as educators, we observe our students, and based on our observations of what their self-directed interests, skills and questions are -- basically, what they're drawn to in terms of what activities they choose for themselves and what activities and areas they express interest in -- we choose what materials to make or find and to present to them. In doing this, we're also trying to help students learn to be observers, as well as working to empower them when it comes to trusting their own interests and instincts and to be self-motivated and self-directed, rather than reliant on -- or vulnerable to -- others to give them directives. Montessori teachers see ourselves more as helpers, as guides, than as directors or founts of knowledge. We see our students as the real directors, not us: it's our job to follow their cues, not teach them to obediently follow ours. The underlying principles of Montessori are all about independence, liberty and freedom, without which one cannot achieve, develop or experience self-discipline or learning. Montessori wrote that, "Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined."
Particular areas of what we call absorbency -- times during which a person is most able to learn something and can most easily and enthusiastically absorb information -- is also something we pay close attention to and bear in mind. The big deal that identifies a time of absorbency is when a person is both expressing a strong interest in a subject or area of development and is just starting to use and hone those skills: ages 1-3, for instance, as children are learning to speak and are fascinated with language, is usually the time of the greatest absorbency for language. If we help children be exposed to and learn language then, not only is their mastery best, they usually can also learn more than one language, more easily and ably than they will be able to during other times in life.
It doesn't take someone with Montessori training or keen observational talents to identify the fact that when it comes to human sexuality and sexual attitudes, the minds of adolescents and pre-adolescents are greatly absorbent. Because part of identifying what and when to present certain things has to do with when a person is starting to use what they learn, we can easily spot adolescence as a great time for sex education. In working with young adults, while I'm not really getting in on the ground floor since so many sexual attitudes are learned in childhood, I'm still in early enough so that our readers can get help forming healthy habits and attitudes at a dawn in their sexuality and during a time when they are very absorbent. I'm not just working with them just so that they can use this information and these skills now -- after all, some of them want the information now, but don't intend to, or are not, putting all of it to practical use, while others are becoming or already sexually active -- but so that they can have them early, available to them for the whole of their lives.
Young adult sex education isn't just about young adult sexual activity, just like young adult education in mathematics, social studies, physical education or language isn't just about their use of those skills now. We teach these things with the understanding and expectation that they will be useful and needed now and later or now or later.
Most teens have an expressed interest in sexuality, and feel and express a need to find out about it now, which makes now the best time to teach it. When children and young people ask us or each other questions about sexual anatomy, sex, and sexual relationships, when they are starting to consider how sexuality will be part of their lives and what they want from it, they are communicating clearly to us that they feel a strong need and desire to learn and want our help. Even if you're not a Montessori-enthusiast like myself, this idea is woven throughout nearly any educational approach you can think of.
For the life of me, I cannot figure out why or how people can selectively forget that what we learn about sexuality is information most of us will need for the whole of our lives. When we learn about sexuality, we're not just learning for what we need and will use right at the moment we are learning, and no matter when or in what context we have a solo or shared sexual life, that activity itself cannot teach us all we need and want to know, nor can learning only through sexual activity later tend to result in sound sexual, physical and emotional health.
I confess, I quietly slipped out the back door years ago when it came to doing adult sex education, because I often found it deeply depressing and frustrating. We all know it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and it is often just as hard for adults who have firmly established certain sexual attitudes and behaviors to change them after ten, twenty or forty years of thinking and/or doing things differently. I heard so much "But my husband just won't listen when I say this doesn't feel good for me: I've told him a thousand times," or "My wife just won't believe that how I feel is normal and common," or, "But we've never used birth control so he can't understand why I need to now and just won't do it," some days -- so many firmly cemented attitudes and practices making so many people unhappy and unhealthy that I felt helpless to counter -- that I just had to step back from it in order to preserve any sense of sexual optimism about the world at large.
In my job at a women's clinic, where part of my counseling is to try and help my clients who want them to find and use sound birth control methods and safer sex practices, and to have sexual lives which are truly beneficial and safe for them, I hit the wall of this daily, both with them and with their partner's compliance. With some women, we have to have a conversation as to how she is going to convince -- not request, and know that request is all she needs make -- her partner that he is not entitled to sex with her at any time and will, indeed, need to withhold from sex with her for two weeks after her abortion to prevent her from getting an infection or complication. Plenty of those clients will express a strong feeling of hopelessness, or a history of failed attempts at changing established norms of behavior, when it comes to their ability or the ability and willingness of their partners to change those habits and attitudes. I know, plainly, that had many of my clients and their partners learned these behaviors, in terms of their physical health and their social relationships -- and with women, particularly, we often see the most devastating results of not being supported in independence and liberty and how that plays out for many women sexually -- and started out with inclusive, factual and compassionate sex education earlier that these situations would be far more rare.
Those clients are lucky to even have an opportunity to get some sex education later in their lives: there are not many avenues for older adults to become sexually educated (which explains why we see some of them come to Scarleteen for help in their twenties, thirties, even in their sixties). When I hear those who protest young adult sex education in high school and college, I'm often left wondering where, exactly -- if indeed, as many express, young people will all just elect not to have any kind of sex until they are older -- they think older adults are going to get that education. Last I checked, major corporations aren't giving sex education seminars to their employees, and many general doctors, like many people period, remain uneducated on, and uncomfortable discussing, sexuality.
That isn't to say educating older adults is an impossible task, but it seems a needless challenge when we have the opportunity, as educators, as a culture, as communities, to teach sexuality and sexual health way before that time, when absorbency is far greater, and when a person is either in the dawn of their attitudes and practices, or is able to start learning them before they'll apply them at all. What we establish early as norms, and hear pervasively as norms, is incredibly sticky. We know that when someone learns to do something incorrectly or incompletely, that the longer they go doing that thing that way, the tougher it becomes over time for them to learn differently or to add on additional steps and skills. This is true with sex as much as it is with anything else.
The practical application of all of this aside, I'm never going to be able to let go of the idea that without liberty, real learning -- learning, not indoctrinating -- can't happen. If in any of the ways I educate, I seek to hinder or protest that essential liberty, I'm not only hindering learning, but the quality of life of my students, and it is my job to very carefully consider how I educate through that lens. It is not my place to tell my students or clients when to have sex, how to define their own sexuality, to tell them they are good or bad people based on their sexual desires or choices, or to tell them that they do not need to know the very things they are asking me to inform them about. I cannot ever call myself an educator if I purposefully slam the door of knowledge in my student's faces because I, not they, feel that it's for their own good.
Rather, it is my place to observe and be responsive to the cues they give me in terms of what they need and want from me to help them learn about sexuality and sexual health, and to give them as wide an array of factually accurate and inclusive information, resources and discussions as I am able so they can create lives where their sexuality is part of their liberty; where the attitudes and practices they develop are in as best an alignment as possible with their and their partner's unique set of needs and wants. It is my place to share with them as much of what I learn and know as I possibly can when they invite me to. This is part of why I feel so blessed to be able to educate in environments which are completely drop-in and also very one-on-one -- or without my intervention at all, unless it is asked for -- where even the onset of the education I provide isn't determined by me, but by my students or clients themselves, and where every person I interact with is able to expressly ask me or my co-workers for exactly what they feel they need, rather than what I or others determine is right for them.
It is my place to be in a relationship where it is understood I learn from them just as much as they learn from me, and where what I learn from them greatly informs what I teach and how I guide. It is my place to allow and encourage the opportunity for them to draw their own conclusions, and to provide an environment for them where they feel they have the inarguable right to use that information however they please without my value judgments. It is my place to make clear to them that questioning my authority is always acceptable, that while I do my best to be as educated on these issues as possible, I am not infallible, without my own biases which inevitably will occasionally leak through, or somehow representative of one universal truth, and when they have questions or doubts, it is my place to direct them to other sources of information besides my own.
Every now and then, when doing an interview or a press piece, I'm asked why I give the information I do with the approach that I do, and if I'd ever consider doing it differently. And every time, I make clear that I walk into each day ready to do it differently, because if my students and/or clients -- through my observations of them and their direct requests -- asked me to, felt another approach would be more helpful, or showed me that the way I am doing things is not helpful for them, and is not what they needed, I would be obligated to adjust my approach based on my own educational ethics. Were I shown that, say, my students and clients were all made happier and healthier in the whole of their lives by only ever having sex within heterosexual marriage, only having sex for the purposes of procreating, or in going without sexual healthcare and birth control, even if that conflicted with what I have found keeps me happy and healthy, by all means, I'd have to seriously consider that. But again, I'm a trained observer, I observe daily, and that's not something they express or I see. I do not tend to hear that knowing how to use a condom, how the sexual response cycle works, how to negotiate sex with a partner, how varied human sexuality is or how to prevent unwanted pregnancy at any age has done a person emotional or physical harm: I, do, however, hear and see the inverse daily. I do what I do the way that I do it because I do my level best to base it on mindful observation with the aim of being a partner in the learning of others, not a director or a dictator.
Like much of my father's family, Montessori was an Italian Catholic, and designed her educational model during a historical time when sex education wasn't an issue on the table. The only sex theorist she even had to draw from was Freud, whose ideas on infant and child sexuality -- sensibly so -- she rejected. She did however address that sexuality was a particular issue for adolescents, and one which can be so encompassing and distracting for them that adaptations may need to be made in their education -- such as allowing them more physical activity during the day. I can't know, ultimately, what Montessori would have felt about sex education as it is today overall, save that it does seem to me to be part of Practical Life (the area of the classroom and materials in Montessori that focus on care of oneself, others and the environment) for older students. We can glean some ideas based on how she felt about education for ages 12 - 18 (see From Childhood to Adolescence for more on that). She felt it vitally important to recognize those ages as a passage into adulthood -- not an extended childhood -- to help students of those ages to feel capable and able. She emphasized adolescents' need to separate from adults, rather than to be dependent on us or exploited by our determination of what is right for them based on our ideas-in-hindsight of what would have been right for us. She protested the notion that we need to save them from themselves, and worse still, try to do so in a way which is purposefully misleading and a barrier to freedom, motivated by the idea that the ends, however deceptive and controlling, justify the means. Fascism is incompatible with learning and liberty: this is why Montessori left her home country in the 1930's.
She would have been very much opposed to any kind of education -- sexual or otherwise -- which denied what we observed in our students, denied the needs our students express and demonstrate to us; which was based in ideas of controlling their behavior by making them fearful of life and others rather than providing them with the information and tools they need in order to exercise their liberty to make their own choices and to follow their own interests and development.
Uncannily enough, Montessori once wrote something else which seems a sound representation of our current conundrum with approaches to sex education in the States. It was this: “The task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility and evil with activity.”
The inverse of that statement defines abstinence-only approaches to the letter. While good and evil is not a dichotomy which particularly speaks to me -- few dichotomies or binaries do -- ideas of good and evil, rather than ideas about liberty and learning, are foundational in abstinence-only education approaches and arguments against honest, factual, inclusive and comprehensive sex education. That simple sentence can tell us much about the flaws in a lack of sex education or abstinence-only sex education and the idea that the only way we can help protect people from activities which can carry risks is to keep them from them, teach them that they have no real means of managing them, or to urge them to be inactive -- in both how they behave sexually and how we educate them sexually.
It shows up the red herring in the proposition that abstinence-only "sex education" is sex education at all, due to the approaches it takes, the purposeful misinformation or incomplete information it provides, and the place of control and withholding -- a place with no allowance or respect for liberty -- it's all really coming from. It demonstrates an awful lot about if denying young people free and factual information and real opportunities for learning is really about health and well-being or really about being "good."