On Innovation and Inclusivity in Sex Education

I'm posting most of the text of the lecture I just gave at the University of Texas through the NSRC Regional Training last week. A bunch of people there asked for it, and it was a great experience for me (how awesome was it to be in a room full of current and potential sex⁠ educators? VERY). So much of what I said really sums up where I'm at with this work right now, have been going and want to keep going. Obviously, every current and potential sex educator in the world wasn't or couldn't be there, so here is my offering to all of you -- including you peer educators, formal and informal -- and I hope it's something you can use and be inspired by.

You might also notice that some of this lecture borrows some bits from a couple other pieces I've written recently, namely this one.

My name is Heather. I'm turning 39 this spring, and I'm a full-time sex educator.

I was asked to come talk to you to about how to be both innovative and inclusive with sex education.

In many ways, sex education often seems to get stuck in two big places. Plenty of people seem to think that if you're talking about sex to young people at all -- no matter how you're talking about it, no matter why you're talking about it -- that's progressive enough, and for some, that in and of itself is too progressive. Despite Americans having over 100 years to get used to sex education at this point, for many it still seems an innovation, and not a particularly welcome one. Hopefully I don't need to tell this group too much about how so many ideas about inclusivity in young adult sex education -- when the notion exists at all -- often come from a place more concerned with political correctness than real equity.

We infrequently seem to even address either of these issues, in part because American sex education seems to be stuck at the world's longest red light: the discussion about it starts and ends with if abstinence⁠ -based sex education is best or comprehensive sex education is. Progressive sex educators will always -- validly -- tend to strongly voice that comprehensive sex education is best and that's what needs to be provided. For sure, medically-accurate, secular sex education is vital. However, I think all too often progressives don't realize how little difference there can be between the two, and how limited so much current sex ed of all types is.

To get us all started on the same foot, I want to address what those three terms usually mean.

Abstinence-only sex education is no kind of sex education at all, ultimately: it's about why NOT to have sex until ( heterosexual⁠ ) marriage, and based around unwanted pregnancy⁠ , STIs, and ideology about how sex before or without marriage is bad news. Most of it makes no effort to be medically accurate -- quite the opposite -- but instead relies on fear tactics like the notion that condoms have microscopically-small holes which sperm⁠ and infections can swim right through, or that people who have more than one sexual partner⁠ lose the ability to emotionally bond with others. That education does not usually give instructions on using birth control⁠ methods or safer sex⁠ -- it often furthers that any of this education would encourage sex (and that these things are not needed in marriages), though I can't help but wonder sometimes if that also isn't just about the fact that many abstinence educators also just don't know how to use these things themselves. It focuses almost entirely on refusals of sex, if it teaches any usable skills at all. Abstinence-based sex education also is by nature heterosexist and not merely gendernormative⁠ , but relies strongly on binary⁠ and traditional notions of gender⁠ and sexuality.

Abstinence-plus education does tend to include practical information, and much of it is medically-accurate, and may also be evidence-based, however its supposition is still that it is best for teens not to be sexually active⁠ or sexual⁠ in any way. It, too, also tends to be very gendernormative and not very inclusive.

Comprehensive sex education is medically-accurate, does (or is supposed to) include instruction on birth control and safer sex and may also include address of topics like anatomy⁠ , sexual orientation⁠ , masturbation⁠ , relationships, sexual abuses, pregnancy options and more, and should come from a place where no one set of sexual choices is privileged as best or right.

But in a recent study of comprehensive sex education in the state of Illinois, of 17 possible topics, emergency contraception⁠ was mentioned least, taught by only 30 percent of teachers. Only 32 percent of teachers brought up homosexuality or sexual orientation, 34 percent taught how to use condoms, 37 percent taught how to use other forms of birth control, 39 percent discussed abortion⁠ and 47 percent taught students where to access contraception⁠ and sexual-health services. So, even when sex education is comprehensive...well, it's often not comprehensive at all.

Most of the sex education available to young people right now is either abstinence-only OR abstinence-plus. Very few curricula or programs are without some kind of abstinence ideology.

Despite thousands of years of young adults⁠ being sexual people in any number of ways, and every evidence possible that this is totally natural to them, many adults and sex educators -- even plenty we'd think of as progressive -- have in some sense become apologists for sexuality, particularly that of young people. We'll talk about it because we have to, because many are going to try "it" and be sexual, but more and more, in sex ed, sex is discussed a lot like the common cold: fairly inevitable, but something you'd probably be best to avoid, which is a pretty wacky way to talk about something that is primarily about pleasure.

The vast majority of sex education available today is also centered around reduction or management of risks of unwanted to negative outcomes, giving the message that the best sex has to offer is nothing bad happening to you because of it.

I had a wake-up call a little while back when I spent some time reviewing some of the top⁠ comprehensive sex education curricula. I, too -- when it came to sex ed provided in schools -- had made a lot of presumptions about the comprehensive curricula. I knew they were medically-accurate and often also evidence-based, but I had made a bunch of other assumptions. I assumed most, if not all, would have detailed address of sexual and whole-body anatomy, that they'd discuss or even masturbation, that they were inclusive -- when it came to sexual orientation and gender identity⁠ , to race, to class, to relationship⁠ models and a variety of sexual choices -- I expected at least some address, though perhaps minimal or watered-down, of desire⁠ , of pleasure, of the sexual response cycle.

Yet most of those curricula have little to none of those things. In fact, at a meeting to review a few of them, sure that I had merely overlooked or wasn't seeing inclusion, in four of these curricula, I asked where the inclusion of gay⁠ , lesbian⁠ and bisexual⁠ youth was and was told that one of the curricula had a scenario listed in which both teens in the story where named Joe.

Hopefully, I don't have to tell you that inclusion is a lot bigger than two people named Joe -- which doesn't even assure those two people are the same gender or sex in the first place -- on one page.

Nor do I likely have to tell you that sex is about a whole lot more than merely avoiding -- or winding up with -- unwanted or negative outcomes: if we get pregnant or don't, get a sexually transmitted infection⁠ or don't, are or are not sexually assaulted.

There are a few reasons all of this is the case. A lock on funding for comprehensive sex ed since the end of the Clinton administration, and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars pumped into abstinence-only through the Bush administration is certainly is one of them. A general discomfort with sexuality as a whole among teachers, school administrators, parents, healthcare providers -- and, by proxy, teens themselves -- is obviously another. It's no newsflash that we continue to have big problems -- far bigger than many people like to admit -- with sexism⁠ , racism⁠ , homophobia⁠ , classism⁠ , ableism⁠ , ageism, xenophobia, sizeism. And all of these issues have certainly impacted sexology as a whole, a field of study which has always been highly male-dominated, very white, very heteronormative and gendernormative. Sexology has certainly been becoming more diverse over the last twenty years or so, but it still has a long way to go.

So, what informs sex education? These cultural attitudes, the limits of what has been studied when it comes to sexuality, which is also often informed by these cultural attitudes and blind spots. The medicalization of sex is also a factor, as is the fact that America is far less sexually liberated than she likes to think. Toss in an age-old fear of young adult sexuality -- hell, a fear of teens and young people, period⁠ -- then try and stuff it all into formats which can fit into mainstream models of public education, pass a parent and a school board, work in the often toxic social environment of high schools and junior highs and you get an idea of what we wind up with, and how, even if medically-accurate, even if it's comprehensive, most sex ed is still woefully substandard.

I haven't chosen to try and provide sex education in schools, but instead, have done so through an online medium to a widely diverse, international userbase for just over ten years, as well as with some in-person outreach and through print publication. I don't have to write a curriculum that passes anyone's muster but that of the young people who choose to utlilize it, and I don't do any sex ed that isn't 100% opt-in on the part of young people. I'm an anarchist by nature, an alternative educator by trade, and that is the way that I do sex ed. As a young person, I was massively helped by alternative education environments -- it's even safe to say my experimental arts high school saved my life, and certainly my sanity and sense of self -- and before I worked in sex education, I spent several years as a Montessori teacher, a model which informs a lot of how I have done things right from the start with Scarleteen.

To give you a little history in a nutshell, in 1997, I was still teaching in Montessori, but had never stopped writing. (A lot of my background is in the creative and performing arts, and I started publishing early, in my teens.) Much of my written and artistic work always had a whole lot to do with sexuality and sensuality, and other than bruising my head any more from banging it against the walls and doors of what existed in terms of publishing opportunities for that work, in 1998 -- when the web was still very new and all of our web design skills were atrocious -- I rolled out⁠ a website called Scarlet Letters, which was the 'nets first site which focused on female sexuality and eroticism. Why the net? Because it was dirt cheap, mostly, and because something about the newness of it: the pioneering nature of being on there seemed a great fit for pioneering ideas.

Within just a matter of months, I began to find letters in my inbox from younger people -- Scarlet Letters was intended for adults -- with questions about sexuality, stating they just didn't know where else to go. My first impulse was to look for somewhere for them to go, and when I did, I -- as they clearly had -- found nothing. So, for a little while, I'd just answer the questions in email. Most of them were pretty rudimentary -- Am I pregnant? Am I gay? Where the hell is my clitoris⁠ and why do I care? -- and as the go-to girl for sex in high school and college, the daughter of a public health nurse and and activist and, well...someone who liked sex a whole lot and had done more than her share of field research, they were relatively easy to answer.

And they kept on coming.

By the end of that year, I added a section of pages of these questions and answers to Scarlet Letters which would later become Scarleteen. I hadn't kept up with young adult sex education since I had it, I was only aware of how it played out in the ECE and elementary environments I'd taught in. Naively, I had figured that sex ed had pushed off from many of the progressive efforts of the seventies and early eighties and must -- I thought -- be pretty okay by that point. It didn't take more than a few big batches on the constant influx of letters for me to do some research and find out how completely mistaken I was.

Let me fill you in a little on the Montessori model: Maria Montessori is a fantastic example of being an innovator. The first female doctor in Italy, during the first World War she was assigned to care for children in the ghettos. Those children were intensely independent, used to caring as much for their families and self-care as their parents, and traditional notions of containing children, having them sit in neat rows and be directed by an adult just didn't suit them. So, Montessori, very organically, and based on the unique needs and stages of her students, developed her own method.

The primary way Montessori works is this: as educators, we are primarily observers. Based on our observations of our students self-directed interests, skills (or lack thereof), unique needs and questions, we choose what materials to make or find and what 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 teachers. We see our students as the real directors, not us: it's our job to follow their cues, not to teach them to obediently follow ours. Questioning is not discouraged, but intensely encouraged. The principles of Montessori are all about independence, liberty and freedom, without which one cannot achieve, develop or experience self-discipline or learning, or live a life of any real quality. 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."

(This is also a particularly pertinent notion when we're talking about sexuality, and says -- I think -- quite a lot about what we can expect when we come to sex education or sexuality from a standpoint of sex and sexuality being something we and others must control. In a word, not much that's good.)

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 sexuality, 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.

Using the models -- or really, the un-models -- of education I liked best, like Montessori, like ideas from John Holt and A.S. Neill, the first thing I did was assess my students, not based only or mostly on statistics or standardized testing, but based on who they really were and what they were telling me. I had needs clearly expressed to me by young people. They had important questions about sex and sexuality which were not being answered, and they needed and wanted answers. Clearly, they also felt comfortable asking via the new terrain of new media, and also felt comfortable approaching me, personally, likely due to both my openness about sex, my casual tone and probably also because they were so desperate for anyone willing to answer their questions who seemed likely to have answers, and also likely not to be able to hold them accountable for asking, that they were not being particularly selective about who they asked in the first place.

What were my tools and materials? I had what felt like the perfect fit for their needs with the Internet. It was anonymous. It was relatively cheap (and while my costs have certainly grown with our traffic, compared to print media, it's still peanuts). I was not going to have to try and slog through endless beaurocracies to provide what the teens were asking me for, wasn't going to have to argue with parents and administrators -- though later I did have to argue with the federal government, but we won that argument. I would be able not only to build what I felt was best based on their expressed needs, I'd also have the freedom -- should I need or want to -- to knock it all down and try something completely different on a whim, a flexibility and whimsy which often had not exactly been appreciated the few times I'd tried teaching in pre-established systems with administrators, but which is central to student-based and directed education.

I had me, someone who had been a teacher for some time and loved teaching, who had had an incredibly challenging adolescence and an easy and intense compassion for children and teenagers. I had a set of diverse skills I could draw on which helped: I had writing skills, design skills, and the great gift of a sense of humor, which tends to be a godsend when talking with people about sex. I had the ability to camp out at the library and further my education as much as I liked with sexuality and related issues, a field of study I had already gotten into in college. I had a love of anarchy, and of pioneering: I preferred to start with my imagination, rather than with pre-existing systems. I brought my own diversity to the table: I grew up very marginalized in a handful of ways, had some views and experiences that were often outside of what many teens were exposed to. I was queer⁠ , I wasn't on the marriage-and-baby track, I came of age in the 80's and made the absolute most of it, I was comfortable with the provocative, but not all that impressed with it, either. I was beyond comfortable -- and quite happy -- with sex and sexuality. And I was impressed with that plenty.

That's the way Scarleteen started, and at more than ten years since, that is still much of the way I direct it. By all means, we are monstrously larger than I ever imagined we'd be: I certainly did not forsee this becoming my full-time job and my life's work with those first letters, nor did I imagine we'd have 20 - 30,000 readers every day.

But I still stick to the same model I had at the start: the content we have is almost entirely based -- with some unavoidable but relatively minor limitations -- on the content our users have asked for, which, as it turns out, has tended to result in an incredibly comprehensive, inclusive and holistic body of work. When you have this many people to work with, from this many places in the world, with this kind of diversity, in a medium with this much openness and an aversion to control, and you let them lead what you do, it is going to tend to result in a body of work and a community which is highly diverse, inclusive and holistic.

I rarely, if ever, have to think about what to teach, and what information to give: my users and clients -- when I do in-person outreach -- tell me that, and I trust them to know what they need. More times than not, what it is I have to figure out is HOW to provide it for them, and I do that most by asking just as many questions of them as they ask of me, and by being open to what they tell me, willing to adjust my thinking at any time.

It might sound simplistic to posit that coming to sex education not through what we as adults deem important for young people to know, but by starting -- and primarily staying with -- what young people themselves tell us they want and need to know seems to solve many of the typical and current pitfalls of sex education. But that has been my experience.

I also very strongly believe that when we move past risk management, and address sexuality more holistically, not only do we better equip young people -- any people -- to have a happy, healthy sexuality that is self-designed rather than conformist, we also tend to also help young people build skills and a knowledge base which easily includes risk management and provides them with additional context and tools to make reducing and managing risks easier for them. If a young person can talk to a sexual partner, for instance, about something as loaded as pleasure and desire, as perhaps not reaching orgasm⁠ through intercourse⁠ or even finding it all that compelling, or can openly show a partner⁠ where to find a clitoris or prostate gland⁠ , to discuss what dynamics they do and do not want in the relationship, negotiating condom⁠ use or discussing birth control can tend to be a piece of cake, and inclusivity also gets a lot easier. This information also tends to come about pretty organically and in a way that makes a lot more sense, and is a lot less scary or intimidating.

For instance, if a young person does ask what a clitoris is, what it's for and where it's at, once you answer them, they might then ask how it is someone might experience pleasure that way. In giving them that answer, you're going to address sexual activities that aren't for one given kind of couple, and which will likely challenge some heteronormative ideas, and likely ALSO wind up talking about how certain activities with the clitoris do or do not pose risks of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections⁠ .

If we teach young people about things like how incredibly diverse sexuality is, because it is, if we model active and compassionate listening when it comes to sexual pleasure and creating agreements in a relationship, not only can they use that knowledge and those tools with their own sexual lives, and in the way they think about sexuality as a whole, they can also apply those skills even more broadly, such as for conflict resolution and understanding in other tough or loaded places. Honestly, all I have to do to know that most of the members of our last administration didn't have a really good sex education is to look at how they handled international diplomacy.

I feel like sex education in and of itself is still revolutionary, to be sure, but I also feel like most sex education at best is not very revolutionary, and at worst, is about devolution. But real-deal sex education -- that is open, that is honest, that is a lot more fearless, that is human and comes from who it's being given to, that nurtures inclusivity and diversity of thought and experience -- is seriously revolutionary stuff. And I think it's totally doable.

I want to leave you with a strong sense of how doable that is, and -- hopefully -- a desire to do so. On the note, I've a few helpful hints I've picked up over the years I want to toss out at you about how to be -- in my book -- a totally fantastic sex educator.

  • Be yourself and be honest. You do get to have boundaries -- and limits and boundaries are vital with any relationship between teens and adults, and all people, and setting them is certainly one of those things that gives them some great tools for their sex lives. So, if a student asks you something you're not comfortable answering, or it feels like an invasion of a privacy you need, you get to tell them that, though I'd advise really telling them that. In other words, rather than saying "I can't talk about that," you say "You know, that makes me uncomfortable," or "Actually, that for me is something I like to keep private." But ultimately, they're looking to you as the person to be candid with them, and you can benefit them by repping you and sex as it is, in all its diversity, silliness, awesomeness, awkwardness, complexity and joy.
  • Assume yours might be the only formal sex ed that they get. Hopefully, that will NOT be the case: ideally, everyone should get sex ed from multiple sources and perspectives. But all too many people really don't, including well into adulthood. So, don't put undue pressure on yourself, but bear in mind this may well be a one-shot deal, and it's best to make the most of it.
  • Ask as many questions as you give answers.
  • Recognize that no matter how protected an environment teenagers will inevitably feel vulnerable when discussing sex, meet them in that space. If they're vulnerable, but you don't allow yourself to also be vulnerable, that creates an imbalanced dynamic that asks a lot more of them than it does of you.
  • Peer educator training: any time you are doing sex ed, you are also effectively doing peer sex educator training. More than anything else, teens get their sex information and education from each other. So, when you educate one of them, you're always educating more than one of them. Teens having accurate information isn't just about their own sex lives, but about the sex lives of all the teens they may wind up talking with about sex and sexuality.
  • Take risks. Know that if you take a risk and find yourself in a pickle, you've always got the ACLU. I'll give you their number. Seriously. They love sex educators. A lot.
  • Consider that an unhappy sex life or sexual self is just as dire an outcome as an unwanted pregnancy or a serious sexually transmitted infection. I think we need to accept that it is, especially if we're serious when we say that sexuality is huge and important. Plus, from everything I have observed over the years, people at peace with their sexuality and in healthy sexual relationships tend to make smarter choices when it comes to things like contraception, safe relationships and safer sex.
  • Lastly, don't stop educating yourself. As you probably already know, sex and sexual health information changes constantly and sometimes quickly. What you learned in med school five years ago can quickly become archaic. And that education includes your own personal field research. I'm talking about your own sex life. If you aren't honest about your own areas of growth and doing your best to have a sex life and sexuality that is healthy and enriching -- alone or with partners, and whatever that means to you -- I'm just not sure how great a sex educator you can be, just like I can't imagine that an English teacher who hated to read or only read the Cliff's Notes would be very inspiring and effective. Be an aspirational sexual demographic.

P.S. To the Scarleteen users reading all of this? This means that if you ever see me forgetting any of what I said here in how I interact with you or direct Scarleteen, you absolutely, positively not only GET to call me out on that, you really should and I'll be grateful if you do.