Written by Meghan, RSEI Educator | Published January 6th, 2020

When it comes to teaching, we know that the language we use is incredibly important. It shapes how participants understand and internalize our material. This means that it is extra important when it comes to sexuality education. Sex education has a long history of using stigma, shame, and fear to send messages about what is appropriate, safe or moral in sexual relationships. Yet, we know these tools don’t work. For many it may seem like the days of fear-based sex education are behind us, but unfortunately there are lingering practices that are still widely used today. This blog will examine how changes to our language as educators can help combat some of the stigma that still exists in sex education. It’s also important to acknowledge that language is ever-changing and that this blog represents the best of our knowledge at the time it is being written. There is still immense progress to be made when it comes to language, and we are eager to adjust as advances emerge.

Let’s start with gendered language! While people hold many different values when it comes to gender, we know that there are many identities outside of the traditionally adopted binary. This means that the terms male and female, or the well-meaning but still unacceptable “male-bodied” and “female-bodied”, can no longer be the baseline for teaching sex ed. We instead suggest adopting language that reflects someone’s body parts. For example, this means saying “ person with a vagina” or “person with a penis” or “a person who is intersex.” This puts the focus on the function of the parts a person has rather than assuming their identity. Gender and anatomy are not the same thing. A person’s body parts do not inherently tell us information about their gender and as educators we must make this distinction. Additionally, this way of speaking models the practice of person first language.

Person first language (PFL) is exactly what it sounds like. PFL puts the person before describing their characteristics. This is often used when talking about disabilities or race. Examples of using person first language would be: “a person who…”, “a person with…”, or “a person of…”. This format can also be used when talking about groups or communities, e.g. “people with disabilities” or “people of color”. It is important to note that while PFL is a commonly accepted practice for respectfully talking about people and groups, there is still variance around what is accepted by individuals. Following a person’s lead and listening to them when they say certain terms or language structures offend them is significant. For instance, the term special-needs has been scrutinized by some while others find it to be empowering. We must respect the communities we are talking to and about by respecting individual members in the community as well the community as a whole.

Okay, so what about sexual orientation and gender identities? LGBTQ doesn’t even begin to cover it all and that’s okay! An important thing to remember when talking about identities and orientations is that people are the experts of their own lives. Some terms that are widely adopted today have a history of being slurs. For example, the word “queer” has a history of being tied to violence and othering of LGBTQ+ people, but today it is widely used both as a gender identity (gender queer) and a sexual orientation (queer) as an umbrella term. Even though it is widely used today, we must remember that historical context may make it a term that some still find offensive. As a reminder: we don’t use the terms homosexual and hermaphordite. These terms may still be used in science classes for lessons on other mammals, but are not appropriate when talking about people due to their history of being used as medical diagnoses and thus implying that they are abnormal or unhealthy. The terms gay and intersex are more widely accepted. If you come across terms you aren’t familiar with, remember it’s okay to pause and do some research. You can always have us at the Responsible Sex Education Institute help out by texting us your questions after sending “SEXED” to 57890.

Another helpful tip is to default to using “they” pronouns when you don’t know someone’s gender identity. We should never assume someone else’s pronouns. Assuming communicates to our participants that we know better than they do about their own identities. We don’t. We can also model this by changing any gendered scenarios or examples in our lessons to gender neutral pronouns. Since we’ve brought up pronouns, we also want you to know that saying “preferred” pronouns is actually incredibly minimizing because it implies someone’s identity is a preference. Instead, adopt the understanding that a person’s pronouns are just that, their pronouns. Pronouns, as well as a person’s orientation, identity, and expression can also change throughout their lifetime. Experiencing fluidity in one’s identities is not a trend or any less valid than holding identities that aren’t fluid.

Now, let’s move on to understanding some important differences when working with people with disabilities. Here at the Responsible Sex Education Institute, we offer sex education to individuals and groups of particpants who have cognitive disabilities. We also offer SHEP trainings for professionals teaching sex education to individuals with cognitive disabilities. We recognize that the word “disability” can cover a lot of different things, so next is a breakdown of terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, but in truth have very different meanings.

  • Cognitive disabilities refer to any disabilities that can affect a person’s processing abilities. An example of this could be a traumatic brain injury (TBI). TBIs can happen at any point of a person’s life and may impact their ability to process of interacting with information. This is an example that is different from a developmental or intellectual disability because those each have age restrictions associated with them.
  • Developmental disability is a term that refers to conditions that impair physical, learning, language, or behavioral areas. These conditions start earlier in life (before 22) and impact day-to-day activities and often continue throughout a persons’ life (CDC, 2019). Developmental disabilities can include blindness as well as conditions that also fall into an intellectual disability category, like down syndrome.
  • Intellectual disabilities are all developmental disabilities, yet not all developmental disabilities are intellectual. Intellectual disabilities begin early in life (before 18) and are characterized by significant limitations in reasoning, learning, problem solving and adaptive behaviors. Intellectual disabilities impact an individual’s everyday social and practical skills (AAIDD, 2019). 
  • Learning disabilities come from significant limitations in a person’s ability to learn to read, write or do math (LDAAmerica, 2019).
  • Mental health conditions involve a change in a person’s emotions, thinking, and/or behaviors. Mental health conditions are characterized by distress and/or problems in social, work or family settings (Psychiatry.org, 2019).

To summarize these terms: Cognitive disability is an umbrella term for all intellectual disabilities as well as other conditions that affect a person’s cognition. All intellectual disabilities are also developmental disabilities, though developmental disabilities can also include physical disabilities that do not fall into the cognitive or intellectual disability categories. Learning disabilities are specific to imperfections in learning to read, write or do math. Mental health conditions involve a change in emotion, thinking or behavior.

Wow, so many terms in so little time! We know we didn’t get to every possible need for addressing language in sex education, but we hope this is a strart. The tips and adjustments offered in this blog can truly make a huge difference to the individuals in your classes. Time and time again, we’ve had our own participants come up to us after a program just to let us know how our use of informed and up-to-date language was what made them feel included in sex education. As said before, we are excited to continue to update our own language as we learn more and share those updates with you all!