A new year is often met with an examination of the year before and the goals, hopes, and wishes for the year to come. So, this year we want to help sex educators and youth-serving adults to identify what they learned or internalized from their own sex education and how it may be influencing what they teach or pass on to the youth around them. Let’s start 2021 off fresh with the aim to provide the best sex education we can. And this means unpacking some of our own stuff to be able to do it.

If you’ve attended one of our Sexual Health Educator Program Trainings then you are probably familiar with some of these brainstorms. However, checking in with your values is a useful exercise time and time again. But before we get to values, think to yourself:

  • What was my sex education like?
  • What were the things that worked?
  • What got left out? What didn’t work?
  • Did you feel prepared as you navigated through different personal situations?
  • Did your sex ed serve you beyond adolescence?
  • Was your sex education medically accurate?
  • Inclusive?
  • Free of shame or stigma?
  • Where did you get the sexual health information that you still use?

These questions are a great place to start because they help us take a critical lens to what influenced us and what messages we received or didn’t receive.They help us identify potential areas where we may need improvement or support. Don’t get us wrong though, having had bad sex education (or good sex education) isn’t what makes or breaks an educator. Sexuality is a lifelong experience and so is learning about sex education. Things that were thought of as standard or even comprehensive thirty, twenty or even ten years ago may not hold the test of time or be relevant with our greater understanding of identities, practices or sexual health. And so, as educators we have to remember that it’s okay to ask for continued support and to keep growing. When we examine our values, biases, or areas where we lack understanding we then can offer our participants better services.

So let’s talk about values. Everyone has values, they make up our understanding of the world around us. Values can come from how we were raised, where we live, who we surround ourselves with, our faith, our education, the entertainment we consume and so many other places. Our values can match those around us or be completely different or in opposition of our community. In part values make us who we are.

Values show up in sex education, it’s not an inherently values neutral subject matter. Comprehensive sex education has its own set of values. Values we follow here at the Responsible Sex Education Institute. Comp Sex Ed Values are:

  • Sexuality is a normal and healthy part of life.
  • Open and honest communication is crucial to effective education.
  • The right of young people to make their own decisions about sex and sexual health should be valued, supported and respected.
  • Young people deserve to learn in a safe and inclusive environment.

We should be cautious about including values outside of comprehensive sex education. These include values that can be thought of as more “conservative” or values that are more “liberal”. As youth serving adults we must always ask ourselves “Should this be about me?” before sharing any personal values. Too quickly in sex education does the sharing of personal values work to influence our students – and not always in the ways we might have intended. Sharing the birth control method that you choose to use may make participants think that it is an ideal method or is more effective than other methods, when we know that everybody is different and it’s important to find the birth control method(s) that fit an individual’s unique needs. Similarly, telling students if or when you decided to become sexually active can act as gatekeeping. It may imply that there is a “right” or “wrong” time to start being sexually active. While these may feel like extreme examples, they happen.

Let’s look at some more passive examples though. How do you talk about pregnancy? Are you focusing on pain and avoidance? This may be subconsciously as a way to deter students from getting or causing a pregnancy in adolescence, or it may be a reflection of a person’s experience. This might sound like, “My pregnancy and birth was…” or “My partner’s pregnancy and birth was…” but again let’s ask ourselves how does this serve our students? Will this support their sexual health throughout their lifetime? Instead, we can talk about pregnancy and childbirth in terms of options and sensations. “Some sensations may be strong”, “It’s important a person knows their options”, “Having support can really help”.

What about STI prevention? We will start by saying if you are showing images of potential STI symptoms please stop. This is an out of date scare tactic that is inaccurate and harmful. Remember most STIs have no symptoms at all and the only way a person knows if they have any is by getting tested regularly. So, how do you talk about STIs? Is it solely a thing to be avoided? Or do you talk about how common they are and how ALL STIs can be treated or cured, especially if caught early on? Subtle shifts in our language can make a big difference. Most people will experience having an STI at some point in their life. What if we talked about it from a normalizing perspective? Educators can highlight the  things a person can do or be proactive about, instead of what to avoid or hope doesn’t happen. Sometimes in doing this though we see educators try to normalize the commonality or STIs by referencing a personal experience or the experience of a friend, “My friend in college had Chlamydia…” However, once again, we must ask ourselves what this is doing. By referencing personal experiences it *may* normalize STIs but it also gets students thinking about you and sex together, they stop being in the material for themselves and all of a sudden see you or your experiences in the material. We can instead normalize STIs, without bringing our personal experiences into the class by saying “STIs are really common, most people will have some experience with STIs so let’s talk about what a person can do to keep healthy”.

Checking in with our values and how the different things we say may be affecting our participants is really important. This helps us stay relevant and useful to our students and protect ourselves from doing harm. Our values may change over time and that’s okay. Similarly, the ways we teach may change over time which can arguably be a good thing as we follow new guidelines and learn more up to date research. Sexual health is a growing and expanding field becoming more and more inclusive each day. As youth-serving adults and sex educators, we have to keep pushing ourselves to move forward with the field.
We also want to note that values exercises and finding up-to-date information can be challenging so as a reminder we are always here for you at the Responsible Sex Education Institute. Want support diving into this work? Contact us a professional.development@pprm.org for training opportunities or office hours. Have questions? Text SEXED to 57890 and one of our educators will get back to you within 24 hours.