MORE THAN SEX-ED is an educational outreach initiative of Community Partners. Our goal is to work with groups in our community who already serve youth, in order to create and implement sexuality education programs based on guidelines set by the Sexuality Information Education Council of the United States.
Mister Rogers was such a powerful force for good in the world. I watched the recent documentary about him, and was so struck by his profound ability to listen.
His resonant message is that when our culture becomes increasingly shallow and complicated, we need to find the deep and simple.
Which made me reflect on our mission at More Than Sex-Ed. We facilitate conversations with teens, tweens, parents and educators about healthy sexuality. That’s it.
And while there are a variety of ways we do this (in schools, agencies, open enrollment, parent education, teacher in-services, direct youth services) that can make scheduling and planning and funding complex, our mission is simple. Our mission is about deep listening. And providing the information that people need in order to make good decisions for themselves.
We’ve been looking at potential grant funding, and I am noticing so many of these funding opportunities are looking for organizations with wide impact. As in, “How will your non-profit impact 100,000 people in the next year?” Sigh. So we crunched numbers, and the truth is More Than Sex-Ed is committed to giving kids deep programming, and we won’t change our mission in order to widen our impact. We are going to stay deep.
Deep and Simple.
We’ve got the deep part, but how do we keep it simple? After all at MTSE we have 36 hours of content at both the middle and high school levels! We have diagrams of dozens of intersecting topics involving human sexuality! Sexual identity involves at least 7 aspects of biology, gender and orientation! How is it simple when we have soooo much to talk about?
I think it’s the listening part that brings the “simple.” “Simple” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy”. Our focus on supporting our professional facilitators is our investment in making it look simple. Professionals who are great at reading the subtext that kids bring with their questions, understand kids at the developmental level, and can guide kids in the work of expressing their own values regarding their own sexuality.
I think for MTSE our words are “Deep and Fundamental” in contrast with “shallow and extraneous”. Because really the life skills we teach are fundamental for every kind of human relationship. At the core it’s about valuing consent and honest communication. Respecting boundaries, respecting differences. Taking care of our mental, emotional, and physical health. Caring for others.
It’s tricky, because human culture has layered all manner of extraneous baggage into the subject of sexuality. Things like, “pink is for girls…” and “buy this and you will be sexy and desirable”, and “these body parts are naughty.” So much of our work at MTSE is about shaking loose what is fundamental from out of the jumble negative and harmful sexual messages kids are bombarded with every day.
Yep. We are keeping it deep and fundamental. It’s important.
The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) had just recently reworked their sex education to be more inclusive. The new program will be taught in fourth, fifth and sixth grade at select schools. If this pilot program has not reach your school yet, More Than Sex Ed can help!
Pioneered by the Unitarian Universal Association and United Church of Christ, the Our Whole Lives (OWL) is a human sexuality program. The curriculum can be divided into six different age oriented programs ranging from Kindergarten to Adults. A variation of the OWL program known as OWL-Out has been adapted by various communities to teach human sexuality.
Communities from Washington and Kansas have utilized OWL as the guide for sex education. In Washington, the Pine Lodge Correctional Center for Women have provided a voluntary class for inmates based on the OWL curriculum. Cynthia Fine, who led the month long workshop, noted that the education fostered "a rich discussion" that reinforced "self-determination and respect for their sexual selves."
In Kansas, OWL-out was an integral part of the sex education taught at Bishop Seabury Academy. Dean of Students, Judith Galas, explained that "students liked and felt comfortable with the class" but parents were concerned. With parental input, the course was eventually re-imagined into "a senior-year ethics class" which became "a senior-year staple" for the school.
More than Sex-Ed also uses the OWL curriculum to provide a customized comprehensive sex education. Our trained staff has worked with students from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds. Jill Herbertson, co-founder of More than Sex-ed, explains that "In this program, we will present facts, and we will support your family in working through your values." It is important to remember that the OWL and OWL-out instructors seek to "bring progressive, comprehensive, affirming sexuality education" for the participants.
Special shout out to Heather Doyle of UUWorld.org for reiterating the importance of how versatile the OWL program can be throughout the country. She recently interviewed, MTSE co-founder Jill Herbertson, on our OWL oriented services. Check out their page by clicking the title of this blog post!
If you would like to know how More than Sex-Ed incorporates the OWL program in our workshops please visit our website at morethansex-ed.org or sign up for our newsletter to receive more information on our curriculum!
We got this absolutely priceless question from a young boy in a class not long ago; the lesson was on the changes of puberty, and in a room full of uncomfortable looking 10 and 11 year-olds, he raised his hand, looking confused. “So if having a period is where the body just, like . . . flushes that stuff out . . . does that mean, like, is . . . menstruation . . . like having...diarrhea?”
I would like to congratulate my co-teacher, Yvonne, and myself, that neither of us laughed. He was so deep in thought, so genuinely curious, and so earnest in wanting to understand other people’s experiences; naturally, he would compare it to something he was already familiar with. I love everything about the way this kid processed what he was learning about human bodies. I told him it was a great question, and explained:
“The differences between menstruation and diarrhea are that when you need to go to the bathroom, your body gives you a warning, and then hopefully you have time to find a bathroom so you can go. But with menstruation, it’s a much smaller amount of blood and tissue and nutrients, and it just flows out of the body—it’s not something anyone can control or 'hold' until they get to a bathroom. It can be caught by pads, tampons, silicone cups, or special underwear, and people who menstruate have to learn to carry those supplies with them when they might be close to starting their period.
“The other big difference between menstruation and diarrhea is that menstruation is totally normal and healthy; the vast majority of bio-sex- females have periods, somewhat regularly, for a large portion of their adult life, and it happens on a cycle. Diarrhea is a sign that something is wrong or unhealthy in your body, like maybe you ate something you shouldn’t have, and your body is trying to get it out. Does that make sense?”
He nodded and smiled, every teacher’s favorite million-dollar- smile: the look of a child who is proud of themselves that they have learned and understand something worthwhile. I smiled back. And I thought, for a minute, about all the adult men in the world with a weaker understanding of menstruation than this 5th grader now has.
Thank you for your support; you make the educational work we do possible!
A central part of More Than Sex-Ed’s mission is to support parents in providing their children with the healthiest possible messages about sexuality—and we know that even the most caring and open-minded parents can struggle with this. The good news is, no single “talk” will make or break your teen’s self-confidence or decision-making skills; the best thing you can do is cultivate open, honest, ongoing dialogue about everything. Sex talk, when your child is ready, will grow out of that. Here are some tips we hope may be useful:
1. Not saying anything says a lot.
Children can recognize when a topic is taboo; deflecting may save you from some discomfort in the moment, but when a young person internalizes that certain body parts, feelings, or behaviors should not be talked about, it leaves them more susceptible to abuse. A simple explanation, or the assurance that a particular topic is very normal, but private, is much more satisfying to their curiosity and lays the framework for later talks.
2. Listen. Really. As much as possible.
No really, stop talking. Shhhh. Okay—you can ask questions; then wait. Showing a child that their thoughts, feelings, opinions, and ideas matter to you helps them learn that this is part of a loving, respectful relationship and that they deserve to be treated like they matter. Ask what they think about commercials on TV; ask what their friends have to say about various topics. This builds trust and sends the message that they can tell you anything without fear of judgment. So . . .
3. Withhold judgment.
Even when you know there’s a clear right answer, asking questions to help guide your child through their own decision-making process helps them hone their internal moral compass and shows that you believe in their ability to think things through. We all know how frustrating it feels to receive advice when what we really want is empathy; try holding back that advice and see if they can work it out on their own.
Adolescence are some of the hardest years of many people’s lives. Adults are really good at forgetting how horrifically painful it can be inside a teenager’s brain, exploding with new neural connections and saturated in unbalanced hormones. And most parents today didn’t have to go through those years with the added intensity of social media feeds, maintaining a curated persona around the clock and watching their social standing rise and fall with quantifiable metrics in real time. It’s brutal. Have compassion. Even—especially—when your kid is completely off the rails.
5. Be cautious of reassurance-praise.
This seems counter-intuitive, but stick with me. Self-doubts and insecurities are a natural part of the emotional rollercoaster that is the journey of identity-formation. When someone we love expresses a negative view of themselves, it’s normal to want to reassure them with praise: “no, you’re beautiful!” or “that’s not true, you’re brilliant.”
But if my arm is in pain, and I go to the doctor and she tells me, “But your arm is awesome! It’s the strongest arm I’ve ever seen!” I no longer believe that this doctor is taking my pain seriously. I’m less likely to trust her with other questions, doubts, or concerns. Instead, try replying with something like, “what makes you think that?” or “it sounds like this is hurting a lot right now. I’m sorry.” And yes, of course tell your children that you think they’re brilliant, wonderful, amazing. (Be careful with “beautiful”—see below.) Just don’t let a compliment shut down a bigger conversation.
6. Everything is role-modelling, and they’re always watching.
Your relationships—whether with a partner, co-parent, or other family and friends—are their model for relationships. Your attitudes about your body and appearance are their model for body image. Show them you value health and strength, rather than being “skinny” or “pretty”. Call attention to the times when caring, trusting, and respect play a role in any of your adult relationships. And when you screw up, and realize you’ve been a terrible role model, forgive yourself. No one talk is going to make or break your child’s future.
7. Check your assumptions about your child’s sexuality.
Humans come in a broad and beautiful rainbow of sexual orientations and gender identities; not everyone’s child is straight and cisgender, and yours may not be either. Fortunately, there are lots of great resources out there to help people educate themselves about the range of completely healthy and normal human sexual diversity. There’s no shame in not knowing something you never learned—most adults today grew up being taught that there is only a pink box or a blue box, and even with more accurate information, cultural messaging runs deep and can be difficult, even painful, to question.
The most important thing every child needs from the adults who love them is unconditional acceptance, whether or not they are the person you thought they were. You can help break down these restrictive pink-and-blue boxes by avoiding grouping their friends by gender, by questioning gender-role messages in media, and by keeping conversations about crushes and dating open-ended—just to name a few. There are hundreds of small language shifts we can make in everyday conversation, that taken together could add up to life-saving support for a youth who is struggling.
Every child deserves to feel loved, accepted, and respected for who they are. More Than Sex-Ed is honored to help support parents in important conversations, providing tools, information, and resources to cultivate healthy attitudes and send the messages you want your youth to hear. We salute your hard work, and we’re grateful to play a part in it—thanks for reading!
No matter the gender of the kids you may or may not have, the advice is spot on. Here's a couple of important points:
"Lydia M. Bowers emphasized the importance of building the framework around consent practically from birth, not just to protect children but also to help them develop healthy mindsets and behaviors. 'The messages we send, intentionally or not, to young children now are carried with them into adulthood,'”
Walking The Walk
"For sex education teacher Kim Cavill, educating your children can also involve educating the adults around you. 'Kids watch how we interact with the world on a daily basis, and one of the most powerful things we can do is to be the person you want your child to eventually become,' said Cavill. “There are moments when I’ve made other adults uncomfortable, not in a way that’s vengeful, but simply because I confront things that I don’t believe are right, regardless of someone else’s discomfort.'
Cavill said she doesn’t let problematic comments fly by, whether she knows the person who said them or not. She says she responds with statements like 'I respectfully disagree with what you just said. And here’s why.' And she makes sure her children see her do this.
'If my children never saw me do that and then I decided to have a conversation with them when they’re 16 about how to counteract harassment that they’re witnessing in their own peer group, that conversation wouldn’t go nearly as well if I hadn’t built a foundation for seeing what that looks like in real life.'"
As a teacher, I believe very deeply that teachers make a difference far more often than they get to see it. Which is why those moments in the classroom when you see the difference, right in front of you, are treasures to be cherished; they’re what carry us through the rest of the work. I had one of those moments in a More Than Sex-Ed class recently, talking to a group of middle-schoolers about consent, when the light went on in a student’s eyes.
Our consent lesson plan emphasizes that every act and every kind of touching requires permission, that an “enthusiastic yes”—as opposed to simply the absence of a no—is the requisite, and that communication enhances, rather than diminishes, excitement.
One boy in the circle had a deeply thoughtful expression on his face. I’m going to break my own rule about avoiding assumptions, and guess that he had probably never tried to imagine in such detail what a conversation about having sex might sound like. Eyebrows knit together, he raised his hand.
“So . . . if you ask somebody if they want to have sex, and they say no . . . can you still say, like, ‘ok, do you want to cuddle?’ Like, is that okay?”
I wish I had a button that would make balloons and confetti drop from the ceiling. Yes, bright-eyed young student, that is literally the perfect thing to say.
My co-teacher and I affirmed the heck out of his suggestion, and repeated the point from a previous lesson about the many kinds of intimate, fulfilling, feel-good touch that do not carry any risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. The boy who had asked the question beamed. He was clearly pleased with the answer; his concern for his imaginary partner’s comfort was evident, and his peers all got to see that—and since peer pressure often has more impact on adolescents* than anything an adult says, I’m pretty optimistic that the message stuck for all of them.
I made the point that it’s only ok to offer cuddling if you really mean cuddling; offering cuddles and then attempting to pressure someone into sex again is dishonest and manipulative. And that someone might not want to cuddle either and that should be ok too. But when it’s consensual: just cuddling for its own sake, with no agenda, while respecting someone else’s boundaries, can be absolutely wonderful. The group of young teens seemed sold.
It may be years before that boy needs to talk with someone about whether or not they want to have sex, but when the time comes, I think he’ll be ready to do it right. I’m pretty confident that he, and hundreds of other students who have come through our program, have the communication skills to talk about sex when millions of people don’t. I bet that future young adults, who I will never meet, will have healthier and more fulfilling relationships because their friends and/or romantic partners were in this class. To those people, I say . . . you’re welcome.
*Seriously, this is where the magic happens. This is why our program model is facilitated discussion, instead of lecture—teens learn most from each other, for better or for worse. More Than Sex-Ed wants to make it better.
In our Open Enrollment Workshops we offer: 8 hours at 4-5th grade, 12 hours at 5-6th grade, 36 hours at 7-9th grade, and 36 hours at 10-12th grade. That’s 92 hours of content spanning 4-12th grade, because sexuality is complicated!
Let’s consider just how much of our life experience involves sexuality. What else consumes our thoughts the way that longing for intimacy and sexual fulfillment does? How preoccupied as adolescents are we with our sexual identity and worries about whether we are normal? How much of middle and high school is spent navigating the turbulence of attraction and relationships? And that’s only the segue into what we hope is lifelong healthy sexuality!
Most often when we think about Sex-Ed classes, we think about topics that fall into the category of SEXUAL HEALTH AND REPRODUCTION.
These are topics at the intersection of sexuality and biology. These are super important topics involving physical health, and data from the medical world. But understanding sexuality doesn’t stop there.
There are four other general categories to learn about.
We all have bodies. We all experience our sexuality through the physical sensations of our bodies. SENSUALITY. Part of the joy of having a body is the sensual and sexual pleasure we can experience, and all people deserve to feel good about their bodies. Topics here include
· Masturbation, Body Image, Sexual Response, and Fantasy
INTIMACY is at the intersection of relationships and sexuality. Humans are social creatures and so much of our sexuality is experienced in connection with others. Topics here include
SEXUALIZATION is the place where sexuality and power dynamics intersect. It is really important to take a serious look at the way that imbalances of power create environments where sexual abuse can occur.
· Rape, Sex Trafficking, Sexual Assault, and Harassment
These are all horrific consequences of an abuse of power, and only by empowering the disenfranchised can we stop the harm caused by these crimes.
SEXUAL IDENTITY. The intersection of sexuality and identity includes a complex spectrum of topics. For ages conventional thinking has only included two options for sexual identity. A pink box or a blue one. But we now recognize this binary divide is a social construct, not grounded in evidence, and throughout history it has harmed the people that could not be crammed into just one of those boxes.
Let’s take a closer look at just one topic, Biological Sex, which intersects at biology, identity AND sexuality. Conventional thinking has falsely assumed that a person’s biological sex is obvious at birth (either male or female) and from there gender correlates with bio sex (male>man or female>woman) and that what follows is a heterosexual pattern of attraction. (male>man>attracted to women or female>woman>attracted to men) This is just not a true picture of sexual identity. There have always been people who don’t fit this model. (information on Female, Intersex, and Male here)
We could talk for an entire semester about Biological Sex!
When you consider the entire span of intersecting topics involving sexuality, you can understand why so many kids respond, “I wish this class was longer” at the end of our workshops!
Bay area Health-Connected.org is a Northern Californian health and education organization that has been doing fantastic work for 20 years. They have just rolled out a bunch of new resources on their website for parents that we know you are gonna love!
In 2015, South Korea released a new sex education guidelines for the public school system. In the updated teacher's manual, "women not paying for their meals on dates" was listed as a catalyst for date rape. The shocking claim blames the victim and perpetuates gender inequality.
It is important to note that that South Korea ranks low on gender equality according to the World Economic Forum. This low ranking might also be a symptom of how sex education is taught in public schools. Besides blaming victims of date rape, the 2015 teachers manual suggests to "step on his foot" as a way to deal with sexual harassment. These statements in the manual makes it clear that public school sex education guidelines are not educating students on how to prevent sexual violence. Instead, these guidelines are geared towards "reinforced gender stereotypes and discrimination and seemed to justify sexual violence."
When NPR reached out to the Education Ministry in South Korea, the request for the teacher's manual was denied. An officer of the Ministry, Min Hye-young noted that "the ministry's good intentions have been misunderstood." It has been two years since the release of the sex education guidelines and nothing has changed since.
Sex education that does not help prevent sexual assault and harassment needs reform. The South Korean sex education guidelines are harmful for public school students because it minimizes and normalizes date rape. More Than Sex-Ed is an organization that is committed to preventing sexual assault and harassment through education. Check out our website for more details at More Than Sex-Ed!
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