Sex ed starts here. Bay Area-based comprehensive sexual health education programs for youth, parents, and education professionals. Our mission is to help young people feel confident and supported to make informed decisions about their own sexual health.
Adults are standing in two groups, each one at opposite sides of the room. Some stand confidently, with their “game face” on. Some shift from foot to foot, trying to avoid eye contact with myself and with one another, clearly uncomfortable with the exercise.
I’m facilitating an activity requiring parents to respond to a series of ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ statements according to their own opinions on certain aspects of sexual health education. ‘Maybe’ or ‘sitting on the fence’ are not options in this game. It’s an intentionally polarizing activity designed to help parents and guardians clarify their own values around sexuality, so they in turn can discuss those values in an intentional way with their children - in this case, 5th and 6th graders.
Occasionally, as a parent myself, I feel unkind forcing other parents, after a hard day at work, to engage in something so uncomfortable and judgment-prone. I even shelved the activity for a while. But the educator in me missed the collaborative learning that always resulted, so it’s back. As the activity progresses, the statements incrementally become more challenging. We only ever have time for three “Agree or Disagree” statements, which is frustrating given how enthusiastic everyone is by number two. But, the cost of discomfort is frequently compensated by the benefits of the collective wisdom yielded.
The final statement I read is, “Age appropriate education about pornography should be included in elementary sexual health education”. The notion of ‘age appropriate’ is subjective; of this, I am well aware. Almost unanimously, parents I work with say they want our programs to include content on thinking critically about pornography. However, when it comes to determining at what age these conversations should start, parents are often divided.
The absence of ‘maybe’ forces pe
ople to make a choice. I watch as a group of adults wrestles internally with questions like, “what makes content age appropriate anyway?” and “how young is too young?” until each lands on the side that they suppose is ‘right.’ As I call on raised hands, eager to share why they agree or disagree, all answers are valid and thoughtful. All are rooted in a vested concern for the children in their care, and for society as a whole. Some parents cross the room, switching from the agree side to the disagree side, or vice versa, swayed by the rationale of others. It’s a playful acknowledgment that it’s not an easy choice. One thing is always consistent - parents are never all on the ‘agree’ side.Opinions are always mixed. If there were a ‘maybe’, perhaps they would all be in the middle.
Health Connected’s programs, whether youth or parent-focused, are never static. We stay accurate and relevant by listening very carefully to our advisors – parents and youth themselves. Governments and medical experts may inform our curricula, but the individuals who participate and engage in our programs are the ones who help us to stay impactful, pertinent, and helpful. When parents engage in discussions and activities, like the one described above, they provide valuable insights into what is on their mind. Pornography is on their minds. And not in a good way!
Parents are fearful about easy availability and access, and feel powerless to prevent the intrusion. They are worried about pornography’s impact on their child’s relationships. They are petrified of the addictive nature of porn, and the physiological implications. They have concerns about the relationship between mental illness and pornography. Parent
s hope their child hasn’t viewed pornography yet, but most acknowledge the reality is that they have. Yet, and this is the interesting thing, when I ask who in the group has had an intentional conversation with their child about porn, only a fraction of the group responds.
So, in the interest of proactively engaging in an unpopular dinner table
topic, over the next several weeks we are going to be exploring the issue of pornography – as part of a blog series - and how your family can intentionally respond, rather than react, to it. Because the truth is, today by age 18, roughly 90 percent of teen boys and 60 percent of teen girls have been exposed to pornography and it’s having an impact. An unpopular topic? Maybe. A necessary one? Absolutely!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our 3-part blog series when parent-child communication expert, Vanessa Kellam, tackles the question “How young is too young to start discussing explicit images with my child?”
Sign up for ournewsletterfor the latest in news, research, and everything adolescent sexual health! Visit lets-talk.howfor even more tips on talking with your child.
Every day, we see headline after headline about sexual harassment and assault – in our communities, in Hollywood, and in Washington, D.C. In fact, whether at work, at school, in a bar, or on the street, more than half of women in the United States say they have experienced unwanted sexual advances, according to a research pollconducted for ABC by Langer Research Associates. Further, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
In the face of these truths, it is hard to not to ask ourselves, “What can I do to stop this for my children?” “Is this problem too big to be overcome?” or even, “What role have I played in perpetuating this oppression?” These are important questions, particularly since many remain unaware of the scale at which these crimes occur or the emotional, physical, and psychological implications they have on people of all genders.
For years, I too, have been deeply disturbed by our country’s inability to overcome its ongoing battle with sexual objectification, inequalities, and violence. But, in the last few months, I have felt a shift – I have seen important steps taken toward combatting these deeply systemic problems. Inspired by silence-breakers like Anita Hill and Tarana Burke, the #MeToo campaign has recently shined a new light on and brought long overdue attention to these pervasive issues, igniting a fire within people to take action now.
This renewed national dialogue is vital in creating social change - creating space for survivors to tell their stories, holding perpetrators accountable, and even contributing to workplace policy changes. But the truth is, these conversations only scratch the surface. Issues of sexual violence are stubbornly persistent, deeply embedded in our social fabric and tightly held in centuries-old beliefs. Transforming a culture takes generations.
This is illustrated in a recent New York Times article,
k Women at Ford”, that highlights the struggles women at two of the auto giant’s Chicago-based plants say they’ve faced for decades in stamping out sexual harassment – despite court-mandated policy changes and shifts in leadership in an attempt to increase workplace safety.
The Times writes,
“They groped women, pressed against them, simulated sex acts or masturbated in front of them. Supervisors traded better assignments for sex and punished those who refused.
That was a quarter-century ago. Today, women at those plants say they have been subjected to many of the same abuses.”
And while we may be collectively disturbed by the recent onslaught of sexual misconduct allegations in our newsfeeds, we’ve failed to get ahead of it.
“Pervasive sexual harassment and misogyny are certainly not new, but we seem to be making frighteningly little progress in preventing it,” Professor Weissbourd, the faculty director of Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project, remarked in an interview with the Institute of Family Studies in October 2017.
One thing that I think all girls go through at some age is the realization that their body, seemingly, is not entirely for themselves anymore...the unfortunate thing is that we all just sort of accept it as a fact of life.
What’s more, is that many youth don’t recognize gender oppression when they see it or find it problematic. For example, Weissbourd’s team found:
82% of males and 76% of females either agreed or were neutral that, “Women are turned on/find it sexy when men get a little rough with them.”48% either agreed or were neutral that “society has reached a point that there is no more double standard against women.”39% either agreed or were neutral that it’s “rare to see a woman treated in an inappropriately sexualized manner on television.”
There is no silver bullet to end this epidemic. Of course, we should continue to strengthen policies that make workplaces safe for all genders, believe survivors when they come
forward, train our first responders in trauma-informed care for assault survivors, and have zero tolerance policies for degrading language in schools and workplaces. But that’s still not enough.
The fact is, unless we are willing to address the power, privilege and toxic masculinities that underpin our country’s institutionalized sexual assault, violence, harassment, and misogyny, our kids will be having these same conversations in another quarter-century.
This means we, as adults, have to get real with youth. It means having con
versations about what consent actually means in practice, including the importance
of ongoing commun
ication between partners when it comes to all things sexual. It means modeling healthy relationships so our kids have something positive to emulate. It means using inclusive, respectful language toward all genders. It means breaking down not only the definitions of sexual assault and harassment, but also identifying what to do if they ever occur. It means discussing the smallest and earliest warning signs of relationship abuse. It means calling out misogyny immediately. And, for adults, it means getting educated. And that takes work.
It is our responsibility to pro-actively engag
e our youth in meaningful conversations at school and at home about how to build relationships rooted in empathy, respect, and caring. Through making a deep investment in young people’s education and programs, like Health Connected’s, we can stop abuse before it starts, instead of looking back and wondering “how did this happen?”
We have the unique opportunity to prevent systemic issues like sexual assault and harassment, misogyny, bullyin
g, and homophobia/transphobia from continuing by normalizing a kinder, more ethical alternative. While there is no one solution to ending sexual violence, comprehensive sex education is catapulting us in the right direction.
If ending sexual violence is the priority we claim it to be, through education, we can realize a society in which far fewer people must ever utter the words “me too.”
For more information on supporting and talking to your child, check out the links below.
In recent years social-emotional learning (SEL) has taken center stage, prompting a shift in the way school districts teach students about emotion regulation, relationships, and conflict resolution, alongside traditional subjects like language arts and science. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a pioneer in the field of social-emotional learning instruction, SEL has the potential to increase “students’ capacity to integrate skills, attitudes, and behaviors to deal effectively and ethically with daily tasks and challenges." Teachers have long known that building SEL skills is integral for students’ learning outcomes, but today, how exactly are districts working to ensure all students gain these “soft” skills? Many are looking, in part, to comprehensive sexual health education (CSE) programs, like Health Connected’s.
Yep, you heard that right! Comprehensive sexual health education, when implemented in alignment with National Sexuality Education Standards, promotes SEL in youth and encompasses a range of topics that extends far beyond the 60-minute black and white film reel about menstruation you may remember from 5th grade.
In fact, CSE, like that required under the California Healthy Youth Act (CA Education Code sections 51930-51939), helps adolescents build capacity around communication skills (including condom negotiation skills), healthy relationships, and identifying and reporting harassment and assault. Moreover, studies show that when youth have guidance from trusted adults about relationships and sexuality, rates of misogyny are reduced, and harmful norms around gender and power are subverted.
However, nationwide, many young people say they’re lacking support in developing valuable social-emotional skills. The Talk, a report from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, found that teens want guidance from trusted adults in their lives about sexuality and relationships but aren’t getting the in-depth information or modeling they need at home or in school.
“Almost all teens know they’re supposed to be self-respecting and respectful in their romantic and sexual lives; what many don’t know is what these kinds of respect actually mean in different romantic and sexual situations.”
The 2017 report goes on to say that when adults have meaningful discussions around relationships and sexuality, it ultimately strengthens youths’ “ability to develop caring, responsible relationships at every stage of their lives and grow into ethical adults, community members, and citizens.”
In the field of public health, health educators and others are constantly working to address incredibly complex issues—from reducing the rate of STI transmission to lowering unplanned pregnancy rates to helping to break cycles of poverty, violence, and marginalization. These issues cut across all demographics—whether acknowledged or not—regardless of race, gender, orientation or socioeconomics. But too often—because of lack of funds, preparedness, or personnel capacity—our local, state and national governments take reactive approaches to tackling these challenges. The truth is, these are not root problems, only symptoms of larger unresolved systemic issues like lack of education, resources, familial stability, job security, food security, and mental health care services. The good news is preventive approaches like SEL practices, of which CSE is an integral part, offer an opportunity to mitigate these public health outcomes that have the potential to derail a young person’s ability to thrive.
When we provide an opportunity for learning that comprehensively addresses sex, sexuality, and relationships, youth can practice important skills, hear new perspectives from their peers, and evaluate their culture and own beliefs in ways they often aren’t given space to do otherwise. Through this, young people grow emotionally and socially, and have the skills to develop interpersonal relationships founded on empathy, respect, and care—something we all want for our kids.
And, while every family has their own values around what type of information they’d like to see taught in classrooms and how it should be delivered, young people need to have these conversations whether at home or at school. Parents and trusted adults play a vital role in helping youth understand the world around them—they are eager for guidance.
Learn more about the link between SEL, comprehensive sex education and the role you play in setting youth up for success today and as they mature! Check out the resources below!
Harvard's Graduate School of Education explores adults' impact on the relationships of emerging adults in The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment.
Find out what the Future of Sex Education, a partnership of leading national adolescent health organizations, is saying about the importance of comprehensive sex ed and its amazing SEL outcomes!
Today while 76 % of teens report it would be easier for them to delay sexual activity if they had more open conversations with their parents about sex (1), only 43% of parents say they feel comfortable talking to their kids about sexual health topics (2). That's a gap we want to fill.
When adults are an intentionally open, honest, and knowledgeable source of support for their children about sexuality, we call that being an "askable adult". But we know this doesn't come naturally to everyone--it takes effort!
Check out the tips below from our resident parent-child communication expert, Vanessa Kellam (right), to establish yourself as an askable adult for the youth in your life.
And stayed tuned this fall as we unveil our revamped website, lets-talk.how, just for parents, encouraging family communication around sexuality, relationships and more!
Tip #1: Self-Assess
Before starting a conversation with our child(ren), we must first look inward. All of us have a different relationship to our sexuality, and some of us may have significant baggage. Having an awareness of the emotions surrounding our own sexual development and how they may influence our interactions with our children is a critical first step. Whether our prior experiences have been positive, negative or somewhere in between, before we begin a conversation with our children we must acknowledge where we are and what work we still need to do. The process of identifying and coming to terms with these emotions will be different for each person; this may mean journaling, seeking out a support group, talking with a licensed therapist, or finding a creative outlet. But, ultimately, this is a part of a larger journey toward self-acceptance.
Tip #2: Have Empathy
Sometimes kids can ask questions at the most unexpected and least opportune times (like that time in the middle of Mother's Day brunch?!). When this happens, try to put yourself in their shoes and ask, "why is my child asking this question?", "what have they been experiencing recently?", "Could they be in physical or emotional pain?". Considering their emotional state can provide you insights into their current experience. This empathy can aid parents in addressing questions in a more sensitive and accurate way.
Tip #3: Have An Ongoing Dialogue
While you may feel uncomfortable or inexperienced having these conversations, that's okay! The critical part is to consistently find time to talk with your child, often in small doses. In doing this, their needs are prioritized, and they will take note! Also, when we identify and discuss any discomfort we feel in talking about certain topics, we show our vulnerability, which can bring us even closer with our kids. Ultimately, the goal is to convey that we are an unwavering resource as our kids move through adolescence.
Tip #4: Watch your Nonverbal Cues
What we don't say can be as impactful as what we do say. Notice how you react when your child asks you a question. Does your body tense up? Do you redirect the conversation? Do you laugh it off? These can be signs of your personal discomfort with a specific topic. Once you have identified your reactions, you can change those habits and address your child's questions in a more intentional (and perhaps accurate) way.
Tip #5: Lecture Less & Listen More
Carving out time to listen with intention to your child can be one of the most valuable things we do as parents. Try a 1:3 ratio of parent talking to child talking, so the child drives the conversation and the parent absorbs the information. Try leveraging your everyday routine: chat on your drive home from school, while watching Netflix, or right before bed. This way, you can integrate brief, but consistent conversations that are more comfortable for everyone.
Tip #6: It's Okay to Say "I Don't Know"
No one holds all of the answers! Instead of answering on the fly and risk giving an answer you may later regret, tell your child "I'll get back to you" or "I need to think about that." Then, do your research (see our resources page for parents as a place to start). When you re-engage with your child with a thoughtful, well researched answer you will feel more confident in giving them accurate information and show your child that learning is a life-long practice.
Tip #7: Don't Forget!
Youth value your guidance as a trusted adult in their lives! Here are some simple, but important takeaways:
Talk with your child early and often in an honest yet age appropriate way.Short, consistent check-ins are more effective than one lengthy "talk."Continual communication helps parents and kids stay emotionally connected.Sexual development starts the day children are born; the way we communicate about it can impact the rest of their lives.
Get even moretips for talking with your kids on Health Connected's website.
Sources: 1. National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, National Poll 2013 2. Let's Talk: Are Parents Tackling Crucial Conversations about Sex? National Poll, 2011
"Kids grow up so fast" is how the saying goes--and that rings true with many parents. As kids reach their milestone birthdays--5, 10, 16--and gain more autonomy, many parents wonder "how we can keep our kids 'kids' just a little longer?" And, as the teen years get closer questions like "how much freedom is too much freedom?" and "how much should I limit my child?" can arise. It can be complicated!
As health educators, we strive to keep kids healthy and safe, too. So when we're developing lessons to build decision-making skills, we look to the latest science-based research. And while it may seem counter-intuitive, the data are clear--comprehensive programs rooted in preventive education are most effective in promoting positive health outcomes in youth. And most experts agree that when it comes to educating children about risky behaviors, it's better to start sooner than later-
before children are likely to come face to face with these risks. This means 7 and 8 year olds aren't too young to start learning about the dangers of tobacco and alcohol in age-appropriate ways, and that learning about sexual health and development should be part of elementary school curricula.
The positive outcomes of preventive education have been seen, possibly most widely, in the success of the U.S.’s comprehensive sex ed programs compared to abstinence-only interventions, in reducing unplanned teen pregnancies. In fact, the positive benefits of preventive education-based interventions, as opposed to programs that use scare tactics to keep kids “on the straight and narrow,” extend far past pregnancy prevention efforts. Recent research shows that while the prefrontal cortex--the decision-making centers of teens’ brains--are still in development until their mid 20s, adolescents are actually less inclined to be risk takers when they’re equipped with ample knowledge.
, researchers who compared the decision-making tendencies of teens to other age groups found that teens were far more cautious than many would expect.When adolescents were well-informed about the potential outcomes associated with risky behaviors, they were actually more conservative in their behaviors.
Of the groups studied: college-aged, parent-aged, and grandparent-aged individuals, teens took about as many risks as did the grandparents! But, when teens were unclear about the consequences, that’s when they were more likely to take a chance. And while this study focused on financial risks, researchers say the results are applicable to behaviors like drinking and driving, smoking, and drug use, too.
ways, compared to 1991 data, today’s teens are engaging in less risky behavior overall--they’re less likely to engage in physical fights, carry a gun, smoke cigarettes, try alcohol, binge drink or have sex. That said, other behaviors like texting while driving are on the rise.
But, when it comes to some risky behaviors, Lynn Ponton, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a recent NPR interview,“It's a tool to define, develop and consolidate their identity. Healthy risk-taking is a big part of growth.”
And even though it may seem counter-intuitive, it’s important to allow kids to take healthy risks--and even fail. So what are healthy risks? Playing sports, acting in a school play, running for student government, taking up a new hobby, or meeting a new friend. Unhealthy risks could include drunk driving, unsafe sexual activity, and/or drinking and smoking to excess. Allowing young people to explore healthy risks could satisfy a teens’ need to push boundaries, while preventing them from taking part in unsafe behaviors.
So what does all this mean? When it comes to helping young people make positive decisions there’s no silver bullet. But when adults model positive behaviors at home, help youth identify healthy risks to explore, and provide them with preventive education well in advance so teens are equipped with the knowledge they need to make thoughtful decisions should they be faced with potentially unhealthy risk-taking situations, we can make a big difference.
1. Tymula A., et al. (2012). Adolescents’ Risk-Taking Behavior is Driven by Tolerance to Ambiguity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 17135–17140. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1207144109
When I was 25 I knew a woman who struggled to conceive with her husband of several years. She was young and healthy, with a vibrant personality and deep desire to start a family. I first met her just weeks after she lost her first child—she was more than 20 weeks into the pregnancy. In the next three years, two more friends would have similar experiences, losing their children late-term or shortly after birth, for reasons unknown or that they kept private.
While stillbirths can result from developmental abnormalities, problems with the umbilical cord or placenta, or maternal diabetes or high blood pressure, in about half of cases the cause cannot be determined. Similarly, miscarriages often remain unexplained, commonly occurring in the first trimester and frequently even before the mother realizes they’re pregnant.
In many ways, our culture has all but chosen to deny their existence. We simply turn a blind eye, lumping these outcomes together with teen sex, postpartum depression, female masturbation, birthing the placenta, and death, placing them neatly into the “uncomfortable” box and throwing away the key. And even when someone wants to begin a dialogue, they often don’t know where to turn.
“My First Son, a Pure Memory”, a 2008 essay from the New York Times’ Modern Love series, eloquently chronicles David Hlavsa’s painful journey as a father coping with the death, and subsequent stillbirth, of his first child with his wife. Long before publishing this piece in the Times, and only weeks after his son’s heart stopped beating, Hlavsa returned to the small college at which he worked, struggling to find a way to share the news with his colleagues.
“When a parent dies or a partner — when we lose someone who has lived in the world — there are customs, worn paths to follow, ways to talk about it. But I didn’t see any path with this. Was I supposed to keep quiet and pretend nothing had happened? I couldn’t accept that.”
Hlavsa crafted a brief email simply stating the truths of the situation, and hit “send”, unprepared for the response that would follow.
“For weeks after, people I barely knew would come into my office, gently shut the door and burst into tears. I heard stories of single and serial miscarriages, pregnancies carried nearly to full term, stillbirths — all the lost, lost children. Grief hauled about, and nowhere to put it down. Some said they had never told anyone; who would understand?” he recalls.
Hlavsa’s story echoes the experiences of thousands navigating the sadness of losing a child. There seems to be no collective social template for coming to grips with this type of loss, and “nowhere to put” the emotion. Whether stillbirth, abortion, miscarriage or adoption, so many confine the truths of each impactful experience to the recesses of their memories, while others share with only their closest confidants.
“No one tells you how to deal with that grief. They don't tell you how to react when you find yourself sitting on floral chairs in a dimly lit room in an avuncular funeral director's office discussing why even though he is waiving his fee, it will cost almost $1,000 for New York State to cremate your baby. Or what to do when letters start arriving from well-meaning social service groups inviting you to talk to grief counsellors about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and it becomes clear they've mixed your dead baby up with another child,” recalls Sarah Hughes, who lost her child after 35 weeks of pregnancy.
An integral part of reproductive justice is truly providing each person the access to quality sexual health information and the opportunity to make autonomous decisions based on that knowledge that best suit their life. One decision doesn’t fit all, yet all choices and outcomes require respect.
When we create space for open conversation that daylights the challenges, risks, and anxieties that could accompany pregnancy—miscarriage, adoption, abortion, safe surrender, ectopic pregnancy, and stillbirth included (while acknowledging each is uniquely different)—the more we can support those navigating the aftermath of challenging reproductive circumstances and decisions.
Through altering the ways in which we collectively communicate, we not only offer emotional and psychological support that strengthen interpersonal and community connections, but we can also empower individuals to take control of their health without fearing shame and judgement. From normalizing language around adoption processes to defining terms like dilation and curettage, as health educators in particular, we can make strides toward validating the diversity of others’ experiences, helping to realize each person’s right to make autonomous decisions about their body.
The “walk of shame”--we’ve all heard of it, whether it was when your roommate in college sheepishly snuck out of her boyfriend’s apartment headed home on a Saturday morning wearing her clothes from the night before, or when you saw the entrepreneurial University of Michigan  woman who started a taxi service providing early morning pick-ups to students who wanted to avoid the walk completely. Urban Aid even markets a “Shame on You” kit  complete with a toothbrush, thong, condom, and leave-behind note for your partner for “when you just can’t make it home.”
The walk of shame isn’t only a colloquial phrase used between friends on university campuses, it’s something scholars have used for years to illustrate how language reinforces cultural norms of what is and is not acceptable sexually and how those norms are policed, often to the advantage of men and disadvantage of others, particularly women.
Despite huge changes over the last 40 years, U.S. culture continues to link sex, for women, with a committed long-term partnership, if not marriage. And the notion that a woman would willingly have a random and anonymous sexual encounter simply doesn’t fit with these deeply rooted social expectations. And, while sex in a committed relationship is completely acceptable--especially if a couple is trying to have a baby--Americans still have a hard time digesting the idea that women seek out sex “just” for pleasure (although perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising considering how uncomfortable our culture is discussing female masturbation). Ultimately, when we use language like “walk of shame,” what we’re really doing is participating in a form of social policing that serves to punish women who’ve deviated from the set social norms of female sexuality and gone against the grain. You could even call it adult bullying.
This isn’t onl
y potentially deeply hurtful to someone’s self-esteem, especially to teenagers who are still developing an understanding of their sexuality, but it also promotes the ideal that men should be hyper-sexual aggressors on the hunt for a one-night sexual encounter and women should be sexually appealing enough to attract a man yet remain chaste, lest they suffer social scrutiny.
In a world littered with complexities like these, it’s no wonder young people are jumping at the chance to figure out where they fit in. As health educators we see hundreds of questions not related to biology, but to society. “If men have sex they’re a player, if women do, they’re a slut. Why?” and “Why, when a girl is raped, do they always try to say ‘well look at what she is wearing.’?” and “Why are there so many more teen pregnancies in my city than in other communities?” are common questions in our classes. Yet, historically sex-ed has solely focused on anatomy--leaving teens ill-equipped to make fully educated decisions in the world around them.
Health educators, clinicians, and adults need to move beyond science. Without addressing the multiple and intersecting social and biological issues impacting teens, health interventions can’t be as effective as we’d like. You can teach students about birth control options, but if you don’t also address concerns about anonymity at clinics or in getting excused from school, contraception use won’t increase. We can encourage STI testing, but teens will be less likely to go if perceived costs are too high, clinics are inaccessible, or there is a fear of adult judgment. And, a sexual assault survivor may choose not to report this crime if they fear judgment from an unsupportive university community.
Providing students the tools to orient themselves within their community helps them to understand not only what is happening--whether it’s rape, crime, or media portrayals of gender--but to also understand why. When sex-ed includes conversations about power, gender, sexuality, and even religion, ethnicity and socioeconomics, it allows students to see the importance of birth control, consent, and their legal pregnancy options, in a new light.
When educators underscore the importance of social factors, the more practical aspects of sex-ed (read: how to use a condom and common STI symptoms) become more effective, too, and youth benefit on a mental, emotional, and physical level. For some, this may mean waiting to have sex, for others increased confidence in communicating boundaries, while for others greater self-acceptance and self-love.
And, while all students should still know where the uterus and testes are, when parents, clinicians, and educators recognize that social competence goes hand-in-hand with biological knowledge, we can provide our children with a critical understanding of their world, including implications of the “walk of shame,” so they can truly make informed decisions about their mental and physical health.
1. Freed, B. (2014, May 20). University of Michigan graduate’s ‘Walk of Shame Shuttle’ to be featured on new VH1 show. Michigan Live. Retrieved from
Recently we had the chance to talk with our new Chair of the Board of Directors, Marla Becker, to learn more about her 20+ years in public health, and what drives her to promote sex ed in Bay Area schools.
HC: Let’s start at the beginning—tell us about your professional background.
MB: Sure. I first entered the world of public health when I did a college internship with Planned Parenthood. After graduation, I worked on a teen pregnancy prevention program with middle school students through UC San Diego. This was a very challenging time to work in the field because while teen pregnancies were at near record highs, California was promoting abstinence-only sex ed, which our research continually showed to be ineffective. That experience eventually helped fuel my interest in returning to school to pursue a Master of Public Health at UCLA, which I did the following year.
Since then, I’ve continued to focus on adolescent health. I spent three years at the Family Welfare Research Group at UC Berkeley evaluating state-funded teen pregnancy prevention programs, where I also co-authored “Power Through Choices”, a sexuality education curriculum for youth in out-of-home/foster care. It is still used today in organizations throughout the United States.
I eventually transitioned out of that role and became the Associate Director of Youth ALIVE!, a youth violence prevention nonprofit in Oakland. I was there for 13 years where I oversaw staff, programs and evaluations, and developed curricula. Most recently, in 2009, I co-founded the National Network of Hospital-based Violence Prevention Programs that provides intervention services to individuals who have been injured by violence, primarily by gun violence. Today, I continue to promote adolescent health as an independent contractor.
HC: Serving on a board is a non-paid role. Why is it important to you to promote sexual health education?
MB: I became involved with Health Connected when my oldest son attended Ralston Middle School in Belmont. After some members of the community vocalized concerns about implementing the Health Connected curricula in our school, I volunteered to join the district’s task force to review our implementation of sexual health education, largely because of my professional background. My initial impression of the Health Connected curriculum, Teen Talk, was very positive, but after reading through it in its entirety, and comparing it to alternatives, I was even more impressed. More than any other, Health Connected’s series of curricula provided scientifically-based sex education in a manner that was highly interactive and engaging to youth and unique in the manner in which it involved the parents. Ultimately my school district adopted the curriculum and they still use it today. Soon after the task force concluded, I joined the Health Connected board. I’m proud to work with and represent an organization that does such important work and is a leader in the field.
HC: What makes Health Connected unique?
MB: Health Connected is on the cutting edge in terms of recognizing that sexual health education is not something that should be taught to young people once and then never discussed again. They recognize the need for a continuum of developmentally-appropriate sexual health education, beginning at puberty, and continuing at multiple key points throughout their middle and high school years. The issues youth face regarding their sexual health change year-to-year, so it’s crucial they have the opportunity to learn about and discuss these issues when they are most relevant to their lives. Our Health Connected educators are also exceptional in their ability to relate to youth, because they are specialists in the sexual health field and can respond thoughtfully and accurately to the questions that come up in the classroom.
HC: What are the greatest challenges facing youth today in terms of their sexual health?
MB: Our youth are bombarded by sexual images and topics at a much earlier age and with much more frequency than when I was growing up. It used to be that you had to go to a video rental store or buy a magazine to view porn, but now it’s available at the swipe of a screen. And as much as we’d like to, as parents, we can’t block all of these images from our kids. That’s one of the primary reasons I believe so strongly in the need for quality sexual health education—so youth learn about healthy sexual relationships, rather than thinking the images they see online or in porn are the norm.
HC: What are some of your goals in your new role as Chair of the Board?
has exponentially increased the demand for Health Connected’s curricula statewide, since we are one of the only programs that is designed specifically to meet its broad requirements. We now need to be strategic as we determine how to expand our programs. One of my goals is to help bring our high-quality curricula and program model to other communities in the state in the most thoughtful and effective way possible, without taking away from the amazing work we are doing in the Bay Area.
I can see how it may be hard to adjust to: your child—11 years old, full of energy, sweet and respectful—is about to take puberty education for the first time. Thinking back to your school days, you assume that in a few sessions, they’ll uncover the “mystery of menstruation”, talk about “where babies come from,” giggle about the word penis, and hear the word “sex” in the classroom for the first time.
But when the permission slip comes home you realize that much, much more will be discussed—this is not the puberty education of your youth. Per California’s new Healthy Youth Act, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and even HIV all have mandated slots on the schedule, and while you understand the importance of these topics, you can’t help but ask “isn’t my child a little young for this?” Can’t conversations about sexting, nude photos, coercion, lewd gestures, and forced touching, wait until middle school?
As someone who isn’t a stranger to the classroom, I can empathize wholeheartedly with these concerns and the desire to allow kids to “just be kids” a little longer. But our reality is different: one in four girls and one in six boys in the United States are sexually abused before they turn 18 years old —12.3% of assault survivors have not yet reached their 10th birthday . Unfortunately, only a small fraction of perpetrators are strangers to the victim and too often perpetrators are children themselves .
So while we may not be ready for our children to have these conversations, we as health educators believe that only through open and honest communication can we provide students the tools they need to identify power imbalances, seek out a trusted adult when something is wrong, and intervene on behalf of a friend.
In fact, a plethora of benefits can result from these in-class discussions. When trained health educators and students explore these topics together in age-appropriate ways, students: 1) understand what our law considers illegal and legal—giving weight to the issues and reinforcing notions that sexual abuse is unacceptable; 2) gain comfort in using language like “sexual assault” and “sexual harassment”, building knowledge that leads to self-confidence; 3) use activities to practice identifying abusive relationships and where they can seek help; 4) have a safe space to ask sensitive questions of a trained professional; 5) gain skills to be an “upstander”--learning to intervene when something is amiss; and 6) have a platform to report abuse for themselves or a friend—something that happens too rarely.
These are just a few positive outcomes that result from incorporating sexual assault and harassment into a puberty-level curriculum and the case is similar in middle and high schools. So why not wait until middle school? Because when we talk about it early and often, we can provide adolescents with the tools they need to draw healthy boundaries, take care of their bodies, and be an advocate for themselves and their friends—speaking up when they need to. These are critical skills that will serve them well not only during puberty—but for the rest of their lives.
1. National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (2015). Statistics About Sexual Violence. Retrieved from http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf
2. Department of Justice. (2016). Raising Awareness About Sexual Abuse, Facts and Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.nsopw.gov/en-US/Education/FactsStatistics
Typically when you think about the expected outcomes of a sexual health organization, you would probably expect to see health outcomes like reduced teen birth and sexually-transmitted infection rates. You might also expect to see reduced sexual assault rates or incidence of sexually-based bullying. But generally, adolescent health organizations do not expect to see, or typically look for, an impact on students' general science competencies. Which is why we were recently surprised and pleased to receive anecdotal data from a local partner organization suggesting exactly that – Health Connected’s programs may, in fact, have an impact on student achievement in science.
Health Connected strongly encourages our school partners to incorporate our 5-10 hour sexual health courses into their science curriculum, and roughly 80% of our partners do this. We provide information that is medically accurate, using scientific terms and, over the last several years, have incorporated opportunities for middle and high school students to think critically about the sources of their information about sexual health. But in our 20 years of operation, our impact on student science competency has never been so starkly demonstrated as in an off-hand comment by Elizabeth Schar, the founder of the Ravenswood Science Initiative.
The Ravenswood Science Initiative (RSI) started in 2008 in response to concerns from local high school administrators that students in the high-need Ravenswood City School District (RCSD) in East Palo Alto, CA were not entering high school with the skills to meet basic proficiency requirements in 9th grade science. If they couldn’t succeed in 9th grade science, that effectively eliminated the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) track for those students in high school and beyond. This represented a significant problem for the Ravenswood City School District and the Sequoia Union High School District, as STEM careers provide myriad opportunities for young people, particularly those in underserved communities.
Over the years, Health Connected and RSI have occasionally crossed paths, primarily to coordinate scheduling of our respective services in the RCSD schools. In an effort to solidify that relationship and understand more about how we can support RCSD goals, Health Connected leadership reached out to Ms. Schar in the summer of 2015. In the course of our conversations, Ms. Schar made the following intriguing observations about the unexpected impact of our Teen Talk Middle School course for 7th graders in the school district:
I can tell you the Teen Talk training impacts student life science knowledge, particularly vocabulary. When RSI is presenting labs involving genetics, heredity, flower anatomy and human systems, we see a difference in students’ ability to talk about these areas— pre and post Teen Talk. Post Teen Talk, students are comfortable talking about eggs and sperm and fertilization, how traits transfer between generations. Pre Teen Talk students struggle to describe what they see and explain how traits are shared. It’s a remarkable difference.
Here's an example: We were doing a flower dissection lab at a school. Students cut apart tulip and lily blossoms, drawing them in their lab notebook, labeling the parts. One boy had done such a nice job, I asked him to tell me how the flower worked -- what does pollen do? He explained it all to me, showing me where the pollen needs to fall, which parts of the flower are 'boy parts', which are the 'girl parts'. It's complicated and he had it right. I complimented him. He shrugged. "We just finished Teen Talk," he said.
While Health Connected’s primary goal remains informed sexual health decision-making and ultimately reductions in negative sexual health outcomes such as teen birth rates and sexually transmitted infection rates, these comments suggest an important and overlooked outcome of sexual health education. Is it possible that sex ed not only impacts young people’s long-term sexual health, but also their educational achievement? Given the significant focus in recent years on STEM education, it seems important to think about the role sexual health education plays not only on student decision-making, but also on their academic achievement in science.
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