Everyone is an exception: Assumptions to avoid in the sex education classroom

 

More often than not, the teachers who are assigned to teach courses in sex education have little or no professional preparation to do so. Taking account of the difficulties inherent in the situation, Ms. Krueger provides helpful advice about how not to proceed.

 

Unfortunate though it may be, most public school teachers rarely have the opportunity (or luxury) to devote significant time to students as individuals. Such is the nature of our work — the classroom is made up of groups of people, and the moments in a school day when we can interact with our students one-to-one are infrequent at best. As a result, and in order to function with some degree of consistency, teachers usually develop and act on a set of generalizations and assumptions regarding students.

However, the unique nature of sex education — a field of growing importance as more and more states mandate its incorporation into the public school curriculum — necessitates a reexamination of some of these assumptions. To date 34 states have passed legislation requiring sex education in the schools, and additional state mandates are pending.1 Nonetheless, there are no undergraduate degree-granting programs in the discipline, nor do any state boards of education certify teachers in sex education; most frequently, in fact, sex education courses are assigned to teachers with little or no professional training in the area.2 Such teachers — who have been, in effect, dumped into the sex education classroom — are not only undertrained in methodology and curriculum design but expected to facilitate activities and discussions in an exquisitely sensitive area. It is truly ironic that the sex education issues that are the most difficult for teachers (particularly undertrained teachers) to ad dress are those in which teachers’ assumptions have the potential to do the greatest disservice to students.

Regardless of their personal awkwardness or inexperience, sex education teachers have a special responsibility to avoid causing students embarrassment or pain. Above all, they have a duty to remember that their students are individuals with varying family backgrounds, experiences, and values.

During more than 12 years of experience in sex education, I have learned that sex education efforts are more effective when teachers respect students’ individuality and interact with students in ways that make them feel unique and special. I have also become familiar with the most common (and dangerous) assumptions that teachers of sex education hold about students. I list them here, along with suggestions about how to avoid them. If teachers refrain from making these assumptions, their students will feel that their individuality is being honored and will thus be more willing to participate fully in and gain from lesson activities.

Assumptions to avoid

1. All students come from traditional nuclear families. This misconception is especially relevant to the sex education classroom, with its (one hopes) frequent references to and encouragement of family communication about sexuality. Teachers who automatically refer to students’ families with such phrases as “mom and dad” deny the experience of the majority of their students, as well as the realities of modern American culture.

In almost every region of the U.S., two-parent, traditionally structured families are now the exception.3 Families no longer consist solely of nuclear groupings of heterosexual married couples and their biological children. Students’ families may comprise such aggregations as single parents with children; married parents with children from the current and previous marriages; single or married parents with foster or adopted children; or cohabiting heterosexual or homosexual couples with biological, adopted, or foster children. If teachers are success fully to facilitate the full participation of students in activities that involve parent! child communication and the clarification and validation of family values, we owe it to our students to remember that daily access to “mom and dad,” in the tradition al sense, is a fact of life for less than 20 % of today’s children.4

Teachers who automatically refer to students’ families with such phrases as “mom and dad” deny the experience of the majority of their students, as well as the realities of modern American culture.

2. All students are heterosexual. Ten percent of students are not heterosexual, regardless of whether they have consciously internalized the fact yet.5 It is common, yet potentially alienating to gay and lesbian students, to make unthinking references to male students’ “girlfriends” or female students’ “boyfriends.” Such practices send a clear message to gay students that their sexual orientation is, at best, to be hidden and, at worst, abnormal and shameful.

In addition to promoting inclusive language with regard to sexual orientation, the field of sex education has an ethical obligation to condemn homophobic harassment and intimidation of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. As one of society’s most potent agents of socialization, schools are duty-bound to take a stand against hatred and ignorance and to allow all students to learn in a safe and nurturing environment. The denial of such an environment in the past has contributed to a suicide rate for gay and lesbian teenagers that is two to six times higher than that of heterosexual teens.6 Gay and lesbian teens are also more likely than their heterosexual peers to drop out of school, become runaways, and abuse alcohol and other drugs.7 Such self-destructive behavior is often the result of feeling overwhelmed by the challenge of learning to like oneself in a hostile world. Much of the self-doubt and inner turmoil that too often diminish the quality of life for these students can be averted by early and consistent messages of acceptance from adult authority figures. Sex education teachers are in a position to take significant steps toward that end.

3. All students are sexually involved. Many students are not sexually involved, and they need support for that decision. While we adults frequently wring our hands in concern over (and probably disapproval of) the percentage of “sexually active” teens, we must keep in mind that, in certain age groups and in many parts of the country, students who are not sexually involved are in the majority. However, they (like us) have been profoundly influenced by television, films, and the popular press, all of which send the message that “everyone” is having sex. Because adolescence is a stage of life that so strongly emphasizes conformity, young people may respond to these societal pressures by feeling that virginity is something to be hidden — a source of embarrassment. In an environment that bombards teens at every turn with incentives to become involved with sex, the decision to resist — when one wants above all else to “fit in” — is difficult indeed.

In classroom presentations that address sexual behavior, teachers may unwittingly reflect this “of-course-all-teenagers are-having-sex” mindset by, for example, phrasing references in the second person (“when you have sex, you need to be responsible”). Training oneself to speak almost exclusively in the third person when presenting lessons will allow students who choose abstinence to feel supported, normal, and comfortable with their decision (and respected for their courage in resisting peer pressure and acting in accordance with their own values).

4. No students are sexually involved. Despite all efforts to the contrary on the part of parents, teachers, and other concerned adults, students are becoming involved in sexual behavior with partners at increasingly younger ages. They need the skills to clarify their decisions and to protect their health. Surveys of American teenagers have found that the average age of first intercourse is 16. More than half of high school students have had intercourse at least once, and many participate in intercourse on a regular basis.8

More than half of high school students have had intercourse at least once, and many participate in intercourse on a regular basis.

With regard to these students, sex education teachers face another dilemma. While generally preferring that students avoid premature sexual involvement, with all its concomitant emotional and medical risks, savvy teachers realize that their preferences are irrelevant to the fact that significant numbers of young people are already involved in sexual behavior that was formerly considered the exclusive domain of adults. No truly caring teacher can choose to ignore the realities that accompany a young person’s decision to be involved in sexual activity simply because the teacher is unwilling to face the fact that it is happening.

Teachers best serve the needs of sexually involved students by helping them to clarify their decisions and improve their decision-making skills, rather than making decisions for them; by educating them regarding the risks of early sexual activity, without excluding the positive aspects of human sexual expression; and by expressing concern for their students’ welfare, rather than standing in judgment of their behavior.

5. All students’ sexual involvements are consensual. The faces we see in our classrooms every day include, by even the most rudimentary statistical calculations, more than one victim of sexual violence. It is estimated that 27% of girls and 16% of boys are sexually abused before they reach age 18.9 Among adolescents, sexual abuse is the most common form of child abuse.10 In addition, 50% of all rape victims are between the ages of 10 and 19, with half of that number under the age of 16.11 Up to one-fourth of all college women report having experienced acquaintance rape.12 (We must extrapolate from that figure to reflect the experience of junior high and high school girls, since the vast majority of research on acquaintance rape has focused on university populations.) Indeed, young people are being sexually exploited with frightening regularity.

Perhaps the best service a teacher can provide to students who have been sexually victimized is to be approachable, and certainly a sex education class offers a natural venue for students to approach a caring adult with questions and concerns. Among adolescents who have been sexually abused, 27% disclose the fact on their own initiatives — a figure that tells us that few adults are diligently looking for indicators of abuse or assertively seeking information from survivors. By remembering that, for many students, sexual experience is, in fact, rape experience, sex education teachers can help students begin the necessary healing process, perhaps by putting students in touch with intervention services.

6. Students who are “sexually active” are having intercourse. A large number of young people are participating in sexual behaviors other than penis/vagina intercourse, thus rendering moot the over used and ill-defined catch phrase “sexually active.” The most common expression of sexuality among teens is solo masturbation;14 thus class discussions of sexual behavior that focus only on the risk of pregnancy or disease transmission exclude those students who are “sexually active” but not involved in behavior that puts them at medical risk.

Other nonintercourse behaviors, such as oral sex, partner masturbation, variations of “petting,” and even such benign activities as kissing and hugging are part of the sexual repertoire of most adolescents. Ninety-seven percent of teenagers have kissed someone by the time they are 15; by age 13, 25% of girls have had their breasts touched by a partner. At least 40% of teens participate in partner masturbation.15 By age 17, 41% of girls have performed fellatio on a partner, and 33% of boys have performed cunnilingus on a partner. Overall, 69% of young people who are sexually involved with a partner include oral sex in their behavior.16

When adults deny the full range of human sexual expression and regard only intercourse as “sex,” students are denied an important educational opportunity. Many young people believe that there is no acceptable form of sexual behavior other than intercourse.17 Operating under that assumption, students may put themselves at risk for unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease by engaging in intercourse when less risky sexual behavior would have been equally fulfilling. The myth that intercourse is the only way to act on one’s sexual feelings has surely contributed significantly to such negative phenomena as premature pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (including AIDS). Clearly, ignorance is anything but bliss where sexual health is concerned. Teachers who help young people learn that intercourse is not required to enjoy one’s sexuality not only broaden their students’ horizons, but also impart knowledge that may help lower rates of adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease by lowering the rate of adolescent inter course.

Schools are increasingly expected to address social problems that were formerly the province of the family, religious organizations, and social agencies. Understand ably, teachers often feel overwhelmed by the prospect of dealing with sexuality, pregnancy, sexual abuse, and other com plex issues facing young people. Complicating matters further are teachers’ fears that sex education curricula are necessarily controversial, that they will incite negative community reaction, and that the majority of parents will disapprove. Indeed, both prospective and current sex education teachers are vociferous in ex pressing doubts about their ability to deal with potential objections to their curricula.18

Since the likelihood of avoiding all controversy when operating a school based sex education program is slim, the best approach may be to expect and accept diversity of opinion among members of the community, to respect well-intentioned questioning of curricula and methodology, and to operate with unflagging vigor despite any limitations that may result from controversy.19 Teachers’ primary concern, however, must remain the well-being of the students, and the work of sex educators needs to be steeped in an awareness of the unique manner in which sexuality and well-being interact. If teachers know their material, believe in the importance of the program, and have clearly defined goals and objectives (one of which is the best possible quality of life for students), then they will be able to comfortably defend those curricular approaches that protect students’ health, life, and individuality.

The sweeping alterations in American lifestyles, family structures, and interpersonal mores that have marked recent decades have been mind-boggling indeed. Precisely because modern society is so complicated, family organization so tenuous, and support systems so capricious, students need more than ever to be viewed as individuals. As teachers dealing with topics of an especially personal and sensitive nature, let us remember that, in one way or another, each of our students is an exception. Let us celebrate and respect the uniqueness of our students — because, when we do, we earn for ourselves the right to expect the same kind of treatment in return.

 

  1. Debra Haffner, “1992 Report Card on the States: Sexual Rights in America,” SIECUS Report, February/March 1992, pp. 1-7.
  2. Mary M. Krueger, “Sex Education by State Man date: Teachers’ Perceptions of Its Impact” (Doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1990).
  3. Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988); and Mary S. Calderone and Eric W. Johnson, The Family Book About Sexuality (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).
  4. Calderone and Johnson, op. cit.
  5. A. Damien Martin, “Learning to Hide: The Socialization of the Gay Adolescent,” Adolescent Psychiatry, vol. 10, 1982, pp. 52-64.
  6. “Suicide Major Cause of Death for Homosexual Youth,” Contemporary Sexuality, September 1989, p. 3.
  7. Laura Pender, “Growing Up Gay,” Cincinnati Magazine, February 1990, pp. 26-29.
  8. Mark 0. Bigler, “Adolescent Sexual Behavior in the Eighties,” SIECUS Report, October/November 1989, pp. 6-9.
  9. Calderone and Johnson, op. cit.
  10. Janet Eckenrode et al., “The Nature and Substantiation of Official Sexual Abuse Reports,” Child Abuse and Neglect, vol. 13, 1988, pp. 311-19.
  11. Donald E. Greydanus and Robert B. Shearin, Adolescent Sexuality and Gynecology (Philadelphia: Lea and Febiger, 1990).
  12. Robin Warshaw, I Never Called It Rape (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); and Jean Hughes and Bernice Sandler, Friends Raping Friends: Could It Happen to You? (Washington, D.C.: Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, 1987).
  13. Warshaw, op. cit.
  14. Kenneth R. Sladkin, “Counseling Adolescents About Sexuality,” Seminars in Adolescent Medicine, vol. 1, 1985, pp. 223-30.
  15. Robert Coles and Geoffrey Stokes, Sex and the American Teenager (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).
  16. Susan F. Newcomer and J. Richard Udry, “Oral Sex in an Adolescent Population,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 14, 1985, pp. 41-46.
  17. Sladkin, op. cit.
  18. Ione J. Ryan and Patricia C. Dunn, “Sex Education from Prospective Teachers’ View Poses a Dilemma,” Journal of School Health, vol. 49, 1979, pp. 573-75; and Krueger, op. cit.
  19. Peter Scales, The Front Lines of Sexuality Education (Santa Cruz, Calif.: Network Publications, 1984).

 

Citation: Krueger, M.M. (1993). Everyone is an exception: Assumptions to avoid in the sex education classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 74 (7), 569-572.

MARY M. KRUEGER is the director of health education and an adjunct professor of public health at Emory University, Atlanta.

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