In American classrooms, students have often feared their sex ed class, preparing to have a teacher demonstrate the classic condom-on-a-banana routine.
While sexual education classes have often received a bad reputation, we believe that these classes can be invaluable for the students, and permanently shape the way they approach and think about sex for the rest of their lives. Comprehensive sex ed has the opportunity to explore so much more than just the physical; it should be a safe space to explore sexual identity, healthy relationship behavior, reproductive health, bodily autonomy, and so much more. Like all other subjects, a memorable and perceptive-shifting education can often start with the right teacher, and I was lucky enough to talk to a passionate, patient, and inspiring one. Sarah CM has been a sexuality and health justice educator for over a decade, and I was lucky enough to chat with her about her teaching process, broader changes in the educational realm, and the deep impact it’s had on her students.
What grades/ages are you currently teaching sex education for?
I’m currently teaching health education, a big part of which I would consider sexuality education, to 4th through 12th graders. I’m also an adjunct lecturer at a community college, so I get learners from 18 to 60+ in that classroom.
What has been the most surprising thing that your students comprehensively understand prior to you teaching it? What is the most surprising thing they don't understand?
It really depends on the age range. One thing that strikes me is how much my 3rd grade students know about gender identity, and how LITTLE my college students know about the same topic. I think it’s really indicative of the changing times - kids born after 2010 have grown up in the middle of conversations about gender, whereas those born before 2000 have a pretty solidified, entrenched view of gender that’s much harder to work with. But ultimately one of the things that is most surprising to me is that, regardless of how much students know about gender identity, no one knows *anything* about their body parts. Our conversations have gotten more inclusive, but we still aren’t teaching three year olds that the reproductive organs dangling from their bodies aren’t actually called “wee wees”.
What is your favorite part about teaching sexuality education? What is your favorite topic to teach?
I really love being able to answer questions that people say they’ve “always had.” Even though it’s everywhere around us– romance is the driving force of art, sex is a marketing tool, marriage and kids are cultural expectations–most of us still were taught that it’s wrong or shameful to talk about human sexuality, let alone ask questions.
Anonymous questions are always fascinating to get and really fun to answer. Sometimes I get really down about them: a lot of them are really basic, but young people have been too shrouded in shame to ask for the answers they need to keep themselves healthy and happy. I love that I can help out, but it frustrates me that this is the culture we have created.
Do your students have any misconceptions before beginning your class? How does their perception change?
So, so many misconceptions. I see this the most clearly at the college level. At the start of each semester, students write their sexuality education autobiography, detailing how they’ve acquired knowledge around human sexuality, assessing the impact of the messages they’ve heard, and stating their sexuality worldview. At the end of the semester, they are asked to re-read that first paper, and then talk about how their perspective has changed over our time together. In almost every case, students share the same things: that their attitude towards LGBTQ+ people and folks with diverse sexual interests (kinks) has changed, and that they realize there’s no need to judge others. A fair number of students also report that getting comprehensive, accurate information about birth control and STIs has changed the way they behave and will improve their health (and the health of their families and communities) in the future… and most are pretty indignant that it took until college to get this information.
What do you think about the current state of sexual education classes in the United States? In your opinion, what should every sex education class be required to teach? What are they currently missing? What needs to change?
So often, it’s just “here’s a picture of the worst case of chlamydia that has ever been documented, here’s the miracle of life video with lots of screaming and body fluids, hope you’re sufficiently scared now. Just say no (to sex)!” Fear based tactics don’t work well in the long term, but despite this, most school-based sex ed still sounds a lot like this. Furthermore, the classes are often being taught by a gym or science teacher who has no training, no time, and no desire to teach sex ed. It’s bad for the teacher, and it’s worse for the kids.
At the very minimum, students need to have realistic descriptions and explanations of STIs and how to prevent them; they need to know all their options for preventing pregnancy, too. They need to know their rights as teens in their state - age of consent, access to reproductive health care, laws around abortion, etc.–and they need to have consent defined for them clearly. Only eight states require discussion of consent; many, many more that don’t provide any guidelines or mandates on the topic. Additionally, gender identity and sexual orientation are big pieces that I think are often missing from sex ed classes. In fact, there are seven states that require teachers to frame any sort of same sex attraction or behavior as wrong, harmful, and immoral. It’s really problematic!
Additionally, we’re not helping students build the skills they need to be socially aware and emotionally intelligent. We spend so much time in kindergarten focusing on sharing and caring and identifying emotions, but then as soon as students get into first grade, our focus shifts to more academic content. That’s a problem with our entire education system, and one that I think can be appropriately addressed by and integrated into a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum.
Is the condom-on-a-banana demonstration still happening? I feel like that's one of the more universally remembered experiences from early 2000's sex education classes. How have sex education classes been modernized since you were a student?
A variation of this for sure! I use foam condom demonstration tools (no one wants to be the kid whose mom sent them a banana for lunch the same day as the condom demo) but this is such a critical piece. Self efficacy is huge when it comes to health behaviors, especially when we are talking about teens. I don’t know many people who, when faced with the potential of sex for the first tine, would feel comfortable pulling out and using a condom if they have never seen, touched, or used one before. It’s just not realistic! So I make sure that every student goes through all the steps for putting on a condom. In 8th grade, I demo it for the students, and in 9th grade, they practice themselves. I also usually let them do things like blow them into balloons or see how far they can go over their arm. The more a person feels comfortable goofing around with a condom, the more likely they are to use it.
What type of feedback do you receive from your students at the end of the semester?
At the college, it’s almost always, “I cannot believe this isn’t a required course.” Sometimes I hear this because the information has already improved their health or relationships; students often talk about the lecture on love and communication being really eye opening and leading to open, honest, important conversations with their partners. Sometimes I hear this because they have increased their sympathy and understanding for those who appear different from them; one student realized that she was judging everyone on the train and trying to figure out their gender identity or sexual orientation. One day, she suddenly wondered, “Why do I care? What does it matter?” And she just stopped!
Sarah CM is a New York City-based sexuality and health justice educator. Holding her M.Ed in human sexuality from Widener University, the bulk of her work focuses on gender identity, sexual orientation, and youth development. She is currently a health educator at a K-12 school and an adjunct lecturer in the health sciences department at a community college. Prior to working in the schools, Sarah managed a peer-led comprehensive sexuality education program at a community based organization in the Bronx; prior to moving to New York, she worked in the education department at Planned Parenthood. You can follow Sarah on Instagram at @sexedwithsarah.