Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Adult Sex Ed -- Wait, What?!?

In my last post, I shared my intention to offer a sex ed class for young adults (in their 20’s and 30’s). Here, I will speak to the three most common concerns raised in response to my proposal.

1. “My long-term romantic partner is also part of this community -- how can I participate in this class without violating my partner’s and my privacy?”

As a group, we can develop a confidentiality structure that will guide us in respecting everyone's boundaries and privacy. I've seen class facilitators encourage participants to tell personal stories and to speak from experience; I've seen other facilitators prohibit participants from sharing personal information and require them to word all stories and questions in the third person (“I have a friend who...”). We can work together to find a method that suits our needs and wants. Participants may choose to speak in the first and the third person at different times depending on context and comfort level. By coming together to discuss our knowledge, thoughts, and feelings, we certainly need not get into specific details regarding our current sexual habits. I intend this class neither as a support group nor a gossip session! We will explore ourselves, our community, and our society while we respect and honor the plethora of boundaries, desires for privacy, comforts, and discomforts that we all bring to different settings.

2. “How will this class be related to social justice and social action, since our community is explicitly dedicated to both?”

This question is so important and inherently related to my motivations for offering this class. As such, my response diverts in a few different directions: By discussing these issues together in an open, progressive setting, we work towards justice for ourselves, those close to us, and our community as a whole. And as we create this space in which we can insightfully analyze the social processes that affect gender and sexuality, we can build awareness and generate new thoughts and feelings that will inform our fight for justice in our society. Such class discussion can spark ideas for and interest in a specific campaign that we can plan and implement together as a class and/or as a community. Additionally, I hope and expect that the class participants will generate even better answers to this question as we discuss and learn together.

3. “How can we have these discussions in an inclusive and safe manner?”

Yes! We must also pose and respond to this question throughout the class. Therefore once more I can only offer my initial reaction supplemented by my trust in the process: We will establish building blocks for safe space, we will check in with each other and reflect on our developing dynamic, and we will celebrate our differences. I will also combine multiple venues for participation and reflection, including but not limited to group discussion, sharing ideas in pairs, and recording private thoughts in journals or anonymous question/ comment cards. Alas, I can only describe structures -- the dynamic of the group will deepen and develop when we are together, conversing, taking risks, taking care, and holding each other accountable.

I'm so excited!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Young Adults Enjoy Sex Ed, Too

While I consider myself primarily an educator of adolescents, I'm a strong believer in sexuality education throughout our life span. I'm also currently a young adult. Thus I'm very excited to say that I've decided to offer a sex ed class for interested members of my young adult community.

The UUA publishes Our Whole Lives, a progressive and insightful sexuality education curriculum. I love this curriculum. And while my professional self yearns to someday teach the high school version, I'm currently getting inspiration from the young adult program. Because educated, informed, insightful young people in their 20s and 30s also deserve lots of great sex ed.

To explain my motivations, I return again to the initial thesis of this blog: I believe in sexuality education as a site for personal and societal transformation. Change. Growth. The need for growth does not end with the end of adolescence. Indeed, I feel as a young adults that we can and do appreciate such growth in a whole new way. The conversations, revelations, and debates we can have about sexual health now are entirely different from those we had as teenagers. And yet, like when we were teenagers, we lack the context and structure in which to discuss sex in sensitive, meaningful ways. So let's make that space.

My goals for this class are multilayered. First, I hope that participants engage in a process of personal reflection and growth. Second, by sharing their reflections with each other, I hope they develop a deeper appreciation for and understanding of each other’s lived experience. Third, I want the class to contribute to the process of community building – engaging in reflection and growth on a communal level. Finally, I believe that such conversations can help us understand how our personal lives relate to our search for social justice and vice versa.

Right now, I'm working on the logistics of offering such a class and trying to gauge the levels of interest and enthusiasm among members of my community. What do you think I will need to do to make such a class enjoyable and worthwhile? Feedback wanted!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A New Campaign in Boston

When multiple friends forward me the same news story, I figure I should write about it. Today's news is the latest sex ed campaign of the Boston Public Health Commission, which features a video on STIs and condoms to be played on YouTube and cable television. In addition, the campaign has its own Facebook page through which teenagers can comment and post questions.

Fantastic! I definitely want to meet the people behind this campaign. I've heard lots of talk about a growing desire to reach teenagers through technology. This campaign combines peer education, one of my favorite methods, with new ways of using the media. In particular, I'm interested to see how teenagers respond to the Facebook page, and whether they really do frequently ask cyber questions. I'm also glad that the large technological component of the campaign does not preclude in-person work -- teams will also perform street theater in Boston.

While I'm very pleased with the campaign, I'm not as pleased with the rhetoric used to explain the need for the campaign. The Boston Globe article cited teenagers’ age – “barely old enough to drive” – and their “casual attitudes about sex” as the reasons for increased STI rates. Can't we seek to support teenagers without such condescension? We must be able to explain our reasons for wanting to teach sex ed without putting down the very same people we need to empower.

One choice that did not seem to demand justification, however, was the selection of a featured video that focused on promoting condoms and STI screening and did not mention abstinence. Here's a question that I've been pondering for a while: Do sex educators in the field of public health have more political leeway than those of us in schools? No school committee writes the rules for the Boston Public Health Commission. And this funding was for preventing communicable disease, not for character education. If we can frame public school sex education in terms of these public health priorities, how would that affect the discourse around what we should and should not teach?

While sex education through cable and the Internet is exciting and chic, it cannot replace face-to-face conversation. The benefits of structure, space and relationship building will remain unique and powerful elements of school-based sex ed, in addition to and (hopefully) in conjunction with Facebook and YouTube.

Monday, August 3, 2009

My Past

I have been interested in health education since I began tenth grade. I spent the next three years of high school volunteering with my school’s chapter of Mentors in Violence Prevention. As a Mentor, I taught 8th graders to think critically about gender stereotypes and take an active role in preventing gender violence. From those early lessons, I realized how health education can bring to the surface conversations about the most vital and pressing issues in students' daily lives.

In college, I volunteered as a health educator in the New York City public schools through Peer Health Exchange. I saw the transformation of ninth graders as they received basic health education. When our program started, they lacked basic information about how to care for themselves and their relationships. As they enthusiastically engaged with the lessons we taught, however, they reported change in their attitudes and their behavior. Students expressed the results of feeling empowered, whether through a vow to stop the cycle of teen pregnancy in their families or through more daily decisions to stop drinking soda.

Meanwhile, in my health education work on campus at Columbia University, I saw what happened to otherwise bright and aware people who had not received comprehensive health education as child or teenager. I worked with college students getting tested for HIV, often anxious and ashamed but unaware of the specifics of HIV transmission. In teaching incoming freshman about consent and sexual assault prevention, I encountered a plethora of young adults who could not talk about their bodies, neither with friends nor with partners. As a result, they suffered from heartbreak, violence and disease.

Health education is a basic tool to protect youth from a plethora of epidemics spanning obesity, sexual violence and HIV. But health education is also much more than that-- it is a path through which to develop healthier, happier students and learning communities. As I taught health education full-time these past two years, my students developed basic social and emotional skills that immediately began to help them manage their emotions, relate positively to each other, and engage with their schoolwork. They brought to class many current, pressing issues in their lives, whether related to conflicts with friends, changes in their bodies, or concerns about their schoolwork and stress levels. In these ways, I saw the health education is a crucial part of helping a school become a positive and productive learning community.

When a health learning community thrives, it has the power to transform much more than just itself. Through our discussions in health class, my students became inspired to take a stand on issues, express themselves, and spearhead community service projects. For these reasons and others, my experience engaging in and reflecting on health education for nine years and has inspired me to pursue this path for many, many more.