Thursday, October 15, 2009

Safety And Structure for Adult Sex Ed

I’m currently planning to teach sex ed to young adult peers in my community. Please see previous posts for other discussions of my thoughts and feelings while planning this project.

How can I plan this class so that it suits the realities of our lives and yet challenges us to take positive risks?

I think the first step is recognizing that for many, coming to even one session involves taking a positive risk. For others, arriving may be simple, but speaking up may feel momentous. I’d like to focus on these two challenges for now: attendance and participation. I want my expectations for both to be as flexible as possible to meet the varying needs of individuals and yet to be as consistent as possible in order to promote group cohesion. I have some ideas about how to approach this, and I would love some feedback . . .


Ideal: 10 to 20 people committed to attending each of the 14 sessions. We would get to know each other, develop the group dynamic that supports accountability and confidentiality, and their learning in each session would build on our previous work.

Reality: “Eek! Who has enough time to commit upfront to 14 sessions? What if I missed the first one – does that mean I’m excluded from the project altogether? I’m sorry, but my [work/ studies/ family/ other] takes priority, and I have to allow for that in my schedule.” –thoughts of a hypothetical community member.

Compromise: I encourage community members to attend as many sessions as possible. I also hope that newcomers will contact me before coming to a session so I can help them get somewhat caught up. Just arriving at session is great, too. What I do ask, however, is that participants come for an entire session from beginning to end – arriving late and leaving early can drastically upset momentum. Does this seem reasonable? What other approaches might we consider?


Ideal: Participants could share their thoughts, feelings and experiences without embarrassment, shyness or fear of affecting their reputation. Such sharing could lead to communal support, learning and growth.

Reality: Sharing can be very difficult and scary! In addition, all of us have biases and prejudices that can keep us from reacting in positive and supportive ways. For some, sharing with friends and community members feels easier than sharing with strangers. For others, it feels much harder.

Compromise: We’ll spend time at the beginning of each session discussing building blocks for a safe space and sharing expectations with each other. No participant will be required to share, and multiple avenues for reflection will be encouraged, including group discussion, pair-shares, private reflection, and anonymous feedback. What more can we do to work together to keep everyone feeling safe, comfortable, and able to take positive risks?

I look forward to hearing your ideas!


  1. Re participation: What can be helpful (you know this already) is building an awareness in the group, of "Who hasn't spoken yet?"

    Cultivating leadership among all of the participants, to be aware of how many people in the group we've gotten to hear from - and also growing in awareness about *why* we've already heard (a lot) from some folks, but not (at all or much) from others. Hmm... gender? age? class? race? etc.

    Relatedly: giving reminders to people who think that their thoughts aren't important enough to share... that we want to hear from them.

    Also, generally cultivating listening skills - an awareness that a group discussion is about listening and not just about getting your turn to talk.

  2. and beyond sharing through words, what does it mean to create a space where people are explicitly welcome to feel and sit with that feeling honestly and with whatever degree of openness they choose? how will the group respond if someone starts crying? if someone feels the need to leave for part of the session? to what extent will the group be directly responsive to the ways in which participants express emotions, and to what extent will the group intentionally allow people to have space to process?

  3. yes! yes yes yes. Thank you to Ilana and Anonymous for your brilliance, sensitivity and insight. I will respond in more detail later...