I am a middle-school language arts teacher. My wife is a certified sex therapist and educator (and author of a new book on addressing sexual pleasure in clinical settings that everyone should read). One would imagine that our professional lives don’t have a ton of overlap, but we are constantly drawing parallels in our work.
Teachers like to imagine that sexuality has little to do with our work, as if teenagers are not explosive balls of sexual energy who are actively working out what it means to be attracted and attractive, what it means to give and get consent.
I thought it would be good to bring in a sex expert to discuss some of these ideas, and, as luck would have it, I happen to live with one.
So, let’s talk about sex. Here’s my wife, Laura Rademacher.
What are the most important things we tend to miss during sex ed in K-12 schools?
Medical facts. There are no federal regulations about what should be taught in sex ed, so each state gets to make its own choices. Currently only 13 states require sex education to be medically accurate. Terrifying, right? For young people, this means they are making sexual decisions that can have ramifications for the rest of their lives without having all the facts and information that would help them make empowered choices.
Queer, questioning, and gender-creative youth often see no representations of their identities in sex ed. Or worse, they sometimes hear negative statements, lies, or misconceptions. Sex ed needs to serve the needs of all students, which means including positive, helpful information about a variety of orientations and gender identities.
Another important piece that is often missing is talk about sexual happiness and healthy relationships. Sex ed in schools seems to bring up a lot of fear for the staff. It seems like everyone is afraid if the wrong thing is said there will be a scandal and the news crews will show up. This often leads to sex ed that focuses on horrible consequences and scare tactics about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that protect the adults involved (See! We were just telling the kids how dangerous this is! Don’t be mad at us!) but don’t help youth understand how any of this might fit into their lives or relationships.
There is a perception that parents are going to get upset about sex ed (and some do) but studies show that regardless of political leanings or religious affiliation, the majority of adults in the United States favor medically accurate, age-appropriate education that includes information about both contraception and abstinence. In fact, parents favor comprehensive sex ed for a wide variety of ages, some as young as elementary school.
I’d love to see sex ed include more info on how to navigate relationships—the signs of loving, respectful relationships versus the signs of controlling, disrespectful relationships; skills for talking about sex including how to say no or yes; and information about sexual activities besides penetrative sex. I wish there were more talk about how wonderful kissing can be, or how touching with hands carries very little risk for STI transmission or unwanted pregnancy.
I talk to so many adults who have had unpleasant or traumatic sexual experiences because no one ever modeled how to communicate about sex, so they didn’t know how to say, “Let’s stop now,” when they wanted to stop. Or their partner didn’t seem to be enjoying sex but they never thought to ask, “How’s this going for you? Do you want to stop or keep going?” because no one had ever taught them how to interact with a partner after the initial “yes.”
When sex ed is just body parts on a diagram it is no wonder that young people struggle to contextualize what this might be like in real life—especially when you factor in that they are nervous and awkward.
It breaks my heart when I think about how many hurtful sexual experiences could be avoided if we taught young people about how to communicate about sex and take better care of each other.
One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot for a while, but especially this summer, is how school culture can either support or combat rape culture. How have you taught adults about consent who don’t seem to get it?
Let me answer a different question here: How do young people first get the message that consent doesn’t matter and they don’t have a say in what happens to their body?
I think there are a thousand ways a day that school can give young people the idea that their consent doesn’t matter. Students are told to follow the rules, listen to authority figures, put their bodies where they are told and in the way they are told to (walk in the hallway in a line without making noise). They are given very little choice in what happens to them during their day.
Now, I don’t believe schools should be magical free-for-all zones. I understand that structure and respect for rules are important. Teaching is a really tough and chaotic job. But there are ways to have rules while also letting young people have bodily autonomy and a say in what happens to them.
Staff members who listen to students bringing up complaints or instead of immediately dismissing them let students know they will be believed if they have something difficult to say. Stepping in when students snap bras, grab hijabs, touch in an unwanted way or comment about other people’s appearances lets students know their bodies and boundaries deserve to be respected. Honoring students’ names and pronouns lets them know they have the right to define their personhood.
I think there is a balance to teaching students to respect authority and teaching them to speak up and get help when their boundaries are being crossed. When I was very little (starting at age 4 or 5) my mother would help me practice defending myself in case an adult tried to hurt me. She always told me to scream, yell, hit, punch, make a scene if a grownup tried to get me into their car or otherwise behaved inappropriately. She told me, “You won’t be in trouble for yelling at a grownup. People will come and help you. I will come and help you. I will never be mad at you for keeping yourself safe.” I think this was one of the most helpful things anyone ever did for me and these skills saved me in several scary situations.
Sometimes, when I’m talking about things that happened at school, you say that teachers are often therapists. Do you think teachers would benefit from getting training in therapy techniques?
We have so many conversations about this!
I get mad that teaching programs don’t talk about self-care. In therapy school the concept of self-care (how you relax, de-stress, keep yourself healthy and happy so you can continue to be competent in your job) is one of the most important skills you learn. The idea is that if you are overextended or too stressed you are more likely to make poor decisions or burn out.
What teacher do you know who is not overextended or too stressed? I don’t know any. But it seems to me, as an outsider looking in at teacher culture, that there is actually an expectation that you should overextend yourself—that if you don’t push yourself past your limits you don’t care enough.
I fundamentally disagree, but I also understand it is difficult. Teachers who care about their kids are looking out at a sea of unending need from students and saying, “How can I do less? I care about these kids.” But the sea can drown you really quickly.
Teachers aren’t exactly therapists and therapists aren’t exactly teachers, but I believe you can teach in a way that is therapeutic—and that therapists who aren’t teaching on some level are probably missing opportunities.
To me, therapeutic teaching means valuing students’ emotional needs. Learning about the effects of trauma has helped me grow greatly as a therapist and a human being. I think every teacher (and therapist) could benefit from being more trauma-aware.
Teachers who find their interactions with students frequently seem to escalate, blow up, or result in a loss of trust might find that learning about trauma responses will help them navigate these interactions better and connect with their students more.