Flip the Script on Sex Ed!
JEN LATIMER, MPH | RESEARCH COORDINATOR
Delay sexual debut. Prevent unplanned pregnancy. Reduce STIs. Stop dating abuse. Break the cycle of poverty.
Overwhelmingly, sexual health interventions target teenagers as a burden to society. Course after course in grad school drilled the expense of unplanned pregnancy, epidemic of sexually transmitted infections, and rampant intimate partner violence rates among youth. My professional training taught me to believe teenagers lacked both the investment (low perceived susceptibility) and confidence (self-efficacy) to make healthy decisions, as a natural consequence of their neurodevelopment. All this, presented as the foundation for effective health education.
Since grad school, I have devoted my career to driving down sexual maladies in a city that’s constantly turning up. Vivacious as we may be, our laissez-faire attitudes and penchant for irreverence creates a perfect storm for adverse health outcomes. But the more I review goals set for sexual health education, the more the deficits-focus leaves me cross-eyed. No wonder teenagers are stereotyped to be apathetic and impulsive. If we only measure the bad, we don’t give ourselves a chance to celebrate the good.
We approach educating in every other subject to support young people to grow, succeed, and be the strongest possible citizens of their community. Why is it any different with Sex Ed, the topic most inextricably tied to dignity, and predictive of success?
When I started sun-greeting (the teaching equivalent of moonlighting) at a local high school, my instructional coach prompted me to write lesson plans in a format that began with SWBAT. Students Will Be Able To. Goals set in terms of skills and capacities to develop, not adverse outcomes to prevent. Urged to invert the vantage point of my curricula, my own perspective on equitable Sex Ed needed to be re-framed.
SWBAT is an acronym used ubiquitously across formal education settings, yet framing my course goals in terms of assets, strengths and positivity felt like walking without gravity. And that’s just nuts. Students don’t get excited about what they won’t, shouldn’t or can’t learn or do. Nearly every teen I’ve had the pleasure to teach is a tireless advocate for their own health, hungry for any and all tools available to keep themselves healthy, strong and positive-minded. We just have to present information they actually want in a way that does not shame, judge or bore them.
At the end of each of my courses, I asked students to pick one topic to build out into a public service announcement. Cohort after cohort wrote rap parodies for STI awareness, teen pregnancy prevention episodes of reality TV, Instagram accounts promoting healthy relationships, violence prevention seminars with the Saints-- there was no end to their creativity and enthusiasm. I didn’t need to teach students what their health concerns should be, or how to address them in a way their peers would endorse. I just had to build up the tools in their toolbox, and guide them to the right resources.
I came to IWES inspired by the organization's commitment to reorienting our view of Sex Ed--not only in revising who is given a seat at the table, but also revamping what is taught. The homegrown programs and curricula at IWES affirm young people’s dignity and diverse identities. Especially as teens living in the Southern US report “intense concern about lack of authentic sex education,” as well as a “belief that sexual education at school is not comprehensive enough” (YTH 2017), this work is paramount.
Young people are already pushed too far, too fast into adulthood. As educators, we should build up what is positive to unleash what is possible.