It is Sex Ed for All during May aka Sex Education for Everyone. I have a tendency in May to reflect on my previous teaching opportunities. Let me explain, for about four years, before Covid ended a lot of creative programming in elementary and middle schools, I had the pleasure of teaching a puberty class to some very sophisticated and delightful 5th and 6th graders on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The students varied in age from 11 to 13 years old. They attended very progressive public schools, which was as lucky for me in the end, as it was for them.
School administrators and parents were dissatisfied with the lack of meaningful programming about reproductive health and development offered by the Department of Education, usually an offshoot of PE, or gym. As one of those parents and a qualified professional able to teach the subject, I was asked to develop a curriculum and began teaching a two-day course at three different schools.
The feedback from teachers, parents, and students was phenomenal. The class was organized in such a way as to give a day’s worth of instruction, using slides, photographs, and other visuals, on the topics of reproductive anatomy, menstrual physiology, ovulation, etc.
At the end of the day, the students were given index cards and encouraged to ask any questions they had, no names or class numbers, and put the cards into a slotted box in the back of the room. Day two was spent answering those questions, and WOW – what a treasure trove of insights, thoughtful considerations, and brutally honest, straightforward questions there were. I would generally separate them into categories and answer everything as best I could.
Here is a small, but profound sampling of some of the most interesting questions these young people asked, including my approach to the responses.
- “What is intercourse?”
- “What is sex?”
- “How does the boys’ part get to the girls’ part?”
- “How do you do sex and how does it work?”
- “What age do you have to be to have sex a lot?”
Clearly, kids as young as 11 years old have questions about sex, and many of them are about the simple mechanics of sexual intercourse. In this area, visuals work best. There are many beautiful, age-appropriate drawings and photographs available on the internet to use for this type of instruction. Giving sensible, non-judgmental explanations works best.
In my experience, games and gimmicks, such as using a banana to represent a penis or balloons to simulate how condoms work is a losing strategy. The information is for mature audiences, and I don’t mean mature age-wise. If you trust young people with sensitive information by engaging them in the learning process, they will surprise you with their measured responses. The rule around this phase of the class was no question was off-limits, but they had to allow me to answer a mature question with a mature, thorough response. 9 times out of 10, they did.
- “Can you get pregnant again if you are pregnant?”
- “How do you try to get twins or does it just depend on luck?”
- “What happens with triplets?”
- “How do women get c-sections?
- Why do women get c-sections?”
- “What happens if a baby dies inside of you?”
- “Do you get a period when you’re pregnant?”
- “In Glee, one character’s fathers mixed their sperm together. Is that possible in real life?”
Such important questions! Many kids this age have younger siblings and have seen their mothers, aunts, and older cousins go through pregnancy and birth. They are very curious about it, and it’s important to address their questions head-on. That said, I’ve also found kids this age can be hyper-focused on pregnancy, and that needs to be managed, as well.
I usually go back to the beginning by reiterating the processes that lead to pregnancy: menstruation, ovulation, and fertilization. I try to stay focused on that, rather than go into great detail about pregnancy itself. You can address periods during pregnancy, whether one can get pregnant while one is pregnant, the curiosity about twins, by going back to a more relevant (for their age) lesson about menstrual physiology. Why do you get a period, to begin with? What is menstruation and what does it lead to? What is ovulation? Why do we ovulate? By dialing the questions back to these processes, I have found their attention is refocused on the original purpose of the class. They need to understand what leads to pregnancy before they get a detailed description of being pregnant.
Explaining miscarriage, IVF and such is important, but best to give a short answer and then circle back to the puberty conversation when you can.
- “What age do you get your period?”
- “Does having your period hurt?”
- “Do you feel nausea when you get your period and throw up?”
- “Can puberty get sped up by anything?”
- “What are male hormones called?”
- “What sorts of feelings do you feel when you’re going through puberty?”
These are the questions I love answering. Remember that every anatomy/physiology lesson on this topic needs to be accompanied by a conversation about feelings. Kids want desperately for puberty to feel normal and healthy, rather than something to be feared and dreaded. By talking about the acts, the facts, and the feelings, we as educators help in this process. I have a particular slide that lists many of the emotions, thoughts, and feelings kids have at puberty, but am always careful to talk about how much longer the list actually is, depending on what any one individual is experiencing.
There is such a wide range of “normal” in this respect, and it’s important to emphasize that. One more point to stress is that my classes have always been a mix of boys and girls. Parents could opt out of the program for their kids, but very few did. The boys were equally interested and interactive and asked some of the best, most well-thought-out questions. Boys should never be excluded from this type of instruction and, in my opinion, boys and girls should be allowed to learn together, when possible and practical.
And these two questions, last but not least:
“Why is the human body so complicated?”
“What do all the words on the smart board mean?”
No matter how clear we try to be as educators or how thoughtful and measured we are in our approach, this stuff is complicated!
Many of our students may sit there seeming to follow our instructions but are actually more confused than anything. What do all the words mean? I was lucky to have the opportunity to work with such honest, inquisitive kids, and I know they benefitted from my instruction. Their parents and school administrators deserve credit too, for recognizing a need that goes largely unmet at this age and for being proactive in bringing the programming to their schools. Not all school districts are as forward-thinking.
As we head into an uncertain era of book banning and politics getting in the way of learning, I hope we can all agree that kids need more information to face the challenges of growing up, not less. I hope someone reads this article and decides to get involved with a school or youth program that honors their natural curiosity and promotes learning in a supportive, nurturing environment where “sex ed” entails a bit more than what we learn from gym class.