We frequently hear the expression “teaching is the most important job in the world.” When people first used this phrase, they probably envisioned a teacher’s role in shaping their students’ moral compass and teaching them about responsibility, kindness and honesty.
However, we don’t tend to think of sexual education as a priority on this list.
Spanning a broad variety of topics including reproductive health, body image and sexuality, sex education in schools aims to increase health literacy for young people, as well as help them gain an understanding of their own body and its functions.
It is often the first — and only — formal education adolescents receive about sexual health and how their bodies work. Sex education is arguably one of the most salient, fundamental topics for young people to learn. How it is taught is vital.
Young people are like sponges: they absorb experiences. We teach kids skills that allow them to make sense of their surroundings and prepare for the real world. The way we approach these interactions with adolescents and frame important topics can leave a lasting impression.
When it comes to sex education, which directly connects to the way we see ourselves and those around us, teachers have the ability to shape the lens through which teens view the world. This realization can feel alarming because we don’t recognize how much sex education impacts our life.
Many aspects of sexual education play a central role throughout life, yet the subject is only taught once or twice in school. To make matters worse, the access and quality of sex education is highly varied based on state legislation, meaning the information teens learn across the country is extremely inconsistent.
When state curriculums are not clear, teachers are often left in a position to interpret vague legislative guidelines. This gray area leads to bias and inaccurate information, which is a scary realization.
Of course, this means teens are prompted to pick up sexual health information from sources outside of school, so their perceptions of sexual functions will likely consist of many misunderstandings.
An example of an oft-overlooked and miscommunicated, yet incredibly important, aspect of sexual education is menstruation.
Sexual education programs in school, specifically pertaining to menstruation and the female body, should not only be medically responsive, but culturally and socially responsive as well. This should be based on a holistic approach that embodies emotional development, personal skills, relationships and sexual health — making up a more realistic representation of menstruation.
It is so important not to frame menstruation as some ambiguous, secretive phenomenon that is only reserved for medical contexts or women’s locker room chit-chat. Talking about periods should be “appropriate” in everyday life because menstruation in itself is an aspect of everyday life. We’ve been getting periods since the first humans walked the Earth, and they are not disappearing any time soon.
When you deny teens an open dialogue about periods — a universally shared experience among many women — you create a threatening space for much of the human population. The discomfort placed on conversations about periods is isolating, and it can make young people disassociate from their own bodies.
Too many young people are journeying through their teen years being taught to feel grossed out by the perfectly normal functions of their bodies — a consequence of the awkward, disconnected, overly medicalized health curriculum in schools.
Sexual education should be regarded as a critical learning objective in classrooms. We cannot expect the adults in society to practice healthy connections with themselves and others, make well-informed decisions on behalf of their bodies or maintain positive sexual and emotional relationships without learning how to do so as teens.
When given a platform to educate teens about their bodies and sexuality, teachers need to be thoughtful and exceedingly knowledgeable. Everything they say — or don’t say — when teaching the subject matters a great deal.