Interview on Ravishly about Sex Education

Original article found on www.Ravishly.com

GIGI ENGLE | 03.6.17 12:01AM

It’s no secret that sex ed is a mess.

Children are not getting the educations they need to thrive. STD rates are at an all-time high, many schools are still rigidly teaching abstinence and nothing else, and others aren’t even required to be scientifically correct when teaching about sex.

We need to change the conversations we’re having around sex, and the things we’re teaching young people about sexuality. And to do so, we need to give the people who know what they’re talking about more of a voice. Enter Melisa Garber, a New York-based sex-ed teacher, who filled me in on what she’s going through, what needs to change, and how to get there.

What made you want to be a sex ed teacher?

From a young age I had always been interested in why it was taboo to discuss sexuality, but it wasn’t until college that I began to think of sex education as a possible career. I interned with the sexual health peer advising program at my college known as the “sexperts,” and began organizing sex-positive workshops and events around campus.

After I graduated, I worked in HIV/AIDS advocacy for some years, eventually going back to school to get a Master’s Degree in Public Health, with a focus on sexuality and health. It was at this point, while taking a class on the pedagogy of sex education, that I thought about teaching younger kids and starting these conversations early.

What ages do you teach?

I primarily teach middle school, so fifth through eighth grade. But I also teach a seminar in the high school about art and activism surrounding HIV/AIDS in the 1980s.

What do you remember most about your experience in sex ed as a kid?

I remember in fifth grade when we were separated by gender and shown a really old video on puberty. It didn’t explain much, and we didn’t have any time to address questions afterward. The subject was never mentioned again until high school when we had to take one semester of health class. But I remember it mainly focused on drugs and alcohol.

Luckily, I grew up in a pretty sex-positive household, and my dad is a doctor so I could talk to him.

How does what you teach differ from what you learned about sex growing up?

I try to address aspects of sexuality straight on. I make sure that kids learn about sexual autonomy, pleasure, consent, physical and romantic attraction, as well as contraception, ways to prevent infections, and communication skills.

I think it’s important to empower adolescents to make informed choices when it comes to their sexual identities without policing their behavior and assuming that they can’t handle these type of conversations.

What is the most important thing you teach your students?

Hopefully, that they matter.

That may seem like a weird answer, but in my interactions with my students I try to give them a safe space to have their voices heard. I don’t teach at them, I teach with them. So many sex-ed programs focus on ways to prevent adolescents from engaging in risky behavior, instead of meeting them where they are and trusting them to make smart decisions about their sexual health.

When I researched a number of evidence-based, sex-education curricula during my master’s program, I couldn’t find any that mentioned sex feeling good or being a positive experience. What kind of message does that send to these kids?

I also couldn’t find many programs that were inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities beyond using the term “sexual partner.” It’s important for me to utilize inclusive language, such as “internal” and “external” condoms instead of male and female condoms, as well as discussing dental dams. I’ve even shown students how to make a dental dam out of a condom.

What are students most curious about in sex-ed class?

I guess that depends on the age… The younger kids are more curious about whether puberty hurts and why their bodies are changing so much. The older kids are more curious about relationships and how to know when consent isn’t being clearly communicated.

I’ve also had some boys ask why most contraceptive methods are directed toward female-bodied individuals, and male-bodied people rely solely on condoms.

What is the most awkward thing a student has ever asked?

My first year teaching I was asked, “Does anal sex feel like taking a shit?” I knew I had found my calling when I managed to respond without laughing and say that anal sex feels differently for different people.

I explained that some people may enjoy it and others may not, some people who have prostates might like the stimulation, but it varies, so the main thing is to check in and make sure that you and your partner are clearly communicating what feels good and what doesn’t.

Why do you teach about pleasure?

If we don’t teach students about pleasure, we risk raising individuals who engage in sexual behaviors they do not enjoy, which distances them further from understanding their bodies. It’s important for adolescents to know that there are parts of their bodies that serve the purpose of feeling pleasure, so that if something doesn’t feel good, they know they have the right to say so and better guide their partner.

What do you feel is the one aspect of sex ed that we’re failing to teach our children?

We are definitely falling short when it comes to discussing sexual autonomy, pleasure, and consent. Very few programs, if any, include masturbation — but it is important that we not only explain that masturbation is a normal behavior (even infants and toddlers are known to touch their genitals) but that it’s also a great way to explore your body and how you like to be touched.

What are your thoughts on abstinence-only education?

I find it to be extremely ineffective and possibly damaging to our youth. When adolescents are only being told to abstain until marriage, they are running the risk of never learning about contraception or sexually transmitted infections, thus increasing the likelihood of teen pregnancy and infection. I believe the reason that abstinence-only education is so rampant across the U.S. is because some adults do not believe that, when given all the information, adolescents will make smart choices. I can tell you first-hand that this is faulty logic and untrue.

Where does the law come in where sexual education is concerned?

As of right now, it is up to the states to mandate what kind of sex education program, if any, they want to be implemented. These mandates vary across state lines, with some requiring abstinence-only education be taught, and others specifying that the information provided be medically accurate. You can learn more about this from the Guttmacher Institute.

What societal ills could be repaired by comprehensive sex ed for young people?

Planned Parenthood had shared a link [on Facebook] to an Everyday Feminism article that urged people to use inclusive language when discussing abortion, as not everyone who has a uterus identifies as a woman.

When I looked at the comments, I was shocked by the amount of transphobic hatred that was being spewed! I couldn’t understand how people who supposedly support Planned Parenthood (by liking their Facebook page) could be so closed-minded and hateful. I knew that my students would never say these things, as they have a very clear understanding of the differences between sex assignment at birth and gender identity. They know that there are girls with penises and boys with vulvas and genderqueer non-binary people, too.

There would be a lot more understanding and compassion if we had comprehensive sex education early on. Perhaps people’s perceptions of gender and sexuality would be less fixed, leading to less violence.

In the meantime, I feel good knowing that I’m doing my small part.

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Is the US failing at sex education?

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People are usually shocked when I tell them I’m a sex education teacher. I try to picture just what they imagine my day-to-day must look like as they stare back at me wide-eyed, some totally impressed and others utterly perplexed. Their expressions vary, but I usually attribute their reactions to their personal sex ed experiences, which determines whether or not they immediately jump to a mental image of me holding a condom in one hand and a banana in the other.

The truth is, most people have no idea what I do. Saying “I teach sex ed” doesn’t really explain much, since sex education can cover a wide assortment of topics taught in a variety of styles depending on the school and state. The reason for this diversity is that “sex education” actually has a different definition in every state.

Sex ed for all? Not so much…
First off, it’s important to understand that there is no federal mandate for sex education, meaning that it is up to individual states to decide whether or not they want to require schools to teach this subject. It is also up to each state to choose the method, curriculum, and length of the education provided. Some states may choose to hire outside organizations to come in and teach their students the specified material, while others may assign this task to existing science or physical education teachers. There are also states that require teachers be given appropriate training and materials that have been approved by the local board of education.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, currently, 36 states and D.C. mandate that HIV and/or sex education be taught in schools. Although 22 of those states, as well as DC, provide both forms of education, that leaves 12 states that solely provide HIV education and can do so without having to specify prevention methods like using condoms or getting tested. It’s also worth mentioning that even if you do live in a state that provides HIV or sex education, parents can still opt-out their child from participating.

No sex for you!
Whether or not they teach HIV or sex education, most states (39 to be exact) require that information on abstinence be provided to students. This means there are more schools teaching how to refrain from having sex altogether than teaching about safe sex practices and consent. This is because some states choose to implement federally-funded abstinence-only education programs that focus primarily on preventing teens from engaging in any sexual activity before marriage. In these abstinence-only programs teachers cannot promote contraceptive use and some curricula even go as far as to include virginity pledges where adolescents promise to abstain from sex until marriage.

While the assumption is that these programs will lower teen pregnancy and STI rates, research has shown them to be largely ineffective. One studyindicated that there was a higher average teen pregnancy and birth rate in states that more strongly emphasized abstinence than in states that taught comprehensive sex education. Some abstinence-only curricula have even been evaluated and shown to include medically-inaccurate information on contraceptive failure rates, abortion, and sexually transmitted infections, stating things like “HIV can pass through a condom because the latex is porous.”

As for the 20 states that require accurate information on condoms be provided, even they may be banned from providing demonstrations on how to properly use them. Only last year did New York City start allowing condom demonstrations in public schools.

Horrified yet? Don’t worry, plenty of us are trying to change this! Even President Obama has already proposed an increase in funding for medically-accurate and age-appropriate sex education for the next fiscal year, as well as cutting the funding for abstinence-only education.

So what should we be teaching?
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most effective form of sex education is a comprehensive curriculum that goes beyond preventing diseases or conception. These programs should also cover healthy relationships, communication skills, bodily autonomy, andpleasure. It should also be inclusive with language relevant to people of all genders and sexual orientations, as well as information that applies to people who identify as asexual or gender variant. It should be sex-positive and body-positive, void of shame and policing.

This might seem like a tall order, but there are already great resources out there, like Advocates for Youth’s Sex Ed Resource Center, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States’s (SIECUS) online Sex Ed Library, and Planned Parenthood among others. There are also plenty more organizations that are fighting for more comprehensive sex education. Interested? You can see a full list here.

Are things that bad?
Some of you may be wondering if this is even the schools’ responsibility. Shouldn’t parents be having these conversations with their kids? And are things that bad that we have to make condoms readily available to teens?

The truth is that adolescents are waiting longer to have sex and teen pregnancy rates in the US are at an all-time low. Nevertheless, our rates are the highest of the industrialized world; three times that of Germany and France, and over four times that of the Netherlands. Additionally, while youth (between the ages of 15-24) make up only 25% of the sexually-active population, they account for half of all new sexually transmitted infectionsin the US.

Parents should definitely be talking to their children about these topics, andthe majority actually do. But they also want their kids to be taught this information in school. Moreover, we can attribute the decline in teen pregnancy rates to the increase in contraceptive use, further emphasizing the need to include this information in sex ed programs.

When I say “I teach sex ed,” I mean that I teach my students that their bodies are beautiful and that they are entitled to sexual rights. My hope is that beyond the diagrams of the clitoris and pictures of dental dams, my students are actually absorbing deeper life lessons in the classroom, like there’s no shame in asking these questions and that they are entitled to this knowledge.

Original blog post appeared on LOLA’s Blog: The Broadcast  on