Whenever I present to a roomful of parents, I ask about hopes and fears for their child’s sexual development. Almost universally, parents are scared of unwanted pregnancy, STDs or assault. And most hope that their kids grow up to have good, loving relationships in which they are treated well.
Sex education typically focuses on preventing the fears and presenting the facts — on anatomy, birth control and STDs. Thanks to a bill passed in 2018, schools in Maryland must now also cover consent.
However, the emphasis on how to avoid the things we fear — rape, unintended pregnancy, HIV — almost always outweighs the social-emotional learning necessary to get young people into the healthy, respectful relationships we hope they grow up to have.
While knowledge is essential to maintaining sexual health, teens must also learn and practice skills necessary for healthy relationships — skills like communication and boundary setting.
I recently worked with a group of young teens and, as is best practice, had an anonymous question box for participants to submit questions too embarrassing to ask in front of their peers. In my 15 years of experience teaching sex ed, the most sensitive concerns center around navigating the new territory of identity and relationships.
The burning questions they asked were not about condoms or abortion or which STDs are curable, but about the new social interactions that, as burgeoning adults, they are beginning to face. They wanted to know: “What if you like someone but they like your friend?” And: “When do you know how/if to kiss someone?” And: “How do I tell someone I’m asexual without being awkward?” And: “What if someone is following you around school and you don’t like it?”
Many of these questions don’t have easy answers at any age. The best way to find out if someone wants to kiss is also the scariest way, which is to just ask. And all too often, our crushes like someone else.
Adolescence is about breaking the protective family shell and trying new social interactions, seeing what happens and adapting accordingly — unfriending the person who refuses to use your preferred pronouns or telling someone when they’ve violated your boundaries. In order for teens to develop the skills needed for healthy relationships, sex education must create an environment in which they can pose questions to an askable adult and have their concerns taken seriously.
In the age of #MeToo, many parents, legislators, teachers and administrators reflexively want to protect teens from sexual harassment and assault. This is good policy — just ask any university that’s been investigated for Title IX violations. But sex education provided in response to fear cannot meet the developmental needs of teens and young adults. Young people don’t usually ask questions like, “How can I avoid being raped?” They ask: “How do I tell someone if I’m not ready to have sex?”
Romantic relationships are among the most complex human interactions, and while things like unintended pregnancy, assault and HIV do happen, fears are not what motivate teens — feelings do. To avoid any of these outcomes, young people must not only learn the relevant facts, but identify their values, draw boundaries and learn — and practice — communication skills necessary to negotiate what they want.
Because of the private nature of skills taught in sex ed, it’s incredibly hard to measure learning — there is no behind-the-wheel test like driver’s ed where a trained professional can assess how well prepared a teen is to negotiate sexual boundaries or put on a condom correctly. While many subjects are rarely used outside of school, relationship skills will be used by almost everyone throughout life.
Sex education can be so much more than blush-inducing diagrams, eye-popping pictures and fear-inducing statistics. The most pressing questions that teens have — those about crushes, rejection, identity and relationships — are the hardest to answer because we can’t simply lean on facts. As adults who’ve run the gauntlet of adolescence, we want the best for young people. This year, whether you are a parent, teacher or administrator, resolve to ask the teens in your life what questions they have —and prepare to be surprised by what they want to know.
Guli Fager is a Baltimore-based independent sexuality educator, trainer and consultant who has worked throughout the United States. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.