Sex Education in a new era: it might be your job too

  • Elementary
  • High School
  • Middle School
Irene Smith

Walter Cronkite was a famous CBS News anchorman who ended every broadcast with, “And that’s the way it is.” About his catch phrase, he said, “To me, that encapsulates the newsman’s highest ideal: to report the facts as he sees them, without regard for the consequences or controversy that may ensue.”

I truly care about my students; they are more to me than guests in my classroom. Each individual is precious beyond measure. I recognize that their future happiness will be affected by their relationships and sexual interactions. Schools promote the common good of society.

Sex Education must change with the times

I’ve been the middle school sex education teacher at my public school for almost two decades.  Over the years, I’ve complied with the Healthy Youth Act and used the district required curriculum, Family Living and Sexual Health (FLASH) and the HIV/STI curriculum {KNOW.) These materials include the expectation that the teacher answers anonymous student questions. Over the years, I’ve observed those questions change dramatically from “How does the baby come out?” to “Why do people want bigger penises?” to “What is the XYZ sex act?” I’ve used research and the medical community to help provide accurate answers to their honest questions and to help prepare them for healthy decision making. Happiness and/or a great deal of unhappiness over the course of one’s life can be connected directly to sexual choices, whether made by oneself or others.

Changes in technology have affected the way we acquire information and how we interact with others. Substance abuse and compulsive behavior are influenced by our modern way of living.

According to the 2018 Washington Healthy Youth Survey, anxiety and depression are leading more and more Washington young people to attempt suicide, with the highest percentages being among LGBQT students. Damaged hopes, dreams, and shattered lives are often left in the wake. Sex abuse, sexual harassment, bullying, and confusion over consent is increasing. Sex education is crucial, particularly if we wish to address disparate outcomes for students with varied backgrounds and experiences.

Currently the Washington State Sexual Health Study Group is putting together recommendations for improving education. According to their materials, a state survey revealed that only 22% of students said they got what they needed or wanted from their school’s sex education program. Twenty-one percent of students said they first learned about sexual topics from pornography and 20-41% either could not talk about this topic to a trusted adult or were unsure if they could. Over 9% of 8th grade students participated in some sort of sexual activity and 12% had been harassed over sexual orientation. Four percent of students indicated that their first age of sex was 12 years old or younger. Over 25% of high school seniors said that they had been in a situation where someone forced them to engage in unwanted kissing, sexual touch, or intercourse, and 32% had witnessed some type of sexual coercion. These and other facts are concerning.

The way I see it 

My suggestions for improving sex education are centered in a sexual health class setting, but most of them can be and are implemented in other arenas, formally and informally. For example, media literacy can and should be taught in English Language Arts classes and Library, Media, or Computer classes. Relationship skills can be modeled and taught anywhere and anytime.

To effectively teach students about sexual matters, it is important to provide a more comprehensive approach that honors individuals’ right to choose and strongly encourages the healthiest choices. Information is power. Truthful information provided by someone who cares has positive power.

1.    Teach about the role of brain chemistry in the reproductive system and dispel misconceptions

Traditional sex education programs limit themselves to the mechanics of reproductive organs and fail to note the role of brain chemistry in sexual activity. Human brains have an automatic response to sexual stimuli, which is heightened in puberty. Young people may feel guilty for places their brain goes automatically and may not realize how to respond when unwanted or unexpected thoughts or reactions occur. Trauma can be the result of fear/horror/shame accompanying sexual response, particularly if it occurs before the person is developmentally ready for the experience. Teachers of any subject can help students understand how their brain functions and how to move from their automatic limbic system to their thoughtful prefrontal cortex. This is empowering, particularly for trauma survivors.

Despite the extreme likelihood of exposure to pornography these days, young people are often unaware of the growing research about pornography’s effects on the brain. Some (including parents) may believe that pornography is a useful way to teach sexual information. Despite being illegal for young people, pornography use is widespread. It perpetuates damaging misconceptions, and it has recognizable negative effects for the user and society. Associated with loneliness and objectification of women, pornography can damage healthy sexual relationships and cause sexual dysfunction. Violence and sexuality are commonly paired in images, games, and popular media, including books. It is an attention grabbing strategy that works on our subconscious, but is likely to be influencing some anti-social behavior and attitudes about what sexual partners want and expect. Student sexting and sharing of nude photos can lead to legal and other troubles. Vulnerable youth often engage in secretive behavior that predisposes them to harm, damages their ability to have caring relationships, and even strengthens fear of those who wish to help them. Early sexual experiences shouldn’t be something they have to get over. There is concern that young women in particular are having very negative first encounters.

Care must be taken to discuss issues such as these in a developmentally appropriate way without ignoring the likely reality of exposure to online sexual material. Media literacy and online safety education can support healthy approaches and critical thinking about the information that surrounds us and how to respond when unwanted material appears on their screens.

2.    Teach them about body image, self-compassion, and connection

Throughout our lives, but especially in adolescence, we are hyper concerned about what others are thinking of us. Even when we say we don’t care, we are looking for ways to be unique and to fit in. Adolescents search for “their people,” for belonging, even when that belonging is as an “outsider” with other outsiders commenting on the ridiculousness of others. Research shows us that loneliness is toxic in the long run. The quality of our relationships may well dictate the length of our lives and our mental health at the end.

We can help students find a sense of belonging while helping them recognize that they are normal just the way they are.  There is a wide range of normal, whether it’s beginning puberty at 7 or 15. It’s normal to not look like a magazine model.  It’s normal to wonder about your gender and your body’s attractiveness to others. Knowing you are normal in yourself and in your wondering can be calming and help you deal with insecurities. Everyone has insecurities, but the growing number of young people who are agonizing over who they are and what others expect of them is becoming alarming.

As students grapple with questions about their identity, their value, and their capacity to connect with others, educators can encourage them to be patient and learn self-compassion as they develop social skills and confidence. Teachers can help them appreciate who they are right now, the body they currently inhabit, and the strengths they bring. We are preparing them for a future with many decisions, most of which they don’t need to make right away despite the timeless desire of youth to grow up too fast.

Teaching students about forming positive relationships and connection are key to helping students make healthy choices for happy futures, particularly if their own experiences are not providing them with healthy models. Schools can help students learn how to be comfortable with solitude and with others, to give and receive respectfully, how to agree and disagree civilly and without danger, how to appreciate others, how to risk vulnerability and trust, how to recognize true caring and deceitful manipulation, and how to deal with loneliness, humiliation, betrayal, and rejection.

3.    Teach positively about pregnancy and children

I’ve become alarmed over the last few years to regularly hear students say that forming a family and having children is a bad thing.

Research and life experience teach us that this simply isn’t true for the vast majority of people. If our young people are to grow into healthy adults, they need to see the joyfulness of a multi-age society. They are unlikely to be able to form a perpetually intact friends group that satisfies all of their needs for belonging and caring. Yet, their school experiences and media may suggest that this is what the future holds. We should not be a part of discouraging young people from family life and the immeasurable value of children and youth.

Instead, we should teach healthy ways of interacting with others of varying ages, and the reality of pregnancy and parenting which include a multitude of joys as well as difficulties. We can encourage them that human brains are wired for connection and we find the greatest sense of safety and peace in healthy family settings. Connections provide our greatest sense of purpose and meaning in a world that is increasingly disconnected.

Caring for a sack of sugar or a mechanical doll are not equal substitutes for parenting experiences. Schools should work harder at facilitating students’ interactions with adults, seniors, and children in relevant community based experiences.

4.    Teach about choices and agency when teaching about the dangers

Most of us have experienced the “scared straight” method of sexual education- death, disease, pregnancy. These are truthful possible outcomes. Nevertheless, this focus has led students to dismiss the real possibilities as scare tactics adults use to prevent them from having fun. By neglecting the obvious truth that sexual activity is pleasurable- our brains have evolved to ensure the continuity of human survival- we risk losing our students’ attention to what they can and should do to act responsibly when sexual decisions are to be made and human connections are involved. 

A person’s consent must be clear when sexual activity is initiated and ongoing. This is not as easy as it sounds. Nevertheless, it is not the situation or expectations or feelings, but the words that matter here. “No” always means no. Unless students have had a conversation about alcohol and other pressure factors, they may not be prepared to recognize issues of consent. ELA and other teachers can also support students in strengthening their self-advocacy communication skills.

Adolescents are attempting to figure things out.  Teachers are there to assist them but not make their decisions for them. Students should be empowered to know what mistakes are possible and how they can come back from mistakes. We all make poor decisions in a variety of areas in our lives, but when students understand the stakes and they are free to choose, they tend to make better choices and don’t allow others to make those choices for them.  Fear can make them feel powerless, whereas, understanding can help them feel prepared and vigilant rather than reckless.

This empowerment encourages them to speak up for others as well as themselves.

Adjusting to change is challenging but hopeful

Our future, our common good, depends on literate, thoughtful decision makers. We have the privilege of teaching them today. As we adjust our teaching to the needs of the times, to the needs of society and the peace and happiness of future adults, we can make a positive difference for a more equitable society. And “that’s the way it is.”


Useful Resources and Links:       


National Health Education standards

“Youth at Risk, the need for Sexual Health Education in Schools”

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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Irene Smith Board

National Board Certified Teacher at Discovery Lab School

Irene Smith teaches middle school Language Arts and Social Studies to clever, interesting, and energetic students.She is married to her best friend, Brad, and they have five grown up children.She loves backpacking on the Olympic Peninsula, spending time with her grandchildren, reading and writing books, and going to Shakespeare plays.

Twitter: @TeachLearnHope