Yahoo Life’s School Report Card: Sex Education series examines what adolescents are being taught about sexuality — and why it's about more than the birds and the bees.
When Maura Keaney's oldest son was in fifth grade, she reached out to the parents of the other students in his class with an invitation: They were welcome to come to her home to meet a consultant who could address their concerns about talking to their children about sex, sexuality and gender expression, with a view to setting up a sex ed series independent from their New York City school.
"Almost the whole grade in that school ended up taking this series that we put together, because there was a lot of excitement and energy behind it," Keaney tells Yahoo Life. "I think parents realized that, you know, if we're going to spend money having our kids do soccer lessons outside of school or taking music classes or doing other enrichment activities ... those are important, but they're probably, frankly, far less likely to be used as grown-ups. Our kids are likely to engage in, as teens and as grown-ups, sexual activity, and we wanted them to have a really good base understanding."
The parents turned to therapist Alexis Bleich to lead the classes — some of which were co-ed, and others single gender — taking turns to host the meet-ups. Up until that point, Keaney's son, who is now 14, had yet to receive any form of sex ed at his public school, and his parents worried that "given the limitations schools have in terms of resources," he was unlikely to get a comprehensive debrief there. They also wanted to make sure that he was taught about things like puberty, sexuality and intercourse in a nuanced, inclusive and "non-judgmental" manner. Consent — which only 13 states currently require to be included within sex ed curriculum, according to the advocacy group SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) — was at the top of Keaney's required topics.
"I felt like it was important to make sure that my boys understood about periods and menstruation, and I think it's important for girls to understand about wet dreams," she says. "I thought it was important for them to kind of understand that in a way that was direct and not shameful, not in a way that was, like, secretive, or in a way that seemed to qualify things as good, bad, normal or abnormal. And I thought it was equally important that sexuality and gender be placed in that same realm as 'it's all good, it's all normal.'"
That's the approach that Melissa Pintor Carnagey takes when guiding families through the "sex talk" as the founder and lead educator for Sex Positive Families, a sexuality education platform that is based in Austin, Texas, but offers online resources to a wider audience. Along with "filling the gaps" left by school systems, Sex Positive Families' workshops — both live and self-paced — pledge to tackle an oft-taboo topic in an "honest, inclusive, shame-free" environment, according to its website. Carnagey notes that that's especially crucial at a time when "language is shifting and our understanding of identity and bodies is shifting."
"We are a go-to resource for parents that are looking to do things differently than they may have had growing up," the author of Sex Positive Talks to Have With Kids: A guide to raising sexually healthy, informed, empowered young people tells Yahoo Life. "This is not a new problem, as far as sex education being lacking and inconsistent. And nowadays, there's a lot more language and there is a lot more liberation around identity, sexual identity, sexual orientation, gender identity. And so there are a lot of grown-ups that are feeling a little confused around all of that."
She adds that many of the parents and caregivers she works with — some of whom themselves "identify across the gender galaxy and sexual identity galaxy" — are seeking to "raise a new generation that can embrace who they are, better understand who they are and also respect others in that regard."
Sex Positive Families' puberty workshops are designed for kids aged 8 to 12, but pivoting to virtual sessions amid the pandemic meant broadening their reach to families; Carnagey jokes that her audience now includes not only parents or other "trusted adults" but also grandparents, pets and breastfeeding babies. Most importantly, the workshops are not divided by gender.
"We believe that by providing an inclusive and gender-inclusive experience, you're helping to send a message to the young person that they deserve to know not just what happens to their body or what may be happening to their body, but to other people's bodies that may not look like theirs or be developing the same way," Carnagey, a mother of three, says. "Because they're going to be curious — and the best message to send them is that they can be curious, especially with their trusted adults. That helps them be less likely to go to, you know, Google, or porn online."
Tolly Moseley, also based in Austin, is one of the parents who has sought out Sex Positive Families for resources and scripts to help guide conversations about sex, identity and consent with her 8-year-old daughter. A chief content producer for the podcast Sex with Emily, Moseley credits her own relatively recent involvement with the sex-positive community over the past few years with helping her unpack and offload some of the shame she carried from her "very Christian" upbringing and experience with fear-based school sex ed.
"My sex ed was a joke," she tells Yahoo Life. "I was just convinced that if I did anything ... like I could get an STD or I would get pregnant." She and her husband didn't want that for their child.
"I always knew I wanted it to be different for her," Moseley says. "I don't even really believe in having just 'the sex talk.' I knew that probably a more authentic way to go about all this would have it be an ongoing conversation and to build credibility. With your child, it's not just, like, talking about sex early; it's having a good relationship so that you've got cred whenever they come to you with questions."
Given their daughter's age, Moseley and her husband are currently trying to "build some scaffolding" before she encounters school sex ed and more explicit discussions. So far that that has included conversations about the end of Roe v. Wade and the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation — two issues that are particularly significant in their home state of Texas, where transgender youths are increasingly under threat and a trigger law banning almost all abortions went into effect in late August. Moseley has also talked to her daughter about dealing with crushes, and has made an effort to give the child more agency when it comes to touch. Modeling consent is important, as is being able to identify pleasure.
"This is the area that I think sex ed in schools just will not ever touch, is pleasure," she says. "Like, do you like this form of touch? Do you like being tickled? Do you like me rubbing your leg? No? I won't do it. Or, do you like it for a certain time and then want me to stop? [I'm] kind of trying to build that sensibility between us to hopefully help her understand that she can have that internal recognition going forward of what touch feels good and what touch doesn't."
Moseley plans to enroll her daughter in more workshops in the coming years, along with continuing to set a shame-free example with her husband. "I've never thought that school would be the place where my child would learn quality sex education," she says. Indeed, as school sex ed continues to become a lightning rod for dissent and controversy — insufficient and antiquated for some parents, too provocative for others — educators, therapists and organizations are rising up to fill the gaps. Many, like the Talk NYC, offer a more progressive alternative to the rote birds-and-bees conversations, while others, including the bilingual Mi Cuerpo Mi Body, are also working to move past cultural or religious taboos.
Mindful that her daughter, now 10, would soon be experiencing puberty, Chicago mom JoAnna Fernandez didn't seek out an outside sex educator — she became one herself.
"I'm glad that I've taken this journey so that I can be a credible source of information for my daughter," says Fernandez, who is currently working towards her second certification as a sex coach. "Because here's the thing: Sex education does start at home. We know that when it comes to children and their time at home, the things that they see at home have a major impact ... I'd rather my daughter know that she can come to me and ask me myriad questions without feeling shamed or embarrassed or asking someone that doesn't know her as well. I'm going to give her the truth in a way that she can comprehend at her age."
Fernandez believes part of the problem with most school-led sex ed curriculum is the widespread shame surrounding sex, even for adults; you can't teach what you aren't comfortable discussing. As a sex coach and founder of the PrHOEvocative podcast, she is working to help others move past that shame. As a mom whose professional studies have included an entire curriculum on speaking to kids about sex, she's correcting the misconceptions her daughter has already picked up in school — "literally up until a week ago, she didn't know that two women couldn't [biologically conceive] a baby together" — and filling those gaps in knowledge.
"There's so much bad information out there and it's so easily accessible, and I want to be the person that balances it out in a healthy and safe environment," she explains. "Of course we don't talk about sex every day or every week, for that matter. But I do, when appropriate and when natural, ask certain questions ... I ask her things so that I can kind of get a sense of, OK, this is what she knows about it. Is that accurate or can I elaborate on it? And does it make sense to elaborate at that time?"
Fernandez has a unique perspective not only as a sex coach, but as someone who became sexually active at 14, was a victim of sexual abuse and then became pregnant at 16, ultimately terminating the pregnancy. She remembers her "heartbroken" mother crying when she found out she was having sex, and later ripping up her prescription for birth control. "I continued to hide things from her because of the disappointment, because of the shame," she says now.
Like Moseley, she wants more for her daughter than that shame, coupled with an unremarkable school sex ed experience ("they didn't teach us how to put on condoms or anything like that ... we took a test and that was it").
"I don't want my daughter to explore anything on her own," Fernandez says. "I want her to ask questions. I want her to be curious. I want her to trust that she can come to me first."
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