“What would happen in this scenario if both people have vaginas? How can two partners with penises stay safe during sex?”
This kind of language may be familiar to most queer readers interested in intersectionality and sexuality, but it’s not familiar to a lot of high school students. Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains’ sex education program would like to change that.
“This is something that we’ve been doing for about 30 years now,” explained Daniela Fellman, program manager of texting initiatives with the Responsible Sex Education Institute with PPRM. “It’s something we’ve always thought is a huge part of sexual health. Educating people, giving people developmentally appropriate, medically accurate sex ed, is an extension of creating healthy sexual lives, so it just made sense.”
PPRM realize that sex ed in 2018 is a complex topic. For one thing, not everyone is able to get the information they need, not even from school or parents. And for another, teens learn differently than their older peers. Being brought up in a world of smartphones, social media, and fast technology has changed the way they interact. For teens who prefer to text, and teens who may not be able to get the knowledge any other way, there is the In Case You’re Curious texting program. Teens can text sex ed questions to a licensed health professional and get answers back 24/7.
In addition to this program, they also offer sex ed within the classroom for schools that are open to the program. They mainly work with middle and high school students, and topics range from consent and healthy sexual relationships to STI awareness, birth control, puberty, and anatomy. These can be touchy subjects to talk about in the classroom, so the normal approach for sex ed is to split up the “boys” and “girls” and then proceed to talk about the dangers and risks of premarital sex. Planned Parenthood take a different approach.
“Before we start, we go over group guidelines to make sure we are creating as safe a space as possible, and so I think that’s one of the key places where we start,” Fellman said. “What are our expectations, and how are we going to make this a safe space for all learners? And then making sure we follow those group guidelines, because if we just say it, we aren’t creating a safe space, so that’s first and foremost what we teach. Creating those group guidelines so the students, the teachers, us as educators, know what to expect of each other.”
PPRM strongly discourage teachers from breaking up classrooms into male and female. Fellman explained that dividing students up this way can be traumatic for trans, nonbinary, or trans-questioning students when they have to choose one or the other, or get sorted into a category they don’t identify with. It also further perpetuates the attitude that sex is something dirty and taboo that shouldn’t be discussed in mixed company.
“Sexuality is throughout someone’s lifetime, whatever that looks like, so to pretend that our youth aren’t being sexual— it’s not realistic,” Fellman explained. “We want to make sure they are having the best information possible, so they have the tools to make the best decisions for themselves. We stray away from scare tactics, because we know they don’t work, and it’s not sex-positive to come at it from this perspective of, ‘STIs are scary, and if you get one it will ruin your life forever.’”
Fellman admits, however, that talking about sex and pleasure with youth can be tricky and a fine line to walk.
“I think one of the hardest parts about teaching sex ed is balancing the sexual health part and the pleasure piece of it, because I think that’s one of the things that can get really scary for collaborators and parents, the idea of talking about sex in a pleasurable way with youth,” Fellman admitted.
This may not seem like a novel approach, given the fact that many people in today’s society have embraced ideas of sex positivity when it comes to adults having sex. But the idea of being sex-positive with teens may seem like it encourages kids to have sex. However, that’s not the goal. The idea, as Fellman stresses, is not to encourage kids one way or the other. It’s to give them all the information available so that when they do have sex, whether that is during teenage years or during their 20s, they have a safe, consenting experience.
Another goal of PPRM’s is ensuring that everyone feels welcome and included. This definitely involves discussing same-sex and same-gender couples when they give examples of healthy and unhealthy relationships and answering questions about queer sexuality, but it goes further than that. The group chooses not to use the words “male” or “female” when talking about sex. Instead, they use “person with a penis” and “person with a vagina.”
“All of our scenarios include gender-neutral pronouns and names, making sure we are representing lots of different relationships to make sure everyone feels included and represented. When we do anatomy, we focus on the parts; we don’t talk about gender. It’s really cool, because the students then pick up that language, and then they say, ‘If someone has a penis, is this what they do?’ and it’s really neat to see how quickly students adapt to that kind of phrasing.”
With all of this knowledge, Planned Parenthood are teaching about more than sex when they go into a classroom. They are educating their students on intersectionality and inclusivity.
“For a long time, we said we keep the education values-neutral, but that’s not exactly true,” Fellman admitted. “We come in with the value that all people should be respected; that sex ed is important, and that not all families look the same, and that not everyone is going to fall into a binary. We do come in with our own values, and we want to leave space open for people who have never heard those values before.”