Sex Education

True or false: sexual education is very inaccessible, underwhelming and needs to be reformed immediately.

I think most people would agree that it’s true.

The state of sexual education in the United States of America has so many faults, including the fact that it’s taught from a cisgender-heterosexual point of view and, many times, it’s abstinence-only education. However, one of the things that is often left out of the conversation is having trauma-informed sexual education.

What does it mean when sexual education is “trauma informed?” It means understanding a few things:

  • The definition of trauma, which describes a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, as well as the emotional shock following a stressful event. Examples include:  childhood sexual assault, attacks fueled by racism or witnessing intimate partner violence in the home.
  • Lots of people have experienced trauma, whether sexual or not.
  • Children and teenagers can be survivors of trauma, not just adults.
  • No one reacts to trauma the same way, but any trauma can influence how one is able to react to a variety of situations.
  • Sexual education is not as simple as many want to make it out to be, because everyone has unique experiences (some of them traumatic) that affect how they approach intimacy and sexuality.

Here are topics to be addressed when thinking about implementing trauma-informed sexual education. Whether as a one-time thing or continously, it’s important to address these:

1. “Good Touch vs. Bad Touch”

Growing up with the limited sexual education that I did get, there were sometimes conversations about “good touch vs. bad touch.” The idea was to start to have a conversation about consent. They would have discussions about, if someone touched you in a certain way, how to address it if you felt it was “bad touch.”

While it is well meaning, it’s a bit oversimplified. In some cases, youth who are experiencing or have experienced trauma will condition themselves to think of a “bad touch” as a “good touch” — as a coping mechanism. On top of that, a lot of youth who experience trauma may come away thinking every single touch is a form of “bad touch.” Trauma survivors might respond to touch by flinching, screaming, scooting away or crying. At the home, older people (especially caregivers) might read this as disrespectful instead of a potential response to trauma for a variety of reasons.

Related: 5 Great Books for Making Sense of Trauma

While it is important to discuss different forms of touch with people, it is also important to validate young people and constantly check in with them, if their reactions are deemed something other than a normal response. On top of that,  it’s important to assure the young person that it’s OK to not want to be touched at all for a variety reasons (such as trauma, or perhaps just not liking it) — it affirms their need to have consent to be valued and understood.

Understanding that consent is not a monolith and figuring out ways to dismantle the binary of “good touch” and “bad touch”  is important to trauma-informed consent, because it also takes into account that every experience is different and that some people might be conditioned, due to trauma, to not have the ability to differentiate between different kinds of touch.

2. “Age Appropriate” Education

The term “age appropriate” is constantly mentioned when discussing sexual education. It comes up when curricula are being tailored towards a certain group, or when people who are pro-abstinence-only education discussing that young people should not be exposed to other types of sexual education.

Asking if something is age-appropriate is important in trauma-informed sexual education, because some age groups that might be getting this education might not even know what the word “trauma” is. Even though it is important to make sure that sexual education can be and is trauma-informed, it’s also important that the educator(s) tailor their language to certain age groups when talking about addressing this.

This sometimes means not mentioning the word “trauma.” This can sound a bit difficult, but it has been commonly done in different fields of work, especially in classes like science or social studies, where people might understand what’s going on but aren’t able to access certain language for a variety of reasons.

Some of these reasons that intersect with “age appropriate” material includes:

  • Language barriers (English is not the student’s first language).
  • Cultural barriers.
  • Class issues (lower funding in schools).

Understanding that these are possible reasons to also think about “age appropriate” conversations around trauma-based sexual education can also help you understand why it’s important to address the issue, but also recognize access to language.

What Does this Mean?

Trauma-informed sexual education is important to have and it’s more likely it will be taught from an intersectional point of view. Having sexual education to be more trauma-informed also means educators are putting in the effort to understand unique experiences. It means understanding how all aspects of mental health play a part in how people process the information they receive in sexual-education programs.

By addressing trauma in sexual education, the educator might be giving someone the tools to address their trauma in ways they couldn’t before — by giving them accessible language and tools to do so.

And that is one way to make sexual education radical.

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