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Topics In Brief
Using a "sex-positive" approach to sexuality education can help youth develop personal values, self-esteem, a comfortable communication style, and responsible decision-making skills. Positive Sexuality, as we mean it here, is both an educational approach and an important outcome for healthy adolescents. This edition on Positive Sexuality includes:
- Definitions of Positive Sexuality
- An Overview of the Issues
- Information about What Educators Can Do
- More Information on Websites
Teaching Positive Sexuality to youth begins with values, honest communication, and straightforward, factual information. Positive Sexuality includes:
- an understanding of sexuality as a natural and healthy aspect of human life;
- knowledge of human sexuality and reproductive rights with which to make responsible choices;
- respectful communication and exchange of personal thoughts and feelings between partners; and
- practice of safe and mutually consensual sexual activity.
Overview of the Issues
Many youth (and adults) blame our culture for promoting a deafening silence around the subject of sex and sexuality. Some ridicule the over-simplified "just say no to sex" advice to teens. Additionally, many experts assert that our society's pregnancy and disease prevention efforts unintentionally promote "sex negativity." The subject of sex is more often discussed in a context of danger and fear than one of healthy pleasure and natural openness.
The goal of a comprehensive sexuality education program is to facilitate sexual health. One of the points to make in such a program is that sexual intercourse is only a small part, or expression, of human sexuality. According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), there are six key concepts related to human sexuality. These include:
- Human development (e.g., sexual development, reproduction)
- Relationships (e.g., intimacy, enhancing personal relationships)
- Personal skills (e.g., taking responsibility, decision-making, communication)
- Sexual behavior (e.g., expressing sexual feelings and sexuality)
- Sexual health (e.g., health promotion and disease prevention)
- Society and culture (e.g., tolerance for different sexual values and lifestyles)
(adapted from Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, SIECUS, 1993)
Therefore, our sexuality is more than what we do with another person sexually; it is a natural and vital part of who we are. Viewing sexuality as a natural human expression can affect an adolescent's social development and self-image as well as his or her reproductive health. Teens need accurate information and the tools to make informed choices that will help them avoid serious consequences including pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). As the Coalition for Positive Sexuality asserts, "All young people — those who are sexually active as well as those who are not — have a need for, and a right to, accurate, frank and positive information about sex."
What Educators Can Do
Promoting comprehensive sexuality education enables adolescents to become knowledgeable and to make healthier decisions that affect their lives. There are many ways that educators can promote what we call Positive Sexuality. Below are a few tips for educators:
- Help to create a safe setting for teens to learn and share. A safe and comfortable environment is important for the discussion of sexuality issues for youth as well as adults. It is generally easier to process information in an educational setting when teens feel safe enough to express their feelings without fear of judgement by adults and peers. Creating a safe environment by agreeing to groundrules — such as the right to pass (not speak up), the idea that there are no 'stupid questions,' and that 'put-downs' are not allowed — helps establish a general sense of comfort and openness.
- Provide straightforward and factual information. Popular misinformation about certain sexual behaviors should be corrected. For example, teens should know that masturbation will not lead to blindness or hair growth on their palms. On the other hand, many teens are kept in the dark about facts they may need. Educators can bring useful information to light. For example, if teens are not prepared and have unprotected sex anyway, they should be aware that there is something they can choose to do to avoid becoming pregnant. Emergency contraception is safe and effective, even after intercourse, if it is taken in time.
- Clarify your own values. All of us have values that we bring to the work we do. Some of those values, however, may be better left at the door before we enter into a discussion of sexuality with teens. Our own values and opinions should be separate from the factual information we provide to students. A priority for educators who teach adolescents is to facilitate their learning of accurate information rather than share our own personal opinions and values.
- Be aware of the messages you send. Educators should be conscious of their own negative messages, which can include verbal messages, non-verbal messages such as frowning, or other body language. Even subtle, non-verbal messages can feel judgmental or send a negative message to youth around you.
- Be inclusive and respectful of everyone's experience. Behaviors such as talking down to teens, excluding lesbians and gay youth by referring to sex as (only) penile-vaginal intercourse, or failing to address issues like sexual violence, homophobia, or abortion, ignore the experience of many youth (from the Coalition for Positive Sexuality: www.positive.org). Attitudes and behavior which ignore, deny, or 'put down' some youth can lead to emotional scarring. Youth must feel accepted by others to experience Positive Sexuality.
- Recognize and affirm the sexual rights of teens, which include:
- The right to accurate information about sexuality and HIV/AIDS;
- The right not to express your sexuality unless you want to;
- The right to say no to any unwanted touch of any kind;
- The right not to be pressured into being physical or sexual;
- The right to make decisions about sexuality, at any time;
- The right to stop being physical or sexual with a partner at any point; and
- The right to express sexuality safely, without risk of pregnancy, or sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS.
(adapted from SIECUS: www.siecus.org)
Websites to Check Out
Advocates for Youth
Ask Me Anything — Marty Klein, Ph.D.
- Coalition for Positive Sexuality (CPS)
Free Resources by Dr. Douglas Kirby
Go Ask Alice!: Sexual Health
Kinsey Institute for Sex, Gender, and Reproduction
National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy
P.E.R.S.O.N. Project — Public Education Regarding Sexual Orientation Nationally
Planned Parenthood Federation of America
Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS)
SHAPE (Sexual Health Advocate Peer Education)
Teen Outreach Reproductive Challenge (TORCH)