In American culture, it’s considered inappropriate to talk openly about certain topics, such as sex, money, and religion. In this “Talking About” series, we’ll be publishing interviews with Oregonians who have interesting things to say about these supposedly taboo topics.
Emily Squires facilitates the Conversation Project program “Listening to Young People,” which asks participants to explore their own beliefs about what it means to be young and to reflect on their individual relationship to power as it relates to age. I talked with Emily about about how we talk about sex in our public schools and what effects that has on the ways young people view and talk about sex and health.
You do a lot of work with young people. From that perspective, why do you see public school sex education as an important place to focus on changing the way we talk about sex?
In my experience, when our public education system is functioning at its best, it’s a place where students can be their most fully realized, authentic selves with enough safety to do that—although no place is totally safe. Ideally, education in our public schools is a way to be free and liberated. The purpose of the public school system was to train workers. So, I understand that self-realization wasn’t necessarily why public schools were created, but when I think about the role education plays for me, it’s about self-actualization and freedom. When young people go to school, they need resources, information, and visions of themselves in what they learn in order to figure out how to reach this completely authentic self. They also need mentors, people to talk to, and places where they can ask questions and work out their identities.
To me, health includes talking about things like gender and sexuality, not just the nitty-gritty details of how to stay safe while having sex. This is especially important since we know that different identities are social determinants of health. Health is not just about condoms. I think health curriculum that really addresses the full selves of young people is an important part of education anywhere because it is one way for young people to get to know themselves better.
I have talked to many parents who think their children should not be talking about these things in school. That’s a different cultural perspective than I hold, and I’m not here to say that’s not valid. But for me, school is a place where that can happen. People get messages from lots of places, so we are foolish to think that if we don’t talk with kids about health and sex in our families or at school, that kids aren’t going to be talking about it at all. It is all over the internet, and pornography is easier to get than ever before. Young people talk about health. Whether we like it or not, they are talking about it.
How would you say the internet has changed young people’s ability to learn about sex, whether in a positive, healthy, and inclusive way or in an unhealthy way?
I think the internet, like many things, is a tool. It is very powerful. It can make people feel more connected because they feel less alienated and lonely. If you are a young person and you are having thoughts, feelings, or questions about sex and you don’t have anyone to talk to about them, you can find things on the internet that might be able to answer your questions and might make you feel less isolated. That’s super awesome, but there’s also a lot of misinformation that can be harmful on the internet. There is a whole other track of research on the messages that most pornography is sending, not necessarily just about sex, but about consent, violence, and relationships. This is another reason why talking to young people—through whatever filter or context you want to do it in—about health and about sex is so important. People do have access to the internet and are using it. There is just as much misinformation on the internet as there is helpful information. I think human-to-human conversations about these topics is a way to counterbalance the anonymity of the internet.
Why is it important that young people are comfortable talking about sex?
There is more than one way to talk about sex. If you are actively having sex, let’s talk about harm reduction. Are you staying safe? What are the logistical tools you need to keep you safe? Conversations about sex are often reduced to this. However, there is a lot of other stuff that should be included in these conversations. When talking about sex with young people, I spend a lot of time having complicated conversations about things like consent. Consent isn’t something that only shows up in intimate partner relationships. It shows up in our friendships and our workplaces. Talking about healthy relationships is another facet of sex. Often relationships can get reduced to being about sex, but we are all in many different types of relationships.
For me, talking to young people about sex is in part about support, tools, and access to things that will keep them safe—if having sex is a choice that they’re making—but it is also about these questions that are applicable throughout their whole lives as realized beings. For example, who do they want to be in their relationships? How do they want to feel in those relationships? What are the ways that make them feel like their most authentic selves in their relationships? Do they feel comfortable talking to people—whether it’s their partner or their best friend—about something that makes them uncomfortable? Those are life skills.
When I went through high school sex education four years ago, my teacher had a very sterile approach to teaching us about sex. He gave the impression that he wasn’t completely comfortable talking to students about sex. In your experience, are health teachers uncomfortable talking about sex? What about other topics that are also important to talk about when talking about health, such as LGBTQ issues?
The problem isn’t that teachers are uncomfortable talking about LGBTQ issues, queer issues, or health more broadly. It is more that they didn’t want to do it wrong or provide inaccurate information. As educators, they hadn’t had the support or tools they felt they needed to do it justice for the young people represented in their classrooms.
Many teachers are totally happy to talk to teenagers about sex, but they don’t have a lot of the information that young people need and are going to ask about. I generally found people really wanted to be responsible about it, and part of being responsible when teaching health is having lots of information that isn’t provided in typical health curriculum.
Curriculum has power: Who wrote the curriculum? Where did it come from? It doesn’t come without values. Is it culturally relevant? Is it relevant to this time? Is it connected to the issues that young people face these days? All of those things need to be asked when thinking about curricula for all classes, especially health.
If you could give one piece of advice for having productive, healthy, and inclusive conversations about sex, what would it be?
Talk early, talk often, and never stop.
This applies to both parents and educators. It’s a deeply personal choice and approach with regard to parenting, and people do things they feel is right for them. We have the most direct access to talking to young people in our lives, whether they are our children or not.
In schools, it is important to talk about sex in the holistic sense I mentioned earlier. Too often, health gets reduced to sex, and sex gets reduced to just the act, but there are so many things connected to that which often get overlooked. If we had health that was integrated in curricula across schools, these other elements of sex—such as consent and relationship health—are not bad things to be talking about or to be teaching children.
We can talk about consent with kindergartners; you have to ask someone before you hug them. Talking to people about their bodies and who they want to be touching their bodies is something that should be talked about in different ways, at different age levels, more than once across the span of a person’s lifetime. I’m only seven months into parenting but that’s how I am hoping to talk to my kid about sex. Check back with me in ten years and see how I’m doing.
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