What do you want from your sex education?

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Vy Truong, a Core youth leader leading a focus group of middle school students.
By Laura Harris

“Where do you go to get information about sex?”

This is the opening question for a presentation on sex education given by ACRJ’s Core youth organizer group. These youth are pushing forward a campaign to inform other young people about Sex Education Justice and find out what their peers think about the sex education they’re currently receiving. As part of their Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), they’ve developed a presentation, focus group guide, and survey. This past month, they’ve presented and led focus groups at many schools and youth organizations in Oakland.

I’m a grad student in UC Berkeley’s school of public health. Seeing this YPAR process to unfold has been an honor and a pleasure – and a great counterpoint to my more theoretical courses! As I watch the youth lead the presentations, it’s hard to choose what I’m most excited about: how despite some initial awkwardness they’re gracefully facilitating a tough conversation, the way they’re forming a safe space for their peers to talk about sex and to think critically about their sex education rights, the fact that all this information is going to get funneled to the Oakland Unified School District school board and other key stakeholders…

“Stand up if your school has taught you the difference between sex and gender.”

Now Core youth leaders are leading a stand-up, sit-down game designed to see what comprehensive sex education topics students are getting information around, and where.. Sex education shouldn’t only teach youth about STIs, it should empower them with knowledge about important questions of sex and gender identity, so that they can better understand their own experiences and the experiences of others, and can feel more comfortable in their own skin. Some participants stand up in response to the question, indicating that they’ve learned about the difference sex and gender. Then one says, “Oh, wait, you mean in school?” and most participants sit down again. Sex education in schools can provide a safe space for youth to learn about these sensitive issues, but sex education curricula often take a narrower, disease and safety-based focus.

A few more rounds of standing up and sitting down, and the conversation moves on to comparing which schools teach which subjects. The participants are getting more comfortable with each other – they’re ready to talk about how they feel about their current sex education and any changes they’d like to see.

The focus group discussion is wide ranging. It’s encouraging to see everyone in the group making efforts to articulate what sex education means to them, what they’d like to be learning, and why. To paraphrase one participant: we need to learn about sex in a way that’s relevant for LGBTQ folks, for all races, because what we don’t know about we fear. What we don’t understand, we hate. We need to learn so that we can feel comfortable with one another and accept each other.

That sounds like a great lesson to me.

Laura Harris is a graduate student at UC Berkeley, in the school of public health and has been supporting ACRJ's youth participatory action research.