How to make sex education more inclusive
A conversation with educators Melina Gaze and Dr. Sara C. Flowers
Decisions we make about sex and relationships can have lifelong effects on our health and well-being, but how do we learn to make those decisions? Sex education is key, but how can we ensure that it’s relevant? I set up an email discussion with Melina Gaze, a queer feminist sex educator and performer based in Mexico City, and Dr. Sara C. Flowers, an educator, thought leader, and advocate for inclusive, trauma-informed, sex-positive sexuality education.
What does “intersectional sexuality education” mean to you? And why is it important?
SF: Delivering sex education through an intersectional lens recognizes the complex identities of the people we serve and educate. We’re honoring the ways that different parts of ourselves—cultural heritage, ethnicity, race, religious beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, politics, socioeconomic status, education level, etc—make us who we are, and recognizing how they are inextricable from our sexuality.
When sex educators’ teaching is guided by an intersectional framework, we are saying, “We get it, people are complex!” —Dr. Sara C. Flowers
MG: Like Sara, I think intersectional sexuality education takes into account the infinite diversity of human experience. Practically, in terms of offering of that kind of education, it means approaching sexuality as non-normatively as possible.
In my classes and workshops, this boils down to a couple of guiding practices:
- Offering information but acknowledging openly where it comes from, my own subjectivities, personal intellectual genealogies, privileges, and agenda. And recognizing that I do not have any “absolute” information.
- Offering a sex positive and body positive lens, but doing so with a critical and nuanced approach to recognize that these frameworks will manifest themselves differently within different communities, and that they may not work at all for some.
- Ensuring that my workshops are as participant-driven as possible, with attendees creating their own community agreements and conclusions for what works best for their lives.
I'd like to mention that I do actively discourage any sexual practices that are non-consensual or exploitative of others.
Does it matter who delivers sex education? Why?
SF: First and foremost, professional sexuality health educators are best suited to deliver this education because they are trained in its theory and practice. They integrate their professional expertise, awareness of the community they serve, and their own understanding (rooted in shared identities and experiences) to appropriately tailor content and educational materials to learners’ needs (1).
MG: I agree with Sara in the context of formal settings and also want to give a shout out to informal spaces of education and non-professionalized educators.
I think there’s a lot to say for community-driven and peer-education since these processes can be especially specific to our unique cultural contexts and lived experiences. —Melina Gaze
Sara, you’ve written about the importance of Black women sex educators in “Enacting Our Multidimensional Power”. What are the unique knowledge and skills possessed by these women?
SF: Let’s say Black Women & Femme Sex Educators because everyone who does this work is included here, but not everyone who does this work identifies as a woman. I think it’s important to state the following very clearly: human beings who share cultural, racial, ethnic, religious identities are not a monolith. Black women and femmes and their experiences are unique, diverse and varied. The unique skills and knowledge they possess are not a prescribed checklist. Instead, the unique lens they bring to the work is their ability to integrate their lived experiences as complex humans with intersectional identities. They can use this to inform their teachings—especially when members of their audience share one or more of those identities or experiences.
Why are these educators particularly important?
SF: Representation matters. Research shows that teachers who look like their learners (or share other identity characteristics) help improve knowledge and skill acquisition because those teachers also become role models and mentors.
Values embedded in education are, in many instances, presumed to align with the cultural beliefs and values prioritized by the white majority. Teachers who share cultural characteristics can offer relevant examples in teaching, decreasing the students’ need to interpret lessons or find ways to apply dominant culture examples to their lived experiences. For example, Black women and femme sex educators are able to talk to Black girls and young femmes about what it was like coming of age as a Black femme. Shared educator and learner characteristics may also reduce unconscious bias by teachers in learning environments—an issue that is evident in the development of sex education curricula and discussion of sexual health disparities.
What steps can sex educators take to make their teaching intersectional?
MG: This question is really multidimensional and my response is by no means exhaustive.
Here are a couple of practices that have worked for me:
- Speaking the same language used by participants in our educational spaces. This both means using a vocabulary that is accessible and relatable, but also relating personally to the communities with whom we are speaking. Asking people to share their experiences and actually listening. Crafting classes and courses so that they are in conversation with the people taking them.
- Using educational resources that reflect the diversity of people who have contributed to sexuality thought and education. Centering resources crafted by women, femmes, people of color, trans people, queers, and non-academic grassroots processes.
- Be aware of who is in the room: Do the people coming to our classes reflect the race, class, ethnicity, age, ability, immigration status, gender and sexuality diversities of our cities and the communities we are a part of? Why or why not? How can we create intersectional spaces that feel safe(r) for everyone present?
- We need more latinx, black, queer, immigrant, trans—the list goes on—sex educators. If you are a sex educator and you have the opportunity to mentor younger folks, do what you can to ensure the future generation of sex educators will represent the people they are talking to.
MG: I’m not saying any of this is easy, because intersectional sex education demands that we address intersecting social inequities simultaneously. But I do think this is what we need to aim for in order for our work to be most relevant and effective.
SF: I want to add exclamation points to everything Melina said!
I don’t want to be redundant, so let it be said that I cosign every single bullet on Melina’s list! What I can add is to talk about training-of-trainers.
In more formal sex education spaces, educator training is a critical piece of the conversation. Intersectional frameworks, awareness and thinking must be present at every stage of educator training. Leaders in the field (Planned Parenthood, Advocates for Youth, Answer, SIECUS, FoSE, WOCSHN, SisterSong and others) are actively working to integrate these pillars into training processes.
Some things sex educators can do to make their teaching intersectional are: really dedicate some time to learning about intersectionality—what it means, how it works, its origins—and then be proactive about integrating those lessons into their workshops/classrooms/curricula. Think about the history of oppression as it relates to systems, institutions, healthcare, and marginalized communities. Ask hard questions about how those systems may show up in current mainstream sex education platforms; explore ways that your sex education practice may be inadvertently or unconsciously reinforcing those systems; then, think about how you can change your practice to dismantle those systems in your workshops. Seek support—organizations like AnteUp! offer racial and reproductive justice training.
Continue to ask questions, think, explore, and revise your practice. It is hard work. It requires a level of self-awareness and vulnerability that may be difficult for folks to bring to their professional lives. But given the intimate nature of our work, invoking our own vulnerability and self-awareness is critical to our continued growth and development and our ability to serve our learners well.
MG: Hi Sara, let’s be friends. You rock and I loved reading everything you wrote :).
SF: Yes, please Melina! I feel exactly the same way about you and what you wrote! Let’s collaborate!
This discussion was edited for brevity.
Follow Melina Gaze on Instagram, and find Dr. Sara C. Flowers on Twitter.
Learn more about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), get answers to your STI questions, or read about what it’s like to have an STI. Find out how you can take care of yourself by having safer sex, and how to talk to your partner about your sexual health—and theirs.