Friday, April 30, 2010

Porn in the Classroom

By now, we as human sexuality students are all acquainted with SARs: Sexual Attitude Reassessments: the use of "emotionally evocative and sexually explicit films and presentations" designed to give the viewer an "opportunity to explore (their) own attitudes, values and beliefs about sexual behavior in a safe, comfortable and nonjudgmental environment." These activities are designed specifically for those of us who work with sexuality issues in the workplace.

While we might each have differing reactions to the SARs trainings we've experienced in the program, the goals of these exercises certainly seems to be positive and productive. As Planned Parenthood defines a SARs activity, it is designed to help educators and clinicians:

- See and study (their) own reactions. Learn to recognize the way (they) respond to sexual behaviors, images, thoughts, and feelings, and see how other people develop sexual attitudes and values.
- Understand sexual diversity. See the complexity of human sexuality and examine the diversity of human sexual expression and experience.
- Learn how to communicate about sexuality. Examine issues involved in effective communication, particularly in the context of understanding sexual behavior and expression.
- Learn to view sexuality more objectively. Understand the impact sexual attitudes have on personal relationships and on providing educational, health and social services.

All positive stuff, right? But we are talking about sexuality educators who are a willing audience for sexuality education, whether it be difficult/uncomfortable/troubling or not. The underlying agenda (since in teaching, there is always an agenda to be taught, even if it's a "worthy" one) is to detail the multiplicities of sexuality in order to create more capable educators. We are not talking about college students taking an elective or high school students grappling with body issues.

So let's talk about taking explicit content into a classroom NOT filled with sexuality educators! And more specifically, let's talk about porn! Some facts on the widespread nature of pornography (in case you didn't already know):

- Every second - $3,075.64 is being spent on pornography.
- Every second - 28,258 internet users are viewing pornography.
- Every second - 372 internet users are typing adult search terms into search engines.
- Every 39 minutes: a new pornographic video is being created in the United States.

And college professors, in particular, have taken note of the social impact that porn has has in recent years. According to the blog "Breaking Free: A Journey Towards Purity in a Sex-Saturated Internet," a number of colleges and universities now offer courses that involve either the viewing or discussion of pornography, including UCLA, UC Berkley, Vanderbilt, MIT, and NYU. Some academics, such as Michael Leahy, the author of Porn Nation, think this has changed the landscape of teaching college students in a profound way:

“Porn is now the norm in our culture, and no one understands that better than today’s college students. From the rapid rise of cyber porn addiction among male and female college students to its role in influencing the high incidence of rapes and prevalence of eating disorders among college co-eds, the growing influence of porn in the midst of an already sexually charged campus culture is taking a very real toll on students’ lives.”

That being said, some professors have responded by using porn against porn: showing pornography content in order to help students "reveal their understanding of pornography." Not unlike our SARs activities.

The viewing of pornographic content, on its own, has its own agenda as a conduit for sexual arousal and stimulus. It possesses the dual agenda: that of the person viewing it as well as that of the person(s) who produced it. Considering perhapshow much pornography is viewed in the United States, utilizing pornography as a tool to demonstrate societal (ab)normativities and counteract some of (potential) effects porn has had on the modern life is one way that sexuality educators can apply their own training to the education of others.

Using porn in the classroom, though? Seems like a racy thing to do, but is it really realistic? After all, just using text with sexual content in it can lead to reactions like this one. For that reason, here are some suggestions for starting out:

1. START SMALL. If you can't get approval to show pornographic content, then find as much written material that expresses the ideas and concepts you want to cover. Push for the concepts instead of the videos; ask yourself if you really need to show something in order to teach the experience of it.
2. RATIONALE, RATIONALE, RATIONALE. The foundation of our HSED learning. What is the point of this class? What change do you want to affect?
3. AFTERCARE. Many journalists and researchers point to the notion that porn does indeed have a profound effect on youth's psychological stasis, so proceed with caution and care. There is a difference between creating a radical shift in standpoint and causing a breakdown.

And above all, get APPROVAL from the school board! Teaching with porn might be a tricky process, but using popular culture to teach about popular culture may indeed be a creative and rewarding way to affect change in student's lives.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Teaching about abortion

For those of you that know where I work (Planned Parenthood) you will probably not be surprised by my blog topic of abortion education. However, I am a little surprised with myself for choosing this topic mostly because I know so much about it already. But it is for this reason that I should be the one person to write about this topic. I do feel that it’s an important issue and that unplanned pregnancy is so common place in the U.S. that it’s important for teens (really everyone) to know about all their options before experiencing a pregnancy and preferably before they become sexually active.
According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute (2008) approximately half of American women will have an unplanned pregnancy at some point in their lives and one third (35%) will have had an abortion by age 45. In 2005, 1.6 millions abortions were performed in the U.S. which is high for a developed nation. It’s apparent that unplanned pregnancy and abortion is very relevant to Americans' lives and therefore they should be equipped with the tools that are needed to cope with this situation should it ever arise, which according to statistics, is likely.
It’s easy for me to compose an argument as to why abortion should be incorporated into sexuality education. It’s not so easy on the other hand to actually teach this topic. Because it is so controversial and emotionally charging many teachers are hesitant to touch this topic. They may be uncomfortable with the topic themselves and/or feel that they are not qualified to teach about abortion.
Now even though I have never personally taught on the subject, as a counselor (and educator) for an abortion clinic, I can offer some good advice for those of you who may need to teach this topic in the future:

1) know your own values/beliefs/attitudes about abortion. I can’t stress this piece of advice enough. This is something that we spent a lot of class time on during this semester and everything we talked about applies to teaching about abortion as well. Our values matter, but this is one topic in which it’s best to stay as neutral as possible.
2) Know your facts. There are a lot of misconceptions floating around about abortion. If you type “abortion” into Google search, you’ll get a lot of biased and one-sided information that comes up. If you need to look up information using the internet try searching “accurate information” and “abortion”. I’ll list some good reliable sources below.
3) If you are uncomfortable teaching this topic or are unable to answer questions students have, ask for help! There are people who are better equipped to teach this subject than others – like me! Having a guest speaker or presenter is one way to take the weight off your shoulders. You can use the guest speaker as a learning opportunity for yourself – observe how he or she approaches the subject, handles comments and emotions and presents the information.

Here’s a video – documentary style – which looks at a religious school in the UK and how abortion is being incorporated into its curriculum.

Web resources that provide accurate information:

SexEd Library: lesson plan from F.L.A.S.H. curriculum

SIECUS: lesson plan “teaching all sides” page 77

Alan Guttmacher Institute. (2008). An overview of abortion in the United States. Retrieved from Alan Guttmacher Website,

Friday, April 16, 2010

Zoos: An Opportunity for Sexuality Education

I am a member of the Philadelphia Zoo and from April to October if the weather is nice and I have no other plans I will head to the zoo on a Sunday morning just to walk around for a few hours. It’s relaxing, fun and a great way to clear my head. Since I don’t attend a church it is, in a sense, my way to worship through nature. A few weeks ago on one of those unusually warm spring days I was at the zoo for one of these Sunday morning strolls. I visited the otters who are always one of my favorites because they are always so active and playful as they slip and slide down their waterfalls and swim around chasing one another. On this particular Sunday there were two otters clearly having sex. Standing there watching them were about a dozen families all with young children, as I am usually the only creepy adult at the zoo without kids. All the children were squealing, laughing, pointing at the two otters having sex and asking their parents what the otters were doing. All the parents replied that the otters were wrestling or playing or some other euphemism but none, none, answered honestly that the otters were having sex. Apparently my experience is not unique. On his blog,, Randy Seaver talks about and posts pictures of elephants having sex at the zoo while he was visiting the zoo with his grandchildren.

The field of human sexuality advocates that parents should begin talking about sexuality with children at a young age. Human beings are sexual from birth through death and not talking about sexuality with children can lead to fear, shame and anxiety around sex and sexuality issues. Parents often wait to talk about sexuality with their children until puberty but by then it is too late as children have learned about and received sexuality messages from peers, the media and the rest of the world around them. Or worse, parents never talk to their children about sexuality because they never find an opportunity to bring it up or have a conversation about it. In his book, "The Sexual Life of Children", Martinson talks about how children learn about sexuality in their everyday life yet parents avoid anything that permits or encourages sexuality when it comes to children in an effort to protect them and keep them innocent. Not answering honestly or avoiding sexuality, Martinson goes on to say, leaves the control of sexuality firmly in the hands of adults. Martinson echoes the sentiment of the human sexuality field that it is important for both parents and teachers to be informed about and have an opportunity to discuss sexuality with their children. Parents especially need to facilitate family discussions about sexuality because that is how they can integrate their family’s value system into sexuality. Here are some links that guide parents on how to talk about sexuality with their children:

If you visit any zoo websites from around the country you will see that they have a host of children and school education programs offered on a daily basis. None of these programs address sexuality. The San Francisco and Central Florida zoos offer animal sexuality classes but they are for adults only, and only offered on Valentine’s Day. The following link is someone’s account of the “Woo at the Zoo” program offered at the San Francisco zoo and is complete with pictures and interesting information about animal sexuality:
While some zoos are beginning to incorporate sexuality education into their programs the sexuality information is once again reserved for adults only.

Some people are beginning to use animal sexuality as a way to educate children. Animals are a traditional way to educate children and a staple in children’s literature. Famous stories such as, Aesop’s Fables and Winnie the Pooh, use animal characters or anthropomorphism to tell their tales. Well known children’s authors such as, Richard Scary, argue that animals are great for children’s stories because they are racially and ethnically neutral so they can appeal to all children and they are able to do things or take risks that human children cannot. Sexologists often study animal sexuality and argue that many animal sexual behaviors are found in the human world and vice versa. Animals are often a great way to learn about the nature and variety of sexuality. Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s book "And Tango Makes Three" is a children’s book on the different types of families and is based on the true story of three penguins at the Central Park Zoo. Roy and Silo were two male penguins that fell in love, built a nest and were trying to start a family of their own. The zoo keepers gave them their very own egg to care for and hatch and they ended up with a baby of their own, Tango. Richardson and Parnell took advantage of the real life teaching opportunity zoos offer in order to educate children about age appropriate sexuality issues. "And Tango Makes Three" can be purchased at

The otters having sex at the Philadelphia zoo a few weekends ago offered a great teachable moment for parents to begin having conversations with their children about sexuality. Instead of avoiding children’s questions about sex or answering these questions dishonestly parents should seize these opportunities to talk about age appropriate sexuality issues with their children. As sex educators we need to educate parents about sexuality and sexuality education and help them feel comfortable talking about these issues so that they can talk to their children about sexuality when opportunities present themselves, like the otters at the zoo. Zoo staff and school educators also have the opportunity to use animal sexuality as a way to educate and talk with children about sexuality. They provide a population that needs sex educators to educate and guide them in getting children’s sexuality education programs off the ground. Zoos offer both sexuality education opportunities for children and their parents, as well as professional relationships for sex educators.


Bruess, C. and Greenberg, J. (2009). Sexuality Education: Theory and practice, 5th ed. Jones and Bartlett Publishers: Sudbury, MA.
Heasley, R. and Crane, B. (2003). Sexual lives: A reader on the theories and realities of human sexualities. McGraw-Hill: New York, NY.
Martinson, F. M. (1994). The sexual life of children. Bergin and Garvey: Westport, CT.
Strong, B., W. L. Yarber, B. W. Sayad and DeVault, C. (2008). Human sexuality: Diversity in contemporary America. McGraw-Hill: New York, NY.

Friday, April 9, 2010

State Mandated Reporting for Educators

This blog comes from some recent confusion in my everyday work life as a mental health professional working within the public school system. Working with children (in this blog, any person under the age of 18) is no easy task, especially when you work in an environment (like a school) where rumors are flying around every hour of every day, where children tell you things about other children and their families, and where children willingly tell you about the happenings in their lives they don’t or feel they can’t tell their parents. As educators, by law, we are considered individuals who are mandated to report to child welfare services if we have any reason to suspect that a child is being physically or sexually abused or neglected. This is partly where my confusion started. The reporting of suspected physical abuse or neglect, to me, is a very clear, cut and dry process. However, when it comes to sexual abuse, due to the language of the laws, this is where the confusion sets in. While this might not seem like a confusing issue to some, for me, it is a topic that I often ponder. And, because I, myself, have never been formally educated on the subject, the confusion is even greater. Sure, if a 30 year old person was sexually abusing a ten year old, no problem, report as soon as you suspect. But what happens when you are aware that an 18 year old is having sex with a 15 year old? What are the laws regarding that? What about when two 14 year olds are having sex? What if two 12 year olds are sexually touching, but no intercourse has actually happened? Does it make a difference if they are same-sex couples? These are just a few of the questions that have been brought to my attention recently. Because I am currently a mental health professional, my office is run with a confidentiality agreement. The children I see know that what they say in my office stays in my office, with three exceptions: 1) they are causing harm to themselves; 2) they are causing harm to another; 3) someone else is causing harm to them. This is where state mandating steps in. However, do to consent laws, when it comes to sex, what are we required to report and what can we consider a privacy issue?

To start researching this, I looked up what sexual abuse and exploitation was defined as in the state of Pennsylvania. According to Pennsylvania state law, “The employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of a child to engage in, or assist another individual to engage in, sexually explicit conduct. The employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of a child to engage in, or assist another individual to engage in, simulation of sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction, including photographing, videotaping, computer depicting, and filming.” (Child Welfare Information Gateway). This makes the issue at hand a little clearer. If any person (including another child) persuades, entices, coerces, or induces another child into any sexual act, it must be reported. This is pretty clear, in my eyes. What is not clear is what to do when it is reported to you that children are consensually being sexually active together. To research a little further into this, I looked up the sexual consent ages in Pennsylvania. According to, in Pennsylvania it is illegal to have sex if you are under the age of 16. And this is the case for both same-sex and different-sex sexual acts. These ages of consent are different for all states, and gives a comprehensive look at the consent laws of all the states in the United States, as well as many countries within the world. So, for example, technically, in Pennsylvania, if two 15 year olds are having sex together, they cannot legally consent to have sex, even if they both want to. So what does that mean for us if we are aware that it is happening? For that, I have not been able to come up with a clear answer. To me, at that age, I would think of it as a privacy issue and not a state mandated reporting issue, however, the law might prove me wrong.

This is where I think it would be especially important, in our line of work, to go over the laws of state mandated reporting for sexual abuse during our coursework. While I am learning how to be an educator, I also need to learn my responsibilities as a state mandated reporter of child abuse because I am an educator. While I might not agree with all the laws, I need to abide by them so I can continue to educate children and help those who need it. While I know I haven’t even answered all of my own questions, I am more aware of the fact that I need to look into this further if a situation arises where I am not sure what to do. Different agencies, school systems, and organizations may have different policies regarding reporting sexual abuse, so be sure to look over the policies of the places that employ you. I think it is very important to keep this issue in mind when working with children. Not only do you need to look out for their best interest, but you need to look out for yours as well, so that you can continue to look out for theirs.

Here are some additional resources to help with laws regarding state mandated reporting:

Child abuse reporting requirements in Pennsylvania

Online Resources for State Child Welfare Law and Policy

Teens, Sex, and the Law

Friday, April 2, 2010

Sex Sells! Cultivating the Critical Eye through Education

Ever since last semester, when I was looking for helpful links for sex educators/education and found the Media Awareness Network, I’ve been thinking about how media literacy intersects with sex education. Why? Because mass media is, well, massive. It’s everywhere. It is full of messages about sexuality, in all different shapes and forms, and the people consuming these messages are just as diverse - more so, even!

Every time I open a magazine or watch television, I’m getting some kind of message about sex or gender. Take this ad, for example (found in New York Magazine):

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Sure, the advertisement’s overt message is about a specific shopping center. But there’s also a subtext to this image. What might you guess is the gender of the person portrayed here? The socioeconomic status? Ethnicity? I’d guess that the person is a white upper-middle class woman. What does this say about who engages in shopping? Women. But not just any women: this ad seems to imply shopping is the realm of the privileged, thus there's no need for them to bother appealing to people who have less privilege. Further, look at this woman’s stance. Is this a powerful posture? What does that say about how a woman (a white upper-middle class woman) “should” present herself? In my undergraduate days, one of my professors was teaching us to view media critically, and she pointed out that everything in advertising is intentional. No choice is arbitrary, because companies don’t just sell products anymore - they’re selling values, stories, ideals. In short, they are selling a particular culture (or perhaps, at least, the building blocks of culture).

Why is this important? Whoever they may be in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, ability, etc., my (future) students will likely be consumers of media. I live in America, and it is likely that I will be teaching in America. Here, media is ubiquitous, and my students will be constantly bombarded with something that, in my experience, they are rarely taught to question. And while some media can be pretty empowering, much of it seems to be doing more harm than good. For example, take body image and self esteem. Constantly seeing perfect airbrushed or Photoshopped bodies could make any regular person feel inadequate, next to this literally unachievable ideal. Unhappiness or depression seem to go hand in hand with low self esteem, so I'd call that pretty harmful.

How does this all relate to education? Well, I don’t think I have the power to completely overhaul the media industry or the entire lexicon of cultural symbolism. So, I think the next best thing is to educate people to become critical consumers of media, with the hope that this will defuse some of the nasty effects of the constant bombardment of media's narrow cultural representations. And, really, it’s not even fair for me to say “next best thing” because this kind of education is not less important than activism: I also think that helping my fellow humans to become more critical thinkers and consumers will help them to be generally more empowered to think for themselves about what’s best for them, not what will help them to fit in. Call me biased, but I think this is really important.

So if media literacy education is important (and it is! ;-) ), then how would I go about actually teaching media literacy, especially that related to sexuality? Thankfully there are at least a couple of fantastic resources on the web to help me in this endeavor! (Those resources, and more, are included at the bottom of this post.)

For this kind of education, I love the idea of taking an experiential approach. For example… I could start off by showing a video advertisement, and then ask my students questions about it, like the following: What or who did you see in this ad? Who didn’t you see? How was the person in the ad portrayed? What does this imply about people like the person in the ad (e.g., if the person in the ad is a woman, what does the ad imply about women?)? How might it affect people watching the ad? What messages about sexuality/gender does this ad send? Why is it important to think about that? And so on… Depending on the students and subject of the overall class, it might be appropriate to conclude my questions with something like: How do the messages you noticed fit in with (or contrast with) societal messages about the same thing? What can you do about it?

Of course, I’d also want to make a habit of asking students: What was the point of the ad? Ultimately, the answer should always be the same: “To sell the product/service.” I think it’s so important to remember that always, companies are advertising in order to sell something to consumers. They are not looking out for the best interests of their customers; they are looking out for their own profit-making. This is a point I’d want to drive home to students, but in this context, the main focus should be on the education related to sexuality, gender, etc.

In my travels (possibly on the Media Awareness Network, or somewhere else - I’m not sure, but if I find it, I will post it in the comments), I saw another interesting idea for media literacy in sex education, which involves bringing in a bunch of magazines, scissors, glue, and paper, so that students can create their own advertisements via collage (which could appeal to visual & spatial learners!) By creating their own ads, students would have the opportunity to see how ads don’t just sell the product; they also sell a story, a culture. It could also be empowering for students to create their own messages of what they would like to see represented in the media, instead of just consuming what is already out there.

How might you go about educating about media literacy pertaining to sexuality? What are your general thoughts on this subject?

Thanks for reading!


More Resources:

Media Awareness Network - Resource for parents & teachers. Has K-12 lesson plans on various aspects of media literacy (e.g. bullying, body image, and gender portrayal).

Center for Media Literacy - Similar to Media Awareness Network. A site to help educate about media literacy, as well as provide resources to educators.

Sociological Images: Seeing is Believing - Blog with posts not always, but often, about some portrayal of sexuality. Lots of images and analysis of the meanings of those images. Keeping up with/reading archives of this blog may help train you to have a more critical eye toward media. (This blog is a personal favorite!)

Teen Aware: Sex, Media, and You - An interesting spin on sex & media - teaching abstinence via media literacy.

Teen Sexual Health workshop module on Media Literacy - One handy outline of a lesson an instructor could use to teach about sex & media.

Sex Ed Library: Sexuality and Media - Links to a few lesson plans on, well, sexuality and media. (Overall, Sex Ed Library is also a helpful resource for lots of sexuality education lesson plan links.)