Saturday, February 12, 2011

Dropping the F-Bomb: Insight on Constructively Incorporating Swearing in High School Classrooms

Disclaimer: There will be swear words in this post.  Read at your own discretion.

This blog, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is a blog dedicated to thinking critically about the craft of teaching human sexuality.  Although I write this post as a student earning their M.Ed in Human Sexuality Education, I’ve been rocking sex education in American classrooms since 2003.  So when the assignment of writing a ‘how to teach sex-ed’ blog post was given, my mind went in a million different directions.

As a sex educator, I have stood in front of a diverse array of American classrooms.  I have taught comprehensive sexuality education to high school freshmen.  I have taught adults how to become more fully orgasmic, love their bodies more than they thought possible, and how to pleasantly surprise their partners with a lil’ something extra in the bedroom (or on the kitchen counter).  I have fielded questions from 12 year olds to 80+ year olds about masturbation, BDSM, safer sex, sex toys and body hair. I have taken high-risk youth and given them sex education and community by being open and honest about sexuality issues that affected them.

Needless to say, that list isn’t exhaustive.

At the end of my reflection on my experiences thus far, the only thing that I could say was constant across all these interventions was swearing.

I am a huge potty mouth.  I am of the opinion that there are simply some emotions that cannot be expressed without letting a good four letter word tear across one’s lips. And although substitutes like ‘dang,’ ‘fudge,’ and ‘shoot’ can be used … it’s kinda like watching Arena Football* when NFL and/or NCAA ball isn’t in season.  (Or for those of you that aren’t football fans, it’s like drinking de-caf when the pot of caffeinated coffee is empty.)  It kinda gets the job done, but is not even half as satisfying.

I also reflected on how the bulk of my experience is in teaching high-school aged teens.

So, as the clich√© goes I’m going to write what I know.  I’m going to discuss how swearing – something normally forbidden within high school classrooms – can be utilized constructively within the context of a sexuality classroom.

First, I’m going to give you some context for how the use of swearing within my sexuality classrooms was done.  Then, I’m going to show you why I have support for allowing swearing in the classroom.  Finally, I’m going to pull it all together in a neat little package for your further consideration.

1. You can say, “Fuck Yeah,” but not “Fuck You”
When I told my students they could swear, it was within a context of a larger ground rule entitled, “Respect Yourself, Others, and our Space.”  Essentially, my students were told that non-directive swearing, or “bad” language, was fine so long as it was used within the context of respect.  Students were also allowed to express any particular words that triggered negative emotions so that other students would be aware and try not to use those particular words.

2. After-School Programming
This particular program was a once-a-week after school program that students volunteered to be a part of.

3. Group Rules vs Teaching Rules
Although I allowed students to swear in the program, I explained to them that it was not cool while they were teaching condom use in freshmen classes during school hours.  Although I told them I was aware that freshmen also swear, I elucidated for them that even though we had rules set-up for swearing, not all classrooms were set-up similarly.

4. When I Swore
(And oh did I swear.)  I swore judiciously.  I either did it as a natural part of my speech patterns during more informal parts of our session, or did it when emphasis that only swearing can provide was needed.  And I never, ever tried to use swear words or “bad” words that felt uncomfortable coming out of my mouth.

Other Considerations
·         I was a school district employee, but not an employee of any particular school.  I actually facilitated three different groups at three very different schools within one school district.  So while I tried to respect most school policies and rules, I was only partially accountable to the school administrations.
·         I was young-ish when I taught these classes.  My students ranged in age from 14-19, and throughout the duration of my teaching, I was anywhere from 23-25.
·         I grew up in the neighboring school district to the schools at which I was teaching.  I never attended any of the schools at which I facilitated these after-school groups, but I had a pretty good cultural understanding.

Now you know the how.  But … did it work?  And how do I know it works?

Not surprisingly, there isn’t a whole lot on using swearing effectively in a sex ed classroom.  But what I do have is access to Hedgepeth and Helmich’s (in my opinion) amazing text that outlines strategies for making a classroom an effective space for sexuality education.

Thanks to the internet and facebook, I also have access to my incredible, amazing, fantastic, and extremely honest former students. (Yes, I am so biased in their favor.  Even though it’s been anywhere from 2-4 years since I’ve spoken to some of them, they continue to inspire me to this very moment.)  When I decided to write this post, I asked those of them who had the time to shoot me an e-mail or a facebook message telling me about their lives AND how they felt about being allowed to swear.  18 out of around 90 responded.

So through the use of my (very informal and not scientific by any means) survey in conjunction with methodological considerations, I’m going to break down how swearing fits into the idea of an effective sexuality classroom. When I include how actual, real, living, breathing teens felt about being allowed to swear and hearing their facilitator swear, they will be directly quoted.  I will also include three pieces of demographic information about them:

  1. Gender (M or F)
  2. Ethnicity (A = Asian, B = Black, L = Latin, W = White)
  3. Year in Group (’07, ’08, or ’09)
I’m not including their names or the name of the group in order to protect their privacy.

Let’s get started.

Hedgepeth and Helmich (H&H) discuss how one of the elements of an effective sexuality classroom is the need for programming to respect and empower students.

Right away, H&H discuss how creating respect and empowerment within programming hinges upon interfacing with the reality of students.

Let’s take a look at what some of my students had to say about whether or not allowing swearing reflected their realities:

“I think swearing is an essential part of how teenagers communicate.  It is hard enough to be yourself in high school without being able to express yourself the way you want to.” (F, W, ’07)

“I feel like letting us swear … gave sex-ed [class] a sense of reality. ... In reality, most people, if not everyone curses.” (F, W, ’09)

“I think that swearing is just a part of teenage life.” (F, L, ’09)

“I know it makes me feel more real if I didn't have any vocabulary limited when I try to voice my opinion and experience out.” (#1 M, A, ’09)

“C'mon, these folks are in high school. Ya gotta understand that most teenagers incorporate cursing in their day-to-day 'language' …” (#1, F, A, ‘08&’09)

“but as for about swearing? i loved it, like to me swearing is nothing, its like talking regularly.” (#2, M, A, ’09)

It would appear that many of the students who responded to my query agree that allowing students to drop the occasional F-Bomb (that’s ‘fuck’ in case you were wondering) simply reflects the greater reality of how teens express themselves.

H&H also outline how the classroom that fosters “respect, confidentiality, openness, collaboration and mutual support” helps students to become comfortable enough to engage critically with the learning (pg 21). 

Amongst many of my students, there was an idealization that swearing fostered a sense of openness for how they could express themselves:

“In regards to swearing in Sex-Ed, I think it helps with allowing everyone to feel comfortable. It's better that you allow people to say what they feel and not let them feel contained in a box, … just knowing that it's allowed won't make students feel like they have to act a certain way, especially if not swearing is way far from who they actually are....” (#2, F, A, ‘08&’09)

“I'm a potty mouth. It was nice being free to express myself during sessions without being judged or hushed.” (#1, F, A, ’08)

“…i felt more free with my expressions. like if i was fairly pissed off, or extremely happy can say what i felt in the words that fit right instead of having to chose words with lesser meaning in my mind.” (F, L, ’08 & ’09)

“Swearing essentially allows everyone to talk about their passions more freely and creates a classroom environment when [sic] students are more comfortable having discussions.” (F, W, ’07)

“Being able to swear in class is awesome. Its like you bring the YOU out of you. You dont have to keep everything in and replace it with something your not, and that is just being true to yourself and everybody. It kept me confident knowing that i could say whatever i want comfortably in front of my peers, even outside of class.. HAHA! Its soooo AWESOME.” (M, A, ’08 &’09)

Although those are just a few quotes, almost every student responded with some form of affirmation that being allowed to swear helped them to be comfortable with either expressing themselves, being in the classroom, or engaging with the learning.

Some also spoke to the importance of the fact that swearing was set up in the context of fostering support, rather than being used for malicious purpose.

“[Swearing] should be used to bluntly express, not to belittle someone.” (F, W, ’09)

“Swearing should be used to empower, not to tear down.” (F, W, ’07)

“…there's a line between sprinkling swear words into a sentence and addressing someone offensively. If swearing doesn't interfere with the learning environment, then there should be nothing against it.” (#1, F, A, ’08)

Creating a Democratic Learning Environment
Within the context of empowering students, H&H discuss how many contemporary classrooms mirror “benevolent dictatorships” more than they mirror the democratic structure in which American students are expected to become a part in the future.  I agree with H&H in respect to their assertion that this means encouraging greater student agency over decision making and responsibility in the classroom.

Despite my agreement, I would actually take it a step farther and say that to truly demonstrate ideals of democracy, you have to allow and role-model them.  Freedom of expression is our 1st amendment.  The first one.  The one our ancestors wanted to make sure got on the books.  And yet in classrooms across the country we shut down certain forms of expression completely, rather than role modeling responsible, harm-free use of truly powerful ways to express oneself.

I didn’t, however.  As I said, I swore all throughout all three years of running these after-school programs.  Here is how it affected some of my students:

“You swearing like we did helped to create a bond.” (M, B, ’09)

“I think when you (Becca) used swear words, it made people more comfortable with you because it let people know that you were here to teach us, not to discipline us like the image people have of most teachers. It also put us all on the same level. Instead of being afraid of you we respected you.” (F, W, ’08)

“When you did it, i felt really comfortable being around you, since i didnt have to watch myself every single time and it felt like you were really one of us. You weren't our boring, get in class, read and get done homework "teacher" you were our mentor and I really did consider you as my friend, because of that I was more than glad to go to class and always excited to learn all the new things you were about to discuss. … I've always had and still do have a huge respect for you.” (#2, F, A, ‘08)

“…but also made me feel that you were one of 'us ' more then someone higher that we had to almost impress.” (#3, F, A, ’08)

“When you swore, it created a more relaxed environment and I felt the teacher/student divide lessened.” (F, A, ’07)

“when you swore along with us it made me feel like we were all on the same level, you werent any greater or lesser than us (even though you did have power haha) it didnt feel like we were being forced to be under your conrto [sic]” (F, L, ’08 & ’09)

“I can look up to you as someone that I can talk to as an equal. …  Not only that, when you talked about your day in SES, it was actually pretty amusing to hear a swear word here and there...having your period with the fucking cramps, It just made it more easier to understand how you're feeling and in all honesty, I can totally relate.”(#3, F, A, ’08)

As you can see, my use of swearing did a great deal to change the power differential.  Although the students cite respecting me, and looking up to me, there was less of a constraint around feeling like they had to express themselves the way they would to a teacher.  Which, going back to H&H’s previous point, also helps the classroom to be an open, comfortable space for exploration.

Let’s Bring This Home
As a potty mouth who had potty mouth students who all loved swearing … I am highly biased toward allowing it to occur.

But what about you and your sex ed classroom?  Keeping the aforementioned discussion of effective sexuality education classrooms in mind, here are some questions I would ask myself before hopping on the F-Train.

To Swear or Not To Swear
1.      What are your organizations’ rules around swearing?
a.       Is the language ambiguous to the point where swearing could be considered appropriate if properly defended?
2.      What are your students’ thoughts and feelings about swearing?
3.      If swearing is prohibited or frowned upon by your higher-ups, do you think you could convince your bureaucracy of why it’s a good idea?
a.       Despite my perceived benefits of allowing swearing to occur in a classroom, H&H do encourage having your administration on your side when setting up sex-ed.  I’d have to agree.  It’s better to keep your job and prohibit swearing than to allow swearing and risk your livelihood.
4.      Is swearing conducive to encouraging comfort and learning?
a.       Example: Reproductive biology is sex-ed.  Is swearing necessary to help students learn this?

If You Can Let Swearing Go Down
1.      Can you defend your reason for allowing students to swear?
2.      How can you set up ground rules that make swearing constructive and not destructive?
3.      How do you plan to enforce transgressions of any ground rules that occur?
4.      If having a power differential is a part of your educational style, how can you ensure that the power differential stays intact, despite allowing a broader range of student expression?

When You Swear
1.      What words are swear words that you use normally, if any?
2.      If you’re going to swear, what are your motivations?
a.       Are you swearing to ‘look cool’?
b.      Are you swearing for emphasis?
c.       Are you swearing as a part of your normal form of expression?
3.      Based on who you are, how do you think teens will respond to you swearing?
4.      How can you role model constructive, supportive use of swearing?
5.      Are you okay with allowing teens to swear even if you choose not to use swear words?

If the answers to the question are not conducive to increasing learning and engagement based on Hedgepeth and Helmich or the learning philosophy you live by in your classroom, swearing may not be the best strategy for you and your sex ed classroom.

However, if you can manage to make it something constructive, I hope that you’ve seen the possibility for how it can positively affect a classroom space.

Fuck yeah!

Becca Brewer

*My sincerest of apologies to any Arena football players or fans.


  1. Becca,
    Wow, good topic! In fact, I just asked our professor what he thought about the use of swearing in our last class. I would think that this would be a great tool in a sex education setting and it seems as though it has been effective in your experience. I really appreciate that you prefaced your argument with mentioning your 'place' in the school and that as a result of your loose affiliation with the school, you were given more liberty to do what the fuck you wanted ;)
    Also, I think it was extremely poignant for you to mention that you are familiar with the culture of these students as you have grown up in that area and went to a neighboring school during your formative years. I think it would be difficult for an instructor who just lands in a new district and doesnt have shared experiences to be able to swear in class. No teacher wants to be 'that' teacher who is trying to be 'down' with the kids!
    The only adverse reaction I have to your argument is that of the adolescents being able to restrict their potty mouths to your classroom. I've met a few of these young kids, and they can be extremely impressionable and may use your ground rules as license to swear to other teachers for whom that language is not comfortable/appropriate. Its kind of like opening a can of worms. Although, I guess the topic of swearing in class could be compared to teaching sex. You give them the information and tools to do it, but ultimately you cant control what happens when the students leave the classroom and just because you broached the topic doesnt mean they werent doing it before they got to class.

  2. Hey Becca!
    SUPER interesting blog. LOVED it. When you introduced the topic of swearing in the classroom, I immediately began to reflect and try to remember when I first heard an instructor or teacher curse during class. I remember in high school (I went to a public high school in Lancaster, PA, so I have some pretty conservative roots), my biology teacher swore from time to time. He was one of those teachers who were challenging but just so awesome at the same time because you could relate to him. Mr. Kaufman was a teacher that would treat you as an adult rather than a child still in elementary or middle school, and we definitely appreciated that as students going through those tough high school years. Your students exhibit many of the same feelings such as welcoming the opportunity to be in a more realistic setting as well as feeling more of a bond with you as the teacher. You also seem to have it all figured out regarding ground rules based on mutual respect and understanding (SO important) as well as a comprehensive knowledge of the students you are teaching.

    When you mentioned how there was not too much research conducted on the use of swearing in classrooms (not a big surprise!), I decided to see what I could find. Although I didn’t find actual research per say, I did find a ton of both positive and negative reactions to swearing in the classroom. Many of the articles I found echoed your viewpoints on this topic. One article that particularly caught my attention was concerning a school in the U. K. The article (although a bit dated- August 2005) explains how students are being permitted 5 swear words a day during class, and the tally will be kept on the board. If the student exceeds this 5-curse-a-day limit, they will be reprimanded. While one father calls it “a misguided attempt to speak to kids on their own level,” others believe that allowing cursing in the classroom is a slippery slope and feel it is better to continue the zero-tolerance policy regarding swearing in the classroom. I personally am wondering how much class time this is wasting by keeping a tally on the blackboard? Really?!?

    Read more:

    I have a feeling that this argument surrounding swearing in the classroom will be around for quite some time!

  3. Becca,

    This is such an interesting post and a topic that I have actually thought about quite a bit because of the nature of some of the programs I run. This post made me think specifically of an LGBTQA youth center. If the goal is to create a space where youth can feel safe and supported and be themselves, it makes sense to me to allow them to speak in terms and language that are most comfortable and relevant for them. The concern that comes to mind, which I think you addressed quite well in your post, is that it needs to be framed within a context of respect. It needs to be clear that swearing can't be used to put down or shut down others. The way you described "Fuck Yea" as opposed to "Fuck You" reminds me of the common ground rule "laugh with others and not at them" and I think it works in some cases.

    The other that arises, is the connection to the outside community- where your program is housed, who else is involved, etc. Basically, who are the other stakeholders and are you going to anger them by allowing swearing? It's a delicate balance. I also agree with Gigi that not everyone can keep to the idea that it's only okay within the space or your classroom etc. and at the wrong time or place it could really create some issues for a program or an educator. I'd love to hear what others think!


  4. When I first started reading this post, I had an immediate allergic reaction because I err on the side of professionalism within sexuality education and I was interested to determine how this topic would be addressed. I appreciate your thoughtful approach and was intrigued by the strong argument made in favor of swearing.

    I want to elaborate on Question #4: Is swearing conducive to encouraging comfort and learning? While you make a good argument that this in fact may be the case, I have to wonder if there is a better approach for facilitating learning while establishing rapport with a group. I personally try to take curse words and swearing out of my language and feel that I have had much success creating a comfortable and safe environment for youth, even in the absence of swearing. I think it is also prudent to consider the backlash of a sexuality educator actively utilizing such an approach. It seems that within the educational context you described, there was an active acknowledgment of swearing as an appropriate method of communication as long as people were respectful of one another. I can appreciate this stance on respecting all in the room but I wonder about the students who are offended by such language and would not say anything because of the direct approach the educator was taking in allowing it. I also wonder about a student going home to a parent or guardian and mentioning that ‘Ms/Mr. so-and-so, the sex ed teacher, allows us to swear’. Due to the opposition that many people have toward sex education in this country, we professionals in the field already have to rationalize, and sometimes fight for, everything that we do. Adding the extra ‘controversial’ issue of profanity may create more problems than its worth.

    I also wonder about the organization that would allow for this approach with youth. You mention being only partially accountable to the administration, though, I find that in my own job (and I will argue many jobs that involve youth education), employees are held to strict accountability for what they say and do within an educational setting. Were you able to discuss this approach with your administration and if so, what was their reaction? I mention this because in my role as a sexuality educator I feel it essential to consider my own organization when presenting a topic. This is not to say that curse words may occur – either as a slip up from myself or as part of the open dialogue amongst students. I guess I am wondering how many employers would be apt to say that curse words are appropriate to use with youth. These are just my thoughts – certainly not backed up by any research but I wanted to share nonetheless. Thanks for the post! It really allowed me to critically examine my own opinions about this topic.

  5. Becca,

    Very interesting post. When i read your post i immediately reflected on my experiences with cursing in the classroom, and although it was not in high school, which may have been different, i had a pretty positive experience with it. In undergrad i was a theatre major, and my program was relatively small and the students (or at least me) had a pretty close and open relationship with our professors. in our classes it was perfectly acceptable to drop the "F" bomb in class, and in fact we had a 40 minute discussion in my play-writing class this exact topic, and came to the conclusion, that especially in the arts it is important to be able to express yourself openly and as best as you can, and if saying "motherfucker" is the best way to express yourself then it should be used. so i agree that sometimes it can bring teachers an students to a closer more open relationship.

    However, after reading responses on this post, i also agree with Rebecca. This is a highly scrutinized field, and any indiscretion can and very likely will be thrown in our face, which is why being extra extra extra professional is more important than in any other profession. i was curious about legal issues on this topic (because people LOVE to sue in this country), and apparently in PA there is a statute prohibiting profanity, it is possible to get a 90-day jail term and a $300 fine. people have sued for lesser things. so before i go cussing up a storm, i would find out what the state laws are as well as the school district (or private school) rules are.

  6. Most of my fellow classmates are well aware that I am a huge Dan Savage fan. If you are in the field of sexuality (in any context), it is very important to familiarize yourself with Dan's work if you are currently unfamiliar.

    Dan Savage is a syndicated sex columnist, based out of the weekly publication "The Stranger" in Seattle. His column, "Savage Love," has been running strong in national (and some international) alternative news publications for over a decade. He also writes a blog through The

    Stranger's blog site -
    In addition to all of this writing, Savage has published several books and also hosts a weekly podcast called Savage Lovecast. In addition to that, Savage often lectures at colleges across the country. (I had the pleasure of attending one of his lectures a few years ago in Philadelphia - which was a campaign to get Rick Santorum out of office...and which was very successful).

    And now for my point, in relation to a response to Becca's post...
    Savage is one of the most popular sources for sex education in America today. He is extremely influential in this field and this influence crosses cultures, age, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc. Although he may not be employed as a "sex educator," per say...he is quite effective as such in his publications and podcasts as well as television appearances. And he swears - A LOT. His listeners are used to his "real life" approach.

    There are many reasons why I chose this field. Some of those reasons are, perhaps, more noteworthy than others. I cannot deny that I have personally learned quite a bit about sex and relationships from Dan Savage. After all, I've been reading his column for over a decade now. I'm also, like Becca, a potty mouth. And I do think that it's possible to let it all out - in a real and constructive manner - and to achieve great success in this field.

  7. One more thing I can't believe that I forgot to mention - the It Gets Better Project - launched in response to LGBT youth suicides by Dan Savage and his partner, Terry. This is yet another example of a successful Savage project.

    (and also including swearing...)

  8. Dear Becca,

    I swear too during my sex ed sessions. Sometimes intentionally. Sometimes because I just swear. Mostly because I have no filter. And find it difficult to act professionally. My crosses to bear.

    Anywho, I was impressed that you asked your students to provide you with feedback on the topic. I have always felt that my students feel the same way, but never bothered to ask them in any somewhat-formal context. I have often gotten informal feedback that they respond to me because they do not feel like I am an “adult”, or “stuffy”, or “pretentious”… and assume that my candid cursing is part of this. And besides just the standard “bad words”, our field is obviously riddled with “dirty words” that we may use that may not be tolerated in other contexts. Some activities I do with my students are specifically centered around these words. So, what exactly constitutes a swear? A word that can’t be used in other classrooms? At their family dinner table? At work? At church? It’s fairly contextual. And personal. I already mentioned my lack of filter, and have been known to whip out the “c-word” at Ruby Tuesday. My family and friends aren’t surprised, but sometimes the neighboring table seems a little surprised.

    So, all of that being said, I think it’s all contextual. As an educator, I don’t think you should feel the NEED to start dropping those f-bombs if it’s not something you’re comfortable with, just in the name of creating rapport with your students. There are other ways to do that. And just because you’re comfortable doing it in one context and not another. I do it in front of my boss. She’s cool. If she weren’t – I wouldn’t. I also teach college students, and am pretty sure they’re not running home and tattling to their parents that I said “twat” – although it gets their attention during a lecture. If I were teaching 5th graders, that would likely be a different story.

  9. I genuinely liked reading through your post!. Quality material. I might advise you to come up with blogposts even more often. By doing this, having this kind of a worthy website I think you will probably rank higher in the search engines.

  10. I am not going to reiterate what other people have said about this post other than I love it. The thing I also appreciated about this post though was that it broke down constructive reasoning for your point. Its probably pretty easy for any of us to say "I'm going to use swearing because it will link me with my audience and increase comfort level", but you asked us to go beyond that and put real reasoning in to that decision and backup plans if anything goes awry.
    Thus, as other people pointed out, there may be some downfalls to swearing in class (such as losing your job), but that is something you have already weighed. In general, I feel like if a community wants to get you fired, they'll find something to do that with, whether swearing goes on or not. Thus, its smart to weight that in your decision making.

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  12. Coming from a social work background i whold heartedly agree with meeing the student where they are. Constructive use of swear words is highly effective if that is the most meaningful means to communicate freely. However, being employed by a school district I would be afraid of using swear words. I would also be worried about the students using swear words because of the parental repercussions. It is sad that we live in a society where we have to censor what we say because people focus more on the words that are being used and not the meaning and the reason thay those words were chosen. Thank you for your post.
    Now to get the hell on with my day...

  13. You bring up an interesting point about how to successfully use the word fuck in a classroom setting. It makes sense that educators can create safe spaces by developing comfortable and harmless ways of expressing the “f-bomb.” In working with youth and adolescents it is beneficial to speak their language or at best allow them to utilize the words that carry the most weight for them. Teenagers tend to have an appreciation for swearing or speaking in slang perhaps due to its rebellious nature.

    It seems fitting that in your extensive experience working with teenagers you have established a good grasp on how to effectively implement the culture of curse words into a classroom. It seems highly appropriate that the youth can open up more and express themselves on a deeper level when there are no limitations in their word choice. It’s really powerful that you incorporated youth voices within the blog, which can often be ignored. Offering the teenagers perspective’s gives educators a better understanding of what students really appreciate from the classroom. I also really appreciate how you organized this blog