Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Specific Considerations in Sexuality Education for Homeless Women

Teaching homeless populations about sexuality has unique challenges. Sexuality education for this population is often overlooked. Many these individuals have not had formal or comprehensive sexuality education. Also, most of them have not graduated from high school or received their GEDs (Cleminson-Hernandez, 2004). Additionally, these individuals reading levels are typically below average, and financial disparities make access to healthcare and health promotion education very difficult. These challenges require specific considerations when adapting my lesson plans and educational strategies for this group.

I’ve been working with the homeless population for almost a year now, and I’ve enjoyed teaching a Sexual Health class series at a local shelter as a part of my practicum and community partner project. During my time at the shelter, I’ve had to adapt both my teaching styles and lesson plan to fit the needs and capabilities of my marginalized audience. To design my classes to best serve my participants, three factors were important to consider:

First, I had to consider health literacy of my population (Perez & Luquis, 2008). As most of my participants had not earned GEDs and read under a 5th grade reading level, I had to adapt my worksheets and health pamphlets to avoid frustration and confusion in my learners. According to Perez & Luquis (2008), it is crucial to provide the educational materials that are appropriate for the comprehension level of my students. Initially, when I went in with pamphlets with language geared towards high school aged students. I quickly learned that the ladies were having difficulty understanding them. When this happened, they became frustrated and were discouraged from participating. To reconcile this, I started to use sexuality education materials geared towards 5th grade and middle school.

Next, it was important for me to consider the level of knowledge my participants already had (Perez & Luquis, 2008). While most of my students were reading below a fifth grade level, most of them were above 30 years old. Many of them also have had experiences that were not covered in teaching materials and curricula directed towards fifth graders. Most of my participants had children and knew the basics of sexual reproduction. Many also were knowledgeable about HIV and some were diagnosed as HIV positive. So, it was important for me to respect what knowledge they came in with as well as their experiences.

Lastly, when developing my lessons and strategies, I considered the structural obstacles my population likely faced (Perez & Luquis, 2008). Structural obstacles are barriers associated with structural issues in communities and cultures (Perez & Luquis, 2008). For example, many of my participants were homeless and did not have transportation to health centers. Also, even if they did have some sort of transportation, not having a home address made it difficult for them to secure benefits such as medical assistance in order to get the health care and education they need. Additionally, many of my participants were distrustful of medical systems, had some form of mental illness, and were victims of domestic violence and rape. When adapting my lesson plans and strategies, it was imperative that I considered and was sensitive to these obstacles.

By considering these factors and adapting my teaching accordingly, I have been able to better educate this population and improve the personal autonomy of my participants as they have been able to comprehend my lessons and relate the information to their own lives.

Cleminson-Hernandez, M. E. (2004). The relationship between fear and success and the identity style    among urban homeless and formerly homeless adults. Dissertation Abstracts International, 65 (2-B), 1023.
Perez, M. A., & Luquis, R. R. (2008). Cultural competence in health education and health promotion. Jossey Bass: San Fransisco, CA.


  1. What a unique challenge... offering sex education to homeless populations. Sadly, I've never thought about sex education for this particular group because it always seemed that other survival needs were more pertinent, like food, clothing and shelter. What I oftentimes fail to overlook, however, is how sexuality is connected to all other aspects of humanity, including food, clothing and shelter.

    You didn't mention in your overview what sort of work you needed to do with your personal assumptions and biases regarding the homeless population to prepare yourself to adequately work with these men and women. It seems as though identifying your personal biases and judgments regarding this particular population would be equally as important as understanding their literacy, health and backgrounds.

  2. Also interesting to consider would be the connections between sexuality as it relates to food, shelter and clothing. I agree with the previous respondent. Also interesting to consider within the sphere of sexuality education would be the education gained by these women through sexual trauma and the reactions that would need to be considered when speaking to them about consent vs. non consent and how you could begin to open a discussion about navigating sexual interactions when this is a part of the experiences they bring to the table.

  3. I have be honest and say that I had never thought of this population as it relates to sexuality education. As Alaina mentioned, what a unique challenge. I think you bring up a great point, being that the literacy level needs to be considered. It sounds to me like the Perez and Luquis book has been helpful in helping you with this population. Additionally, dealing with mental health populations can also be a challenge in itself, not to mention you combining your lesson plans to tailor this population, low literacy levels and survivors of sexual assault. It sounds like this position is a lot of work, but that you have it under control. Thank you for positing on this topic, it has been insightful.

  4. When I think about sex, I think about how it is a fundamental part of who we are as people. Even though I believe sex is an important part of our lives, I failed to recognize that sex would also be an important part of of the homeless populations lives. When thinking of the homeless population, I guess I viewed sex as a luxury and saw homeless people as not having the time or energy to think about sexuality. Okay, I know when writing this that was an inaccurate assumption that was not fully though through. Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. I am interested in logistical information. We often think of sex happening in a home. How do the homeless navigate sexual experiences? How do shelters handle heterosexual sex (shelters are often sex segregated, right?)? Are there safe places for the homeless to go to get their sexual needs met? Just some logistical questions that I would truly want to know if I was homeless.

  5. Megan,

    This is such a wonderful post! I think that you did a great job illuminating all the different lenses that our students bring to a classroom. I appreciated the care that you modeled in talking about homeless women. I think that this really shows all the different kinds of skills that are helpful for educators to possess because we are working with people with all kinds of backgrounds, assets, and needs.

    I also appreciate the questions that Jenn brought up in terms of how to help people navigate circumstances that are so nontraditional.

    Thanks for the post!

  6. Megan,

    Great post! I think that you bring up a number of really important points specifically related to health disparities and sexual education. I think it is great that you were able to tailor worksheets and information to a reading and comprehension level better suited to your participants. It definitely shows your attention as an educator. It is very important to understand where your audience is in these terms because if they cannot understand what you are teaching, the information may very well be useless.

    When considering structural obstacles I was wondering how you navigated this. Were you able to find any information related to how medical benefits may be secured? Were you able to discuss organizations, etc. the women can utilize to find low cost medical care and/or transportation to get to those places?