This is not about the 1992 Tom Cruise film A Few Good Men. It’s about the need for more good men to teach sex education. We need these men to serve as role models for male students, showing them the importance of talking about sex responsibly and comfortably with their girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, partners, and, eventually, sons and daughters.
There was good and bad news in a report about sex education and U.S. teens released last week by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). The good news? Before turning 18, nearly all teens — 97% — get some formal sex education in schools or other places, such as churches or community centers. (That’s progress, although the report doesn’t detail the accuracy or quality of the instruction.)
But a serious problem is that “more females than males have received formal instruction on how to say ‘no’ to sex, and more younger female teens than younger male teens have received instruction on birth control methods,” according to the report. Further, males get far less information from their parents than do females. The report’s author, Dr. Joyce Abma, a demographer with the NCHS, said the reason for the discrepancy “could be reflecting society’s regarding teen girls as needing to protect themselves more and prevent negative consequences.”
There might be another factor at play: Teen guys in schools see and hear adult women far more than adult men talk about sex.
“We need to groom good male sexuality educators. Good ones are so rare,” said Linda Morse, who recently retired after 30 years as the coordinator of School Health and Physical Education Standards at the New Jersey Department of Education.
I asked Morse for reasons why there’s such a dearth of male sexuality educators. Her reply can be summarized as the fear factor: men’s fear about teaching sex ed and administrators’ fear about giving them opportunity. She says that over years of her observations, male teachers are afraid of having to talk about sexual topics, such as family planning, risk reduction, safer sex, or gender and sexual orientation issues.
Morse says she has seen many male health/physical education teachers choose to attend a six-hour volleyball workshop rather than one on sexuality that requires less time. She believes that all sexuality educators need to understand their own sexual identity and “develop a comfort zone with students that is intimate, but not too intimate, and personal, but not too personal.” Further, “teachers of sexuality education must be prepared for all kinds of questions at any time and must be prepared to address parental concerns.”
Some men may find dealing with intimacy and the personal challenging, because they have not been raised to do it. Morse says that most male teachers “feel extremely competent and comfortable writing lessons on weight training, basketball and fitness, but not at all comfortable about addressing issues of sexuality.”
“This may be because experienced male health and physical education teachers often aspire to become athletic directors, principals, or supervisors and take graduate courses in management and leadership rather than health education. On the other hand, females are more apt to pursue graduate level work in health, family life, and sexuality education because they plan to stay in the classroom,” she says.
Administrators often make decisions that limit the number of men who get a chance to teach sexuality education. It begins early, in grades 4-6, when school nurses are called upon to teach the “clinical” aspects of sexuality, such as puberty education. Almost all are female.
Morse points out that some high school supervisors and principals are nervous about assigning young men to teach sex education. They have concerns “about pre-services or novice teacher’s teaching to students who are potentially only three to four years younger than they are and in fact ‘datable’ outside of school.”
Clearly, we have a problem here.
Morse’s perceptive analysis goes a long way to explaining the dearth of male sexuality educators. It also explains why young men may not feel comfortable talking to a male parent or asking a male teacher for in-depth information in order to make responsible, healthy decisions. They do not have the necessary role models.
To discover how we can encourage more men to teach sex education, I spoke to Hank Kearns, who taught the subject at Northern Burlington County High School for 35 years. He became a sexuality educator quite by chance: He was “assigned” senior health in his first year of teaching.
“I saw myself as not just a sex ed teacher. I saw myself as a health educator with wellness as my focus. But sex ed was a factor in all areas of wellness: social, physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and even financial,” he said.
I asked Kearns why so few men become sex educators.
“My gut response is that in order to teach sex ed, one has to be willing to make oneself vulnerable to questions, situations, and topics that men are uncomfortable with,” he said.
Kearns said he would tell prospective male sex educators that “teaching sex education helps you to become a better man. In the process of teaching, you have to learn it twice, once so you understand it and a second time you have to learn how to teach it. When you immerse yourself in that process of teaching, you understand [sexuality] on a much deeper level.”
Our society can reap rewards if we motivate more men to teach sex ed. There would be more information from the male perspective; more shared responsibility in sexual matters between partners; and more frequent and deeper conversations between fathers and sons about sexuality.
After all, conversations between the genders are an important key to a satisfying sexual life. It does take two to tango.