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The Answer Blog

Archive for September, 2011

“Penis” Is Not a Dirty Word

September 19, 2011

Recently, I was sitting with a neighbor in her driveway as her young children were coloring on the driveway with chalk. The children would take turns lying down as we traced their outlines, and then they would jump up to draw in their eyes, noses and mouths. One of her sons completed his figure by drawing a line between his legs. When his mom asked what he had drawn there, he said it was his penis. Looking shocked she exclaimed, “Don’t say that! Go sit in a timeout!”

As a sexual health educator, I have spent much of my career teaching young people the correct terminology for their sexual anatomy and undoing all of the nicknames and slang terms that parents (and other adult caregivers) teach their children (“pee-pee,” “vajayjay,” “hoo-hoo” and on and on). I have also helped young people overcome their embarrassment and fear of saying words like “penis” and “vagina” out loud. It is important for people of all ages, even young children, to know the proper names for all of their body parts and how they function, so that if something is wrong they can seek help or ask questions in the pediatrician’s or school nurse’s office.

A parent is a child’s first and most influential sexuality educator. From day one, parents send strong messages to their children about all aspects of sexuality, including how they should feel about their bodies. These messages are conveyed through the words, body language and tone of voice used when discussing body parts and how they work. It is vital for parents to have open and honest discussions with children of all ages to keep their kids healthy and to teach them how to communicate and set boundaries with others in order to help prevent sexual abuse. These early dialogues let kids know that they can go to their parent(s) with any questions they may have about their bodies, and will also make discussions about sexuality much easier as the child grows into a teenager and young adult.

A child needs to feel good about his or her entire body. When slang terms are used or it’s forbidden to even mention a body part, it sends a message that these parts are somehow shameful or dirtier than other body parts. I hope that all parents stop to consider the message they are sending when they use slang terms, or even worse, when they do not name the parts at all or simply don’t talk about them. Our sexual anatomy is as much a part of our bodies as our elbows and knees. We need to name them and talk about how they work, so that we can take care of them and keep them healthy.

Lessons Learned From Ten Years of TISHE

September 12, 2011

The training staff at Answer recently returned from co-hosting our annual Training Institute in Sexual Health Education (TISHE), where we spent a week training 33 professionals from across the country to be better sexuality educators. One would imagine that participants might be wary when they arrive at a remote setting to learn about sexuality education for six days and five nights with a group of strangers. But every year we have had the pleasure of working with passionate, smart and creative participants, who work in small towns, large urban centers and rural America to help young people make healthy and responsible decisions. Generally, these professionals are working with minimal budgets to try and meet the overwhelming and urgent needs of their students. These educators pour themselves into their jobs, recognizing the critical importance of sexuality education.

TISHE 2011

As a sexuality educator who has been working in the field for close to 20 years, I am always looking for new learning opportunities and have been grateful that TISHE continues to provide that for me every summer. Here are some of the valuable lessons I’ve learned from TISHE participants over the past 10 years:

Ignorance is not protection.
TISHE participants have come from states with no health (or sexuality) education requirement, school districts with no formal sex ed curriculum and supervisors who tell staff to just “keep it under the radar.” At the same time, teachers struggle with pregnant middle schoolers, sexting scandals and students who are exploited by much older partners. Yet, teachers are not even allowed to say words like “abortion,” “sexual orientation” or “masturbation.” How can students learn when adults are actively trying to keep young people—and even each other— in the dark?

Money talks.
We’ve all heard this saying—but when it comes to funding for professional development, money isn’t speaking loudly enough. Those of us who do this work every day know the importance of staff development, but the funding, staff and time rarely align with what research and experience show is truly needed. We have had people take vacation time to attend TISHE or pay for TISHE out of pocket because their school or agency wouldn’t cover the cost. Others have been expected to perform their job duties while at TISHE, even though we schedule daily sessions from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. This cannot continue. Both schools and organizations have to allocate sufficient funds and time for ongoing professional development for their staff.

Adults, not teens, are often the problem.
We constantly tell teens that they have to behave in certain ways in order to be healthy and happy, and even if they are willing to take the steps necessary to do so, it’s the adults who get in the way. It is so clear that young people want to learn about sexuality and adults want them to make healthy decisions. Yet how many adults deny young people the life-saving information and skills they need to do so? In some cases, this adult may be a teacher who is overly censored by a conservative political climate; in other cases, it is the power of one vocal parent that causes an entire sex ed program to be canceled. Yet far too many adults keep blaming teens when they don’t make the “right choices.”

TISHE has taught me that we as adults must recognize our role in that failure. This is why a key component of TISHE is building safety and comfort for the participants in order for them to receive peer feedback on ways they can be more effective with the young people with whom they work. If we are going to work with young people, we need to do the necessary work on ourselves to be able to do so comfortably, accurately and effectively.

We have a lot of work ahead of us if we hope to help young people become and stay sexually healthy. Over 350 TISHE participants and 10 years later, some of the same challenges to supporting young people remain, while new challenges have emerged. Yet over the past decade, one thing remains constant: we can always do better. In the coming years, TISHE will be here making sure youth-serving professionals are doing their best to educate young people about sexuality.

For ten years, the Training Institute for Sexual Health Education (TISHE) has been providing a transformative educational experience for school teachers, community educators, counselors, social workers, policy advocates and state department of education staff. Co-sponsored with the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) and led by some of the most experienced trainers in the country, TISHE is a week-long, residential training institute that focuses on helping youth-serving professionals be more effective at working with adolescents. Based on the ICHE (Institute of Community Health Education) model founded in the Pacific Northwest, TISHE has evolved to serve the needs of school- and community-based educators who are all working to improve the sexual health of our nation’s youth. Although TISHE is held in August, it is usually full with a wait list by the previous March.

Learn more about TISHE.