When I was starting out in the sexuality education field, I was hungry for training on how to effectively teach the many topics we address. A colleague recommended a training on domestic violence, and since healthy versus unhealthy relationships was a topic in our teen curriculum, I attended. As the facilitator began the training, I realized that the entire room was made up of medical professionals being trained on screening for and treating women who had been physically assaulted by their partners or spouses. I was the only educator—the only person who was interested in learning how to teach young people about healthy versus unhealthy relationships. I asked a few questions, and the facilitator did her best to answer them. I was able to cull some useful information here and there, but overall the training had very little to do with me or what I needed.
This is what far too many boys experience in the sex ed classroom.
Teaching as if Guys Aren’t in the Room
The vast majority of sexuality education curricula are written with the needs and issues of girls in mind-reinforcing, perhaps inadvertently, the idea that “boys will be boys” and so we must arm girls with as much knowledge and as many skills as possible to be the moral gatekeepers within male-female relationships. When a teacher focuses on the needs of and uses language that is designed to resonate with girls, boys often end up feeling invisible—like they don’t belong in the classroom, like sex ed doesn’t apply to them or is a waste of time, which is just like I felt during that training. It was a strong training; it just wasn’t directed to me. So, just like boys in the sex ed classroom, I had to find the information I was looking for on my own.
Sexuality education must integrate messages and teaching methods that resonate with boys. There has been push-back by some that learning based on biological sex is sexist. And I have to admit I have struggled with that over the years. But as a parent of a son and an educator who has worked directly with thousands of adolescent boys, I have seen firsthand that there are certain methods and efforts that work differently with boys than they do with girls. Does this mean that these methods work with ALL boys? No. Does this mean that these methods do not work with ANY girls? Of course not. But at the most basic level, we need to stop teaching sexuality education as if boys aren’t in the room or as if girls need all of this guidance and help, but boys can figure everything out on their own. It does a disservice to girls as much as it does to boys.
Involve Guys From the Beginning
I was at a meeting recently where a discussion took place about maternity leave at school for pregnant and parenting teen girls to ensure they remain in school. It’s a worthwhile goal to help these girls both complete high school and be successful parents. Yet it struck me that the idea of family leave for their male partners did not even come up. Why? Is there an unspoken assumption that this isn’t necessary? Or that the boys wouldn’t be interested? Yet how many adults then judge the biological dads for not being present, when in fact, provisions were not made available to them the way they were for their female partners?
If we truly want guys to be engaged in their sexual health and relationships, we need to involve them from the beginning. If we want them to value sexuality education, we need to teach in ways that resonate with them. If we want to help them make healthy decisions, both now and into the future, we need to see them as part of the educational process, not an afterthought.
We address how educators can create sexual health lessons and use teaching methods that resonate with boys in Answer’s latest online professional development course, Boys and Sex Ed: Beyond Statistics and Stereotypes. If we as educators are going to provide boys with the guidance they need and deserve, then we have to find more effective ways of reaching them.
Albert Einstein said, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” We keep telling boys that they need to be responsible about their sexual health without providing them with the educational venue through which they can learn to be responsible. As a result, many live their lives believing they are stupid about or irrelevant in relationships-regardless of the gender of their partner. And no young person should be made to feel stupid or irrelevant.