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Human Sexuality: The Ultimate Interdisciplinary Topic

August 28, 2015

In this third installment of Answer’s blog series, Inter(sex)tions, sexuality educator Deborah Roffman tells us why human sexuality is the ultimate interdisciplinary topic. Ms. Roffman has been teaching sexuality education for over 40 years in grades 4-12 and is also the author of three books: Talk to Me First, Sex and Sensibility and But How’d I Get in There in the First Place. Sexuality is a topic that is too often reduced to genitals and sexual behaviors. Ms. Roffman shares how sexuality educators  can begin to get at the complexity of human sexuality by making connections from sexuality to just about any other academic subject area. She encourages all teachers to make deliberate, ongoing connections for students between the topic of sexuality and other academic disciplines, to promote students’ critical thinking about a topic that is too often portrayed in simplistic ways.

width= “Years ago I read that the average American adult processes information  about sexuality on a second grade level,” explains Ms. Roffman. “That really struck a chord, because of what I know about cognitive development. Before ages 7 to 8, children process information very concretely; they can’t yet mentally step back far enough to ‘see’ or grasp the context around the content of life. While most adults are fully able to think contextually about many, many other topics, because of the poor quality of the ‘sex ed’ they likely experienced, they may be ‘stuck’ at a concrete level of understanding.”

With such a wealth of teaching experience and a deep commitment to broadening how we think, talk and teach about human sexuality, we were excited to have Ms. Roffman share her insights into teaching sexuality education and teaching across topic areas.

Answer: You have noted that sexuality educators need to help students move beyond a limited understanding of sex and sexual health that narrowly focuses on the genitals. Why is this so important?

Roffman: The excessive emphasis in our culture on the genital aspects of sexuality—rather than the whole human being attached to those genitals—reflects and reinforces what in my mind is an ultimately dehumanized understanding of who we are as sexual beings. My mantra to my students is that, no, they are not “walking talking genitals.” They are thinking, feeling, caring, valuing, relating, communicating, decision-making, self-care taking human beings, who (also) happen to have genitals.

I want them to understand too that “human sexuality” is not just longhand for “sex” or “sexual health.” It is an exceptionally broad field of study that encompasses anything and everything in the world that connects meaningfully to issues of sex, gender and reproduction. And, if you think deeply enough about those three issues, that is just about everything in the world! After all, sexuality is the fundamental life force. Why wouldn’t it be connected to everything?

So, the point, on both the personal and macro levels, is to engage students in thinking deeply and critically about themselves and the world around them in as many ways as possible. That’s the point of education, right?

Answer: Given the constraints on the time many educators have to provide sexuality education, what can educators do to help broaden students’ understanding of sexuality?

Roffman: My first response to this type of question is that, as sexuality educators, we must also be child and youth advocates. We have to be prepared to articulate persuasively—to administrators and everyone else who needs to know—that the way we are most often required to teach this subject matter is neither pedagogically sound (large groups, brief sessions, few classes, little continuity across age groups) nor developmentally sound (way too little too late), and how that needs to change for us to do well by our students. Until it does, I find that assigning meaningful readings, especially those that relate to our curriculum or to relevant current events, keeps the learning exciting and dynamic. In any three-month period, practically all of the topics I want my students to think deeply about will appear in print or online media.

Answer: Can you give us a few examples of how sexuality educators can use other disciplines—such as math, history or even astronomy—to teach about human sexuality?

Roffman: This skill comes with the recognition that the topic of human sexuality and all of life itself are astonishingly interconnected. Think about the myriad ways that sex, gender and reproduction intersect with the following disciplines, by no means an exhaustive list: history (Henry VIII’s domestic and public life, for example, was all about sex, gender and reproduction!), religion, economics, politics, government, war and peace; all of the basic sciences, all of the arts, literature; mental and physical health, disability, child and adolescent development, health education, public health; race, gender, ethnicity, and class; world cultures, social studies, social justice, psychology, sociology, marriage and family; psychiatry, medicine, pharmacy, law; the armed services, criminology, journalism, linguistics, and anthropology; communications, mass media, technology, social networking, marketing; philosophy, morality and ethics.

Even topics that may seem totally unrelated to sexuality aren’t really: architecture (would women throughout the ages have designed all of those phallic-shaped structures?); agriculture (the invention of which established the sexual double standard and solidified the notion of women as property), geology (Mother Earth); and astronomy (think constellations).

Answer: How can educators in other fields be sexuality educators? What opportunities could there be for educators in sexuality education to partner with their colleagues in other academic fields?

Roffman: Human sexuality is the ultimate interdisciplinary topic. That means all teachers are potential human sexuality educators. A middle school math teacher was sitting in a faculty group at his school when I quoted the statistic that if two people begin to engage in sexual intercourse at 16, with each having two and only two partners that year and repeating that exact pattern each year thereafter with two new partners, by age 20 each will have been exposed directly and indirectly to 100 partners. Intrigued, he went straight to his 7th grade class the very next period, tossed his lesson for the day and instead challenged them to work out this interesting and important mathematical progression!

Integrating human sexuality into every-day learning was a genuine gift to his students, who within 40 minutes broadened their practical understanding of math (and STIs), made important connections among subject matters, and learned to think more critically about human sexuality. Most importantly, they identified yet another adult in their school community who was “askable” and available for conversations about sexuality. Imagine a whole school full of teachers playing these roles, even if only briefly and once in a while!

Answer: What advice do you have for educators?

Roffman: I’ve advocated, well, forever, for a reframing of our subject matter from “sex” to “human sexuality,” and meaning it in the broadest possible way. In the general public, the work we do is most fundamentally associated with “sex” (which, by the way, makes us more vulnerable to attack) and sexual parts, not the growing, developing human being attached to them and the infinite ways that issues of sex, gender and reproduction play themselves out in human life. That’s the way, I think, to get us all past second grade.

At the Intersection of Sex Ed and English

June 17, 2015

Al Vernacchio is an English and sexuality education teacher at Friends’ Central School in Pennsylvania and author of For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health. A veteran teacher with 17 years of experience, Vernacchio first realized he wanted to learn more about sexuality and teach sexuality education during his first teaching job.

“The human sexuality curriculum was taught at the end of the ninth grade religion class, which was a class I taught,” Vernacchio explains. “Once I started teaching it, I realized I knew a lot about the spiritual side but not so much about the sexual side of things. I wanted to learn more and help people grow in sexually healthy ways.”

Vernacchio went on to get a master’s degree in human sexuality education and, in his words, has “been teaching sexuality education ever since, whether in my sexuality classes or my English classes.”

It’s just this sort of expertise in cross-topic teaching that made us think Vernacchio was the perfect person to interview for our second installment of our series Inter(sex)tions, which explores how sexuality education intersects with core topics taught in schools.

Answer: As a teacher of both English and a course on sexuality at the high school level, how and in what ways do these two subjects overlap?

Vernacchio: Almost any text taught in a high school English classroom can be used to teach a lesson on healthy sexuality. It’s just a matter of whether the teacher is willing to “go there” when teaching the text and whether the school is open to the teacher doing that. Literature is all about the human experience, and at the core of that human experience is our sexuality. We are sexual beings every minute of every day, from birth to death. Everything we do and every interaction we have is influenced by our bodies, our gender identity and expression, and our sexual and romantic attractions. The study of literature becomes so much richer when we understand the characters as fully human, and that means fully sexual.

I talk about sexuality all the time in my English class, because it’s on every page of every text I teach. It’s hard to teach The Catcher in the Rye without recognizing that Holden Caulfield, the protagonist, is a confused, horny, 16-year-old virgin who has a lot of questions about sex and dating and life, and those questions have an impact on his interactions with every other character. The novel also gives students a glimpse into the world of 1950s America and how sexism and homophobia were present there just as they are today.

One of my favorite experiences of talking about sexuality in the context of literature comes in the 11th-grade American Literature class. We read that old chestnut, The Scarlet Letter, followed immediately by Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. Both texts are about characters scorned by society because of sexual issues. Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter (“A” for adulteress) is mirrored by the Kaposi sarcoma lesions that mark the characters living with AIDS in Angels in America. Both texts talk about the conflict between the American Dream of living one’s life openly and honestly and the prejudice and discrimination that comes from a society that demands conformity and punishes those who stray beyond the boundaries of what’s deemed “acceptable.” Both ask what the price of freedom is and both ultimately give the message that being true to oneself is what is most important.

Answer: When teaching English, what texts do you find foster the most conversations about sexuality or topics related to sex ed?

Vernacchio: There are certainly texts that foster conversations about sexuality more easily than others because their subject matter is directly related to sexuality in some way (think Romeo and Juliet or Their Eyes Were Watching God). But I think what’s much more important is the attitude of the teacher and the community created in the classroom. Is it one that is safe for discussing “real” issues? Are the students encouraged to look at the way gender and sexual orientation may impact what’s happening in a novel or a story? For instance, when reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, of course it’s essential to talk about race and the dehumanizing effects of slavery in the United States. But Huck and Jim are also both men (well, a man and a boy), and that also impacts how they relate to one another. It’s also interesting to notice the place of women in that novel; they are oppressed by their gender in similar ways that slaves are oppressed by their race. Twain didn’t set out to write a novel about the place of women in nineteenth-century America, and I hope no teacher would avoid the racial issues in the novel to talk about that instead, but talking about the intersection of race and gender in the novel can enrich the experience and give students a new way of looking at issues of freedom, fairness and oppression.

Answer: For health teachers who are looking to more deeply engage students using content from other classes, what advice do you have?

Vernacchio: Health teachers have the ability to be extraordinarily creative in their classrooms. Teaching from novels and real-world experiences is so much more effective than using an out-of-date health textbook. There are amazing young adult novels, poems and essays that cover topics like navigating puberty, coming out, surviving sexual assault, being transgender, etc. These are easy reads and can open up discussions among students in powerful ways. Beyond fiction, teachers can use things like advertising to teach about gender role inequity. I’ve sent my students out to look at the display of Valentine’s Day cards in a store and count how many cards can be used by people in same-gender relationships. Television commercials can be a great focusing tool for a class and cover every sexuality-related issue imaginable. You-tubers like Laci Green are another valuable resource. Websites like, Scarleteen and Go Ask Alice allow students to explore topics of their choosing and guarantee them accurate, thorough and up-to-date information.

Answer: What tips do you have for teachers fielding questions about sexuality when sexuality isn’t their area of expertise?

Vernacchio: Whether you know the answer or not isn’t the issue. It’s the way you answer the question or respond to the statement that’s important. If a teacher seems nervous, shocked or disgusted, that’s going to send a powerful message to the student. When we normalize students’ natural curiosity about sexuality, we do them a great service. It would also be great to have resources available in every classroom that answered basic questions about sexuality—pamphlets, books, posters. One thing every great teacher knows is that where to find an answer is just as, if not more, important than knowing the answer. Most of all, though, teachers who model authenticity and show their humanity to their students are teaching a terrific lesson about healthy sexuality.

Using a Historical Lens to Teach About Roe v. Wade

January 22, 2015

At Answer we often talk about how sexuality intersects with every other core topic taught in schools. Health and physical education teachers aren’t the only ones fielding questions about sex or finding sexuality pop up in their lessons. That’s where Answer’s blog series—Inter(sex)tions—comes in. We are kicking off a series of blog posts highlighting resources, lesson plans and tips to support health educators in teaching about sexuality through the lens of other core content areas. We see an opportunity for health educators to collaborate with their colleagues who teach other subjects and promote cross-curricular learning. Not to mention, integrating other subjects into the health classroom helps support students with varying learning styles and academic interests.

Our inaugural post on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade focuses on how history can be used to teach about abortion. Over the coming months, we’ll be covering how not only history, but also math, science and English can be used to teach about sexuality.

A Focus on History

Lots of educators may understandably shy away from teaching about the still controversial topic of abortion; they may even be barred from discussing the procedure in their health classes. In cases like this, we at Answer think a really great way to address the topic is by studying the landmark case that made abortion legal in the United States. By using a legal or historical lens, students can study the case and explore their values related to the procedure. While the topic of abortion itself may feel easier to explore in this way, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to know where to start. But, not to worry, we’ve got you covered with resources, videos and lesson plans from trusted resources below.

Stick to the facts. A great place to begin with students is learning about the Supreme Court’s decision—who concurred and who dissented—and what amendment to the constitution they believe upheld the right to abortion. Here are some resources to help you teach the history of Roe v. Wade.

  • The Oyez Project is a wonderful database of Supreme Court recordings and decisions. Get your students engaged by having them listen to the oral arguments. The audio files and documents here can be adapted for different age groups and learning levels.
  • Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court has something for educators looking for a quick activity or several days to fill with this topic. Educators can sign up to access the answers to the questions and activities as well as differentiated-instruction suggestions. Please note that these lessons tend to skew older and would probably best for high school students.

Help students explore their values. Once students have a basic understanding of the case, they can begin to explore values about abortion. Have students debate as the lawyers in the case or write their own concurring or dissenting opinions. If you’re looking to use video, PBS LearningMedia has a short documentary-style video that offers some historical context to the case and great questions to begin discussions of values. Questions like “Why was the issue of abortion important to the women’s movement?” are a good way to have students examine their feelings and values. These questions also create the space for some critical thinking and values development.

Utilizing this approach not only addresses abortion—a pregnancy option that is often overlooked—but also provides history teachers a way to meet the National Standards for History that require students to identify issues and problems from the past and analyze different values and viewpoints.

You’ve hopefully discovered a new way to teach a tough topic or a new resource or lesson if you’ve taught Roe v. Wade before. Looking at sexuality through different disciplines can be an exciting way to enliven lessons. We’ll be back with more in this series in the coming months!