Let’s Talk About Sex

I’ve been talking to my students about sex – a lot. Students are very curious about sex and have very serious questions and concerns like, “What happens if humans don’t have pubic hair?”, “Why do people feel so ashamed and embarrassed when we talk about sex?”, “Why do we have marriage?” and, my personal favourite, “What are the pros and cons of having a BF or GF?” It is rare to hear a question like, “What are the reproductive parts that a sperm must travel through in order to fertilize an egg?” and yet, that is what I am expected to teach and what students are expected to remember. To be fair, just talking about the pure mechanics of human reproduction makes my job and the student’s lives a lot less uncomfortable. If we all just avoid the touchy-feel-y emotional stuff, we can probably just leave it to fate and the off-chance that students can be trusted to educate themselves and make good choices, right? In all seriousness though, if we expect people to know about consent, safe sex, and healthy relationships, then we need to talk about those things. Teachers have so much power and influence over their students that I think we owe it to them to have open and honest conversations about topics sex, sexual health, and relationships. 

“Okay, Miss Biology Teacher,” you might be asking, “what makes you so qualified to impart knowledge about sex, sexual health, and relationships to students?” Okay, I admit, my five years of post-secondary education did not prepare me for this. Sex-ed did not prepare me for this. Truth is, I’m  improvising. I mean, I’m still trying to figure out a lot of this stuff for myself. What I do know is, I have been granted this incredible opportunity to start a dialogue with my students about a topic that’s very real and extremely relevant to their lives. Yes, it’s embarrassing, awkward, and hella uncomfortable to broach the topic of sex with a room full of hormonal teenagers. Do my students sometimes make inappropriate jokes or comments in class? Do they giggle uncontrollably whenever they use the word “ejaculation”? Are they expected to treat each other and themselves respectfully in the safe space we have created together? Are they just trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into this world just like the rest of us? The answer to all those questions is, absolutely, yes. 

The teenage years can be a strange and disorienting time, which is easy to forget when you’re legally an adult. Teens do a lot of weird things and say a lot of things they don’t mean. Coming from a person who’s already gone through that stage of life and lives to tell the tale, those teenage years don’t seem so consequential anymore. It is easy to be dismissive or indifferent to the problems experienced by my students because I forget that I am looking at their problems through my own eyes. Of course, I can’t make this time any less strange or disorienting for my students, but I can listen to them and help them understand that this stage of their life is anything but inconsequential. They are going to experience failure and make bad decisions – it is a natural part of growth and there is nothing shameful about it. Teens have the same needs adults have; to feel validated, loved, cared for, and to be given the time and space to figure themselves out.

For the most part, teaching and learning about human reproduction with my ninth graders has been a relatively matter-of-fact experience. Partly, I think it has to do with the fact that my students are English Language Learners who did not know what a lot of the vocabulary meant and so were completely uninhibited in its usage, “Miss, what is erection?”, “Miss, what does orgasm mean?”, “Miss, what is pubic hair?”. I think the other part of why this whole experience has felt so emotionally sterile  is cultural and has to do with the values and environment my students grew up in. I have noticed that they are generally shy about broaching the topic of sexual intimacy. We have not yet had a discussion about cultural norms and the role it plays in terms of our decision making when it comes to sex and relationships. A good next step I’d say.

Some cool sex-ed resources to check out: