Sex education for children who have experienced sexual trauma is missing something

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The internet has changed the way kids learn about sex, but sex education in the classroom still sucks. In Sex education 2.0, Mashable explores the state of sex education and imagines a future where digital innovations are used to teach consent, sexual positivity, respect and responsibility.


When some parents and educators talk to children about sex education, they could rely on a common but ugly analogy about gum. Imagine your virginity, they say, like chewing gum; once it has been chewed, no one wants it.

This prospect may frighten some children and lead them to abstinence, but it also does something unexpected, something that no adult could wish for a young person. An analogy rooted in shame intensifies the often secret agony of abuse or sexual assault, making it even more difficult for victims to bear.

“The message you get is, ‘Well, I don’t already care.'”

“The message you get is, ‘Well, I already don’t matter. “That’s exactly not what you want people to hear from sex education,” says Monica Faulkner, director of the Texas Institute for Child & Family Wellbeing at the University of Texas at Austin.

“This tells a sexual assault survivor that no one will want you and that it is all your fault if you are pregnant or have a sexually transmitted infection.”

Whether parents, guardians or teachers, adults don’t want to think that the child in front of them might be a survivor of abuse or assault, but the numbers tell a different story. Historically, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys have been victims of child sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. Research suggests that 10 percent of American children will experience sexual violence before they become adults, and colored girls and LGBTQ youth, Among others vulnerable groups, are more at risk. As we know from research and the #MeToo movement, many young victims are slow to report abuse or do not disclose it.

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LGBTQ youth also need good sex education

Meanwhile, sex education classes, as well as conversations parents have at the kitchen table, fail to recognize the reality that significant numbers of children have been abused or sexually assaulted. Child welfare professionals like Faulkner, as well as sexual health educators, are working to change this by developing “trauma informed“ways of speaking and teaching sex education, including letting children choose not to participate in sex education classes, avoiding shameful language and tactics, focusing on consent and pleasure and by attacking myths.

Faulkner works with young people in foster care, many of whom have experienced sexual trauma. She says survivors may be afraid to learn more about sex education in a classroom setting. If the conversation is motivated by shame, it can trigger fear and embarrassment. It can also be deeply disturbing or anxious for a young survivor to think about the genitals or certain sexual acts.

This is why Faulkner recommends listening and being sensitive to a child who seems dissociated. He or she may not be a survivor, but it’s important for teachers and parents to know that tactile behaviors like coloring or restlessness can help regulate stress and heightened emotions. Adults who notice these behaviors should avoid singling out and berating children.

Faulkner also believes that students should have the right to withdraw from classroom lessons, even going so far as to override their parents’ wish to participate. This can be controversial, especially for advocates of comprehensive sexuality education who want to ensure that students are consistently given accurate information about their sexual health. Still, Faulkner says it’s essential for survivors to draw their own boundaries: “The child needs power over that.”

Any conversation about sex education, whether at school or at home, must avoid shaming language at all costs. It means give up analogies about chewing gum, used duct tape and flowers that have lost their petals. Instead, sexual health should be presented as another aspect of a young person’s physical health, while sex itself is “something good and can be wonderful in your life when you are ready for it.” », Explains Faulkner.

Consent should also be the cornerstone of these conversations. By simply telling young people that their bodies belong to them and no one else, adults can empower trauma survivors. In turn, talking about consent allows children to disclose abuse or assault.

Latishia James-Portis is an activist and educator who conducts workshops on sexual violence prevention and sexual health as Deputy Director of Prevention and Intervention at Spelman College. In her experience, students who feel safe talking about consent often relate their own troubling experiences. This is important for trauma survivors who may have conflicting feelings. It is possible, for example, that a survivor likes the person who assaulted him, which makes it more difficult to classify what he experienced as a violation.

“They may not even know what happened to them was not consensual.”

“Take into consideration that when you are talking about these topics there can be confusion and shame in the room, especially if they haven’t had full sex education so far,” says James-Portis. “They may not even know what happened to them was not consensual.”

James-Portis says she identifies healthy and unhealthy behaviors, guiding students through what the baseline for sex should look like: consensual and enjoyable.

Focusing on pleasure requires debunking the ubiquitous myths about how penetrative sex should involve pain, tearing, or bleeding. James-Portis tells the students that if sex is done correctly, with mutual pleasure as the main goal, it shouldn’t be painful. She urged young people to learn through masturbation what pleasure means to them, a pursuit that is already fraught with shame depending on factors such as culture, religion, class and gender. Survivors often encounter another dense layer of shame related to exploring their desires and curiosities.

“If your first sexual encounter was abuse, in your healing process later on there may be even more shame,” says James-Portis, who also teaches pleasure education at O. school, an online sex education resource, under the name Rev. Pleasure. (She animated a session earlier this year on healing from trauma.)

Although educators may not be able to talk about fun in the classroom, it is something that parents and guardians can discuss with children. Rather than worrying about understanding every word, parents should commit to having several open conversations with children about sexual health. Faulkner says this makes it a normalizing experience that builds confidence over time, giving young people the confidence to ask questions critical to their health and safety.

If a young person discloses abuse or assault, parents should say it is not the child’s fault, provide the support needed for recovery, and make it clear that what happened to them is not the norm for them. consensual sex, says James-Portis.

She also highlights how important it is for survivors – unlike the gum analogy – to know that their trauma is not the defining moment in their lives.

“The teenagers who are going through this really need to be confirmed that the way they are dealing with it is OK, but as they move on, it is OK,” says James-Portis. “And also, this is not where your story ends.”

If you’ve been a victim of sexual abuse, call the toll-free and confidential national sexual assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or access 24/7 online help out of 7 by visiting online.rainn.org.

Related video: It’s time for gender-based violence



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