Jul 082011

This is another piece written by Intern Katie Davis about some of the lessons she has learned in her experience of becoming a sex educator. It follows along with Lessons Learned from A Sex Educator: Part 1, as published last week.

One of the major maxims repeated to me over the course of my trainings to
become a sex educator went something along the lines of “Expect that your students will
have a diversity of opinions on sensitive topics. Be sure not to alienate any of them.”
Now, that’s pretty sound advice: as I’ve already mentioned in my previous post, one
surefire way of alienating students is to ignore the variety of ways in which their thoughts
and experiences differ from one’s own. If I went into a classroom with the expectation
that students shared my perspective of the world, I’d be doing considerable damage to the
safety of the space and to my class’s potential for learning.

But there are times when showing sensitivity to a diversity of opinions isn’t
easy, when the line between mindfulness and moral relativism isn’t clearly drawn.
The sex education courses I teach cover (though not nearly comprehensively enough)
LGBTQ issues/identities. When we reach this segment of the curriculum, invariably
at least one of the students balks. Common negative responses to our LGBTQI unit
(which emphasizes anti-bullying as well as differences between gender identity, sex, and
sexuality) include:

“That’s nasty!”
“I go to church, and my church says that gay people are just plain wrong.”
“I don’t care if someone’s gay, just don’t go around flaunting it.”
“I’d never say something bad to a gay guy if he was just doing his own thing,
but if he comes up and tries to talk to me or something, I’m going to punch him.
Because he probably wanted to hit on me.”

These are moments when I’m forced to pause and consider how to answer
in a way that doesn’t shut down the conversation but also doesn’t give a free pass to
prejudice. The right of LGBTQI folks (myself included!) to live happy, complete,
governmentally-recognized lives free of harassment, fear, and discrimination is not up for
debate in my mind. Yet, it seems that if I ever want to make progress with students who
know only homophobia, I must patiently engage in that debate. This brings me to lesson

#3.  There is such a thing as productive discomfort.

I’ve met some educators who believe that, on supposed “matters of opinion,”
it’s wrong to question one’s students. I’m not of that mind. I think that, as a teacher/
facilitator/mentor, my job is to challenge my students to understand the origins of their
opinions and to constantly re-examine their belief systems through the lens of new
information and experiences. I tend to answer homophobic remarks, for example, with
more questions:

“Why is this kind of sexual activity nasty to you? Do you think the fact that you
find something nasty means that other people shouldn’t be able to enjoy it if they want to?”
“Different religions have all kinds of different opinions on homosexuality,
bisexuality, etc. There are some churches that claim that homosexuality is
wrong, while there are others that have gay and lesbian leaders. If someone who
identified as a member of the LGBTQI community attended your church, how do
you think they would feel? Do you think they’d be welcomed in?”
“What does it mean to flaunt one’s sexuality? Like going to prom with one’s
partner of choice? Like dancing at that prom? Would you say that heterosexual
people flaunt their sexuality? What’s the difference between ‘flaunting’
and ‘expressing’?”
“Do you think that every gay man who talks to other men is actually trying to
make a move? Are you trying to make a move on every girl you speak to?”

I don’t know that any of these answers are the right ones, but they’ve at least
allowed the conversation to continue. But encouraging students to think critically should
never mean silencing them. If I get the feeling that my student isn’t responding well to
my questions, I need to back off and move on to something new. Because:

3. Sometimes making progress means making concessions.

I never want a student to feel attacked, either by myself or by others. I’ve had
male students vocally oppose abortion, only to be swiftly and angrily silenced by their
female peers. In those moments, it is my job to step in, to validate my student’s right to
an opinion. “You’re not alone in feeling that way. In fact, the media tends to send us
tons of messages that support what you were just saying. Why do you think some of your
classmates might disagree with you?”

It’s a difficult and often deeply frustrating process, remaining true to one’s values
while leaving room in the classroom for the expression of others. But, at the end of
the day, when I doubt myself and feel as though nothing I said was effective, I have to
remember that my goal is not to win a debate. In fact, winning the debate, when it means
compromising the safety of the space, isn’t a win at all. Rather:

4. My goal is just to plant the seed of an idea.

And nothing, ideas included, grows without time, nourishment, and an open