Sex Ed, Pono Choices, and Me

Warning: Contains NSFW language in the context of describing students' Sex Ed Questions!

For years I've been disturbed, amused and shocked by comments my students make about sexuality. I've occasionally had to bring my English classes to a screeching halt to talk about consent or sexual identity or even basic anatomy.

A couple of years ago, our school was able to participate in a pilot pregnancy and STI prevention program called Pono Choices. This program is funded by the University of Hawaii, and co-created by Planned Parenthood and Alu Like which is a nonprofit for empowering Native Hawaiians. The social studies teacher taught the curriculum, and I saw an immediate improvement with my students. They gained new confidence talking about their bodies, sexuality, and the tools they would use to accomplish their goals.

This is a big deal-- Every year we've had kids get pregnant either senior year or right after graduation. And considering that some years we only have ONE graduate, this is not a great track record. So to have a new generation of students with the knowledge and skills to CHOOSE pregnancy rather than have it just happen to them? That is awesome.

So it's been a couple of years since we've offered health and I could see a big difference in the kids who hadn't been through the Pono Choices program yet-- they couldn't handle even seeing the S-E-X word on job applications and would melt down if I said the word "Period" in the context of "Every Sentence Needs A." The social studies teacher who taught it last time has moved down to Kindergarten (where she is teaching my 5 year old things like "Turning the flag upside down means somebody did something REALLY REALLY BAD!" and "The Americans locked the queen in prison and stole our mountain!!" and "GMO is poison!!!") So I volunteered to get the training and teach the curriculum.

This meant I made the short trek to Oahu for a two day workshop where the program creators started at the beginning and READ THROUGH THE WHOLE DAMN CURRICULUM AT US. Complete with hokey scripted moments of praise: "Thanks for your participation!" and acting out all of the games and activities with a bizarre double brain-- as adult health teachers and with a weird student role-playing mindset. As far as excruciating Professional Developments go, this was medieval torture chamber, please draw and quarter me already level misery. TWO SOLID DAYS.

But it was effective-- I left that workshop with a VERY (holy mary mother of god SO) thorough understanding of the program. If they had just handed me the curriculum materials and said, "have at it!" I never would have bothered.

And the curriculum is very solid-- it touches briefly and clearly on anatomy, puberty, what behaviors can transmit disease, how to prevent pregnancy and disease, what makes for healthy relationships, how to communicate, how to set goals... really all very nice and simple and clear. So nice and simple and clear that I felt totally fine having my 5 and 8 year old IN the classroom on the couple days that they were sick and had no place else to go. Really, there is almost nothing in this curriculum that I haven't already introduced to my little kids via daily life on a farm, answering their questions honestly as they come up, and through leaving books like these around the house:
I say all this because the parents of Hawaii completely lost their marbles about this program. COMPLETELY. I had people block me on Facebook for saying that I'd seen really positive results in my students' attitudes towards their own bodies and sexuality in general, and that if anything, this program doesn't go far enough to explain the things kids need to know BEFORE becoming sexually active!

Parents' tearful pearl-clutching seems insane to me when at the MIDDLE school across the street from us, there are ALWAYS pregnant 6th graders. That's 11 and 12 year olds. Pregnant. Every year, in each new group. That means that there MANY others who are having sex. So as cute as it is for a parent to say, "Oh, MY child is an innocent, this is too much information for MY child," I'm sorry but no. Your child IS complicit. Your child might not tell you, your child probably lacks the vocabulary to tell you what's going on, or if you're so bloody squeamish about the topic, they are going to be UNABLE to tell you what's going on with them and their friends at school. 

The spooky thing with kids and sex in Hawaii is this wall of silence. Kids don't know how to prevent pregnancy, and parents never want to have the awkward conversations, partly because every parent thinks THEIR kid is immune. So Hawaii has one of the highest STI rates in the country. 

I knew, before I even started the curriculum, that I was going to get a lot of questions from parents-- especially of the new 7th graders whose parents are still getting used to the Brave New World of middle school. All parents have an opportunity to opt their kids out of some or all the program, but only once they've come to the parent orientation night. 

The parent night is as carefully scripted as the rest of the curriculum-- a slideshow, a script, and detailed handouts for the parents-- and I take them on a whirl-wind tour of all of the controversial parts of the curriculum. Yes, we define sex as "Vaginal, Oral, or Anal Sex"-- because this is how disease can be transmitted. And more importantly, because there are lots of kids who think that anal sex is SAFER that vaginal sex! Yes, there are scenarios where kids are asked to identify traits of healthy or unhealthy relationships and some of those scenarios have examples with same-sex couples. Because guess what. Same-sex couples exist in middle school and in life. And the attributes of healthy or unhealthy relationships are the same regardless of how you mix and match the genitalia.  And Yes, during the curriculum, we demonstrate how to use a condom, with great solemnity and very little giggling. The program gave me 30 "wooden demonstrators" and the students, and parents at orientation, go step by step through the process of checking condom expiration dates, opening the package, making sure it's right-side-up, pinching the tip, rolling the thing down, removing it and throwing it in the garbage. The whole demonstration is scripted to be deadly dull and factual, rather like John Cleese. And ultimately, really really useful information. A few parents didn't want their kids doing the condom demonstration, but in the end almost all parents felt their concerns were met and they were comfortable with their kids going through the program.

And really, that's as it should be. A carefully scripted curriculum,  with medically accurate information, with a strong grounding in Hawaiian cultural values, that over and over again emphasizes that ALL sexual behavior has an element of risk, and that abstinence is a great option, and that the important thing is making conscious choices in accordance with your values-- this is an awesome message. 

So now the class is done-- and I've had a couple of days to think about it. The kids really did gain maturity and confidence talking about sex and pregnancy and puberty, and they were able to clear up a lot of misunderstandings and weird back-of-the-school-bus beliefs and fears. They made some beautiful products-- amazing hand-carved double-hulled canoes to represent the community effort it takes to grow up and meet your goals, and gorgeous braided leis to represent the values they believe in. I'm proud of them and their work!

I'm still a little shaken by some things, though. I'm shaken by the parent who came to me in tears half-way through the program and said that "This is all too heavy for my daughter, so I told her she doesn't have to do your homework." I was confused-- I found a copy of the homework so she could show me specifically what she was uncomfortable with. It was an assignment to make a model of a double-hulled canoe with your family, and while you're making it, the kid is supposed to ask the parent, "who talked to you about puberty when you were growing up?" This question was so painful for the mom, she couldn't have the conversation. Surprisingly, this parent let her daughter finish the class.

I'm bothered by the weird over-exposure and under-education I saw with the boys. These kids-- yes YOUR PRECIOUS LITTLE ELEVEN YEAR OLD BOYS-- have seen pornography that I didn't know existed until I was an adult. Like, till last year basically. They have seen bestiality and anal sex and all kinds of acts that are definitely NOT part of most peoples' sex lives. Their expectations and desires have already been shaped by this over-exposure. So the round-cheeked sweet kid who asks me in all earnestness if a girl will squirt when you finger her is THE SAME KID who thinks that women have just one hole, that the baby grows in the stomach (that's what my mom says!) and that women are just a mouth to cloacha tube, rather like the republic lawmaker who thought you could swallow a camera for gyno exams.  It was dizzying to have such different questions. Porn is a big issue and a question to ponder for another day, but I have just a general hunch that such early and intense exposure just is not good for growing brains and developing psycho-sexual selves. 

I'm unhappy with what the program didn't include at all-- the elephant in the room that is the WHY of sex. This is the kids' big concern, and their beliefs about why humans have sex were the most disturbing part of the class for me. The boys believed that sex is something they have to TRY and get, that it's owed to them, and they have to trick people into giving it to them. The girls believed the creepy inverse-- sex is something that they have to avoid at all costs, protect themselves from, and only when absolutely necessary use a bargaining chip. No where across either of the classes (because yes I separated the boys and the girls) was there the belief that people have sex because it feels good and it's fun and it makes people happy. Sex, as far as they could tell, is something very grim. A rite of passage or a looming threat. 

I had to go off-script to address, briefly and clearly, some of these gaps. I especially wanted the kids to understand consent-- learning skills to say No is fine-- but I feel like it's more important for everyone to learn to listen for YES. 


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