Emmalinda and I met the most creative, accomplished, and inspiring people at the F-Word Event last month.
June 16, 2015
These Women Are Teaching A Ground-Breaking Sexuality Curriculum In Schools & Churches
by Asha Dahya
In 2014 we started an event series called ‘The F Word Event’ held in Los Angeles in conjunction with Sarah Moshman, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker of The Empowerment Project. We teamed up to create a series of mini TED talk-like events that would feature speakers who are redefining feminism for the modern generation.
So far we have had Caitlin Crosby creator of The Giving Keys, Lisa D’Amato winner of America’s Next Top Model: All Stars, Politician Barbi Appelquist, Emily Greener co-founder of I Am That Girl, and Seth Matlins who spearheaded the Truth In Advertising Act.
At the most recent event held on May 21st in Culver City, we had the most diverse line-up yet. Since we are now in the second year of this series and it has become a sold-out event, we decided we need to share some of the incredible wisdom of these speakers. Today we want to share an interview with speakers and educators Emmalinda MacLean and Jill Herbertson. They are the creators of an organization called More Than Sex Ed which teaches a ground-breaking curriculum in schools and churches designed to break down stigma and shame surrounding sexuality.
When we look at the current landscape of sexuality in the media, there are all sorts of mixed and negative messages. We see women being paraded as objects in bikinis and less in advertising, and on the other end of the spectrum women are shamed for having multiple sex partners while men get a free pass.
When Bruce Jenner revealed his new identity as a woman, Caitlin Jenner, on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine recently, the conversation around sexuality and gender went up a notch especially in regards to the trans community and how as humans we are constantly being challenged to step outside what we think we know to be true about sexuality and explore that perhaps we have been approaching it in the wrong way.
In Europe there is a new trend where sex education is starting to be taught at kindergarten age with a specific focus on love being the foundation. From the outside it sounds as if this is something that kids are not emotionally or mentally equipped to handle from such a young age, but the results are showing the opposite to be true.
In the same vein, Emmalinda and Jill are adamant that exposing kids to a wide-range of discussions and fact-based information about sexuality from a young age is vital to a healthy identity as they grow up. They have created a space where young men and women are free to ask questions, talk about normally taboo subjects, and most of all not feel shame for what they are going through.
We cannot emphasize enough how needed this type of curriculum is, and only time will tell when the next generation is running the world as to how an organization like More Than Sex-Ed is going to impact sexuality. For now, we had the chance to ask both women the important questions so that our readers have a chance to get familiar with what they are doing.
How did you both meet and decide to start your organization?
Jill Herbertson--We were each coordinating the “Our Whole Lives” sexuality education programs for our respective Unitarian Universalist Congregations (who are the creators of the curriculum they teach), and it made sense to combine resources. You know, 15 years ago it was often hard to convince people that comprehensive fact-based sexuality education belongs in churches and religious communities. Times have changed. A couple years ago we suddenly began getting requests from friends of church members who had heard about the program and really wanted their own kids enrolled. We just couldn’t accommodate the demand within the church structure. We realized we needed to create a new program that could be flexible and could go to organizations that work with youth in our wider community.
What is ‘More Than Sex-Ed’ in a nutshell?
Jill Herbertson—More Than Sex-Ed is an educational outreach initiative. Our goal is to partner with groups in our community who already serve youth, in order to create and implement comprehensive fact-based sexuality education programs based on guidelines set by the Sexuality Information Education Council of the United States. Our community partners are currently faith organizations, home-school groups, and private schools in the Los Angeles Area.
Who does your program specifically focus on?
Emmalinda MacLean--The highest demand for classes is from parents with children around junior-high age, and those lessons center on the topics that are just coming into focus for youth at that time: what’s happening to your body and your brain throughout puberty, how to navigate attraction and other strong feelings, recognizing the assumptions and expectations our culture has about gender, understanding diversity in sexual orientation and gender identity, and yes–learning about sexual activity, which encompasses much more than penile-vaginal penetrative sex, and which we discuss in terms of pleasure and intimacy, with an emphasis on both physical and emotional safety.
It’s a lot of very “adult” information to share with thirteen- and fourteen year-olds, but this is the age when young people are starting to pick up on much less positive messages from peers and media, so it’s extremely important to get these ideas across while their views are still taking shape.
Why are shame-free sexuality conversations and curricula vital?
EM--There is a staggering amount of sexual content easily available online today, like never before in the history of the world, and most parents who think their teenager isn’t accessing it are probably in denial. If we can’t create a safe space for young people to have conversations about sex and sexuality that are framed in terms of respect, love, caring, and health, where all their questions can be answered and their assumptions can be unpacked and examined, the message we send is that these topics are taboo, dirty, secret.
People who believe this perception of sexuality as a collection of “dirty secrets” are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation, and may not seek necessary medical care out of fear or shame–so yes, this education is literally vital, in that it may save lives.
Just recently PBS did a news story on the Netherlands teaching sex-ed in Kindergarten because they believe it has to start young. What are your thoughts on this?
JH—It’s so exciting! Their focus for Kindergarteners is about healthy relationships, communication, diversity and assertiveness. These are values we share at More Than Sex-Ed. It absolutely should start when kids are in kindergarten. Conversations with parents should be happening as soon as babies start talking. We really need to embrace the idea that sexuality education is ongoing. It’s way too complex a topic to relegate to “the talk” or a single lecture. There are developmentally appropriate topics for each stage of childhood. And the topics should be revisited as kids mature.
The progressive democracies in Europe seem to have a much better grasp of the importance of sexuality education than we do in the US. I also recently watched a video from Norwegian TV, regular broadcast TV targeted for 8 year-olds, on the topic of healthy shame free sexuality, which I think many Americans would find surprisingly explicit. But it’s hard to argue with the evidence that comprehensive sex-ed results in better health and social outcomes.
If we reduce teen pregnancy rates, and reduce sexually transmitted infection rates, we actually save government money. We have better quality of life. If we can teach kids about gender and orientation diversity, we can address the bullying that has caused so much suffering among LGBTQ youth. If we teach what consent is, and how to be an ally, we can reduce sexual assault rates.
EM–I absolutely agree, the Netherlands is doing it right! Children deserve to know from a very young age that their body is their own, their feelings are valid, and enjoying both is a healthy, positive aspect of being alive.
Kids get bombarded with sexualized imagery from such a young age, yet other sections of society tell them having sex before marriage is “sinful” or having multiple sex partners is “shameful”. How do society’s contradictions hurt a young person’s view of sex long term?
JH–You’re right, whether it’s the unrealistic sort of aspirational way we use sex to market stuff, where it seems only physically hot people are worthy of being sexually desirable, while at the same time sex is presented as fraught with peril and disease, forbidden yet impossible to resist. We have created a mess of conflicting yet largely negative messages, with giant pieces of important information completely missing. And the whole “shame” thing…which we have been using with the bone-headed notion that making sex taboo will keep kids innocent and pure…has not been working out very well for us.
It takes a lot of work to overcome those contradictions and information gaps, and if you can’t work on it in a comprehensive sex-ed course, it’s likely you will be figuring out your sexuality by trial and error. Look, knowledge is power. And practicing communication about boundaries, consent, sexual identity and self-care among peers is clearly a way to help avoid STIs, unhealthy relationships, unintended pregnancies, and abuse.
EM–I would be terrified to live in a world where the only models anyone had for how to navigate sex and relationships came from reality TV, celebrity gossip magazines, and internet porn. Can you imagine? Many of these representations are especially damaging to women and girls–sexuality is something a woman “puts on” like makeup, in order to “win” the ultimate prize of male attention, without which she has no value.
At the same time, the “abstinence only” messages tell girls that they will lose value if they do engage in sexual activity; in both cases, females (from a very young age, as you pointed out) are subtly and sometimes explicitly told that their bodies, their pleasure, and their sense of identity do not really belong to them. Denying women this agency and ownership of their sexuality is at the root of many crises that are disturbingly accepted as commonplace–from rape culture to an epidemic of eating disorders.
Where do gender roles come into play in the curriculum?
JH–Gender roles are those aspects of sexual identity that are imposed upon us from the outside, from the wider culture. They are an artificial construct. In our curriculum we explore the traditional expectations of the binary view. The pink/blue divide. And then we consider the value of recognizing diversity. When it comes to labels, we teach that individuals are free to choose to define themselves. There are more than two genders, and it is never appropriate to slap labels on other people or to expect that they fit into neatly defined boxes.
What do you hope parents will get out of it?
EM--Many parents are afraid that discussing sex and sexuality with their adolescent will automatically encourage sexual behavior, and we actively work to dispel that myth. In fact, the opposite is true. It can be hard for parents to accept that their child is becoming an adult, and it can be especially scary for adults who had bad experiences in their own early sexual exploration, so our goal is to help parents feel more comfortable talking with their son or daughter about their choices, and listening in a supportive, non-judgmental way.
Parents also often recognize that the curriculum we teach is much more thorough than they could communicate in at-home conversations, and that teens will hear messages differently from teachers in a special program than they will from their own parents, so we hope that parents will see us as their partners and supporters in a holistic sexuality education for their youth.
Have you had any negative responses to what you teach?
EM--Of course there are people who are fundamentally opposed to some of our core messages, like teaching that homosexual relationships are a completely equal and valid expression of love and intimacy, but those people don’t usually walk through the doors of a parent-orientation session. The push back I’ve seen more often is from parents who essentially agree with the message, but worry that it’s “too much, too soon”–which I believe stems from a vague fear of permanently altering their child’s worldview to include sexually explicit content.
What we remind parents is that your son or daughter is almost certainly being exposed to more explicit content than you would like to imagine, either from conversations with peers or their own explorations online, and More Than Sex-Ed offers a strong counterbalance to these ideas by framing the conversation around respect, personal responsibility, agency, intimacy, and love.
What have been some of the most impactful responses you have received?
EM–We’ve gotten some great comments in “the question box”, which is a tool for allowing participants to ask anything anonymously. Once I found a card in the question box after the first session of a program that said, “will all the sessions be this much fun?” and it made the whole day’s work worth it. When participants in a class are clearly having a good time, feeling confident and safe to joke and laugh and talk openly, they are also building the skills needed to communicate their sexual wants and needs effectively, and have a good time doing it.
We’ve pulled cards out of the box that indicated that someone in the group was questioning their sexual orientation, and that person got to hear the whole room affirming and supporting their journey, without knowing who they were. And I think one of my proudest moments as a sexuality educator was at the concluding session of a high-school class, when each participant shared a significant learning they would take away from the program.
There was a group of older boys who all had girlfriends, and they all said that they learned how incredibly important good communication was in a healthy relationship. “Communication is everything,” said one 17-year-old. Whoever those young women are, who were/are dating those young men–you’re welcome!
You mentioned at the F Word that you have a specific focus on Christianity in your teaching. Can you expand on this and why it is important to have this in the church?
EM–The curriculum that we use for More Than Sex-Ed, “Our Whole Lives”, was developed by a joint task-force of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Unitarian Universalism grew out of Protestant Christianity, but no longer identifies as a Christian denomination, unlike UCC churches–although both are very progressive and inclusive in their values, especially around sexuality.
The ‘Our Whole Lives’ curricula are completely secular, but acknowledge the core values which grounded the development of the program: respecting the worth and dignity of all people, and their beliefs about sexuality; giving all people accurate information about sexual health and consensual, mutually pleasurable, safe sexual relationships; educating people about their responsibilities when making sexual choices; and standing up for justice and inclusivity–meaning extending these rights to all people, regardless of their age, gender, background, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
If you believe that everyone is capable of having a direct relationship with God, or whatever higher power they believe in, you must also respect everyone’s right to make the choices about their body and conduct that feel right for them, regardless of whether they would feel right for you. To me, honoring this plurality is deeply spiritual–the divine encompasses more ideas and possibilities than my limited human mind and worldview can possibly include.
Would you agree that sex and sexuality is a huge part of a person’s identity?
JH—Absolutely. Sexuality is a natural and ancient part of us. The diversity of sexual behavior and expression among all life forms on earth is mind boggling, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the diversity of human sexuality, we should absolutely celebrate it. Without sex, life on earth would consist of small slow homogenous single celled organisms. Sex is essential.
In your opinions, why are society, churches, families and schools so afraid of talking openly about sex in a way that doesn’t shame a person?
JH--Shame is hard to overcome. I think we are making progress. Sexuality hasn’t been well studied. Because of the stigma, doing research has been challenging, so where there is a vacuum of reliable data, tradition and convention will dominate.
You know, the shape and size of the erect clitoris was never accurately described and depicted until the 1990s! This marvelous organ, with the sole purpose of providing pleasure wasn’t deemed worthy of study, so consequently to this day, most anatomical illustrations only show the small visible glans of the clitoris and not the larger internal part that is wishbone-shaped spongy tissue. How many people could be having better sex if only they and their partner knew where their clitoris actually is?!
EM—Lack of information about the clitoris is a great example of how repressing sexuality–and especially women’s sexuality–is used to maintain the status quo of gender relations, especially when it comes to domestic roles and expectations. It seems to me that a large group of men are tremendously afraid that women, on a large scale, will begin living their lives with higher goals than just to please and attract men. Sorry-not-sorry if that seems like a radical feminist viewpoint.
What is your ultimate goal with More Than Sex Ed?
JH—In creating this outreach initiative ourselves, we can be flexible and creative in working with community partners. We can pull fabulous creative, collaborative people into the mix, people who are as passionate as we are about changing the way society views sexuality. Ultimate goal? An organization with as many trained facilitators going out to work with youth and parents in as many community settings as we can possibly get this message of healthy respectful sexuality out to.
Finally, what makes you both powerful women?
JH—I am of the “Sally Draper” generation. As a very young girl I was conditioned to be quiet, unassuming, modest and polite. But by the time I was a teen, the 1970s feminist message really resonated with me, and I chafed against many of the standard girly expectations. Gender boxes really pissed me off, but at the same time I have always needed to be nurturing and mothering. It took half a lifetime to recognize that kindness is actually a powerful force, not a sign of passivity. My power comes from my unwavering belief that building More Than Sex-Ed is the work I am meant to do. The healing that comes from sharing this program fuels me.
EM–I consider myself profoundly blessed to have received a positive and comprehensive sexuality education as a middle-schooler, and to have brought that sense of confidence and self-worth to all of my relationships since. I take pride in being straightforward and assertive, which many men would consider “aggressive”, but I have no qualms about defying convention where expressing-what-I-want is concerned. I have often been more afraid of, “what will happen if I stay silent?” than “what will happen if I raise my voice?” and I find great strength in carefully