The Conversation: Teaching About Healthy Sexuality and Relationships

Fall 2020

By Rebecca Scherr

Draft2.jpg“The American culture too often pushes young people to disconnect, evade vulnerability, and prioritize performance,” says Shafia Zaloom, a health educator at the Urban School of San Francisco (CA). “Kids are looking for more connection and guidance.” Zaloom, who also consults with schools across the country on affirmative consent education, is on a mission to help students understand that strong, ethical boundaries of consent make the lessons of love safe and more powerful.  
In 2016, author Peggy Orenstein sat through two of Zaloom’s six-week health courses at the Urban School. She was impressed by Zaloom’s teaching and her relationship with her students. “Watching the students’ growth, curiosity, and engagement was so inspiring that I just kept coming back,” Orenstein says. “And then when the first class finished, and I was so sad, I did it again.”
Orenstein has met with many students over the years. When she finished writing her 2016 book Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, which discusses the contradictions girls still face around their bodies and in their personal lives even as they have more of a voice in public life, she realized that she only had half of the conversation. “We really need to know what’s going on in their heads so that we can guide them toward having the kind of positive sexual and social interactions that we want them to have.” This research led to her latest book, in 2020, Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity.
Orenstein and Zaloom—who has a book of her own (2019’s Sex, Teens & Everything In Between: The New and Necessary Conversations Today’s Teenagers Need to Have About Consent, Sexual Harassment, Health Relationships, Love, and More) have kept in contact, and in this edited exchange, they discuss teaching connection, consent, gender socialization, and more.
Peggy Orenstein: In my work I’ve shown the lay of the land in terms of what young people are facing, what the obstacles are, how they’re thinking about these issues, what undermines positive sexual and romantic interaction, etc. And you, Shafia, are doing the work of making day-to-day change with young people and working with them to be in a largely better place than what I’m describing in the books.
Shafia Zaloom: When we allow students to be the experts, when we explore with them all these different issues that revolve around healthy sexuality and relationships and what they’re navigating and what they’re wrestling with, they respond with incredible generosity, purpose, and sincerity. I just love that.
Orenstein: Voice is so important, and I think that’s where our work intersects. It was such a surprise to me that the boys were insightful narrators of their experience. I didn’t want to write about boys at first because I thought they would not talk, that I would have nothing but transcripts that consisted of “uh-huh” and “nope.”
The biggest surprise, which wouldn’t be a surprise to you, was how much they did want to talk, how much they had to say, how insightful they often were—not always but often. As an educator, you have the opportunity to talk with them in a way that a parent sometimes doesn’t because all kinds of things get in the way. As a parent of a teenager myself, I know it’s very hard to really hear and wrestle with your child the way that you’re talking about, allowing them to be the expert on their experience.
Zaloom: All of us long for connection, and there’s so much that kids experience in terms of their humanity that they want to make sense of and put language to and express. But there’s this narrative in the popular culture that puts some obstacles in their way.
Orenstein: I was giving a talk at a high school once, and a boy raised his hand and said, “Can you have sex without feelings?” And my first thought was, “Well, why do you want to?”
They’re trying to force themselves and train themselves to be disconnected. That’s what the culture is telling them they ought to be doing, even more so boys. But I think for everybody the message is that disconnection is the highest form of interaction.
Zaloom: Right and if you can do that, you get social props or you’ve accomplished something. So kids try to avoid vulnerability at every cost, which then pushes them away from the very thing they long for and need the most, which is that connection. To say, “I can have sex without feelings” is scientifically incorrect. I think that disconnection piece and helping them understand it in a more nuanced way—what’s actually happening when they talk in that way and where that comes from—is so important.
Orenstein: I always say my girl book was about the systematic disconnection of girls from their bodies and their experience. And I realized the boy book was about the systematic disconnection of boys from their heart and what that means for themselves and their partners. Absolutely the heart and soul of that book was about boys wrestling with vulnerability and the taboo against it.
So when we disconnect them from their vulnerability or teach them disconnection from their vulnerability, we reduce or deny their capacity to have the kind of connections and relationships that we want them to have.
Zaloom: Many schools hire me to talk about consent to make sure they understand what it is. And when I started to talk about it with parents, teachers, and educators, I started to wonder what is that secret sauce? Because my students, and you’ve heard them, could talk about consent in really sophisticated ways that reveal a much deeper understanding of what it is, when you can give it, how you ask for it, how you respond, all those different things. But whether I’m in New York or Colorado or California, I still hear about nonconsensual experiences from kids who actually understand what it means.
Where is the disconnect? It’s the vulnerability piece. So I started to shift the conversation I was having with other caretaking adults in schools to talk about cultivating the courage to connect because that is fundamentally what will empower kids to practice consent.
Orenstein: I recently had a conversation with sex educator and author Deborah Roffman who was saying that we have to start having conversations about caring, connection, and nonsexual forms of consent with very little kids in an age-appropriate way. It’s not ideal to start these conversations at 15 or 16 or 17.
Zaloom: Fundamentally, consent is about how we treat each other and how that matters. I don’t know any parent who isn’t trying to raise a kid who is a good person. Ultimately that’s the foundation of what consent is.
Orenstein: What’s the same from when we were younger when it comes to exploring and understanding sexuality, and what’s different?
Zaloom: I think the biggest thing that’s changed is social media and the digital space. I think that changed everything in how kids connect and communicate.
Orenstein: It did. I think social media, easy access to pornography, the impact of that on the mainstream media, and the increasing understanding of the depth and breadth of sexual assault have combined to make us recognize that we can’t look away anymore. We can’t not educate our kids around this anymore.
Zaloom: When I talk to educators, especially in independent schools, it really is a mission-driven conversation. I haven’t seen an independent school mission that doesn’t have something to do with humanitarian citizenship. All that character building is fundamental to understanding how consent works and putting it into practice. Decades of research says it’s not your GPA or your SAT scores or the school you go to, but the quality of your relationships that will determine the quality of your life. So if we’re really interested in the development of young people and setting them up for success in life, this is a part of that education.
Orenstein: I think particularly with boys, we need to make their gender socialization visible. I saw in your class that the girls understood that they were being socialized. They understood that there’s something telling them how they’re supposed to be girls. And the boys were kind of blank. When you would have them do the exercise where they would write all the messages that they heard about being male or female on the whiteboard, the girls got it instantly. And the boys didn’t always. They don’t see themselves as having a gender in quite the same way, and yet they’re growing up in the same media stew. If we don’t make their socialization visible to them, then they’re not empowered to have choices around it.
Zaloom: I strive to have a really inclusive course that integrates all kinds of different sexualities and orientations. Now as a part of that exercise, a group comes up with the messages that have socialized folks who are nonbinary. So when you look at the male/female list, there are pros and cons on both lists. But for those kids who don’t identify in the binary, all of the messages they get in the broader culture are negative.
It’s really powerful to put that in front of the students. Not so much for the kids who identify in nonbinary ways, but for all the other kids who don’t necessarily understand, have language, or take the time to recognize that.
Orenstein: How can schools help kids be open to healthy vulnerability and understand how to participate in relationships in positive and productive ways?
Zaloom: I think schools need a program and a full-time teacher who will oversee how healthy sexuality and relationship education is taught across the developmental stages that is integrated into the overall curricula and not an add-on. We need to give kids the opportunity to practice and process the complexities of interpersonal dynamics and human relationships.
With math and English, we scaffold those skills across the stages and then have kids think about how those skills apply to real life so they are prepared beyond school. That’s what we’re striving to do with healthy sexuality and relationship education.


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Rebecca Scherr

Rebecca Scherr is senior editor/writer at NAIS.