Having taught Sex Ed to teenage girls for 13 years, I am continually surprised at what they DO know, and what they DON’T know.
As I contemplated how to better teach girls about their bodies, I considered taking my experience and putting it into a pamphlet for them. But I know teenage girls well enough to guess that very few of them would sit down and read something about Sex Ed, maturation or pregnancy.
So how to better educate them? Start with their parents. Education is best done in little doses, in everyday conversation, repeated over and over again. The home is the perfect setting for this.
My Sex Ed groups seem to have a familiar beginning:
Me: Hi girls! Welcome to Sex Ed!
Girls: (groaning) We’ve had this class a million times! There’s nothing more we need to learn.
In the early days, I would react by apologizing to the girls for having to take it again, or would get defensive. But now I find myself confidently promising them that they will learn at least one new thing. And they always do.
Then comes the next challenge: how to teach this information to a group of girls from very different backgrounds. Some of the girls have had a lot of physical sexual experience; some of them have none at all. However, they do have one thing in common– very few of them know exactly HOW it all works.
Allow me to share some things that I have found helpful in teaching teenage girls about themselves.
Start with the Basics. Explain the reasons for each change that happens during puberty. Remind them that puberty can last until they are in their early 20’s. Their bodies are continually growing during this time. Help them understand that “sex ed” is about more than just sexual intercourse. It is about learning to know how ones’ body works.
Use the correct terminology. Calling the genital area by a different name reinforces the idea that it is something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. Use the real names for body organs and body parts when talking about them.
Explain things in detail. Showing pictures can help teenagers learn how things work, especially pictures that illustrate how they look on the inside. Describe what each body part is for.
Create a safe environment. Prepare yourself to talk about uncomfortable topics as openly as possible. It’s important for us to model appropriate dialogue around this area. If teaching in a group setting, be sure to set a clear boundary: any laughing or inappropriate jokes are not tolerated. If teaching one-on-one, be careful to watch your own body language and tone of voice.
Teach them to be experts about themselves. Most of the information that is available about puberty, sex and pregnancy is general. There are always people who experience things a little bit differently than the “norm”. I encourage the girls to become familiar with how their body works; to practice “listening” to their body, for example, keeping track of their period and doing self breast exams. This will help them in the future to be aware of potentially dangerous changes.
Let them ask any question they want. The girls often have questions that they want real answers to. When I teach the group, I make sure that I tell the girls that they are free to ask whatever question they need to, as long as it is asked in an appropriate way. The girls hear a lot of myths about their bodies and about intercourse. It is empowering for them to know what is true and what is not.
Educate yourself. You cannot help to dispel myths if you do not have the correct information yourself.
Talk about it over and over again. Most people need to hear information over and over before they incorporate it into their lives. Discussing the topic frequently will help to normalize it. It will also bring up new questions to address.