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What is Sex Ed Really?

Yesterday I was sitting at my desk in the Health Connected office, when I overheard two fellow health educators on the phone. “13,” they said, and then, “I’m not sure of their name, we received the comment anonymously, via the Question Box,” followed by, “We told their teacher, and they told the principal…” The conversation continued as I kept writing. I wondered which school they’d been at, in which class, and in what grade when they received that anonymous note in the Question Box that read, “What if my trusted adult is the one who is touching me?” Their call had been to Child Protective Services (CPS).

This is one of about two calls to CPS that we sexual health educators, who are also mandated reporters under California State Law, make each year. These aren’t fun for anyone, but they’re important to keeping our young people safe. In fact, 1 in 10 youth will be sexually abused before age 18 [1].

A Bay Area middle-schooler participates in Health Connected's Teen Talk program

Sometimes when I tell people at dinner or an event, “I’m a sex educator,” their response is something like, “Woah…so what exactly do you talk about? Like condoms and stuff? Wait! Do you use penis models or…bananas?” A broad smile, indicating of some level of shock or delight, is usually plastered across their face. Sometimes they go on to share their own sex ed story (which I love!), and occasionally, they shy away from the topic.

“We talk about so much more than that,” I say. The truth is, sex ed is so much more than anatomy. Today, the California Health Youth Act requires that 26 vital topics are covered in sexuality education courses to ensure the state’s youth are receiving medically accurate, inclusive, age-appropriate information in public middle and high schools. These range from the physiological to the social-emotional aspects of development.

That means our high school and middle school programs tackle everything from personal and family values, to contraceptives, to gender identity and sexual orientation, to how to communicate in effective and caring ways in relationships. And we grapple with heavier topics like sexual assault, sexual harassment, and even human trafficking. With all that’s been going on in the news of late, it would be an abdication of responsibility not to address these topics (not to mention it’s legally required).

We know that education on condoms, birth control, and sexually transmitted infections is vital, but it isn’t the only thing we need in order to cultivate generations of healthy young people. We know those topics in themselves will not change the fact that 1 in 6 women will experience a rape or attempted rape in their lifetime [2], they will not stop the thousands of cat-calls girls receive before they turn 18 [3], they will not stop the fact that Latina women make .54 cents compared to their non-Hispanic male peers [4], they will not stop LGBTQ+ kids from being disproportionately bullied in schools and experiencing higher rates of homelessness [5].

Senior health educator, Sandra Sotiriadis, answers teens' questions during a sexual health class

What will? We can start by teaching kids about compassion, care, ethical behavior, and empathy - and ensuring those lessons are positioned as non-negotiable social values from early childhood. And that is exactly what we strive to do every day in our classes when we stress social-emotional learning. And what’s the outcome of all that? It’s youth who have a voice – who stick up for each other in the presence of a bully, who have the strength to advocate for themselves in the face of power, who will take a stand when their friends uses “gay” as a synonym for stupid, and who will risk being “uncool” in exchange for doing what’s ethically right. Because the thing is, if a child is ever faced with an unsafe situation – like one that warrants a CPS call – their most valuable asset in that moment to keep themselves and their friends safe, is their voice.

And that’s why to us, sex ed is about far more than sex. It’s recognizing that, yes, learning about our physiological make-up is essential, but what’s equally important is our ability to understand the social-emotional dynamics of life so we can have a robust understanding of the human experience. It’s helping kids to build strong emotional, moral, and intellectual frameworks so they can thrive today and in the future. I often ask myself, is “sex ed” the best name for it at all? Perhaps not.

Occasionally I wonder what would happen if our programs didn’t exist – if our health educators didn’t create spaces specifically for students to ask questions and discuss sexual health in a non-judgmental environment. What if no one were there to teach kids that online bullying is still bullying? What if no one explained that without explicit permission, there is no consent? What if no one were there to receive the note that triggered that CPS call in my office?

Would those voices just stay silent?


1. Darkness to Light. (2018). Child sexual abuse statistics. Retrieved from

2. RAINN. (2018). Victims of sexual violence statistics. Retrieved from

3. Industrial and Labor Relations School, Cornell University. (2018). Street harassment statistics. Retrieved from

4. National Partnership for Women and Families. (2018). Latinas and the wage gap. Retrieved from

5. Centers for Disease Control. (2018). LGBTQ youth. Retrieved from

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