Trauma-informed sex ed

Trauma-informed sex ed

By Ruthie Kolb, Training Manager
September 29, 2016

What does it mean to be trauma-informed when talking with young people about sexuality? Does it mean using lots of trigger warnings? Do you just need to avoid certain topics, words, or conversations? Or does it mean not talking about sensitive subjects, such as sexuality, at all? What exactly does it look like?

It’s not an easy question to answer, but it’s a topic that’s extremely relevant to the work of sex educators today. The reality is that topics around sex, sexuality, and sexual health are often directly related to traumatic events – which means we have to be extremely conscious of how these topics might harm students with past traumatic experiences.

That’s why this year at our Raising The Bar conference our presenters are bringing you three amazing workshops on trauma-informed sex ed. These workshops will provide a perfect opportunity to get exposed to, learn about, and practice trauma-informed approaches. So to get you ready for Raising The Bar, and to help you think about the importance of trauma-informed sex ed, here are some key things to think about when it comes to considering trauma.

First of all, we need to know our terms: what is trauma, anyways?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (or SAMHSA), “individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

In other words, trauma happens when someone experiences something that harms or threatens them – and that experience can be a single event, or it can be something that happens repeatedly over a set of time. Unfortunately, a common experience of trauma is the trauma that occurs as a result of sexual violence. Sexual violence is physically and emotionally harmful and can happen more than once. When talking about sexual health with our students, we need to be mindful that sexual violence is a reality for a portion youth we’re educating – and we need to understand and respect how this will affect their experience of sex ed curricula.

Also, be mindful that we often think of trauma as happening to only one person individually, but trauma can be experienced by a community as well. After all, communities also suffer harmful events or circumstances that impact their overall well-being. So when we think of trauma, we need to broaden our consciousness beyond individual experiences to consider community trauma as well – for example, how police brutality might be traumatizing to our students of color.

What are the effects of trauma?

No matter what age someone is, experiencing physical, sexual, or emotional violence is deeply painful and difficult to process. And the unfortunate truth is that experiencing violence at a young age can harm the natural and healthy development of youth.  According to the Office of Adolescent Health, early exposure to violence is associated with an increased risk of being victimized or perpetrating violence as an adult. Youth who have been exposed to violence are more likely to be diagnosed with eating disorders, psychiatric problems and headaches, and to have psychosomatic complaints. Along with increased risk of future violence and developmental challenges, youth who have experienced violence are more likely to become teen parents.

Since one of the goals of sex ed is to improve youth’s overall health outcomes, we need to take trauma seriously, and integrate an understanding of it into curricula and classroom environments. We can’t afford to have sex ed that isn’t trauma-informed, because the youth who have experienced trauma need all of the skills sex ed has to offer. The way we handle trauma in the sex ed environment can either support students’ health and future health outcomes, or it can make those outcomes even harder to achieve.

So what can we do about it?

We need to offer young people skills that empower them in sex ed while also giving them tools to address trauma. We can teach them to advocate for their bodies and for their health, even if they’re living in environments that teach them the opposite. For example, teaching a young person to identify the signs of abuse and how to safely leave an abusive relationship could empower them to recognize and escape a cycle of violence, as well as avoid future abuse.

Perhaps even more importantly though, as educators we need to ensure to the best of our abilities that the classroom environment does not re-traumatize youth. For example, an assignment that asks youth to talk to their parents may be just fine for most students, but for some it will only serve as a re-traumatizing reminder that their parents are abusive. Additionally, for students who have experienced sexual violence, the idea of discussing sex in class surrounded by their peers may be unbearable.So it’s no wonder that youth who have experienced violence are far less likely to attend sex ed classes. It’s a problem we need to solve: how can we make sex ed more approachable and safe for students who have experienced trauma?

The most important thing we can do is to try to understand – to put ourselves in our students’ shoes and empathize with their situation. If we were in the shoes of a student who has experienced trauma, what would we want out of our sex ed? What resources would we need? How would we want our teachers to talk to us? Ultimately, we have to make students feel safe and in control. Otherwise, instead of empowering them in their sexual and general health,
we run the risk of re-traumatizing them.

These questions only begin to scratch the surface of what it means to have a trauma-informed classroom. As for us, we can’t wait to hear from our community partners on how to go deeper in making sex ed inclusive of all students – including youth who have experienced trauma. We hope you’ll join us in finding out more at Raising The Bar!

Want to know more about Raising The Bar? Check out our event page here!