5 Tips for Providing Trauma-Informed Sex Education

Teacher standing in front of chalkboard.

When Nicole Fava, Ph.D., saw a sex ed curriculum define family as “a group of people who live together and love one another,” she had to pause. She realized that the definition, though it may seem standard to some people, could upset young people who had experienced abuse. This oversight, like many others she has seen, was another affirmation of why the Florida International University professor chose to research how sex education could be more sensitive to students’ traumatic experiences and play to their strength and resilience, rather than their sexual health risks.

Fava has helped pioneer a framework that bridges the gap between sex education and trauma-informed care. The approach is also embraced by Monica Faulkner, Ph.D., associate director of the Child and Family Research Institute at The University of Texas at Austin.

Using a trauma-informed approach to sex ed, Fava and Faulkner say, helps get youth the information they need without making them feel bad about past experiences or future decisions. For some, a positive, respectful environment makes all the difference in getting them through the (classroom) door.

“Statistics show that kids with trauma histories are the most likely to skip sex ed,” Fava says.

In fact, young people who have experienced trauma and abuse may be at higher risk than their peers for teen pregnancy and STDs -- and that makes offering trauma-informed sex education especially important. Here are five tips for getting started:

1. Offer training. Before you can implement trauma-informed sex education, you need to train staff in trauma-informed care and create an environment that welcomes all genders and sexual identities. In addition, help your staff to brush up on their own sex education to make sure they can respond accurately to young people’s questions.

[Read more about trauma-informed care for youth.]

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Youth who have trauma histories feel the most safe when adults respond confidently and non-judgmentally to their questions about sexual health, experts say. Make sure you feel comfortable admitting when you don’t know an answer, but do come up with solutions for getting the requested information. For example, Fava says you could ask the youth, “How would you feel if I went with you and [we] talked to [another staff member]?”

3. Check judgmental language at the door. Faulkner and Fava say that expressing judgment about young people’s sexual behaviors or health concerns can re-traumatize youth who have been abused or placed in situations outside of their control. Some youth may shut down and stop listening altogether. Faulkner advises youth workers to avoid language or tactics that may appear to shame or scare youth, such as calling sexually transmitted infections “gross” or making negative comments about teen or unmarried parents. This is important for any dialogue you have with youth, no matter how casual the conversation may be.

“Genuineness and openness are some of the most important skills that anybody, at any level of interaction with youth, can have, because youth aren't used to adults wanting to actually listen to them, and especially not about sex," Fava says.

If your organization uses a sex ed curriculum, make sure the facilitator script is judgment-free, too. Shaming or blaming young people in a sex ed classroom is counterproductive and may trigger a traumatic response in youth. To address these concerns, Faulkner advises youth workers to make  ‘green-light’ adaptations that do not change the program’s core content. Her team revised one script that placed all responsibility for sexual health on individual students, for example, to talk about the difference between consensual and non-consensual sex.

[Learn what makes sex ed inclusive of LGBTQ youth.]

4. Use a sex-positive approach. While preventing sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy is important, Fava says it is equally important to talk with youth about the positive experiences associated with sexual expression, and the benefits of healthy, supportive relationships. This approach, she says, supports young people as they make their own decisions and especially helps those with trauma histories to see that there are beneficial outcomes of healthy sexual expression.

Read an abstract of Fava’s 2013 article on trauma-informed sexuality education. Or, check out Faulkner’s presentation on the Connections Project (PDF, 1.5MB) at a 2014 conference hosted by the Office of Adolescent Health.

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