As our instructor had promised, the drive home with my nearly 10-year-old daughter from a local puberty workshop crackled with conversation. But was the topic one the teacher intended? After a night of excellent information and good questions about girls, boys and bodies in an auditorium filled exclusively with women and girls, my daughter had one big, burning question: How do male teachers talk with fathers and sons about female bodies when girls are not in the room?
She begged me to find a way to help her sit in on the class for boys. Maybe, she asked, mustering a smile, I could sign her up under a different name, and she could tuck her hair under a baseball cap?
Especially in a time of such heightened concern over gender-based violence, it is natural to seek advice on how to speak with boys or girls individually about these issues: How can I teach my sons about consent, for example, or what do I tell my daughter about sexual assault?
But in researching my book on helping young people build a more egalitarian society, I learned we have the most to gain by ensuring all genders receive the same messages — side by side — about sex, gender and relationships.
“When we divide young people by gender, the implication there is that we’re somehow giving them different messages,” says Nicole Cushman, the executive director of Answer, a sex education program at Rutgers University. “We kind of reinforce this cultural taboo about the subject, and we reinforce the idea that sex is not something to be discussed in ‘mixed company.’
“There’s definitely consensus in the field that it is a best practice, or that it is preferable, to speak to all genders at the same time.”
In parts of the world where sex education is beset with taboos — including the United States — it is still common practice to separate genders for formal sex ed. Some teachers say students grouped by gender might feel more comfortable asking sensitive questions.
But kids may not be all that uncomfortable with mixed-gender sex education. In a survey of high school students, University of Auckland professor of sociology and education Louisa Allen found that 65 percent of students prefer mixed-gender instruction. Students told her their ability to learn in sex education had more to do with their instructor’s apparent comfort level than the mix of genders in the room.
“I mean, sex is funny,” says Karen Rayne, the executive director of Unhushed, a sex education nonprofit organization based in Austin, “so there’s lots of laughing, but that’s true regardless of what genders are present.” For those sensitive questions, she added, an anonymous question box usually does the trick.
Lessons labeled for “boys” or “girls” can also exclude transgender and non-binary kids. As schools strive under Title IV to support safe and healthy learning environments for all students and do more to acknowledge the full gender spectrum, it is clear that children whose body development may not “match” their gender identity should not have to out themselves or miss health-protective information by being forced to decide which door to enter for sex education.
Certainly sometimes separating genders is the only way to reach some populations. In the world-famous Dutch model of K-12 comprehensive sexuality education, which teaches egalitarian social norms at every age in one of the most gender-equal societies on the globe, in rare cases of religious objections, girls and boys may be separated for portions of their lessons.
If separation is unavoidable, Rayne says, “I do sometimes say, okay, we’ll do a small 15- or 20-minute time period where we’ll split up and people choose. We’ll talk more about periods and vulvas and vaginas over here, and more about ejaculation and penises and testicles over here. And that allows [students] to choose the content rather than their identity.”
Setting social expectations and practicing communication
By teaching students of all genders alongside one another about healthy sexuality and relationships, including consent, we hand them a set of social expectations to hold in common. The more students are aware of what their peers have been taught about how to treat others, the more they can hold one another accountable.
World-class comprehensive sexuality education curriculums include social-emotional lessons alongside biological and risk-prevention information. Through role-plays and discussions, students practice communicating about sexual behavior (such as using a condom) and healthy relationship skills (such as establishing boundaries).
Most students will make decisions about sexual intimacy in mixed-gender relationships, Cushman says. “By modeling these kinds of conversations in a coed classroom, we provide this safe space where [students] can build those communication skills and build the vocabulary to have the conversations that will be necessary someday in their relationships.”
Students also begin laying the groundwork for future ease discussing more complex topics such as sexual discrimination and gender inequity.
Parents and caregivers often help children draw similar social contracts at home, where sisters and brothers are told hands are not for hitting, for example, and that each person has the right to decide whether they want to be touched. With an experiment as simple as observing how long each child in a group enjoys holding an ice cube, we can demonstrate that every person has different boundaries.
Families can begin normalizing human sexuality early by talking about body parts and their functions openly and without drama. When the family structure and gender mix permits, dads can show their sons and daughters they are not afraid to help buy or launder a bra, for instance, and moms can reassure sons and daughters they are prepared to answer questions about pornography. In a single-gender household, a family comfortable discussing menstruation can aim to be just as at ease with male body functions.
Certainly, Rayne says, “people with periods are more comfortable talking about periods with other people who have periods, and that makes sense, but we need to at least try to have the conversations across those [gender] barriers. I think a lot of it is very practical. If you are out with your father and your period starts, you need to be able to say, ‘Hey, I need to go get a box of tampons.’ I mean, that’s a pretty low bar.”
For my daughter, a gender-segregated puberty class raised suspicion. “It increases otherness,” Rayne says. “You’re other than me. I think what we’re really trying to do is talk about gender equality.”
Children are not born with cooties. Feelings of discomfort and foreignness around people of other genders develop over time, and parents, caregivers and teachers can minimize this by arranging mixed-gender work and play groups, making approving remarks when children choose to play or work with someone of another gender, teaching children to recognize and reject stereotypes, and explaining that boys and girls benefit from spending time together.
People who work with children can avoid language such as boys over here, girls over there, ladies first, gentlemen next. Separating children by gender reinforces the false perception that boys and girls are more different than alike. Instead of segregating kids by demographic categories, try neutral criteria: Kids with the letter A in their name can get their jackets; students by the window, line up for lunch.
Such efforts may help alleviate the gulf between genders that can make it so difficult for American men and women to work together.
Working to increase understanding among genders is an essential step in fostering equality. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who have learned to consider how one’s actions affect others and to resist gender stereotypes may be less likely to perpetrate sexual violence.
Clarifying and normalizing the changes of puberty can give girls empathy for a wayward erection and empower boys to compassionately offer a sweatshirt to tie over a period stain.
On car rides and in classrooms, we can invite children to talk in mixed-gender groups about sexual objectification, stereotypes and the artificial gender lines they see: boys’ and girls’ clothing aisles and catalogue pages, pink and blue party decorations, gender-specific sports teams. What would be their vision be for more opportunity and inclusion?
Sex ed works best, Rayne says, when gender dynamics are considered for every topic. For example, she says, both boys and girls should learn together that children and adults of all genders can be victims of sexual assault, but that most victims are female and most perpetrators are male. Coming to terms with these facts shoulder to shoulder helps boys and girls build understanding and stay connected.
Bonnie J. Rough is the author of Beyond Birds and Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids about Sex, Love, and Equality. Find her on Twitter @BonnieJRough.