How to teach sex ed

Sometimes I moonlight as a research/professor in science and mathematics secondary education. It’s generally fun, and almost always more lucrative than teaching sex ed. Regrettably, I write this blog and work with parents more out of a sense of urgency at the state of sexuality education and the deep satisfaction I receive from supporting parent/adolescent relationships. I moonlight in the other world to pay the bills.

Occasionally, my two professional worlds meet. For example, in a class I taught at UT this summer, one of my students admitted to googling me before class started and was startled to find that I am better known for my work in sex ed than science and math education. (Yes, please ignore the obvious connections between sex ed and science.) Today, a more fortuitous connection happened. While bulking up on my reading about utilizing engineering design in Kindergarten through High School science and math classes, I came across this quote:

Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.
In the article, it was attributed to Benjamin Franklin. While I am always somewhat loathe to suggest that an academic article was not completely and thoroughly researched, at least one Internet source suggest this quote is actually an old Chinese proverb. Either way, it applies with equal beauty and relevance to Engineering and Sex.
I am not, of course, suggesting that sexuality educators have sex with their students. What I am suggesting is that students of sexuality and human relations would learn about the physical and emotional processes involved in sexual and romantic connections if they were asked to be truly involved in thinking about those processes rather than simply talked at about them.
It is common for teachers of the more theoretical topics like Algebra II, Calculus, and Evolution to have difficulty truly involving their students. However, it is disappointing to the highest degree when teachers of a more hands-on, literal, visual, and emotional topic like sexuality refrain from drawing their students into the content through viscerally impactful activities and conversations.
I recently heard about a curriculum on human sexuality being utilized in German Waldorf schools that uses clay modeling to teach embryology. Can you imagine a more fabulous medium for learning about this morphing of a concrete form than to take hands to clay and actually reproduce the changes yourself? This is the very basis of involving a student in a process. (I would link to something about the curriculum, but regrettably it’s almost all in German. If you’d like to find out more, Google “Christian Breme” and see what you can hash out.)
The Unitarian Universalist sexuality curriculum Our Whole Lives deeply involves students in the topic matter as well. In one middle school session, the students take part in a condom obstacle course. The put condoms on their fingers and see that they can feel the touch of a feather through it, they rub water-based and oil-based lubricants on condoms to see what happens, and they blow condoms up like balloons to see how big they can get. This is truly involving the students.
Perhaps you’re worried it’s more difficult to involve students in the emotional side of sexuality education. But it is by asking students to role play situations where they have to form their own words and beliefs about sexual activity that young people are able to really bring these beliefs into action in their real life. It is by asking students to read stories of date rape and then have conversations about how those stories made them feel that students are able to see warning signs in their own actions and the actions of others.
So yes, it is more difficult to actually involve students in emotional and ethical conversations around sexuality – because everyone involved has to dip their toes into real feelings rather than just talking about them, removed. But actually feeling these emotions and beginning to process them in a safe space is critical, perhaps the most critical, part of sexuality education.
Involve your students in sexuality education. This is when they will truly learn about they physical connections between themselves and others.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Wonderful post. Can’t believe you got your Ph.D. in Ed Psych without running into this quote! (Also, nice pic, Karen. Good to be able to see your shining spirit on your blog!) I love the specific condom exercise in OWL; so glad you’re teaching it.

    Finally saw Juno. What a terrific way to draw out conversations on the whole topic of teen sexuality.

    Keep up the good work, Dr. Rayne.

  2. Dear Karen

    I am working on a project at national level related to awareness on sexual health education for parents of intellectually challenged children. Kindly suggest some books for reference.

    Thanking you

    yours sincerely

    Venkat Lakshmi

  3. Venkat, please feel free to e-mail me with more information about your interests and needs!

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