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Breaking Down Barriers: Comprehensive and Accessible Sex Ed for All

Education is our most powerful tool: the key is recognizing intersectionality and embracing ongoing learning


 

Meet Mariah Caudillo, a dedicated sexuality educator who is passionate about providing accurate and comprehensive sexual health education to individuals of all ages and backgrounds. We had a chance to ask her about some of the most important aspects of sexuality education, and her answers reflect years of education–both as a teacher and student.


 

How did you become a sexuality educator, and what inspired you to pursue this career path? (trigger warning)

I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and have worked with a variety of organizations, including Planned Parenthood, to provide state-mandated, comprehensive sexual health education to individuals of all ages and backgrounds.


It’s important to me that I do my best to create safe and supportive spaces for individuals to learn about and explore their sexuality. I have always been committed to breaking down the barriers that prevent individuals from accessing this critical education because I was once a young person without safety, access and supportive adults.


My journey towards a career in sex education began when I was a child. My body was violated as a child and as a teenager. Complex trauma impacted so much of my life and relationship to sex and others. However, it was my upbringing in an evangelical church that piled on feelings of guilt and shame.


I felt trapped by the strict rules and expectations that come with purity culture and the minimization of real pain, “just pray about it”. I interpreted messages about sexual purity, modesty and “saving yourself for marriage” as victim blaming, and it ultimately discouraged me from seeking help.


I am healing, but I can’t help but think back to my ninth-grade sex education class that failed me.


I wonder how things could have been different had they shared resources for survivors or emphasized my right to bodily autonomy or highlighted my right to reproductive health care.


Instead, that class perpetuated more fear and shame making the burden even heavier.


I connected with more survivors as an adult, and in general more people who were robbed of good sex education. None of us knew what a vulva was or how to candidly talk about sex with partners. The widespread lack of comprehensive sex education in schools and communities was impossible to ignore and I became determined to help fill in this gap. I wanted to learn and hopefully one day provide individuals with accurate and reliable sexual health information and resources for survivors like me.


Today, I am making that happen.



What are some of the most common misconceptions about sexuality that you encounter in your work, and how do you address them?

There are too many to count.


I feel like so much of my work is addressing myths and misconceptions about sex and sexuality. Especially when I work with young people who sometimes access inaccurate information about sex on the internet and through the media. Or people in my comment section who have received little to no sex education.


Here are some of the common ones


Everyone should enjoy sex in the same way.”


The reality is, everyone has unique desires, preferences, and experiences with sex. There is no "normal" way to enjoy sex, and people should not feel pressure to conform to a particular standard.


I emphasize that communication and consent are crucial in sexual relationships, and that exploring and celebrating one's own sexuality is important. Ultimately, I encourage people to do what feels good and to honor their and their partners boundaries.


Masturbation is bad for you or abnormal.”


Masturbation is a natural and healthy form of sexual expression that can have many benefits, including stress relief, improved sleep, and increased sexual self-awareness. I emphasize the importance of destigmatizing masturbation and promoting self-acceptance and exploration, as well as providing information on safe and pleasurable techniques. I remind folks that they do not have to masturbate and to be mindful of the ways masturbation might impact their daily life.


In general, I like to say that masturbating is not necessarily a cause for concern as long as it does not interfere with your daily activities or relationships, and does not cause physical discomfort or pain. But, if you feel like your masturbation habits are causing distress, it may be helpful to speak with a healthcare provider or a mental health professional to discuss your concerns and develop a plan to address them.



What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a sexuality educator, and how do you overcome them?

As a sex educator, I think one of the biggest challenges I face is the stigma surrounding sex and sex education.


Many people still view discussions about sex as taboo or inappropriate, which can make it difficult to engage individuals in meaningful conversations about sexual health and wellness.


This stigma perpetuates misinformation and harmful assumptions about the people who care about this work. For example, I am constantly being sexualized for simply talking about sex and relationships.


Another challenge I encounter is addressing the diversity of experiences and identities within my audience. Sexuality is a deeply personal and complex topic, and it's important to recognize that individuals have different needs and perspectives based on their own experiences and backgrounds.


There are no absolutes.


To overcome these challenges, I prioritize creating a safe and inclusive space for discussions. I strive to create an environment where people feel comfortable and empowered to ask questions and share their experiences, even on TikTok.


I also aim to be as knowledgeable and informed as possible about various issues surrounding sexuality, including health, relationships, and social justice, so that I can better address the needs of my audience.


At the same time, it’s important for me to acknowledge my privilege and understand when I am not the expert. I believe as an educator I have a big responsibility to share resources with people, commit to continual learning, shut up and listen, and take action. I think creating more equity is an ongoing process and a practice that people with privilege should prioritize every single day.


It’s time we disrupt the power dynamics that have historically privileged white, cisgender individuals within these fields.


It is important to address the ways in which systemic oppression has impacted sexual health outcomes and access to sex education and care for QTBIPOC individuals. A good place to start is by paying QTBIPOC educators and sexuality professionals, listening to them, honoring their expertise. and trusting their intersectional approach to sex ed. Sex ed that is not intersectional is bad sex ed.


I’ve witnessed how sex education that claims to be “comprehensive and inclusive” can fail so many young people and adults because it wasn’t written by and for them.



What are some of the most important topics that people should be educated on when it comes to sexuality?
  1. Body autonomy as a fundamental aspect of human rights, personal freedom, and dignity.

  2. Understanding that consent is a practice, not a contract.

  3. Knowing that everyone has the right to set boundaries and control who has access to their body and how to respect that.

  4. Safer sex practices

  5. Learning communication skills to talk openly and honestly with one's partner(s) about sexual preferences, desires, and boundaries which can improve intimacy and prevent misunderstandings.

  6. Understanding one's own body and sexual functioning to help individuals make informed decisions about their sexual lives and seek appropriate medical care if necessary.

  7. Learning about sexual pleasure and how to communicate one's desires.

  8. How and where to access reproductive and sexual health care.

  9. How to access resources for survivors of sexual violence.

  10. Understanding and respecting different sexual orientations and gender identities

  11. Ways to reduce discrimination and stigmatization in regards to identity, expression, race, and abilities.


I honestly think all sex education topics are important.



How can individuals become more comfortable discussing sex and sexuality with their partners or healthcare providers?

I think the more you know about sex and sexuality, the more confident you'll feel discussing it. Read books, articles, and online resources that provide medically-accurate information about sexual health. Same thing goes for the more you know about your own body, the more confident you’ll feel about asking for what you need.


Explore your body, feel it, inspect it in the mirror.


Practice your communication skills. Effective communication is essential for discussing sex and sexuality with partners or healthcare providers, so practice active listening, expressing yourself clearly, and being respectful of others' opinions.


Take your time and start small. There’s no rush.


When you’re ready, be honest with yourself and others about your own feelings, preferences, and concerns. If you have questions or are unsure about something, don't be afraid to ask or research things online. If you're struggling to discuss sex and sexuality with your partner or healthcare provider, consider seeking support from a friend or get professional help from a sex therapist or counselor.



How can parents talk to their children about sex in an age-appropriate and comprehensive way?

Parent-child education is not my area of expertise, but I’ll do my best to provide some insight. I suggest this resource: Sex Positive Families, “Sex Positive Families provides education and resources that help families raise sexually healthy children using a shame-free, comprehensive, and pleasure-positive approach.”


My perspective is that sex education is an ongoing process, a journey if you will, that should begin early and continue throughout a person’s life. You can begin talking about sex and body parts when your children are young, even before they ask questions. Use simple and accurate terms that are age-appropriate.


This helps children understand their body and gives them the permission to explore it. When children understand how their body works and what is normal, they are less likely to feel ashamed or embarrassed about it.


Understanding their body can help children make informed decisions about their health and well-being. Sometimes more importantly, teaching children about their body and genitals can help them recognize when someone is violating their boundaries and give them the tools to speak up and ask for help.


Create a safe space for your child to be curious. Set aside judgment and negative reactions so they feel comfortable coming to you with their questions.


It's ok to say you don't know the answer.


Talking about sex, bodies and relationships should be an ongoing conversation, not a one-time event. Continue to check in with your children and have open and honest conversations as they grow and mature.



How do cultural or religious beliefs impact conversations about sexuality, and how do you navigate these differences?

Different cultures and religions have different values and norms around sexuality which is why I always take a culturally-responsive approach to sex education. I take into account the cultural norms, values, and beliefs of a community that lead to different perspectives and experiences around sexuality and sexual health. I try to provide information and resources that are relevant, inclusive, and respectful of these differences.


Sex education that is not culturally-responsive can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and assumptions, reinforce biases, and alienate students who may feel that their experiences and values are not being respected.


I do my best to have a community-centered discussion rather than just me “teaching” and students “listening”. I try to incorporate cultural perspectives and practices into the curriculum by using language and examples that resonate with the community, and engaging with community members to understand their needs and preferences.


I consistently ask for feedback or survey community members. The goal of these conversations is to promote understanding and mutual respect, rather than trying to convince the other person to adopt a different viewpoint.


No matter what, I want to create a learning environment that welcomes diversity and strives for social justice. I want students and people who engage with my content online to feel valued, empowered, and informed.



What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a career as a sexuality educator?

Commit to learning and growing, Acknowledge your privilege and use it for good, Educate yourself about social justice and intersectionality.


It is important to understand these concepts and how they relate to sexuality and sexual health in order to be an effective sex educator. You should also seek out diverse perspectives through reading books and articles by authors from diverse backgrounds, attending workshops and conferences focused on inclusive sexuality education, and seeking out mentorship from individuals who have different experiences and perspectives than your own.


Surround yourself with professionals who will hold you accountable.

Prioritize the needs and experiences of marginalized communities, including people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and people with disabilities. Center their experiences and perspectives in your teaching and advocacy work, and advocate for policies and practices that promote equity and justice for all individuals.


The field of sexuality education is constantly evolving, so it's helpful to stay up-to-date with the latest research, trends, and policies related to sex education. You can also seek out opportunities to gain practical experience in the field such as internships, volunteer work, or even organizing educational events in your community.


Connect with other sex educators, researchers, and professionals in the field to learn from them and develop a supportive community. Follow sexuality professionals on social media, create your own sex ed social media account!


Some organizations offer certification programs for sexuality educators. Just be mindful that many of these programs or organizations (like AASECT) tend to be inaccessible, expensive and lack diversity. This is not the only route for pursuing a career in sex education.


Everyone deserves sex education and the more people that talk about it, the better. Anyone can be an educator, but not everyone will put in the work to be a mindful educator who does this work for others and not themselves. Overall, have an open mind and be prepared to make mistakes.


What are some of the most effective strategies for promoting healthy sexual behaviors and attitudes, and what role can education play in this process?

Promoting healthy sexual behaviors and attitudes is a big task that requires a multifaceted approach. This includes education, but there also needs to be access to resources, and the reduction of stigmatization and discrimination.


I think TikTok is an important platform for this reason. I’m not sure what the most effective strategy is, but I do think encouraging open and honest communication about sexual desires, identity, boundaries, respect and expectations can help individuals have fulfilling and safer sexual relationships.



Sexuality Workshop


As Mariah continues her work as a sexuality educator, she encourages people to embrace their uniqueness and explore their own sexuality without shame or guilt. She emphasizes the importance of communication, consent, and self-acceptance in sexual relationships, and aims to dispel harmful myths and misconceptions that often perpetuate stigma and misinformation.


Join her and fellow sex educator Emily Gay 04/19/2023 6:30-7:30 PST for a chance to get any and all sex questions aired out and answered in a safe, inclusive space.




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