Creating safe spaces in Sex Education- separate or mixed gender groups?

***This is a rough post that will be edited as some of the ideas are discussed on twitter and in the comments***

A large part of a Sex Ed teacher’s job is creating safe spaces, a space where discussion can flow freely, where participants are all aware this is a mutally supportive learning environment and no-one will make fun of anyone in the group for asking a “silly question*”.

I think considering your groupings is very important, how do you create a safe space so that the more gregarious members don’t dominate at the expense of the shyer? Also should you offer separate sex groupings to allow conversations more personal to each group to flow? (eg. periods and vaginal discharge versus wet dreams and smegma)

In my experience sex education is best taught using a combination of separate and mixed sex groupings. You can get incredible discussions in single sex groups where finally young women feel able to openly discuss female sexuality without fear, and young men without the opposite sex present (apart from my presence if I couldn’t get a male teacher to lead the session!) suddenly stop acting with bravado and like they know it all and ask questions that have genuinely been worrying them.

Likewise bring those groups back together and getting the perspective of the opposite sex can be very powerful indeed.  I would always argue that both groups need to cover the same material. I do not like the idea of boys getting the wet dream talk while girls get the period talk. All young people need to know information about both sexes.

Offering single sex groupings in sex ed can also serve to reassure parents about participation in sex education particularly in primary schools or from religious communities. Students maybe less likely to be withdrawn in this case.

However, single sex groupings may not meet trans or gender non-conforming students needs, as a safe space cannot be created if you are forced to join a group where you don’t feel you belong and are denied entry to the other group.  This is something that needs to be thought carefully about, as a result I have come up with some thoughts about creating safer spaces that would still hopefully enable free flowing discussion for all. I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please add in comments below.

a) Firstly as their teacher you know your group better than anyone- use your professional knowledge about the groupings to decide which will be most appropriate to your group. If single sex groupings won’t work for your class don’t do them.

b) Ask the group in advance of separating out the groups that this is your plan. Discuss with the group whether they want this option or would prefer to stay together. Go with the group consensus about what they would prefer, but also ensure you give opportunities for individuals to come to you after the lesson if they prefer to chat about their preferences then if they prefer not to do this as part of the group. If a student does raise concerns about being in a single sex group, ensure you work with that student to identify how best a safe discussion space can be provided for them.  If this can’t be done in single sex groupings then don’t do them. To my mind supporting a trans student in your class to feel safe in your classroom trumps the needs of the rest of the group. It is important to be aware that young trans students are often at the highest risk of self harm and suicide therefore your role is to create a supportive classroom environment to best benefit their mental health as much as you are able.

c) Sometimes there won’t be opportunities to separate out the sexes due to teacher or classroom availability.  You could experiement with having three main discussion groupings- a boy group, a girls group and a mixed group. Discuss the same issue and then feedback and then discuss whether the different groups felt differently about any of it. (This way you could try and make sure the students were in the group they would feel most comfortable in too).

d) You could arrange your seating plan to maximise discussion between participants. You know your students- you know which ones won’t mind discussing things with the opposite sex and which ones might prefer to discuss things with participants of the same sex. Instead of throwing out questions for a whole class response- allow everyone in the class a minute or two to discuss it in their pair or group before feeding back. You circulate so you can have micro supportive discussions based on need. These may or may not be fed back to the whole group.

e) I am really not a fan of schools that enforce boy/girl seating plans etc, and PE in particular is quite problematic (I’d love a PE teachers thoughts on how to manage this inclusively in PE).  I think schools do need to be mindful how they segregate and think carefully about how they can meet the needs of trans students (remember around 1% of the population will be trans so schools may well have trans students). So even just flagging such thoughts up for consideration in your school can help create safer spaces for trans or gender non-conforming youth in your school.

In conclusion whilst not a fan of separating out the sexes arbitarily in most aspects of school life where there is no clear benefit, I can see there are benefits in sex education and I think we can still create safe spaces for all students regardless of their gender, it just needs some careful thinking about how we do this most effectively.

Happy Educating!

P.S I have tried to use sex (meaning sex assigned at birth- girl boy man woman) instead of gender (the gender identity you assume – male, female) in this post in most places. However when writing about sex education and mentioning sex as human biology and not meaning the act- it got a bit confusing and also strange writing “separate sex groups” – because of worries people might misread as “group sex”! So I’m not sure I got it right in places- any thoughts on a solution!?


*A top tip about questions having a basic ground rule such as “there are no silly questions- if you have a question you want answering then it is likely others in the group have wondered the same thing.” (I usually add in a caveat about “if you ask a question with the aim of embarrassing me or the class I won’t answer it, and you run the risk of your genuine questions not being taken seriously”. As a result I never have non genuine questions, sometimes ones that make me raise my eyebrows but I can tell they are from a place of genuine befuddlement. 🙂

One thought on “Creating safe spaces in Sex Education- separate or mixed gender groups?

  1. This ties in interestingly with a big campaign on campus at the mo for gender neutral toilets. I can see how vital they would be for trans students, and university is probably exactly the place many trans people will begin to feel comfortable exploring their true self. But equally I’ve met many women who are appalled at the idea of meeting a man in the toilets (never met a man who expressed that idea but perhaps there are too, it’s just not acceptable for them to admit it). So you need options, I guess is the upshot.

    Am astonished to hear 1% are trans or other non-conf gender identities. I mean I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised as I do now have one good friend who is trans, but still, this surprises me. And do you know, it’s almost never mentioned at medical school-I used to think it was but I think I just hone in on that stuff in student bmj etc.

    Will have to be more mindful as a doctor.

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