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

***This is a rough post from 2014 that will continue to be edited as some of the ideas are discussed on twitter and in the comments- language and ideas are constantly evolving***

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 and masturbation without fear, and young men without the opposite sex present 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 it is essential that everyone learns about periods and wetdreams for example. All young people need to know information from all sex and gender perspectives.

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 Students maybe less likely to be withdrawn in this case.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 clearly may not meet trans or non-binary 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 classes 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 particular group, ensure you work with that student to identify how best a safe discussion space can be provided for them.  Bear in mind you may have trans and non-binary students in your group who may not be out and may also be particularly vulnerable (especially if not recieving adequate support from school/family and friends) so base the decisions on how to split the group on how best to meet the needs of all your students especially the most vulnerable (a statement far easier said than done!)

c) Sometimes there won’t be opportunities for separate groupings due to teacher or classroom availability.  You could experiement with having three main discussion groupings- a boys 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) As a whole school consider how your school navigates sex and gender. Toilets, changing rooms, seating plans, uniform policies.  How does your school create safe spaces for all students? Even if with limiting budgets what can be put in place to

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 still see there are benefits for sex education and I think we can still create safe spaces for all students regardless of their identity, it just needs some careful thinking about how we do this most effectively.

Happy Educating!


*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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