A chat with our educator Sam Stevens

This is the next instalment in our series where we interview our educators about their experiences teaching, their thoughts on sex education, and just a bit about them. You can read our last post where we interviewed our founders here.

For how long have you been an educator?

This is my 7th year as a qualified teacher/educator. I’ve been at SEA since 2019, so just over two years.

Why do you think sex education is important?

For myriad reasons, but what comes to mind is empowering young people to make educated choices and understand what life changes shape their identity. Personally, I am very passionate about sex ed because of how many issues link to young people’s mental health.

What do you like about working with young people?

The variety, as you never experience the same thing each day you deliver a program. I enjoy how genuine and enthusiastic the primary students are. I also like connecting with secondary students and knowing that I may be helping to equip them with the street smarts to navigate their world with a little bit more confidence. That’s a wonderful feeling.

What do you find challenging about this sort of work?

The realisation that without a ‘whole-society’ approach, we can only do so much. If politicians, parents, schools, sports clubs, media, etc cannot all understand that they have important roles and responsibilities toward making this world a better place for young people, then our cause sometimes feels like a lonely place.

What’s the most satisfying part of this work?

Providing young people with skills they will need and use their entire life and addressing social issues from a preventive perspective.

What shocks you in the classroom?

The knowledge and exposure primary students have to unrealistic representations of sex, intimacy and relationships. Most of it comes from online material and reality TV.

What’s the weirdest question a child has ever asked you?

‘Are twins made because one of the triplets eats another one?’

What’s the funniest question or comment a child has asked/said?

‘Can a woman’s egg fall out when she is playing sport?’

What was your own sexuality education like?

Pretty uneventful, but I do recall one day in class having to put chalk on my hands then shaking hands with all my classmates. The teacher then told us that the chalk represented chlamydia and we had just given it to everyone else we had come into contact with.

Did you get any of your sex education from places you perhaps shouldn’t have growing up?

Yes, my dad had to explain why my ferrets were playing rather aggressively one day. Six weeks later, one of the ferrets had some babies (kits) as a result of their ‘playfulness’.

What does porn get wrong about sex?

It offers unrealistic representations of sex.

What’s a favourite part of this work that you didn’t expect, or others wouldn’t think of?

The interesting and wonderful colleagues you get to share the teaching experience with.

If you are a parent, how does that affect your teaching?

It makes you more conscious of your behaviour and attitudes as a role model.

If there was only one piece of knowledge you could make sure young people would come away with, what would it be?

There is always someone who values you and there is always someone to turn to if you need help.

What do you enjoy outside of work?

Scuba diving – it’s the closest sensation to flying you can experience on earth.

What’s something non-sexuality-education/work related about you that you feel makes you a better educator?

Being one of six kids in my family. It makes you a good negotiator and attention-seeker, which works well with engaging and teaching kids!

How to manage conflict at home

No matter how much we love our family, spending all our time with a particular person or group of people is likely to lead to at least some bickering (especially if there’s teenagers involved). As parents ourselves, we’ve been there. Each family will have their own dynamic and particular ways of dealing with conflict, but we’ve also put together a few tips we’ve found can help:

Keep a level tone. When we’re in a dialogue with someone, we naturally try to match the other person’s tone. In an argument this can become a one-upping of voice levels. Keeping a calm and level tone can help stop arguments from escalating. 

Use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements. So rather than saying ‘You do this thing!’ or ‘You are this thing!’ it becomes, ‘When this happens, I feel like this.’ Talking in this way helps to stop people from becoming defensive about their behaviour, as well as avoiding helping the both of you to avoid saying hurtful comments in the heat of the moment. 

Try to listen. This can be a tough one when feeling angry or exasperated, but making sure your child/partner/whoever feels heard can be all that they’re after. So not interrupting, asking questions, and letting them know you understand. That’s not to say you shouldn’t argue your point as well, just provide the time and space for theirs too.

Stick to the point. This means not veering off into other unresolved arguments or bringing up past pain. You’re more likely to find a solution and move on, rather than talking for hours, re-hurting each other. 

When arguing with children, remember who the adult is. Your 16-year-old might feel at times like a master manipulator, or your eight-year-old an impossible adversary, but remember the parts of their brains that control emotional regulation still have a lot of developing to do. And an off-the-cuff comment from you that you’ll forget overnight, they might remember for years. 

Don’t be afraid to walk away. It’s rare that an argument needs to be sorted out then and there. If things are getting too heated or going on too long, push the pause button and go take some time away. If you can, do something releasing or relaxing, like going for walk, reading a book, or having a bath. 

When the conflict is between two siblings: First of all, don’t always jump in. Learning conflict resolution is an important skill and sibling quibbles are one of the first and most important situations where a child can develop this. If you do feel it’s necessary to step in (say, if the fighting has been going on for longer than 15 minutes), you can be the mediator who applies the above steps. Make sure each child gets to say what they need to, that they stick to the point at hand, and they use ‘I’ statements. Ask them both what they think is a fair compromise and be the final judge. 

Teen relationships and social media

With the NSW lockdown stretching on, we decided to dig up this old article from our April 2020 newsletter. Time in lockdown often means more time online – and that means more issues and complexities to navigate.

With teenagers stuck at home unable to see their romantic interests or partners face-to-face, many are turning to social media. Others may be starting up new relationships online, away from the usual group setting – where they’d normally have friends to guide them and help slow down the relationship’s progression and intensity. And with these things come sexting, whether we like it or not. Sexting is the sending and receiving of sexually explicit messages or images – most commonly ‘nudes’ (naked photos and videos). Even without the pandemic and lockdown, young people are still engaging in sexting. One study from 2018 found that one third of students from years 10 to 12 had engaged in recent sexting activity.

We never want to shame a young person for sending nudes or make them feel guilty for exploring their sexuality. But there are risks involved with sexting that adolescents need to know about, and this is also an opportunity for you to state your expectations and values. Some caregivers will find it tempting to take a hard zero tolerance approach, but sexting can be a normal part of the fabric of young people’s lives, and we can’t monitor their every usage of phones, laptops and so on. We also want them to know they can come to us if something goes wrong. When we’re in classrooms working directly with students, we have to take a conservative approach. But if parents and caregivers have a frank and ongoing conversation with their teens about these risks – rather than saying ‘don’t do this’ (which, c’mon, does that ever work with teenagers?) – they can help to keep them safe.

What are the risks?

OK, so your teenager does need to know this stuff. The problem with sending images of yourself over the internet is that once they’re out there, they’re out of your control. People can, and frequently do, show others or spread the image through social media channels. This is a huge trust issue. Then there’s the issue of legality. It’s illegal to forward or share a sexually explicit image of someone without their consent or permission. Your teen could also risk being charged under child pornography laws. In Victoria, sexting between under 18s (who have no more than a two-year age difference) is legal as long as there is consent from both parties, however, technically federal law states that this can still be considered child pornography. As well as the above, there’s the risk of child predators who pose as teenagers and engage in online relationships to groom and solicit sexual material from young people.  

Snapchat and Instagram

Many teens claim that it’s ‘safe’ to send images over Snapchat and Instagram because of their feature that disappears these images after they’ve been viewed. But are they actually safe? Well, no, not really. Although Snapchat will send you an alert if someone screenshots the image you’ve sent (Instagram doesn’t even do this), you can’t prevent the viewer from taking the screenshot in the first place. And you won’t be notified if they take a photo of the one you’ve sent using another device which is something we’ve heard happens.

So how do I talk to them about staying safe?

Open the door of conversation. That’s the best first step. Ask them if they’ve heard or sexting, or if they know if any of their friends do it. Ask them if you can have a chat about it now. Ask them what they know. Ask them what their peers are up to in general, and how it makes them feel. Ask them how they would feel if they found out about a friend’s image being shared without their consent. Talking about their peer group more generally can be a good way to approach the topic without crossing any privacy boundaries. 

Talk to your young person about the importance of trust when it comes to sexting. They have to know this person, and believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that they will keep these images private for as long as they have them (even if the relationship comes to an end). If they have the slightest ambivalence, don’t hit ‘send’. Tell them to trust their instincts; if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Of course, this can’t completely safeguard your teen, but it minimises their chances of something bad happening. But also let them know that if they do ever sext someone who breaks their trust and shares their images, they can still come and talk to you, and that you’ll help them, and you won’t be mad. 

You want your child to be safe, but you also want them to be keeping others safe – so talk to them about consent. It’s something we covered extensively in last month’s issue, if you want a refresher on the topic. Worry less about what they’re doing, and more about how they (and their partner) feel about what they’re doing. If they’ve told you that it’s something they’ve done before, ask them how it made them feel once they sent or received a picture. Ask them how they think it made the other person feel. Talk about the importance of not pressuring anyone into doing anything, and not letting themselves be pressured. 

In terms of more practical things to touch on, ask them to get a passcode on their phone, and to request the person they’re sexting to do the same, as this will stop strangers from being able to access the photos. Ask them to send photos that don’t include their face or any identifying features. And do talk to them about the law. It’s important they know this, and are aware of these specific risks involved. Lastly, reiterate that no matter what happens, you’re there for them and they can always come and talk to you if something does go wrong or makes them feel uncomfortable. 

Conversation starter: 

‘Have you ever heard of sexting? Have any of your friends mentioned doing it? You may not want to talk about this with me now, and to be honest, I feel a bit uncomfortable talking about it, but I think it’s important that we do. I’d like you to think really carefully about what you’re doing online. I’ve just read an article about people’s images and videos, that were meant to be private, being shared with friends and other people. I want to check in and make sure you understand how doing sexual things online can be risky, and to talk about what you can do to try to make you more safe if you do choose to do any of these things.’

If you’d like more practical tips on safe sexting, like apps to use that are safer than Snapchat, we recommend this article from BuzzFeed. This article from SBS explores more of what parents need to know about sexting, and this podcast explores sexting in general. You can also download our Let’s Talk Pornography fact sheet for more information.

The St Luke’s scandal: what they got wrong and right, and how parents can do it better

As COVID-19 outbreaks have been dominating the Australian news these last few weeks, you might have missed a smaller story circulating. The newest scandal surrounds St Luke’s Grammar School in Sydney’s northern beaches, which has come under scrutiny for some of their Christian studies classes. Students were separated by gender and both classes have been criticised; the girls were given articles talking about the importance of staying a virgin until married, and the boys were given a quiz where they had to choose attributes they value most in a girl.

The boys’ exercise might sound fairly innocent (other than its heterocentric main question). Each boy in the class was asked to select up to 25 points worth of qualities they’d want in an ideal girl. But here’s the kicker, the quiz ranked traits such as ‘good looking/attractive’ and ‘a virgin’ at six points, whereas ‘brave – stands up for rights’ only scored two points and ‘generous’, ‘adventurous’ and ‘cares for the world’ came in at one point each.

So, what did St Luke’s get wrong, and what did they get right? The ‘wrong’ is easy. Prizing virginity in women is problematic as it creates a narrative that you ‘lose’ something precious when you have sex. It also perpetuates the idea that sex is something for men to ‘take’ from women, and not something shared between people of any gender. As for the boys’ exercise, placing higher value on attributes like ‘attractive’ and ‘a virgin’ encourages the idea that a woman’s highest worth is how she looks, and that women are objects to be attained.

But what did St Luke’s get right?

Asking young people what qualities they think are important in a partner or in a relationship is actually a great exercise, and one we often do with our students. In teens, this could be asking what they expect from a romantic partner and having a discussion about why one person might value one attribute over another. You can also have these conversations with primary-aged children in terms of what they want from friendships. Of course, assigning points to character traits is probably something to stay away from – but we do like to start discussions around what characteristics they might value over others and why – including how important they think ‘being attractive’ is and why (because it’s all about the discussion!).  It’s okay to suggest different qualities, just ask them what their thoughts and opinions are.  

Another good question to ask our young people is: ‘Who do you like yourself around?’ If they say a particular friend, a cousin, or whoever, follow up by asking what qualities that person possess. When children become old enough to think about dating, you can begin chatting with them about what qualities they think are non-negotiable in terms of desirable attributes, what might they see as a ‘deal breaker’, or what preferable but non-essential traits they might look for in a partner. You also might like to ask them what qualities they believe they can bring to a relationship. By helping young people to think critically about their relationships (whether friendship, romantic or sexual), we’re ensuring they’re more likely to make healthy and safe decisions on who they want to spend their time with. 

Puberty myths your child needs debunked

Puberty can be particularly daunting for kids as they start to approach adolescence. Our question box is always full of queries and concerns related to periods, mood swings, erections and the like. We actually receive so many questions related to periods that we’ve created a whole separate post dedicated to menstruation (see next week). But there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and kids can come up with pretty wild ideas. So as parents, it’s important that we help unpack with our young people what is and isn’t true about the changes of puberty. Here’s some common myths we often get asked about.

Myth: Puberty is scary and unpleasant

Fact: Puberty doesn’t have to be scary, and there can definitely be good things about it. Learning about puberty so that you have an understanding of what’s happening to the body can help stop it from being frightening or daunting. And many people might look forward to things like growing taller – or just growing up!  

Myth: Boys and girls hit puberty at the same time

Fact: Puberty will differ from person to person, but in general girls do begin puberty earlier than boys. Puberty usually begins between eight and 13 in girls, and nine and 15 in boys.

Myth: You can ‘catch’ puberty

Fact: Just because puberty started happening to a person’s best friend right before them, doesn’t mean they ‘caught’ it from them. Young people are often friends with people the same age as them, so it makes sense puberty will hit many peer groups at the same time. Puberty isn’t a virus – it’s something the body naturally does once it reaches a certain level of physical maturity and will start at a different time for everyone.

Myth: Puberty happens overnight

Fact: It might be years from the first signs of puberty to the last. Many things change and develop at puberty, and rarely does it happen all at once – certainly never overnight. In fact, puberty usually takes three to five years. While some of us might wish we could wake up 3 inches taller, the body doesn’t work like this. And that’s probably for the best.

Myth: Only boys’ voices get deeper

Fact: People of all genders can find their voices get deeper at puberty. You might just notice some boys’ voices more than girls’, as they have a bigger change and sometimes vocal ‘cracks’ or ‘breaks’.

Myth: Wet dreams aren’t normal

Fact: Wet dreams, or nocturnal emissions, are when you ejaculate or secrete vaginal fluids during sleep – and they are completely normal. You might have been dreaming about something sexually pleasurable, or you might not remember your dreams at all. Wet dreams during puberty are not only normal, but they can also be quite common (although not everyone will have them). 

Myth: Puberty means you’ll develop crushes on people

Fact: While a lot of people will experience their first crushes during puberty, not everyone will. Some people might get crushes earlier in life, some might a little later, some much later – and some never will! All are normal, and there’s nothing wrong with how it happens for each individual.

Myth: Acne is caused by bad food and being unclean

Fact: While hygiene and eating well are always important, pimples can be unavoidable due to hormonal changes during puberty. As the body develops, these hormones stimulate the sebaceous glands to make more sebum, and the glands can become overactive. Too much sebum can clog the pores with oil and lead to acne. If pimples or acne are causing any distress or self-consciousness, talk to a trusted adult or your doctor.

Myth: A penis has a bone in it

Fact: Some people might believe this to be true because of the word ‘boner’, a slang term for an erection. But in fact, there are no bones in the penis. It’s actually blood that causes the penis to become hard and stand away from the body during an erection.

Myth: You will grow taller as soon as puberty starts to hit

Fact: Puberty doesn’t happen all at once; it happens in stages. Often, there’s several growth spurts during puberty. Some people might be excited to grow taller, and it will happen, but it might not happen at the start or at the same time as other developments.

Myth: Everyone at school will see if you get an erection

Fact: The clothes you’re wearing are usually enough to hide erections, but if you’re worried, you can always tie a jumper around your waist. Erections also normally go away by themselves within a few minutes. Concentrating on something like doing multiplications in your head can also help them to disappear quicker.

Myth: If you have a crush on someone, it means you’re going through puberty

Fact: People can get crushes at any age, including before they reach puberty. It’s not a definite sign that you’re reaching puberty and it’s not uncommon for children as young as five to have crushes. It’s just that crushes often become deeper and more pronounced at puberty.

Myth: Puberty means you won’t like your parents anymore

Fact: It’s true that puberty is often a time when young people begin to seek and form identities outside of their family ties. They’ll want to test out their own opinions and try to solve problems on their own. This is in part due to the hormonal changes in the brain (puberty isn’t all physical!). But it doesn’t mean that all, or even most, young people will suddenly dislike their parents or no longer want to spend time with them. They’ll still need their parents for help and support.

Myth: Only girls develop breasts

Fact: ‘Gynecomastia’ is overdevelopment of the male breast. In preteen and teen boys, gynecomastia can be caused by the hormonal changes of puberty and breast buds can be common. The buds tend to go away within the first year of their growth.

Myth: Only boys get sweaty and smelly during puberty

Fact: Hormonal changes increase sweat production in people of all genders throughout puberty. And it isn’t just regular sweat either; your sebaceous glands begin producing oils that are a particular favourite of odour-producing bacteria.  

Myth: Mood swings will make you crazy

Fact: It’s true that the hormonal changes in your brain that happen over puberty can make emotions more changeable and pronounced, but they don’t turn you into an entirely different person. And these emotions can be managed through healthy strategies, like say, going for a walk, exercising, listening to music, talking to a friend or trusted adult, or distracting yourself.