Those of you who have perused my site or who know me outside of Guerrilla Sex Ed likely know that I’m a bit bookish. So it should come as no surprise that I reached out to Shafia Zaloom after reading her 2019 book Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between.
What follows is a good chunk of our conversation about everything from how good sex ed takes a village, to how she meets people where they’re at, to the sex ed version of the Teen Bop poster she’d have hanging on her bedroom wall. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
What was it that brought you to sex education professionally?
I became the consent lady by default. I was a social worker and when I first got out of school. I worked in residential treatment for teenagers who were wards of the court and in treatment as an alternative to incarceration. The work was intense. After several years of that, I realized I really wanted to get into more preventative work, versus interventive.
I reflected on my experiences and realized that relationships and education had the most potential to make a huge impact and difference in kids’ lives. I asked myself where those contexts were in which we could really reach kids and provide them with the information they needed to get them on positive trajectories and moving forward toward really enriching, loving, caring relationships and productive lives. To me, that meant health education, so I started teaching.
There was a woman who was pioneering health education in a whole different way at the time and I had a friend who was like, you should apply for this job. It was at an independent school and she wanted a psychodynamic, psychoeducational class that would address… not like the coach in Mean Girls where he’s like, “If you have sex, you will get chlamydia and die.”
She wanted something real and relevant that addressed the social and emotional lives of kids in addition to their physical and mental well-being because it’s all connected. So that’s what I did and it was fantastic and it took off and I loved it and started doing a ton more professional development and all kinds of things to build my career. And that was 25 years ago.
And then, 15 years ago, I started to specialize in sexuality. I had this amazing gig, this really family-friendly structure of work. I work at a school called the Urban School, and I job-share with another woman who, at the time, also had small children. We were building our families, and our supervisor, who’s amazing, was like, Okay. Here are the responsibilities. You two figure it out based on your schedules, your childcare, what you’ve got going on… And what worked out for me was the Healthy Sexuality & Personal Integrity class and that’s what I started to specialize in because it aligned with my daycare, honestly.
And then I had a parent who suggested to a film producer that I create the curriculum guide for the documentary film The Hunting Ground, which was sort of an exposé about what was happening on college campuses around the time the It’s On Us campaign started, and about how college campuses weren’t taking Title IX and sexual assault and harassment reporting seriously. It garnered a bunch of media attention, which led to more media attention, which led to more film and companion guides, which led to consulting and national consulting, and so then it just snowballed from there and here we are.
In addition to all the classes you teach, you also have parent education evenings and your book and other resources for parents and caregivers. What is it about that aspect of the work, specifically, that feels so essential to you?
I know it’s a cliche, but I really believe it takes a village to support our kids in the most holistic way. They have to be taught, guided, and educated by a variety of folks. And parents are the primary sexuality educators in their child’s life. So, what are the ways in which we can actually create a context in which a kid becomes empowered to live a life that is enriched by their relationships, that feels loving and caring, that is fulfilling and brings more joy and light into the world?
I think it’s important to extend an invitation to all of the adults in a child’s life to get on the same page and to find ways to communicate that feel comfortable. If we could communicate a similar message but with our own styles and within our own contexts, I think that’s the most powerful way to effect change.
Over the years, parents have said, Well, you know what would really work best for us is if we did a big group. Okay. And schools have said, Our faculty would love to have some insight into the social lives of teenagers. Could you do a faculty meeting? Sure. My daughter doesn’t want to talk to me at all, but she’d be willing to have a sleepover with six of her friends if you wanted to come and do a little presentation. Awesome. I have this film I want to show but I need curriculum guides so teachers can use it in their class. Can you create one? Okay!
It seems like you’ve really mastered the art of meeting people where they’re at. Are there any barriers you tend to come up against over and over again when you are extending this invitation to the adults in kids’ lives?
Oh, for sure. You know, many of us did not receive a quality sex-positive comprehensive sex education. I’m 50 now and people my age experienced a lot of shame and stigmatization and sex negativity. I think the barriers I face have to do with people’s negative experiences and deeply internalized messages that are contrary to what I’m extending in terms of an invitation… and then also their own experience with having these conversations. Because a lot of people don’t. Either it was really mechanical and just biological, or it wasn’t talked about, or it was medically inaccurate and very stigmatizing and fear-based. How do you get from that to talking to your kid about… no one wants to talk to their kid about sex.
I had a parent who said to me once, “I loved your talk. It was so great. And I’m reading your book and it’s amazing. But I feel like I’m getting a crash course in calculus without ever having taken algebra.”
And I think that’s part of it. I think that’s a big obstacle.
The other piece is when people put their political ideology above public health, which is huge.
And the other piece would be cultural. And this is the toughest for me. I want to honor and respect people’s value systems because that’s what they know, and I truly believe parents are doing the best they can with what they have. And so, if I’m going to confuse their child because I’m teaching them something contrary to what parents are teaching at home, which is rooted in preserved culture or communities of faith, I approach with humility.
As a practitioner, as someone who knows public health, who knows the research, that’s important to me and that’s what underpins what I teach. But as a human being, I want to honor and respect people for how they’ve been brought up. And if those lessons are contrary to what I’m teaching, that inevitable tension is challenging to manage.
What are some of the primary lessons you’ve learned about how to deliver your message in a way that other people are open to, even if they come from a place where they are at first resistant?
Being non-judgmental. I learn from parents where they’re coming from, what they feel their kid needs, and then I learn from kids what they feel they need. And then, in the best way I can, I create something that reflects that.
Teaching a sex education class is the most differentiated instruction you’ll ever do. Differentiated instruction means you’re teaching to each individual kid and meeting them where they are, in addition to teaching the class as a whole. And when you teach sexuality education, there’s such a huge range of exposure, experiential context, knowledge, values, and messaging. It can be challenging. And so, how do you teach a way of thinking so kids can think about it within the context of their own personal identity versus me telling them what they should do and think?
Who are your sex ed superheroes?
Emily Nagoski is the bomb. I really admire and appreciate her.
Peggy Orenstein, who’s a dear friend, and we’ve collaborated on many projects. She is just such a powerhouse. Her intellect, her heart, her tremendous spirit are so inspiring and affirming.
Al Vernacchio. I just think he’s fabulous.
Rick Weissbourd. He’s phenomenal. He runs the Human Development & Psychology department at the graduate school of education at Harvard University and he wrote the book The Parents We Mean to Be and his primary focus is how you build morality across the developmental stages in young people.
And a long-time mentor from the beginning is Michael Riera. He is now Head of School at the Brentwood School in L.A., but he has authored eight books on parenting. He was my first supervisor when I was a fledgling teacher, and he informed my practice and is still so supportive of it.
I’m so grateful there are so many amazing folks out there who just have so much love in their hearts and are just so generous with their knowledge and wisdom and really care about and are committed to kids.
I exist in a community. I am so humbled and inspired every day because I get to hang out with all these amazing folks. But, you know what, if we’re talking rock star status, like how I’d put a poster on my bedroom wall when I was a teenager, not to be weird and creepy, but it’d be Emily… Peggy… Al… Mike…