I probably “met” Saleema Noon for the first time on one of the very first Sex Education Alliance (SEA) Zoom chats. From the beginning, she showed herself to be a levelheaded and articulate educator who was all the things like it was NBD, and who knew her shit. Basically, the type of person who wouldn’t have a panic attack while teaching a room of high schoolers (::coughcough::). In the year since then, Saleema has been a fount of knowledge and wisdom, both around the business of being a sex educator and around the nuts and bolts of sexuality. She even helped me out with this piece about talking to your kids about pleasure. And even though Saleema is in the midst of launching a billion workshops right now, she still agreed to chat with me for this series. Thanks, Saleema!
What brought you to sex education and what did that journey look like?
Well, I was at the University of British Columbia and took Family Sciences 200. I loved it, decided to do my undergrad in family sciences, and then was faced with the decision: What do I do? So I applied for a Master’s in Family Studies and was pretty much immediately assigned to be a teaching assistant for a human sexuality course.
The students were around 21 and after grading their papers, I honestly was shocked at how little information these young adults had about their bodies. It was quite something. Also, after getting more familiar with the content and helping to teach a couple of lectures, I found out that I loved teaching and I found the topic of sexual health fascinating.
Luckily, the faculty was small enough that they allowed me to focus on sexual health education specifically for my thesis. And so I interviewed 14 grade-10 students about their experience in sexual health education. And the interviews were really thoughtful and what almost every one of the students told me [was that] what they were learning was totally irrelevant to their lives. We don’t want to talk anymore about the urethra, they said. We want to talk about sexually transmitted infections and what you do if you’re at a party and something’s going on and how you communicate with your partner and decision-making and those more emotional aspects of sexuality.
So, that really got me thinking that we need to get into schools a lot earlier, like in elementary school, ideally, to provide our kids with the information they need to really navigate their teen years and make smart decisions.
After I graduated, I worked for a couple of years as a family support worker with pregnant and parenting teens. My role was to help a caseload of about 20 young people with all different aspects of their life. And in getting to know them, more than a few of them told me they were making decisions about their sexual health based on some not-so-reliable sources. And I heard myths that I thought were long gone. And so, as I got to know these young people and recognize that they didn’t get a sexual health education, that put the fire under me to get into schools at the elementary level and provide education that really is preventative.
So I was volunteering at Planned Parenthood at the time and, through my work there, I met Meg Hickling. Meg Hickling is really the pioneer of sexual health education, not only in British Columbia but across Canada. Back in the ’70s, she was a renegade educator who would gather parents in church basements and in school gymnasiums in the evening and talk to them about the stages of sexual development, what they could expect their kids to go through and what, in an ideal world, our kids would know. And when she would give tips to parents, she would offer suggestions and examples as to how to answer questions, all with the goal of empowering parents to be their kids’ number one source of sexual health information.
That was pretty groundbreaking back in the ’70s. And parents loved her so much, they started to ask her to come and teach their kids. Now, back in the day, she wasn’t allowed in the actual school during the school day, but she still was able to gather literally hundreds of kids in evening and after-school sessions where she told the truth about how babies are made and how the baby doesn’t grow in the tummy, it grows in the uterus and how, if you see one of these things, condoms or needles, don’t pick them up because they’re dangerous. She taught well into her 70s and still she was able to engage even the toughest crowds of grade sixes and sevens and even high school students because she was so animated and informative and hilarious.
I met Meg Hickling in the late ’90s and she said, Hey, look, I’m ready to retire soon. Can you train with me and carry on my work after I do that? So I said, Uh, hell to the yeah. And so I just started to follow her around. It was very informal. Her only request was that her message be continued. And so that’s what I did. And over the 20+ years I’ve been teaching now, I’ve kept the core content of what she taught, just revised and expanded it to fit with what kids really need to know now and also to mesh more with my personality.
Of all the things you’re doing right now, what are you most excited about or even most proud of?
Two years ago, I, would’ve never guessed that I could do my job online. March 2020, when things changed overnight for the first time in over 20 years, I thought, What am I going to do? And my first thought was, Let’s get my workshops online so I can at least send them to the schools that we had to cancel workshops at in March, April, May, and June. And that was over a hundred schools. So it was a teaching tool first and foremost. But I guess I’m proud of how I was able to shift and rethink the delivery of my content.
And also, transforming my iGuy and iGirl programs, adapting them to be relevant and interesting and fun for all genders in an online format. I feel really proud that now I can reach so many more kids because we’re not limited by geography.
What is it about this work that feels most essential to you?
I think education we provide kids that is preventative, that is positive, that is inclusive is key. Whenever I give a workshop or create a new program, my first thought is: What did I wish I knew when I was their age? What was missing in my own education? And I think most of us as parents can say that our sex ed sucked and empowerment education wasn’t even really a thing. I talk a lot about how grade 5 was one of the hardest years of my life because of the bullying I endured by my so-called best friend and a few girls in my class. And my parents weren’t equipped at the time to help me deal with that. We just didn’t give parents those skills. So I think that providing education in a really fun, engaging, and positive way, but in a preventative way, is key.
The piece of my work that involves working with parents… we want parents to be their kid’s number one source of sexual health information. And so I find it really rewarding to empower parents to do that. And almost all of the parents I meet understand how important it is that their kids learn this stuff and they want to be the people to provide it, but because of their own upbringing or because of other barriers, they just don’t know what to say, how to say it, how much, how to start the conversation.
What is the number one fear you see in parents who are grappling with how to have those conversations with their kids?
For parents of very young children, a big concern is: Why do they need to know how babies are made? Why do we have to get into the whole penis goes in the vagina thing? It’s just too early. So that’s one concern.
Another related concern is: If we teach our kids about this stuff, are they then going to go out and try and do it? Does information lead to early experimentation? And, of course, the research shows us that this is not the case. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s kids who don’t have information who experiment at early ages and who engage in risk-taking behaviors when it comes to their sexual health.
Another one is around gender. In our programs, we show pictures of bodies and I say, You may be looking at this picture thinking, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a boy’s body,’ because of how we assign gender at birth. But while this system works for a lot of people, for some, as they grow up, it turns out that’s not who they actually are. That’s not how they feel in their heart. And kids get it. But parents are concerned. There are some parents who will say, Well, why would we suggest that they could be a different gender? Isn’t talking about gender going to confuse them? But it doesn’t. Kids are more capable than we think of understanding quite complex topics.
When we get into grade four or five, I really encourage parents to start an introductory conversation about pornography. Just letting them know that when they’re online, they may come across sexual content and it’s called pornography. We need to name it. And we need to explain that it’s adult material. It’s not bad. It’s just not for kids. And so, if they come across anything they think might be pornography, we want them to come talk to us so that we can help them make sense of what they’ve seen. They wouldn’t be in trouble. We’d be really proud of them for telling us. But we just want to have the opportunity to help them work through that if needed.
So, parents have concerns about talking to kids of any age about pornography because, again, the concern is, well, if we let them know that it exists, are they going to become addicted?
We cannot control everything. We can put reasonable boundaries and guidelines and limits around what our kids are consuming. But as they get older, they have to have independence and we can’t control everything they see and hear. So instead we need to preload our kids so that if anything goes sideways or they come across something that’s confusing or disturbing or misleading to them, they’ll know they can come talk to us. We can’t choose whether or not they see it. What we can do, though, is let them know where to come if they do.
What do you find to be the toughest aspect of the work you do?
I think the toughest aspect of what I do is working with parents who don’t share the same philosophy as I do or the same values that we as a country have. In Canada, it’s a human right to get comprehensive sexual health education. It’s a human right for kids to be able to come to school and feel respected and included and safe and welcome. That’s just who we are. That’s just what we do. And so, on the rare occasion I’m in contact with a parent who just does not agree with that, it’s tough because parents can always opt out of sex education, although it’s mandated for students K-10 here in Canada. It’s the child who misses out, you know. And sometimes, parents say, Well, I just prefer to talk about it with my child at home. But is that really gonna happen? No, because the parent that opts their child out of sex education clearly has different values than the perspective we’re coming from.
And I’m very clear to say, I don’t teach values. That’s your job as parents. I teach scientific information. But part of that scientific information is that we know that there are many different sexual attractions that exist. And we know that gender is very diverse and we know that abortion is a legal option for people at any age in Canada who find themselves pregnant. That is a reproductive right of ours. So, when parents disagree with those basic rights, that’s when things get tricky and it’s hard for me to respectfully disagree.
After all, being inclusive isn’t a value. It’s the context from which we teach.