Teaching Trauma-Informed, Comprehensive Sex Education

An Interview with Mariah Caudillo

Mariah Caudillo is a sex educator working in California who created her heart-warming Instagram, @sexedfiles, as a way to share the real and vital questions that her young students were asking her. We wanted to know more about what sparked Mariah to share these questions, what it meant to teach in a trauma-informed way and how classrooms approach taboo topics such as abortion in such turbulent times as these.

Here is what she said.

MSB: Can you tell me about the Sex Ed Files? What is your mission, and how can people get involved?

MC: The Sex Ed Files is essentially a folder mirroring the work I get to do in the classroom, full of resources, inclusive sexual health information, quotes from sexuality professionals and activists, art, and my favorite: anonymous questions from students in Sex Ed. I started this Instagram account three years ago during my lunch break while teaching Comprehensive Sex Ed. Students had the opportunity to submit anonymous questions on a notecard about anything related to sexual health, life skills, relationships, and more. I’d receive 20+ question cards a day from curious students. So during that lunch break, while shuffling through notecards full of thoughtful and entertaining questions, I thought, these need to be shared! I consulted a few close friends who also valued this work, and that afternoon The Sex Ed Files Instagram account was live.

To be honest, this account is still in the process of maturing; I haven’t landed on a mission statement or business plan just yet, but until then, followers get a peek into the reality of what students are curious about. Ultimately, though it’s only one aspect of the account, the anonymous questions shared reflect the importance of sex education. We get to pay attention to what students say when they’re given a voice and a sense of safety to be completely transparent. As sex education continues to evolve, anonymous questions are the portal into how this education is unfolding in our communities and how it’s impacting the lives of so many.

MSB: What are some of your favorite of these questions and why? Were there any particularly shocking or surprising questions?

MC: I get a lot of amazing anonymous questions from students. It’s almost impossible to pick a favorite. However, I really enjoy the questions that have to do with consent or navigating sexual orientation and identity. These types of questions put everything we are learning in sex ed into perspective. They often lead to helpful discussions and represent real life. Many students ask, “How do I come out?” This gives us the opportunity to address all the feelings and experiences that come with sharing your identity and orientation. The hope is that through sharing information, we’re also affirming all identities, normalizing concerns, changes and differences around identity and the journey of discovering oneself and, finally, offering students support or resources.

The great thing about anonymous questions during sex ed is that students can take what they need and apply it to their life. For example, anonymous questions about consent allow us to emphasize essential life skills such as respect and communication while also demonstrating the importance of setting boundaries. The best part is that students genuinely care. They are listening, and they are curious. Often, the discussions that stem from the anonymous questions are led by students who understand how important sex education is and plan to implement their knowledge. Young people are discovering their values and goals, and sex education can encourage making healthy choices that reflect those values and goals.

With that being said, there have been plenty of shocking or surprising questions, most of which have to do with abuse. Thankfully, there is a protocol set in place for these types of questions, even if they are anonymous, but it’s certainly an indicator that a student is looking for answers and support. The anonymous questions are meant to be a safe, judgment-free space for students to ask whatever they want so, of course, there will be those wishing to express personal stories that reflect the reality of abusive homes or relationships. Being a sex educator comes with the responsibility of addressing these questions compassionately and appropriately, ultimately being mindful of everyone’s comfort and safety in the classroom.

MSB: The word “abortion” was never even spoken in my sex-ed classes growing up — and I lived in a particularly liberal community. How have you seen or experienced abortion discussed in communities/classrooms?

MC: It is so important to talk about abortion, and, unfortunately, it’s rare that abortion is discussed accurately or objectively inside a classroom. I am lucky to live in California, where comprehensive sex education must be taught in grades 7 through 12, which includes abortion information. Abortion information is often weaved into lessons around pregnancy options or accessible health services. In my case, abortion is discussed as a safe, confidential and legal pregnancy option for those 12 and older. I highlight the importance of communication with partners, planning for various outcomes, etc. And if someone chooses to end a pregnancy, I mention aftercare, the significance of having a support system, the various feelings or emotions surrounding abortion. Just like any medical concern, it’s important to know all the details to assess needs and understand that everyone’s process is unique to them. It’s also a good time to remind students that their body is special, and no matter what decision they’re making with their body, they should only do what they feel comfortable doing. All of these points make up a short lesson on abortion that sometimes leads us into longer discussions or prompts students to ask questions.

Often times talking about abortion brings up personal values. It’s important to evaluate personal values and encourage students to do so respectfully, but I cannot share my own as an educator. At the same time, I make it a point to address all questions and concerns regarding abortion and accessibility while facilitating discussions among students. There tends to be a lot of discussion around common myths and the politics surrounding abortion. This is a good opportunity to dispel any myths and encourage students to research the history of abortion. I think it’s wonderful that abortion is included in some sex education curricula, but it can definitely be its own lesson, given all the medical information and history behind it.

Similar to the way a health care worker would address abortion concerns honestly and caringly, I do my best to do so with students. In the end, many students express gratitude for sharing helpful information about abortion, they want to know and deserve to know. Now, outside of the classroom, I am an advocate for abortion. I believe everyone has the right to make choices for their body. Wanting an abortion is valid and people deserve non-judgmental and safe care when considering one.

MSB: Why is abortion still such a taboo topic?

Reproductive justice is “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities,” according to SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. Reproductive justice includes access to abortion services, yet the law hasn’t always been on this side of justice, which has dramatized the controversy surrounding abortion. I think abortion continues to be a taboo topic because of the societal, political and cultural opposition to it. All of this has led to a narrow understanding of abortion and often times, an emotional response to conversations around abortion. The reality is that no matter where one lives, abortion will always be something someone considers or needs.

MSB: How might past trauma influence a student’s framing of sex education?

MC: Trauma-informed sex education is sensitive to students’ traumatic life experiences, promoting equity and safety as students learn about sexual health. This requires patience with students and cultural competency, acknowledging the ways cultural experiences affect people differently. A focus on equity while teaching sex education considers the various ways people learn, literacy and more, being mindful of the language used in the curriculum and the materials. Teaching from a trauma-informed lens ultimately recognizes that trauma can affect people differently, so it’s important to be mindful, inclusive and empathetic while teaching sex education. This includes affirming student’s experiences and ways of processing their trauma. Sexual health can already feel uncomfortable or awkward to talk about. For a sexual assault survivor, it can be especially uncomfortable and unsafe if not presented respectfully. Trauma-informed sex education can include communicating with students before addressing sensitive topics, like relationship abuse, addressing myths, giving students the option to opt-out of certain classes or lessons, providing them with resources such as counseling, avoiding shame-rooted language and tactics, focusing on consent, body love and pleasure, and emphasizing trusted adult communication.

All students deserve to feel safe and comfortable when learning about sexual health. The goal of sex education is to empower students, give them the confidence to care about their sexual health and continue having these essential conversations outside the classroom. Something I like to do in all my classes is let students know that they are worthy and important. They all deserve respect and consensual, pleasurable experiences if that is what they choose. It’s never their fault if their boundaries are violated. And however they process traumatic events is ok. Whatever healing looks like for them, is ok.

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