This article is part of Broadly's Sex Week: Unscrewing Ourselves , which explores the state of sex ed today."If you're hugging your friend and they say stop, you have to stop," Isy Abraham-Raveson explained to a room full of kindergarteners at Montclair Cooperative School, which teaches nursery school through eighth grade, this May. "It doesn't mean they don't love you... You have to stop because this is their body."Most American schools don't require sex ed until high school, according to a 2014 study conducted by the CDC. But with Chicago Public Schools and Florida's Broward County Public Schools mandating sex ed in kindergarten and the American Public Health Association recommending it, some sex educators are pushing for an earlier start to sex ed. Abraham-Raveson, curriculum writer for New Jersey-based education organization YES!: Your Empowered Sexuality, is one of them.
She and her friends Natalie Smyth, Eve Gutman, and Rebecca Klein founded the 13-person organization in 2015 to provide the consent education they didn't get when they were growing up. Its facilitators now teach in New Jersey's Montclair High School along with Montclair Cooperative. In 30-minute workshops, they use role-playing to discuss body parts and boundaries.
The hugging scenario, for instance, began when two students stood in front of the class and Abraham-Raveson asked their classmates to suggest different actions one could take, like hugging their friend (which she told the students would make the friend cry), asking to hug their friend, and not hugging their friend at all. Facilitators also recite "Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" with the students to help them understand their and their peers' bodies.
YES! has also created a coloring book full of playful cartoon monsters called My Body, Their Body to help young learners navigate bodily autonomy and show their parents what they've learned. "If you want a big hug, you can ask for one!" one page says. Another reads, "If someone touches your body in a way that you don't like, you can say, 'NO!'" The educational text then teaches students how to treat others' bodies, calling on their newfound knowledge of their own boundaries.
"The way people often talk to young kids about boundaries is in regards to violation and abuse."
"It's important to start any sex education workshop, no matter how young, with positivity," Abraham-Raveson told Broadly. This isn't always how kids are introduced to sex. Thirty-one states have a law requiring public schools to teach body safety and reporting abuse in grades K-12, but few start any other form of sex ed this early. "The way people often talk to young kids about boundaries is in regards to violation and abuse. That has a place, but this is about how to read other people's body language and social cues," Abraham-Raveson said. So far, she's taught one kindergarten workshop, but she got positive feedback from the teacher and says there are more in the works as YES! partners with local schools.
In addition to teaching through YES!, Abraham-Raveson works with three and four-year-old children on a daily basis as a preschool teacher. Although she isn't teaching sex ed to these young learners, she sprinkles in information whenever she has a chance. When she isn't teaching, she works at a sex shop in Philadelphia.
YES! also offers two classes for adults: one on how to talk to young children about sex and another on how to talk to teenagers about sex. These free public workshops, held at two community centers and a children's hospital in Philadelphia, cover what adults learned (or didn't learn) about sex when they were younger, focusing on one central question: "What do we wish our parents told us?" The group also discusses shame and identifies the values they want to teach the youth in their lives.
"It's a lot easier to get a crowd for the Teens and Tweens workshop," Abraham-Raveson said. "It's really funny because everyone comes in panic about having a teenager, but if you had come to my Young Children's workshop, you wouldn't be panicked right now!"
Abraham-Raveson believes the much-anticipated, dreaded tradition of "the talk" could also be avoided if parents, educators, and other adults used "teachable moments" to educate their children about sex in their everyday lives. For instance, when a child says a baby comes out of a mother's tummy, that's an opportunity to explain what a uterus is. "Teachable moments allow you to communicate your values around a variety of issues over time," she said. "You don't have to put so much pressure on yourself on one moment."
There aren't as many critics to Abraham-Raveson's work as one might expect. She said she's never encountered an angry parent. In fact, during her first meetings at the Montclair Cooperative School, the principal asked if the YES! curriculum was queer and trans inclusive—and it is. The organization refrains from using gendered terminology like "women make babies" and "men produce sperm."
However, the Montclair Cooperative School is independent and far more progressive than public schools. Abraham-Raveson has discovered in her research that in many public high schools, sex educators are still fighting to use "penis" and "vagina" instead of terms like "private parts" in classrooms with high school seniors, many of whom are already having sex.
The notion of starting sex ed in kindergarten might seem radical in this environment, especially considering that only half of states mandate any sex education at all in their public schools, according to the National Conference for State Legislatures. That means health teachers in half the country can go their entire careers without speaking to a single student about sex. What sex ed does exist often focuses on the potential consequences of HIV/AIDS and unintentional pregnancy, with little room for lessons about consent and pleasure.
Abraham-Raveson is hoping early sex education can make people more comfortable communicating with partners by the time they become sexually active. "If you can't talk about your body parts and sex, then how are you going to have good sex, healthy sex, safe sex, consensual sex?" she said. "You have to be comfortable saying [penis and vagina] before we talk about what you're going to do with those body parts."