Sex Education for Adult Learners

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Written by Lily, RSEI Educator | Published December 17th 2021

When we think about sex education, we often think of it as a topic that gets introduced to us in our adolescence. For many of us, it was presented in a classroom setting, in middle school or high school. Most often, adults remember the perceived quality of the education – either good or bad – and may not remember the specific details that were presented. In the United States, if formal sex education does happen, it usually ends by high school and might be optional on some college campuses. After that, we may live for decades without any additional sex education.

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As we get older, our social environment and our individual selves will continue to change and evolve. The sex education that we received as youth may not be relevant to our continuously changing social environment or our aging bodies. The truth is that learning about our sexuality should and does extend throughout the lifespan, beyond the confines of a traditional classroom. In this post, we want to describe why sex education is important for adult learners and some strategies to get started. 

There are countless benefits to providing sex education to adult learners. For one, it is valuable for folks who didn’t receive comprehensive sex education in their adolescent years and now want to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Our promotores de salud have interacted with folks who migrated to the United States and never attended a sex education course in their country of origin. The promotores de salud and community health workers have addressed their knowledge gaps by offering one on one education and platicas- Spanish presentations tailored to the audience’s interests. 

Sex education for adult learners can also provide a refresher on certain topics and is an opportunity to explore what they want to learn more about. Perhaps there is interest in exploring topics like birth control options or STI prevention that could be applicable to them. In some cases, they might have young people in their lives and they want to get this information to serve as an advocate and be a source of information for them. Regardless of the motivation, there are certain things to keep in mind when working with adult learners. 

It goes without saying that as we get older, we will experience changes to our physical self, our sexuality, and our personal attitudes. As folks get older, it is normal and common to experience physical changes such as changes in experiencing erections, vaginal lubrication, arousal, fertility, etc… There can also be changes to sexuality, as a result of a changed relationship, such as separation or divorce. Additionally, some people may also experience changes in their sexual and romantic attraction as they get older. Lastly, there can also be changes to personal beliefs and values as we live through new experiences. Given all of these potential changes, our perspective about sex and sexuality may change. Therefore, efforts should be initiated to learn how we can experience our sexuality in a healthy way throughout our lifespan. 

The term “adult” encompasses a broad age range that may seem intimidating. In practice, the scope that gets presented can be adapted to the audience that you work with. Are you interacting with folks in their 20s? Or in their 50s? The important thing is to be able to adapt to your group and incorporate information that is most relevant to their interests. For instance, be prepared to share information about menopause or erectile dysfunction if the group you work with is in their 50s. It can also be helpful to reference existing curriculum for youth to present your audience with background information.

Adult learning theories can be applied to the practice of teaching sex education for adult learners. We can reference the concepts of andragogy, which is the science of helping adults learn. This theory claims that adult learners are different from children in many ways including: 

  • They need to know why they should learn something
  • They want to know how learning will help them specifically
  • They bring prior experiences that form a foundation for their learning
  • They are self-directed and want to take charge of their learning
  • They find the most relevance from task-oriented learning that aligns with their realities

There should be an emphasis on providing students with an understanding of why they are doing something, and less instruction so that they can apply the concepts themselves.  It is crucial that the learning experience takes into account the culture of the student. In our programming for adult learners, we find it best to hold space for participant questions and reflection. Valuable teachable moments have risen from adult learners who share their experiences with the group.This requires that educators be flexible in curriculum delivery, as well as honor the lived experiences of the participants.

Learning about one’s own sexuality is a lifelong process, one that evolves as we get older and should be celebrated. Unfortunately, there is a social stigma for adults who may not know “everything” in regards to sex and sexuality. It is not uncommon for folks to feel embarrassed about not knowing certain topics, like the steps to correctly use a condom.  In these circumstances, it is crucial to respect the adult learner and meet them where they are. Adults should never be shamed for a lack of knowledge around sexuality or asking for help in these areas. The concept of sex education for adult learners is not new, and we challenge you to consider ways to include adults in your programs.

References:

Adult learning theories and principles: https://www.wgu.edu/blog/adult-learning-theories-principles2004.html#close



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