A few short weeks ago I was able to attend an incredible training on Promoting Sexual Health Amoung Youth. The Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Alliance hosted this training as a part of their Building Healthy Futures series, and it was awesome. The focus of this training was all about young people with two topics in mind: promoting healthy sexuality and healing from trauma. It was two days packed with prevention! We learned, practiced and envisioned together. This training was totally relevant to the SAAM 2014 focus on youth too. Healthy sexuality + trauma-informed care = a vision for success. Let’s dig into what this training covered and what we can do to strengthen our work.
First off, the training brought together mostly Virginia-based sexual violence advocates and preventionists. The expertise on sexuality in the room ran the gamut. Some participants actively saw sexuality education as vital to their work, and others never had formal training or education on sexuality in a culture where it’s not often discussed in a healthy context. To lead us on this journey of health promotion, two dynamic speakers represented each field: Alison Bellavance, M.Ed. of Planned Parenthood Keystone and Steve Brown, Psy.D. of the Traumatic Stress Institute.
Healthy Sexuality 101
To start-off our training, our group explored the definition of healthy sexuality, and put our experience into practice with the Circles of Sexuality exercise. This activity was followed by a reflective exercise that explored our own sexual learning. By answering questions like “What do you wish someone had told you growing up about sexuality?”, participants were able to discuss our personal history, experiences and values. Other great tools like SEICUS’ Characteristics of a Sexually Healthy Adult were shared to guide the group in learning more about sexuality, and many of these tools could easily be adapted by participants to teach others including parents and youth.
Why healthy sexuality?
Once our group was up and rolling talking about sex, sexuality, and culture, it was time to make some key connections between this framework and sexual violence prevention.
• Healthy sexuality represents the vision of what we want instead of what we are against. It’s a positive outcome that we can engage individuals and communities to work toward.
• For youth, healthy sexuality and the opportunity to discuss sex with trusted adults is informative and empowering. Our legitimacy and support of youth grow when no topic is off-limits, and it’s important for young people to hear a message other than “no” when it comes to sex.
This section provided a great overview of the impact of trauma on an individual’s overall health and well-being. Cue the ACE Study – a one-stop shop for research on the connection between trauma and health challenges. Trauma takes a toll on our biology and psychology, and it’s vital to consider this background whenever you are in a support role. A trauma-informed approach asks, “What happened to you?” not “What’s wrong with you?”.
By understanding trauma, anyone in a support role and treatment environments can respond to trauma in helpful rather than harmful ways.
• Trauma has an impact on sexual development, and it’s very important to promote healthy sexuality with traumatized youth.
• Individuals who have experienced trauma and abuse may need additional support in navigating questions and needs related to sexuality. At times problematic behaviors that express trauma can make this challenging but all the more vital to recovery and growth.
Healthy Sexuality + Trauma-informed
As our understanding of both topics grew, participants began to make some insightful connections.
• A trauma-framework can support positive sexual development in those who have experienced trauma. For young people, it’s a vital opportunity to promote positive behaviors, relationship skills, and identity.
• Understanding trauma can help us to understand how high risk sexual behavior and other challenges can be an expression of trying to meet a non-sexual need or act as a coping mechanism.
• Trauma can lead to distorted beliefs about sexuality and many cultural values are reinforcing negative attitudes about sex. Healthy sexuality informs a more positive approach to sexuality and identity, and it can support healing and growth.
This recap scratches the surface of the rich conversations at Building Healthy Futures. The discussion was not only about making these great connections, but we also took time to identify barriers to incorporating these frameworks. Many advocates identified limitations in their communities, school environments and attitudes and politics that would be a challenge. As a group we brainstormed possible opportunities and ended our day with action steps to move us forward in making these connections in our work. After-all, our goal is to build a healthy future!
Kudos to an amazing group of participants, the fantastic hosts at VSDVAA, and our incredible trainers. If you couldn’t make it to the training, be sure to check out this podcast from PreventConnect. What do you think is key to building healthy futures? Leave a comment below.