For socially important and at the same time very personal areas such as love and sexuality, it is of particular importance to explore relationships contextually, to obtain tools to handle this field carefully and responsibly, and to learn to trust our own instincts and intuitions.
For this reason, I decided in 2005 to devise a sex education main lesson for my class. The basis of my plan was Rudolf Steiner's reference in the first teacher training course to look at the matter «as a whole» and to feel one's way up, as it were, through the kingdoms of nature (Steiner 2020).
Of course more would be needed: the main lesson had to happen at the right time.
It should be filled throughout with a holistic mood that considers science, art and reverence in equal measure, while allowing for feelings of wonder, beauty and positivity.
It had to be contemporary, respectful, fearless and body-positive: no child should feel exposed or traumatised – despite all the embarrassment to be overcome.
It was also clear to me that the teacher needed good subject knowledge, a lively sense of humour, an open mind and a keen sense of the issues of the day.
The main lesson should not take over the parents' responsibility to have an initial conversation about sex in line with their views. It had to follow this conversation.
Afterwards, the pupils should feel empowered in a new way to discuss sexual and romantic issues with themselves and others without transgressing boundaries.
In my experience, the best time for the main lesson is between December in class six and December in class seven. In this window, a kind of pause for breath takes place in development: you are no longer a child, but not quite a teenager yet. Teachers need to recognize the awakening for romantic and sexual subject matter. The crucial factor for the right time is that the pupils already show an interest but are not yet sexually active themselves.
A start is made in the classroom with a simple question: how would you represent the difference between a man and a woman in a diagram? This immediately leads to a discussion: is there a clear boundary here? We will return to gender, biological sex and sexual orientation later; at this early stage we can, however, already point out programmatically that the boundaries are not clear-cut.
We begin to explore the field of male and female by means of the plant world: here we already find «ovaries» and «sperm cells» and it is fine if the pupils giggle with embarrassment. Soon we have got used to the vocabulary: they are only flowers, after all! In connection with pollination, we enter the realm of insects and can briefly look at the wonderful metamorphosis of the butterfly. We work our way through the animal kingdom via the life and reproductive rhythms of the mayfly and the salmon until we arrive at mammals and humans.
Seeds fall close to the parent plant and/or are carried away by wind, water or animals.
Stay in place
Mating of M and F, eggs are laid
Move on or die
Fish and amphibians
F lays eggs, M fertilises them
Mating of M and F,
Stay and rear the young until they are ready to fly, then usually separate. Some parents stay together for life
Most parents release their young and start a new season
Mating of M and F, live birth
Young animals are suckled and raised until sexual maturity. Then the young mostly move away, and the parents remain
Lifelong relationship possible, but usually not in the child-parent role
Mating of M and F,
children become part of the family
Children are cared for and educated for about a quarter of their lives
Lifelong conscious relationship inevitable: no one forgets their parents or children if there was a relationship.
Arrived at the end of the first week, things are allowed to become personal and the pupils are given the task of writing down one event for each year of their lives. At first it is easy, but little by little the memories fade and the parents have to be consulted. Interesting conversations ensue at the dinner table: what was it actually like when ...
Mein Leben (bis jetzt): = My life (until now)
Als ich ... war = When I was ...
Mit ... Monaten = At ... months
Am Tag nach meiner Geburt = On the day after my birth
An meinem Geburtstag = On the day of my birth
So haben sich meine Eltern kennengelernt: = This is how my parents met:
... und wer bin ich? = and who am I?
Unusual or problematic birth constellations can also be discussed in this way: is the child adopted, did their same-sex parents opt for an alternative form of fertilisation, was there only a brief friendship between father and mother? The word normal should not be used at all in this context. The priority is to give the child the feeling: you were wanted and are welcome here!
At the beginning of the second week, we deal with the developing child in the womb: of course on a sound scientific basis, but still with an emphasis on wonder at the miracle of human life and human individuality. By describing the biological process of procreation, we can also discuss the structure and function of the sexual organs and, if possible, proceed in an objective and sober manner. The class is asked: «Can you draw a penis?», and that is, of course, easy. The task leads to laughter and breaks down barriers. The next question can produce consternation: «Can you draw a vulva?»
According to a British survey in 2013, more than half of the women questioned were unable to name the individual components of the vulva, i.e. their own external sex organs: the mons veneris, labia minora, labia majora, vaginal vestibule and clitoris (The Eve Appeal, 2013). There are undoubtedly cultural reasons for this: historically, girls and women had to suffer much more than boys and men from feelings of shame when it came to their sexual organs and their functions. We can contribute a lot to a positive and relaxed body image if we calmly and objectively name everything that needs to be named.
It is important to note here that teachers should never refer to their pupils' bodies or to themselves during this main lesson: of course we all know that it concerns us, so we don't have to expose anyone. Our relationship of trust allows us to understand each other also implicitly.
The topic of menstruation must be dealt with by all pupils: the boys in the class should accompany the girls and women in their lives with respect and understanding and therefore need a positive image of the processes in the female body. In Central Europe, menstruating women are generally no longer considered unclean, but there are still remnants of exclusion and self-denial. Modern teachers should see it as their task to tackle this, as it contributes decisively to the socialisation, qualification and individuation of developing human beings. Direct and individual questions can then be asked by female pupils in a separate lesson with the female biology teacher or school doctor.
With the boys, the matter of openness is somewhat more difficult as their emissions are usually associated with feelings of pleasure. We are thus moving in a more emotional, less objective and more intimate inner realm than with menstruation. This should not stop us from presenting ejaculation and masturbation (male and female) in general as natural and healthy. It will not (yet) be necessary to deal with these processes in detail.
In the middle of the second week, an important tool comes into play: the question box. For this, all the pupils are given an identical-looking sheet of paper, they write down their questions and throw them into a box. The teacher anonymises the questions and presents the answers at appropriate points in class during the following days.
Here are some of the real-life questions: What does it mean: whore, hooker, cunt, slut, bitch? What is a condom and how do you use it? How many times a week do adults have sex? Is it healthy to put a cucumber in your vagina? How does anal sex work? What are you allowed to do with a hooker? What does masturbate mean? Why is sperm white? Are there rapes in Germany? Can a man give himself a blowjob? Can humans have sex with animals? Is it unhealthy to have sperm in your mouth? How do gay men have sex? What is paedophilia?
All the questions are gradually dealt with. Here we do not proceed in the same way for all of them: questions like «Why is sperm white?» or «Is sperm poisonous?» can be answered briefly and factually.
«What are you allowed to do with a hooker?» or «Can women have sex with six men at the same time?» reveal the influence of pornography and sexist thinking, and need to be contextualised: what is important here is not only the answer, but above all the conversation.
Gradually we work our way through the subject matter and with each relaxed and respectful answer, mutual trust increases.
In the following days, the feeling that is often connected with sexuality as a motif is brought up: love. We learn and discuss the poem The Clod and the Pebble by William Blake (1757–1827).
The Clod and the Pebble
Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell's despair.
So sung a little Clod of Clay
Trodden with the cattle's feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:
Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven's despite.
In working on this poem, we explore the question of why love can make us both happy and unhappy. We draw a mind map with examples of clay love (parental love, self-sacrifice, gratitude) and pebble love (jealousy, possessiveness, fear of loss). Now we have a useful metaphor to study human behaviour. This happens in the following days with one of the most beautiful medieval love stories: Tristan and Isolde. In this story we are dealing with a very clear polarity: Man – woman, love – duty, possessiveness – selflessness, jealousy – will to heal. In studying it, the pupils discover with our help that life is always multifaceted and hardly any situation is morally unambiguous. Here would be a good – certainly not the only – starting point to talk about gender identity and sexual orientation. The educational task is to support adolescents in their search for orientation and self-discovery. This is how teaching opens doors – whether they go through it must be left up to them. In 2018, I gave the following essay topic:
Ten days ago, something cool happened to me: I woke up and found this card on my bedside table:
You have been selected for a swap experiment! As of today, you will belong to the opposite sex for seven days.
Have fun, and don't forget to report back!
You can imagine how surprised I was! I lifted my duvet – and it was true!!! And this is how it continued: ...
The freedom of the ocean
From today's perspective – and only four years have passed – the task seems too binary to me: it reduces reality and the application of the imagination to only one possibility: from boy to girl or vice versa. That at least was my perception at the time; now I would approach it differently. The pupils at the time wrote with a rarely experienced enthusiasm for their work and enjoyed the presentation of the results the next day. It is part of the phenomenon of the incredibly fast changing and evolving social values in this field that we need to be aware of the time-limited value of our images and work tasks. This should not paralyse us but educate us to be humble: after all, it is not our future that is at stake here but that of the pupils who will be able to experience the freedom of an ocean, while past generations still floated on rivers between narrow banks. Navigating the ocean requires more sophisticated tools, and I see providing them as part of our task as teachers.
Looking ahead to some extent, we conclude by talking about the issues of respect, consent, abuse, transgression, privacy and contraception. Above all, this sets impulses and transcends the framework of the main lesson. What is important is that through the intensive, trusting and detailed way we proceeded, we created an atmosphere in which the discussion about love and partnership now becomes easier. We have broken down barriers and provided tools.
Looking back on the main lesson, almost all the pupils are relieved that the next block will be about maths again – but they also clearly express that they are grateful for the impulses they have received. Hopefully they have gained in self-confidence, empathy and social skills and are now a little more confident at the helm of their ship.
Literature: Gert J.J. Biesta: The Beautiful Risk of Education. Boulder 2014. | Rudolf Steiner: Seminar on 3 September 1919, quoted from Studienausgaben zum ersten Lehrerkurs, Dornach 2020, p. 597. | The Eve Appeal, 2013. A very worthwhile series of short documentaries that are also well suited for middle school pupils. www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/series/vagina-dispatches
 Rudolf Steiner: Seminar on 3 September 1919, quoted from Studienausgaben zum ersten Lehrerkurs, Dornach 2020, p. 597.