At the St. Paul-based Family Tree Clinic, sex education is wildly different than the paradigm that most of us grew up with — the one that taught that sex was wrong or dangerous.
“So often sexual health is talked about in terms of an absence of disease, or not experiencing unwanted or unexpected pregnancies. Sexuality has so much more to it than that,” says Lindsey Hoskins, the non-profit organization’s director of health education.
Hoskins holds a degree in sex education and is the author of “Principles of Pleasure: Working with the Good Stuff as Sex Therapists and Educators.”
Her school sex education “succeeded in some ways and failed in others,” she says. In college, she found herself drawn to sexuality, gender, and sexual health courses. She felt comfortable talking about these topics and became a college peer sex educator. “Even with the opportunities I had for sex education, there was so much that didn’t get covered until I was much older. The tone of sex ed has changed a lot since then, away from scare tactics and more toward skills and the positive attitudes that make protective actions more accessible.”
Hoskins is one of nine sex educators at Family Tree Clinic, which uses a liberatory approach to sex. The clinic was formed in 1971 with a mission to offer community education about reproductive and sexual health.
“[Healthy sex] is about joy and connection and love and intimacy and identity and confidence. It is something that people experience from the beginning of life to the end of life. It is really selling people short if we’re only talking about avoiding infections,” Hoskins says.
Popular topics among Family Tree clients include consent, sexual orientation and gender identity, birth control methods, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Puberty classes are also in high demand. Clients want to learn how to be safe, find out if they are “normal,” and access health care services.
Removing the shame around sex is key. “Shame is something that does not help us take care of ourselves,” Hoskins says. When people feel shame around their sexuality, they are less likely to talk to a doctor, speak up for themselves in a relationship, or feel like they can set high standards.
To reduce shame, educators talk about sex and bodies in a positive and respectful way, framing sexuality as a normal part of life. “We aren’t there to lecture or belittle,” Hoskins says. “People are so used to being shamed about sex, but when we show up and demonstrate that that is not our approach, folks open up quickly and can begin to relate to a part of themselves in a new way.”
Among Family Tree’s programs are PASE (Parents Are Sexuality Educators), which teaches parents how to talk to their children about sexuality, and KISS (Keeping It Safe and Sexy), created for queer and trans teens. Some of the concepts covered are the wide array of body types, and condom availability and use.
“Talk early, talk often,” is a guiding phrase for parents.
In addition to the LGBTQ+ community, Family Tree teaches sex ed to people who are incarcerated, the deaf, and those experiencing chemical dependency, mental health issues, or housing instability.
Education is only part of the puzzle. To better serve diverse populations and eliminate health disparities, a community engagement department was founded in 2016. “The people that are the most in need of health access are the people that are systematically left out of major health systems,” says Jacki Trelawny, Family Tree’s director of community engagement.
“If I show up at an event with a bunch of HIV tests, people treat me like the lotion folks at the mall — and rightfully so,” says Trelawny. “Because, who am I to them? Even though I am Black, I represent a medical institution. They don’t have to trust me. There is a very serious legacy — a justified legacy — of mistrust between Black communities and medicine. And we have to take that into consideration.”
The cornerstone of the work is listening. Family Tree has held about 100 listening sessions, with an emphasis on hearing Black voices.
One example of the process: When Black communities were asked “Where do you get your healing from?,” an unexpected response from many was art. Family Tree secured a grant to create an exhibition called “The Melanation of Art,” featuring Black artists. The organization hosted an event at its clinic with food and music. Around 70 people attended. For many of them, it was their first visit to Family Tree. They used the opportunity to pick up condoms or get an HIV test.
By positioning itself as an invested part of the community, rather than a health authority that presumes to know what is right, Family Tree serves Minnesotans. And there is always room for improvement.
“We have a rich sex ed community in the Twin Cities,” Hoskins says. “We are all being challenged right now to learn new ways to do our work with regards to distance learning [as well as] rooting out the racism that is embedded in public health and education.”
Coronavirus has required Family Tree to move education to interactive presentations or prerecorded videos that clients can watch at their own pace. They recently offered a prerecorded puberty video presentation for elementary school kids to watch at home.The students submitted anonymous questions with a Google form. A virtual Q & A session followed.
KISS and listening sessions have been moved to Zoom, which allows more clients our of the area to participate. Hoskins is hopeful that they will come out of the pandemic better prepared to take their mission further and reach populations in isolated areas.
“We are excited to help folks of all ages develop helpful attitudes and skills around consent,” Hoskins says. “Not only are teachers asking for it, but students and parents are demanding it as well. We have a class for fourth and fifth graders on healthy relationship and friendship skills. They get really animated when talking about the concept of consent. It is exciting.”