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Safe & Sexy: Trauma-Informed Sex Positivity in the Social Work Classroom
By Brent Satterly, PhD, LCSW

Social work prides itself on embodying a strengths-based perspective. In fact, it’s what drew me to the field. As an axiomatic optimist and bubbly extrovert, I love how social work acknowledges, celebrates, and activates strengths in individuals, families, communities, and cultures. When I started graduate school, I had recently graduated from a faith-based, homophobic college where I had come out as a gay man. As such, I was so excited to see how we, as social work students, would unapologetically embody social and sexual justice by learning how to remove barriers for clients to galvanize their own strengths and navigate hardships.

Sitting in class, this vibrant resiliency approach was consistently applied for all aspects of the human condition in assessment, treatment planning, and interventions—except when we started to talk about sex. For some reason, my peers would throw our precious strengths-based lens out the proverbial window whenever sexuality of any kind was involved. Gone was the assumption of resiliency, coping, self-determination, and the client-as-expert approach; in its place, the lens of pathology was adamantly—even greedily—applied. When clients expressed any aspect of sexuality—especially anything kink or Queer related—all I heard was how such expressions, desires, or even identities were somehow inherently linked to trauma, attachment disorders, or addictions.

I recall one such incident where a student was presenting a case example in our practice class that described a gay, cisgender male couple who were negotiating nonmonogamy in their relationship. The resulting conversation consisted of homophobic pathologizing of the couple as well as moralizing condemnation of the exploration of expanding their intimacy beyond the confines of their relationship.

As a newly out gay man with a sexual trauma history, I was unprepared for such judgmental vitriol and ignorance about Queer culture, sexual freedom, and even the right to have open conversations about nonmonogamy as an intimate option within a relationship. I am not surprised that I kept my mouth shut, but I was shocked that my professor did the same. Their authoritarian silence rang loudly in my ears, thereby sanctioning that such homophobic and sex-negatives views fit squarely within ethical social work practice. The interchange taught me that social workers (not to mention social work professors) were equally prejudicial and closed minded about Queer culture and sexual freedom as those outside our supposed strengths-based profession. The fear of judgment by peers and professors stuck with me for many years.

Trauma-Informed Teaching
Over the course of the last few decades, trauma-informed approaches to social work practice have become more commonplace. As such, schools of social work have integrated trauma into their curriculum. However, teaching about trauma is not the same as trauma-informed teaching.

Developing trauma-informed care in the classroom begins with six general principles:

1) Safety: Create a learning environment that ensures physical and emotional safety while noting that emotional safety is often subjective and must be attuned to diverse student experience;

2) Trustworthiness and Transparency: Develop goals and employ trauma-informed teaching strategies that maximize trustworthiness for maintaining boundaries, facilitating appropriate classroom conduct, and having transparent, meaningful conversations;

3) Peer Support: Ensure opportunities for students to connect with other students to build diverse relationships, analyze shared knowledge and experience, and engage perspective taking;

4) Collaboration and Mutuality: Develop learning environments, classroom partnerships, and classroom strategies that augment collaboration and power sharing;

5) Empowerment and Choice: Facilitate a classroom environment, employ pedagogical methods, and select assignments that prioritize student empowerment and choice to enhance skill building, a sense of control, and overall sensitivity; and finally,

6) Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues: Design a decolonized curriculum, based in a historically accurate understanding of systemic oppression and privilege that moves beyond stereotypes, to select readings, classroom content, and assignments that reflect critically diverse perspectives, employ teaching methods that acknowledge and center diverse student voices, and intentionally process classroom experiences to learning.

Sex-Positivity and Trauma-Informed Teaching
As a social work educator for over 25 years, I have experienced how the strengths-based perspective can be a revolutionary one when applied pedagogically about human sexuality. This approach, known as sex positivity, views all consensual sexual activity as fundamentally pleasurable and healthy. It reflects an openness and freedom from sex-negative approaches; it integrates the physical, social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of sexuality in positive, beneficial, and enriching ways. Embracing inclusivity, sex positivity also attends to the diversity of sexual expression, sexually disenfranchised communities, and how developmental and cultural identities influence sexuality. In this vein, sex positivity is a social justice framework.

Because social workers often deal with trauma, specifically sexual trauma, teaching sex positivity from a trauma-informed perspective can be incredibly empowering for students. For example, when a person breaks their leg, they seek medical attention and physical therapy to strengthen those muscles to walk again. In contrast, when a person experiences sexual trauma, they typically don’t pursue sexual healing about how to become sexually whole. How might a sexual assault survivor experience something like flirting or dating? How does a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who struggles with body image receive a compliment? What is a sexual trauma survivor’s relationship to masturbation and human sexual response? And how does someone who experienced sexual trauma express affection and intimacy? Providing students with such sex-positivity perspectives is long overdue in a sex-negative culture, even in our strengths-based social work classroom.

A Sex-Positive Continuum
So how do we teach sex positivity in a trauma-informed way? Infusing the six general principles of trauma-informed teaching into sex-positive pedagogy requires assessment, reflexivity, and innovation. A sex-positive/sex-negative continuum helps us examine all aspects of our teaching.

People are socialized to hold attitudes about human sexuality somewhere on a continuum between sex negativity (e.g., internalizing fear, guilt, and shame about sex; believing sexual desire and behavior is harmful) and sex positivity (e.g., seeing sex as enriching, pleasurable, and fun; embracing openness, freedom, and liberation of sexual expression). This continuum can be employed as a measure to assess such areas as learning environment, curriculum design, and teaching methods and facilitation just to name a few.

Learning Environment
How sex positive is the learning environment in your classroom? Does it acknowledge a sex-positive breadth of sexual attitudes, values, and histories? Incorporating a socially just set of classroom guidelines that are transparent about diversity, seek intellectual humility, recognize social positionalities, encourage reflexivity, differentiate between safety and discomfort, and adopt sex positivity as a strengths-based framework will establish a transparently authentic learning environment. For example, normalize affirming terms for sexual anatomy (e.g., penis, clitoris, anus), acts (e.g., masturbation, oral sex, vaginal/penile intercourse), and cultural identities (e.g., LGBTQIA+, BDSM, polyamorous). Such steps demonstrate your approachability, sensitivity, cultural humility, content expertise, compassion, and professionalism.

Curriculum Design
Does your teaching philosophy and related curricula reflect trauma-informed approaches to human sexuality that center diverse voices in sex-positive ways? Do your goals and objectives reflect a sex-positive approach to social work practice? Does your curriculum reflect sex-positive content and assignments for developing proficiency with scaffolded feedback? Reevaluating our own teaching philosophy in light of the sex-positive continuum can reveal our own pathologizing lens.

Teaching Methods and Facilitation
Do your selected teaching methods cater to disparate learning styles from a sex-positive framework? Sex-positive, trauma-informed pedagogy doesn’t mean avoiding sexually trauma-based content or methods that might cause psychological or emotional discomfort. It means being sure to provide ample opportunities for students to reflect on such content, explore new meanings about their own reactions, and assess how sex positivity can be applied as a reframing mechanism. For example, a case presentation that describes a child being removed from a home by a child welfare agency because the parents “wandered around their house naked” may elicit judgmental and pathologizing reactions about nakedness and childhood corruption. However, the concept of nakedness is culture bound, doesn’t presume childhood sexual abuse, and pathologizes the naked body. Facilitating such conversations that examine cultural scripts around bodies, normalizing developmentally appropriate childhood sexuality, and critically discussing diverse parenting helps students contextualize their own place on the sex-positivity continuum.

A sex-positive framework empowers social work students to consider the axiom “Sex is fun and pleasure is good for you” without moralizing or pathologizing the experiences, values, or lives of their clients. Our responsibilities as educators require that we employ a trauma-informed approach to help students achieve this end. I have no doubt that had my practice professor applied such a sex-positive, trauma-informed approach, my own experience would have been much different.

— Brent Satterly, PhD, LCSW, is a professor of social work at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. He is also an adjunct associate faculty member in Widener’s Center for Human Sexuality Studies. Satterly coauthored and coedited the second edition of Sexuality Concepts for Social Workers, which provides readers with relevant research material on sexuality-related subjects in social work.