Willow Rosen: TIME Innovative Teachers 2022

When Willow Rosen teaches sex education to fourth and fifth graders, they like to wear bright colors—not their usual wardrobe, but it’s something, they’ve learned over the years, that tends to make the kids feel more comfortable, and get a conversation going. A few months ago, on one of those brightly clothed days, a student in Rosen’s class approached to ask if it was OK that she liked her best friend as more than a friend—something the student’s mom thought she was too young for, but which Rosen understood.

“It’s these little moments of connection that feel really good,” Rosen, 33, says. “Because, the first day that you walk in, most of the students are like, We are so mad!

Rosen’s curriculum—which they began teaching to kindergarten through college students at schools around the St. Louis area last year—doesn’t look much like the sex ed class you might’ve gotten in school. Rosen’s approach is inclusive, evidence-informed, and age-appropriate, and runs the gamut from puberty and sexual consent to personal hygiene and media literacy—depending on the age of the students—all through a gender-expansive and affirming lens. The curriculum is part of Rosen’s job as the Education and Care Support Specialist on the Transgender Care Team at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, a team of specialists dedicated to expansive trans-affirming healthcare.

“One of the primary tenets of the classes is that we focus on the idea of shame-free sex ed and meeting folks where they’re at,” Rosen says. “And in all of my classes, laughing is OK—we’re just not going to laugh at other people. We get to laugh, and build emotional safety.”

Rosen’s approach is revolutionary in that it exists; sex education in the United States is patchy, at best, and often employs fear-based methods, like abstinence-only. And while Rosen isn’t alone in what they do, they are part of just a handful of folks across the country who dedicate time to developing and implementing inclusive, affirming sex ed. “I would love to say that this [work] wasn’t revolutionary,” Rosen says. “I would love to say that I am one of thousands, but I am not one of thousands.”

Brittany McBride is the associate director for sex education for Advocates for Youth. She says that sex education in America varies between states and with schools, from one classroom to another. Out of the 24 states which require sex, 17 only require it to be LGBTQ inclusive, while nine only require discussion about consent. Missouri doesn’t mandate sex ed, but when it’s taught, it must stress abstinence, sex only within marriage, and does not have to include information on gender or sexual orientation. Rosen’s class—a statistical rarity in this country and in the state—ticks every box.

Abstinence-based sex ed—or sex ed that fails to include information on contraception and healthy sex—is consistently shown to be ineffective and increase health risks when compared to comprehensive sex ed. “When students don’t have access to complete sex education, life happens to them,” McBride says. “They’re at higher risk of unintended pregnancies, STIs, suicide ideation, and drugs and alcohol abuse. When folks aren’t provided access to complete education, they aren’t set up for success in the same kind of way.”

Rosen has also been hard at work creating a curriculum for trans students, specifically to help them learn more about themselves and their sexuality. This may be the first of its kind in America. They’re initially launching the course with adults, and at a recent demo class, they saw the effects the current sex ed environment has on those who don’t easily find themselves within it. “We had a trans adult there who was like, ‘This is the most comprehensive sex education I ever got,’” Rosen says. “And this is someone who knows this stuff.”

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