Overcoming Taboos - The Case for Comprehensive Sex Education
I have been watching recent events in the global West of the world as yet again, the myths surrounding the most basic of human urges is distorted based on non-scientific and mystical ideologies. We are talking about sex and sexuality. It is time for those of us who have a different understanding based on research to speak up. It is time that the voices of those with additional training begin to engage with the wider society so that a more balanced discussion has even the slightest chance of happening.
There are a lot of unhelpful myths that for reasons related to societal discomfort and the influence of religion, persist despite a wealth of empirical evidence of their falsity. It is my intention to examine a few of these as a series of posts so that people can focus on the elements that apply to their own lives.
The first concern is the current outrage currently expressed in Jamaican media about a supposedly controversial book My Body is Growing which is written for children aged 4-8 years of age. The book’s intent is clearly stated as “to show preschool and early elementary readers that we're really not all that different, regardless of whether we're boys or girls. Though we may all seem similar on the outside, we are each our own person on the inside. At this age, our bodies and our minds are changing—we're growing up!” This book became a topic of discussion on Television Jamaica’s Daytime Live show and sparked a spirited debate on their Facebook page.
From the 119 comments attached to the post as of writing this article, many have taken umbrage about teaching children about contraceptives, the fear that children as young as 4 are being exposed to something they are not ready for, that somehow “the Devil” is at work in this situation to actively corrupt the minds of children, and that this is somehow being forced upon us by the European Union so a petition must be signed to stop this. Others were more liberal in their approaches citing the fact that with tablets and smart phones, young children are often exposed to misinformation about sex and that it is necessary to guide their understanding to prevent further issues down the road. There is also the recognition by some that comprehensive sex education is necessary since children have started to enter puberty earlier than in previous generations and that it is not fair or smart to keep them uninformed about matters related to sexual health.
This article on Psychology Today’s website explains the mismatch between physical signs of sexual maturity, (puberty), and the psychological impact on young, uninformed children. It is not unusual to see the beginnings of disordered eating, confusion and fear around what is normal development as young girls in particular grapple with suddenly being sexualized without adequate preparation or encouragement to express their feelings.
However, these kinds of concerns begin long before the process of sexual maturation begins. Much of the alarm around exposing children to age-appropriate sexual health information is based on the fact that most parents have no idea what “age-appropriate” even means. There is an assumption that one can simply delay giving any information until it is absolutely necessary to do so and then, to only tell children sexual health information from a purely procreative lens. This does a massive disservice to them and sets them up for embarrassing and sometimes abusive encounters later on. When we teach children about sex in strictly procreative terms, we stop them from understanding the concept of pleasure which should underpin their sexual expression later. It also means that we divorce their capacity to understand definitions of sex beyond penile-vaginal penetration thereby setting them up for confusion and failure in adulthood.
One myth we must debunk is that children do not have any awareness of their genitals and that if they are caught masturbating, it is because “someone taught them” to do this. This is as strange as suggesting that because a child is breathing, someone taught them to do so. Some acts are simply instinctual and should not be pathologized. I have had so many clients, (all of them women), telling me with tears that they were caught masturbating as a young child or exploring their own and other children’s bodies and that they were punished, beaten or berated for doing so.
In order to address this issue, it is important that parents understand what normal development is and is not and, that they start to unpack their own messaging around sexuality and their levels of comfort or discomfort in talking about it. Children from zero to four years of age are curious about their bodies. They are also curious about bodies that differ from theirs. There is NOTHING sexual about this curiosity. To quote one of my mentors, “exploration of one’s own and curiosity about others’ bodies only becomes a problem when we make it a problem”. For a full list of what is considered normal behaviour by age, please see this article. Children masturbate for a variety of reasons and we as adults would be more productive in addressing it if we try to look at why the behaviour is occurring rather than seeking to make it stop. This link is very helpful for a deeper explanation of the reasons and how to more appropriately address them.
The concern that children should be protected from being sexualized early and potentially being molested is real. However, the methods we have used for decades to shield them may actually be contributing to the problem. It is essential that parents understand that even the concept of “good touch/bad touch” is very stigmatizing and sends a very unhealthy message about normal human development. It also means that when an uninformed child is actually in the presence of an adult with nefarious intent, the child is not comfortable enough to report it because the messaging in the home is that “this is an unacceptable conversation to have” and that they will get into trouble for saying anything. For an abuser, this mindset is like Christmas morning in that, it protects them from discovery. Even if there is no abuse labelling what actually feels good, (touching one’s genitals is supposed to be pleasurable), as wrong sends the message that something is wrong with experiencing sexual pleasure. When this becomes an issue in relationships as it so often does, it takes years of unlearning and work on the part of the client to dislodge that unhelpful and limiting messaging.
The fear that learning about methods of contraception will result in a child deciding to engage in sex early and end up pregnant is a falsehood. Time and time again, research has shown that children who receive comprehensive sex education are more likely to avoid teenage pregnancy (study here). There is also no empirical support for the theory that comprehensive sex education increases sexual activity, (study here). In fact, in the second article from the University of Washington, one of the researchers is quoted in the article as saying “It is not harmful to teach teens about birth control in addition to abstinence.” The same study explained that those given abstinence only education are just as likely as those given comprehensive sex education to engage in sex but that they are more likely to contract sexually transmitted infections or become pregnant. The research speaks for itself, there is no point at which it is too early to teach children about sex as long as it is age appropriate.
So what does that mean then? What does age-appropriate sex education mean? There are many responses to this question. When children start to ask where babies come from, it is important to simply explain it to them in simple terms and using the correct anatomical names so that they become comfortable with using these names themselves. In doing this, we avoid ascribing unnecessary shame to body parts. We certainly do not do this with elbows, knees or any other body part do we?
If they ask how come someone can have an accidental pregnancy when people have sex to have a baby, it is important to explain that most of the time, people have sex because it feels good. Many years ago, I had to have this exact discussion with my then seven-year-old stepchild. She wondered why adults have sex if we do not intend to have children. I saw it as a teachable moment and explained that in romantic relationships, sex is a means of enjoying time with the other person. I also explained that condoms are used to avoid having a child before both parties are ready and that if at any point she had follow up questions, she could always ask me. She was satisfied with that response and unsurprisingly, the world did not end because we had the conversation.
Last year, I was invited to talk with a colleague about how to talk to your child about sex. The link to that interview is here. I mentioned that either we can teach our children about sex or, porn can. It is the responsibility as the adults in the lives of children to adequately equip them to navigate an already complex world. It does not help if we engage with them from our own place of discomfort as they will internalize the message that the activity that brought us all into being is shameful or is not supposed to be pleasurable. We do them a great disservice by denying them education and, if we collectively decide to change our approach, the next generation will be far better off than we were.