This month has seen big wins for the youth of America.
Tulsa, Oklahoma has announced their school district will no longer be relying on abstinence-only sex education to scare teens into staying virginal.
Chicago, Illinois has announced that its school districts will be teaching comprehensive, scientific, and medically accurate sex education starting in kindergarten.
While some people have decried this move, statistics bear it out as a smart policy. When schools and parents fail to talk to the children in their care, those children are left to learn about sex from outside media, the Internet, and equally uninformed friends. I think we can all agree that Cosmo is not who we want teaching our youth about healthy sex.
We already know that children who know the anatomically correct terms for their genitals are less likely to be targeted by pedophiles. Further, being comfortable with their bodies helps them create and enforce their sexual boundaries throughout life, as well as making them less likely to cross other people’s lines of consent.
But doesn’t teaching them about SEX encourage them to WANT SEX?
Actually, no. It doesn’t.
Teenagers are in a strange position in our country. Their bodies tell them they are adults. They have hormones raging through their bloodstreams, getting them excited about the idea of sex. They live in a highly sexualized culture where half-naked people—generally women—try to sell them everything from beer to cars to a vegetarian lifestyle. They are told they must be sexy, they are told they must want sex—and then they are told they cannot have sex.
It’s confusing to say the least.
Sexual health education can help them sort through the mixed messages they are getting from billboards, television, the Internet, parents, friends and teachers.
Sexual education tells teens facts. Like that the majority of teens who have sex wish they had waited longer. Like that the majority of teens ARE NOT having sex, despite what they might hear from their friends, and over-worried parents.
It also tells teens how to have the safest sex possible, IF they choose to have sex.
There is another often overlooked component to quality comprehensive sexual education. It addresses what the sex lady refers to as the “No condom for your heart” problem.
See, in all the freak-outs about sex education being “forced on kindergartners”, we overlook the reality that there is more to sex than physical penetration of one person by another.
Sex is not JUST intercourse.
Comprehensive sexual health educators teach about all five areas of sexuality.
Sensuality: Awareness, acceptance of and comfort with one’s own body; physiological and psychological enjoyment of one’s own body and the bodies of others.
What this means to a kindergartener—feeling comfortable in your own body, feeling safe talking about all the parts of it if something hurts, itches, feels wrong —or if something feels good.
An example: my daughter was hit in the vulva by a bully at recess. When she told the teacher, using the correct word for the body part as she had been taught at home, the teacher blushed and laughed at her—nervous laughter, but laughter all the same. This told my daughter that SHE had done something wrong to make the teacher embarrassed, rather than validating that something wrong had been done to HER. It made her MUCH more reluctant to go to a teacher the next time that bully picked on her.
Intimacy: The ability and need to experience emotional closeness to another human being and have it returned.
What this means to a kindergartener – being able to give and receive hugs (physical intimacy) with consenting people – teachers, other children, parents, etc. Feeling safe sharing emotions including difficult and large emotions like extreme passion, love, anger, disgust and even hate. Being able to share secrets and keep secrets. Learning to know when it is okay to keep a secret, and when a secret needs to be shared for the health, safety or wellbeing of someone.
Sexual Identity: The development of a sense of who one is sexually, including a sense of maleness, femaleness, attraction, likes and dislikes.
What this means to a kindergartener—Feeling safe expressing themselves as they are inside. Feeling as though they can explore different roles via play, whether it is careers or gender roles. Learning that it is okay to play with all genders and to like all genders.
Sexualization: The use of sexuality to influence, control or manipulate others.
What this means to kindergarteners—As much as I wish kindergarteners didn’t have to know about sexualization, many of them do. They watch Disney TV, they are part of this world where sex is used to sell and girls are often encouraged even at young ages to use their looks and femininity to get things that they want from boys. Learning to see this for what it is, empowering teachers to call it out when they see it can help break the cycle.
Sexual health and reproduction: Attitudes and behaviors related to sexual intercourse, having children, care and maintenance of the sex and reproductive organs and potential health consequences of sexual behavior.
What this means to a kindergarteners—Clearly most kindergarteners are not having sex, and if they are, it is not consensual and those children need to be helped. However, many kindergarteners are curious about those couple of body parts that set apart the sexes. They are curious about how babies are made. They are curious about the birds and the bees. There are a number of wonderful books that talk to those points in friendly, age-appropriate ways.
Educating children about their bodies, about respect, consent, communication and—as they get older—about birth control methods, barrier methods that help reduce the risk of STIs, what STIs are, how to access care and when, LOWERS the rates of teen pregnancy, STIs and even lowers the rates of sexual activity among teens.
If we think about it, it makes sense.
If the expectation is that teens need to be able to talk about sex with their partner before they start fooling around, it puts the brakes on things. They have to build up trust, intimacy, sensuality before they feel comfortable talking about sex, let alone doing it.
So called “Condom based sex ed” doesn’t tell teens to have sex. Instead it gives them ways to check in with their own values, goals and desires and decide is sex is right FOR THEM right now.
It gives them tools to say yes – safely, as well as the tools to say no – unequivocally.
I applaud these districts for bringing science – and common sense – back to the classroom.
After all, if it’s good enough for Disney…