It is hard to talk about sex. It is hard for educators to speak about it with children, and it is hard for medical professionals to talk about it with patients. It is hard, often, for people engaging in sexual activity to talk about it with their partners. It is hard for religious institutions to know how to talk about it. While this is an issue in most settings, the one I’d like to focus on is the lack of sexual education for children.
SHAME THROUGH SILENCE
Listen, while I would love to live in a world where children are safe from all harm, that world has yet to be created [through social discourse, the destruction of the patriarchy, and political activism, but that’s another conversation for another day]. Evidence has shown that teaching children correct anatomical terms for their body parts is a key part of abuse prevention. Teaching children these parts of the body and covering topics like privacy, consent, and respect, encourages children to understand what kind of touch is appropriate and what is not. It also teaches children that they are allowed to talk about their body–to tell people “no” and to tell a trusted person if someone touches their body. A child who knows the anatomical name for their body parts, and understands good and bad touch, can accurately report this to a parent or teacher.
Elizabeth Smart has openly discussed how her “sex ed” prior to her kidnapping greatly impacted her self-worth when she was raped. She had been told that sex was like gum: once a piece of gum was chewed up, it was disgusting and no one would want that piece of gum again. Even after she had been rescued, she sat through another such lesson: you’re a beautiful fence, and every time you hammer a nail into the fence, it looks less and less beautiful. Many such analogies exist: a piece of tape loses its stickiness (its worth) over time. A pizza can only have so many slices removed (its wholeness). A cup filled with many different juices cannot be enjoyed (its value). A white cloth can only have so many stains and dyes on it before it will get thrown away (its purity). No one, especially children, should be told that their self-worth should be tied to their sexual activity. For victims of abuse, it tells them that they are worthless or dirty even though they were not responsible for what happened. For people who willingly engage in sexual acts, it tells them that they cannot talk about these experiences and that they are somehow impure or not whole because of this.
INCREASED MEDICAL ISSUES THROUGH MISINFORMATION
Somehow, in this progressive country we live in, the concept that teens will not have sex if we tell them not to still exists. I’m going to let you in on a secret: PEOPLE ARE STILL HAVING SEX. In fact, in states that teach abstinence-only sexual education, teen pregnancy rates are the highest. Abstinence-only sexual education has been promoted in schools throughout the country with the understanding that if we simply teach teenagers the immorality and fear of sex, they will abstain from it until marriage. There is a federal Title V that funds states choosing to teach abstinence-only to their students,which operates on eight principles regarding sex ed, including that “sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” Numerous states have opted not to buy into this policy and instead create their own guidelines for teaching sexual education. Ohio, for instance, did not take the Title V funding, but the state policy reports that sexual education does not have to include scientifically or medically sound information, including providing information on the use of contraceptives.
A study released this week by the Center for Disease Control reports that the rate of STDs is at an all-time high. Those highest at risk? Young people and men who have sex with men. Young people are developing sexually transmitted infections and diseases because they are not being taught about proper protection during sexual acts–and are often unaware that STDs can be contracted through oral sex, or (in the cases of herpes and HPV) can be contracted through any skin-to-skin contact.
INADEQUATE AND INACCURATE EDUCATION
There is a myth that if we teach children about sex, they are more likely to engage in it, and therefore more likely to contract an STD. In fact, the opposite is true: schools that taught comprehensive sexual education saw that this did not increase the likelihood that teens would have sex and saw a significant reduction in sexually risky behaviors. So by not talking about sex, people are literally feeding the monster that they are afraid of.
Comprehensive sexual education informs teens that the safest way to prevent STDs or teen pregnancy is by abstaining from sex. But then, because it also understands that wishing does not make it so, it also provides medically accurate information on how to have safe sex in order to reduce the chances of pregnancy or STDs.
What’s the solution to rising STD rates, high rates of teenage pregnancy, and shame and guilt surrounding talking about sex? LITERALLY BY TALKING ABOUT SEX! We need to properly train teachers and educators on how to teach this information to their students, as 80% of teachers report that they don’t feel properly trained in this area. We need to start teaching comprehensive sexual education that includes information on proper anatomical terms, consent, medically accurate information regarding STDs, and safe sex methods such as contraceptive use.
Talking about sex can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s start the conversation at a younger age, and teach children that they can freely ask questions and know body parts and be curious and that those things are normal and natural and good. And let’s allow that conversation to bleed into our religious institutions, doctor’s offices, and bedrooms.