It’s Valentine’s Day! Love is in the air! But what comes before love? That’s right, sex education!
Last year, as we had a meeting about how we should design our school’s sex education policy, one of my colleagues was completely against the idea of explaining sex (in purely anatomical, literal terms) to children around 8-9 years old. She said they were too young and it would ruin their innocence. She said she didn’t have the puberty talk until she was 10, and the sex talk until she was 14.
It seemed like a very Puritanical argument. They shouldn’t find out about sex, because it will somehow ruin them? She said over and over that they would lose their innocence. How very Garden of Eden. Just one bite from the tree of knowledge and you’re suddenly a knowledgeable, competent adult? As though if you know something exists, you lose all childlike wonder and fascination and presumption of good will, and now only jaded sighs and cynicism are possible.
I think there must be vastly different connotations of the word “innocence” in this disagreement. There seems to be the virgin/whore dichotomy, as though you are either pure of heart with good intentions and a clear conscience and no sexual desires, or you know what sex is and suddenly all you do is sin, or at least want to have sex all the time. I think it’s unfair to think of sex as an either/or.
She said that teaching them what sex was (again, purely biologically, with the addendum that it is for adults) would sexualize them. The problem is, knowing about sex is not the same thing as being sexualized.
Being sexualized is often done involuntarily. We sexualize girls when we tell them they can’t wear certain clothes because their bodies are too distracting to boys. That tells them their role as an object of sexual desire is more important than their comfort or fashion sense. We sexualize women by breaking their bodies into parts and consuming those parts as detachable from the whole, consuming them as vehicles to sell food, jewelry, cars, clothes. Understanding or not understanding sex does not stop this process. A 10-year-old girl not understanding sex won’t stop a creepy man from making disgusting, sexually-explicit comments to her as he walks by her on the street. Even if she doesn’t know what it means, she can still tell that it’s gross and knows the queasy feeling in her stomach.
Knowing what sex is and having a vague understand of the components involved, as well as who should be using it (a.k.a. adults, not children) is important and not at all going to “ruin” a child’s innocence. If children don’t understand what sex is, they will misinterpret things they see on TV or in movies or on YouTube. I know, because my class last year and seen some stuff in videos that they were talking about non-stop, although it was very clear they had only a partial understanding of sex.
If you don’t teach children what sex entails and why it is not something for children, they will not understand what is happening if an older family member or friend assaults them and why it is inappropriate to do so. There are so many facets of our lives connected to sex, and young children see and hear way more than we think they do. They need to have a full understanding so they don’t get bad information from each other, or from someone older trying to manipulate them. And most importantly, just because you learned about something at a certain age does not mean it was the best way.
Happy Valentine’s Day!