Well, here we go again. Every few months or so, some public official or organization makes a common sense observation that sex education is largely useless unless we start it early, and thus expresses support for age appropriate sex education for kids as soon as they start school. Cue the outrage, as a variety of other public officials, media talking heads, and over-protective parents panic that those who back comprehensive sex education at all levels are looking to indoctrinate kindergartners with pornography.
This particular frenzy is taking place in Britain — apparently the U.S. is getting a break on this front, for a change — and even the likes of supposedly respectable Reuters is bearing headlines like “UK watchdog says teach sex to kids from age five.” Which suggests a potential lesson plan that reads, “Hey, kids! Today, we’re going to teach you how to give a blowjob! Can you say blowjob? Bloooooowwwwwww JOB!”
Reading the article, however, gives one a slightly more subdued understanding of the recommendation:
NICE said school governors should ensure education about sex and relationships and alcohol starts in primary school, which British children attend from the age of five.
“Topics should be introduced and covered in a way that is appropriate to the maturity of pupils and is based on an understanding of their needs and is sensitive to diverse cultural, faith and family perspectives,” it said.
For the youngest children, this would involve learning about the value of friendships and having respect for others.
“All children and young people are entitled to high-quality education about sex, relationships and alcohol to help them make responsible decisions and acquire the skills and confidence to delay sex until they are ready,” NICE said.
Oooooh, not teaching children to learn the value of friendships! Time to crank the rage up to ten!
But family groups branded the draft guidance, published today, ‘inappropriate and unnecessary’.
Norman Wells, of the Family Education Trust, said Nice had shunned marriage and family values groups and sidelined parents. ‘There is no evidence such education in primary school leads to lower teenage pregnancy rates, better sexual health or more stable marriages,’ he added.
Still appalled? Don’t worry, there are more folks who have your back:
But family campaigners have slammed the plans for children as young as five to have sex education lessons, branding them ‘unnecessary and harmful.’
They fear it could lead to teenage pregnancy being seen as acceptable.
“There is no evidence which shows that the more children are taught about sex, the less likely they are to become pregnant,” the Daily Express quoted author and social policy expert Patricia Morgan as saying.
Morgan added: “The more children are told, the more likely they are to experiment.”
To be entirely fair, UK residents seem to be handling this logical recommendation with far more maturity than their counterparts in the U.S. would. While some outrage undeniably exists, quotes from groups who find the idea of age appropriate education to be abhorrent are much fewer and farther between than they are whenever a U.S. politician makes any recommendation or drafts any legislation regarding sex education. And while most headlines are an exercise in fear mongering, about half of the media sources are actually U.S.-based. Though British press and citizens are far from being models of sexual progressiveness, they do seem to have their act together far better than the bulk of those in the United States.
The issue, though, is that this shouldn’t even be subject to question at all.
Indeed, if the description of the guidelines is accurate, I have no problem saying that they do not go nearly far enough. Teaching about interpersonal relationships and respect is certainly important, and I wouldn’t recommend removing it as a part of curriculum. But if that’s as far as education goes at the youngest levels, it’s still selling children short. Notably missing is the necessity for extended, repeated discussions on touch and consent — something that it is never to early to teach, as all forms of touch should require consent, and as those who wish to touch without consent often choose very young victims. Other basic education is also missing. Quite simply, all children should know the meaning of words like vulva, vagina, clitoris, penis, testicles, and foreskin.
In my view, this should not really be up for debate. In a world where we saw even very young children as human beings deserving of basic rights — and where we saw information about one’s body as a basic human right — there would be absolutely no room for controversy. And how can we really claim to understand children as people if we think it’s acceptable to withhold information about what to call parts of themselves? How can we really think of children as having selves without also thinking that their selves deserve to be named?
And yet, it seems that we can’t even get that far without debate being provoked. The above quote from Patricia Morgan explicitly shows a fear of children being provided with information about themselves and their peers. The idea that it doesn’t really matter what awful things you are afraid they may do with the information when you consider that it’s their right to be provided with it doesn’t seem to cross her mind. What matters is not human rights, or even emotionally healthy views of sexuality. What seems to matter is getting kids to do what we want them to do.
This exposes a big problem with the most popular models of sex education in the Western world, whether they be comprehensive sex education that aims to teach students about contraception and STD prevention, or the abstinence-only model that is so popular in the U.S. Both models at their base attempt to not teach young people how to be sexually healthy human beings who respect their own bodies and the bodies of their partners, who know how to draw and respect boundaries, who understand how to both give and receive pleasure, and who have the tools they need to assess risk and keep themselves and their partners as safe as they reasonably can. They attempt to prevent young people from having sex by emphasizing all of the negatives and failing to mention any of the benefits — and then, if we’re lucky, they do harm reduction. And while harm reduction can certainly be important, it shouldn’t be the be all and end all of teaching other people how to be sexually healthy. Not if what we mean by “sexually healthy” goes beyond negative STD and pregnancy tests.
Sex education, in my view, shouldn’t be about “preventing teen pregnancy.” It should be about teaching young people how to engage in emotionally and physically healthy, pleasurable, consensual sexual relationships if and when they choose to engage in such relationships at all, and informing them about how to keep themselves as healthy and safe as they can and how to control their reproductive capacities as they see fit as a part of that.
NICE has suggested nothing even remotely as radical as what I’ve presented here. All they’re doing is noting that if you wait until kids are already starting to become sexually active and have already been discussing sex with their friends for years and forming sexual attitudes, any sex education provided at that point is going to have minimal impact. And when that’s enough to earn righteous, huffy opposition and headlines that suggest a coming collapse of all moral and social codes, we’re dealing with a much bigger problem regarding sex than what kids are being taught. We’re facing the dilemma of what adults really think and believe.