Penis. Vagina. Masturbation. Moaning. Condom on a banana. Watching a sex scene during movie night with your parents. Are you uncomfortable yet?
Sex is often taught in one of two ways. In some school districts, the advice is simple: Don’t do it. In others, students are given information that would allow them to make the right decision when they are ready, but it is often given in the form of scare tactics. You can have sex, they say, but cases of STIs have been increasing at an alarming rate and so has teen pregnancy. But what happens when kids turn into teens, go through puberty and get curious? How will we foster a healthy, safe learning environment that provides children with the tools they need to make smart decisions when the time is right?
In America, there seems to be a notion that if we avoid the topic of sex, then the potential problems will just go away. However, the reality is that children are exposed to sexual advertising at an extremely young age. These advertisements as well as a pop culture built around sexualizing both genders create an avalanche of curiosities, causing youth to fall down a rabbit hole of misguided internet search queries.
According to a Huffington Post article, the average age of a child’s first exposure to pornography is around 11 years old. These distorted images feed unrealistic expectations into children’s minds and ultimately serve as a major, albeit misleading, source for youth to learn about sex. If a woman is portrayed as enjoying violent and unrealistic sex, how will a male begin to perceive women and his own role as a sexual partner? He will believe that he must behave like these men because women are shown to want this. Additionally, thanks to the internet, the scandalous pornography films that were once stowed away in the back of video room stores are now too easily accessible with a click of a button. Once children get curious and search the media, their first exposure is usually not a love story.
The prevalence of abstinence-only education functions as one of our worst enemies due to the overwhelming amounts of shame and fear that it attaches to healthy sexual behaviors. What happens when a boy gets his first erection in class? He is confused, scared and embarrassed. Why did you secretly watch the main characters kiss through your fingers and then feel ashamed afterwards? Our society has taught us to suppress all of our sexual urges in hopes of children remaining abstinent until what society deems an “appropriate age” to have safe sex.
In addition, studies show that increasing emphasis on abstinence education is actually positively correlated with teenage pregnancy and birth rates. Elizabeth Barrett is a mother, a Cal Poly professor of Family Psychology as well as a trained and practicing psychotherapist. “Abstinence-only education leave adolescents unprepared to deal with sexual behaviors they will engage in. They also have a higher chance to have unprotected sex,” Barrett said. “This lack of education does not provide adolescents with the tools for behaviors that they are already going to be participating in and they are going to be more risky in those behaviors because they feel embarrassed or ashamed.”
America does not have federally-mandated sexual education. Barrett emphasizes that although California has a comprehensive sexual education law, the schools that need it the most cannot afford it. Ironically, parents in low socioeconomic areas are fighting the comprehensive sexual education program because they think it is too intimate and personal. Parents incorrectly assume that their children will make the same mistakes they did and that greater exposure will lead to higher chances of risky behavior. “Sexual education of the parents is equally as important as the child,” Barrett said. “If a parent does not love their own body and engage in healthy sexual behaviors themselves, how will they teach these skills to their child?”
In comparison, the Netherlands has an extremely open approach toward sexual education. Rather than utilizing scare tactics, they emphasize how sexuality should not be shamed. “They talk earlier to children. With clear lessons that being sexually active is a normal part of development, a normal part of life, as long as you are provided with the correct tools to be safe,” Lynn Barclay, President and CEO of the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) said.
“Let’s Talk About Sex” is a documentary that discusses the differences between European and American Sexual Education. They ask European and American girls the same question: “If a guy has a condom in his wallet, what do you think of him?”
The European girls who were surveyed responded with: “Having one is better than not having one. Everyone should always have a condom! It shows you are being safe, responsible and prepared.”
In contrast, American girls stated: “That would change my perception of him. I would think he is a pervert…a presumptuous douchebag.”
Reverse the situation. What if a girl has a condom?
American male responses were along the lines of “Wow she must be really loose. She is trying to get around, looking for action.”
Jill Halbert a Sexual Educator located in Orange County provides a service for both parents and students to create open dialogue regarding topics like sex and sexuality, values and decision making, body image, relationships, pregnancy and STIs. “I want to take the stigma away from talking about sexuality,” Halbert said. “It is a huge part of who we are as people. To ignore it, we are doing a disservice that can lead to even larger issues like sexual assault and body shaming.”
She provides five two-hour sessions, the first being a mandatory Parent-Only Preview and then four subsequent sessions with both children and parents. Through playful diagrams and interview type activities, Jill opens the door for healthy conversations between parent and child for a topic that is usually completely avoided if it can be helped. If we can give our children more comprehensive information, they will be smarter and better able to take care of themselves, their partners and their community.
“Parent play a large role in this because even extremely liberal parents will say ‘I’m an open book, my kids can ask me anything,’ [but] kids do not know what to ask you,” Barrett said. “You need to present sex education in an age appropriate way and ask them: ‘What do you know about sex? What are you curious about?’”
On the educational side, Barrett believes sexual education should veer away from scaring children out of intimate behaviors. However, this does not mean creating a liberalist intensive, comprehensive sexual education where children are overwhelmed and their family’s values are degraded. “Children should just be taught to love their body and not be ashamed who they are. They need to know the facts to make well informed decisions and realize the consequences if they do not do it correctly,” she said.
By combining both an insightful and informative sexual education as well as breaking down the taboo door between parents and child, perhaps we can have a more open conversation about the most natural part of our lives. This will lead to a safer, healthier and better-informed future generation.