Sex Education: Let’s Talk About It

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“Sex education, including its spiritual aspects,

Should be part of broad health and moral education

from kindergarten through grade twelfth,

Ideally carried out harmoniously by parents and teachers.”

- Benjamin Spock

Introduction

Sex education is the instruction of issues relating to human sexuality, including emotional relations and responsibilities, human sexual anatomy, sexual activity, sexual reproduction, age of consent, reproductive health, reproductive rights, safe sex, birth control and sexual abstinence. It helps people gain the information, skills and motivation to make healthy decisions about sex and sexuality. In many countries, it is an official subject, including the United States and the United Kingdom. Apart from this, there are some informal ways to gain this types of education: parents telling a child how babies are born; friend telling another friend how to use condoms; and biology teachers telling students about sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS. Based on a different form of sources, structure, aim and method, it can be classified into three major categories:

  • Abstinence-only sex education: in this type, parents and teachers teach children to wait until they are either married or adults to engage in sexual relationships. Students learn about the mechanism as a biological process, but nothing more. Students do not know about birth control or disease prevention; instead, the psychological and physical risks of sex are emphasized, and teachers may discuss ways for students to say no to sex and avoid the temptation to have sex. In such condition, STDs are more common as children do not even know how to use condoms.
  • Health and safety-oriented sex education: This type of sex education teaches students the mechanics of sex as well as basics of birth control and sexual consent. Students know about different forms of birth control, but children are not prepared for the emotional implications of having sex.
  • Comprehensive sex education: This type teaches both aspects- the safety and emotional concerns regarding sex. Students learn the basics of sexual negotiation and learning how to please a partner; and about diverse sexual orientations. Among all, it reports the lowest rates of teen pregnancy and STDs.

Now let us discuss terminologies used in the definition:

  1. Human Sexuality: Human sexuality is the way people experience and express themselves sexually. This involves biological, erotic, physical, emotional, social, or spiritual feelings and behaviours.
  2. Human Sexual Anatomy: Anatomy is the identification and description of the structures of living things; hence sexual anatomy is the structure of sex organs. The male reproductive system has one function- to produce and deposit sperm. The female reproductive system has two functions- to produce egg cells and to protect and nourish the fetus until birth.
  3. Sexual Activity: Human sexual activity is the manner in which humans experience and express their sexuality. People engage in a variety of sexual acts, ranging from activities done alone (e.g., masturbation) to acts with another person (e.g., sexual intercourse, non-penetrative sex, oral sex, etc.) in varying patterns of frequency, for a wide variety of reasons.
  4. Sexual Reproduction: Sexual reproduction is a type of reproduction in higher-order animals including humans that involves a complex life cycle in which sperm and an egg cell combine with one another to produce an organism.
  5. Age of Consent: The age of consent is the age at which a person is considered to be legally competent to consent to sexual acts. Consequently, an adult who engages in sexual activity with a person younger than the age of consent is unable to legally claim that the sexual activity was consensual, and such sexual activity may be considered child sexual abuse or statutory rape.
  6. Reproductive Health: Reproductive health addresses the reproductive processes, functions and system at all stages of life. UN agencies claim sexual and reproductive health includes physical, as well as psychological well-being vis-a-vis sexuality.
  7. Reproductive Rights: Reproductive rights are legal rights and freedoms relating to reproduction and reproductive health that vary amongst countries around the world.
  8. Safe Sex: Safe sex is a sexual activity using methods or devices (such as condoms) to reduce the risk of transmitting or acquiring sexually transmitted infections (STIs), especially HIV.
  9. Birth Control: Birth control, also known as contraception and fertility control, is a method or device used to prevent pregnancy
  10. Sexual Abstinence: Sexual abstinence is the practice of refraining from some or all aspects of sexual activity for medical, psychological, legal, social, financial, philosophical, moral, or religious reasons.

Traditional Sex Education

The traditional methods of sex education are very diverse. The common points include the fact that there was no formal structure and it was guided by the cultural values of the country. Different cultures have a different level of tolerance and openness to sexual behaviours. Earlier in many cultures, sexual activity was believed to be a sacred union just for the purpose of reproduction. They denied the derivation of pleasure from the activity, even though ‘pleasure sex’ was not absent. As a result, sex education was limited to the reproduction process that was revealed at the time of marriage. In the same cultures, the age of marriage was also less. All of this resulted in multiple births, improper reproductive health, mainly of females and negative impact on family and social life.

Over the years, there has been a change in beliefs about various sexual activities and related issues at different levels among different cultures. Some of them still believe in their sacred nature and reproductive aim. Some of them are evolved to different concepts like Sexual pleasure, sexual orientation, the concept of premarital sex, consensual sex and many more.

The path of this evolution is also different across countries. In the United States, initially, sexuality education focused less on values and more on “sexual hygiene” and the prevention of venereal diseases. But, with a rise in cases of AIDs in the 1980s, sexuality education saw the beginning of the conservative Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage movement. Later in the 2000s, the country focused on comprehensive sexuality education, an approach that emphasizes the benefits of abstinence while also teaching about contraception and disease-prevention methods, including the condom and contraceptive use. At last, in the 2010s, the approach of sex-positive sexuality education was followed. It is an approach to sexuality education that eliminates ineffective fear appeals and racist and sexist misconceptions about sex and ultimately teaches that sexuality and sex can and should be a positive force in one’s life.

What is the right age to start?

Perhaps, the most complex question in this domain is the correct age to start talking about sex and to teach your children. Traditionalist believed that the correct age is the time of marriage as they did not believe in premarital sex. But now, in the modern era, these conceptions are not believed rather consulted to educators, sexologists and psychologists.

Well, there is no specific answer, by the educators. This is because of the line between sex education and normal education. Does telling a toddler about ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ a part of it? According to Bertrand Russell, “Regard sex knowledge as any other knowledge”. Once, we understand this, then we will learn that things are needed to be told from kindergarten. According to Samuel Munana, the executive secretary of Rwanda National Union of the Deaf (RNUD), “Parents should begin sexual education as early as possible”. He believes that two to three years is ideal, given that it’s the age children embrace new environments, whether it is the school or elsewhere. He adds that educating learners at a tender age is necessary given the things they could be exposed to on television and other platforms. At the end of the article, there is a guide of how a structured education at different age group should be like.

Importance

We have discussed many aspects of Sexuality Education. But, the question arises, why is it important? Well, the answer is simple enough, the same reason any other education is. We don’t question why geography, mathematics or literature is important. Sex is a part of life, very much as any other thing, and it will happen with or without sex education. So, educating society will lead to better and healthy behaviour.

Yet, we can classify the aim and need for Sex Education in some domain.

Physical

  1. Sex education helps to deal with early and unintended pregnancies and to lead a properly organized life in all the stages of life.
  2. As children have the knowledge, they lead to healthier and protected sexual activity leading to less abortion.
  3. It also helps to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) which pose serious risks to health and well-being.
  4. It will help children to understand the body structures of men and women and acquire knowledge about birth.
  5. It can help students understand that attraction to the opposite sex is a biological phenomenon.
  6. It also helps to deal with certain sexual disorders like erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation in males and vaginismus, female sexual dysfunction in females.

Social

  1. It provides the importance of consent and rights. They have reliable information on protecting themselves and their partners.
  2. It will teach children to establish and accept the role and responsibility of their own gender by acquiring the knowledge of sex.
  3. The understanding of differences and similarities between two genders in terms of body and mind will set up a foundation for future development in their acquaintance with friends and lovers and their interpersonal relationship.
  4. It helps an individual to cultivate a sense of responsibility towards others as well as oneself.
  5. It empowers young people to make informed decisions about relationships and sexuality and navigate a world to avoid gender-based violence and gender inequality.
  6. It provides the opportunity to present sexuality with a positive approach, emphasizing values such as respect, inclusion, non-discrimination, equality, empathy, responsibility and reciprocity.
  7. It will help adolescents to prevent harmful sexual behaviours and sexual exploitation.

Psychological

  1. Sex education is a kind of holistic education. It teaches an individual about self-acceptance and the attitude and skills of interpersonal relationship.
  2. The children are confused and conflicted about relationships and sex, as they make the transition from childhood to adulthood. The changes leads to great psychological distress.
  3. Not only physical health, it helps in understanding gender and sexuality and its relation to mental health and well-being.
  4. Without sex education, a child is unable to speak about his/her problems leading to stress, depression and suicidal thoughts.
  5. Symptoms of unhealthy sexual behaviours can be identified like hypersexuality and sexual addictions.
  6. Many other psychological disorders are easily identified.

Cultural

  1. It will help to break the myths about sexual behaviour.
  2. It can prevent gender and sex-related injuries and violence.
  3. Pornography has become increasingly accessible, which depicts extreme sexual activities and can be considered a significant cultural threat globally. Sex education will help to determine a healthy sexual practice.

India: Current Scenario

In India, sex is regarded as a vicious taboo, even for urban kids. Parents and teachers prefer to avoid such conversations with children and adolescents. But, in the internet age, the sexual content is easily available to the children. They are exposed to sexual contents by various mediums including social media, internet and movies, which should have been told by parents and teachers. Hence, it is important, that instead of dodging the reality, we should embrace a healthy sexual life.

Sex education in India is very limited. Sex education is given by the government and some nonprofit organizations about STIs and other related issues, but it does not have any reach. As of now, there is no formal system of sex education in India. In 2007, the sex education curriculum was promoted by India's Ministry of Human Resource Development, but some controversy developed. Many opponents of sex education believed that it would corrupt youth and be anathema to traditional Indian values. Additionally, they believed it would lead to promiscuity and irresponsible behaviour. Finally, they argued that sex education was a western construct that was being forced upon India. These arguments cause states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Goa to ban sex education programming. Later, a program was initiated at the schools of Gujarat where girls and boys asked questions through a letterbox anonymously and were answered by trained counsellors. Though this programme was a small success, it was unable to reach to masses.

Though changes and acceptance have started, yet the pace is too slow. The condition of sex education is very poor in the country. It has lead to various negative consequences like poor health, high rate of sexual abuse and obviously, population.

Education at different Developmental Stage

Toddlers (13 months to 24-month-old)

  • They should be able to name the body parts including genitals (this might help them to refer to sexual abuse more freely in future).
  • They should have knowledge about private body parts.
  • They should have a general understanding that a person’s gender identity and gender differences.
  • If they like being naked all the time, start introducing boundaries about nudity; there is a time and a place to be naked.

Preschoolers (2 to 4 years old)

  • Children should have basic reproduction process and biology.
  • The detailed knowledge about body parts- girls usually have a vulva, boys usually have a penis but we all have nipples/bottoms/noses/hands, etc.
  • They should know about the ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ phenomenon. They should know that no one can touch their body parts.
  • The basic knowledge of consent and choice in a more general way.
  • Children should know about privacy around body issues. They should know about social and private behaviours. Like is okay to touch their penis or vulva but that there are a time and a place for it.
  • Children should learn about gender roles and biological sex do not define our roles.
  • They should know to respect other people’s privacy and that they are entitled to privacy too – like when they go to the toilet, are in the bath or getting dressed.

School-age children (5 to 8 years old)

  • They must be aware of different type of sexual orientation. They should understand that our romantic partner preference is not defined by our genitals. There are differences in the expression.
  • The detailed knowledge of body parts- penis, testicles, scrotum, anus, vulva, labia, vagina, clitoris, uterus and ovaries.
  • They should know about social conventions of privacy, nudity and respect for others in relationships.
  • They should know how to use the computer and mobile devices safely. Children toward this age span should start learning about privacy, nudity and respect for others in the digital context.
  • They should be taught the basics about puberty toward the end of this age span, as a number of children will experience some pubertal development before age 10. Their bodies will change as they get older. Boys’ and girls’ education differ in this regard.
  • They should have a better understanding of the reproduction process and sexual intercourse. They should know that adults have sex and that it’s a natural, normal and healthy part of life.

Pre-teens (9 to 12 years old)

  • After learning about intercourse, children should know about safer sex and contraception and should have basic information about pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • They should know about the correct age, time and place for sexual intercourse process. They should know that all sexual behaviour is private i.e. masturbation, sexual intercourse.
  • They must have knowledge about romantic and social relationships and their relation with sexual behaviours.
  • Pre-teens should have increased knowledge of internet safety, including pornography, bullying and sexting with their social, emotional and moral impacts.
  • A more comprehensive understanding of different sexual behaviours and their effects like masturbation, menstruation and nocturnal emissions.
  • The proper sexual behaviour expected from them in social settings and a greater understanding of privacy, consent and will.
  • The influence and depiction of sexual content on media.
  • They should know about themselves that once puberty starts, they will slowly start to feel more sexual and develop romantic feelings towards their peers. Same-sex fantasy and attraction is not unusual and does not necessarily indicate sexual orientation.

Teenagers (13 to 18 years old)

  • They should have knowledge about healthy sexual behaviour and sexual life.
  • Teens should receive more detailed information about pregnancy and STIs and about different contraception options and how to use them to practice safer sex.
  • They should have a complete understanding of the difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy relationship. This includes learning about pressures and dating violence and understanding what consent means in sexual relationships.
  • It is time they explore their sexuality. They should have detailed knowledge about sexual orientation, instincts and other related concepts.

Conclusion

Sex education is an integral part of the education system of any country. It is as important as any other education. The proper sex education system has proven results for better sexual health. The Netherlands, for example, follows a comprehensive sex education curriculum, teaching children as young as four years old, about sex and sexuality. The conversations are not explicitly about sexual acts but revolve around love, respect, and intimacy, building each year to introduce children to different aspects of sexual health. As a result, the Netherlands has one of the lowest rates of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. It is also one of the most gender-equal countries. So, it is essential to employ a well-integrated sexual education program for children of different age groups.

“Young People are going to learn about sex

and our question has to be where do we want them to learn?

From the media? From their friends?

Or do we want them to learn from an educated, responsible adult?”

Tamara Kreinin