First published on The Conversation on 26 October 2012.
When should sex education begin for children?
According to some parent groups who advised the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), not until grades 5 and 6. Under this pressure, ACARA pushed back sex education, revising their original guidelines that introduced it at years 3 and 4.
But just as we’ve decided to push back sexual education to later years, the media has been full of discussion about the sexualisation of children, the effects of marketing on children’s body image and concerns about kids’ exposure to pornography.
Yet what the public and media have misunderstood here is the capacity for sex education to help combat the negative messages children are learning about sex and their bodies.
We have confused children learning about sex in an appropriate educational context with the sexualisation of children.
Look to the evidence
There is complete agreement in the literature that healthy sexual development is dependent on two-way communication between adults and children, and this needs to begin early.
Research from the fields of child abuse and sexual assault tell us that we should begin to teach children the proper names of their sexual body parts, like “vagina”, “penis” and “anus”, right from the start (in the toddler years) and certainly after school has begun.
This gives children a common language to speak about and understand concepts like acceptable and unacceptable touching.
Later on in the middle school years, children’s perceptions of sex and their bodies change. If looking at my son’s bookshelf is anything to go by, we can reliably call these the “Bum Joke years”.
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada describe this stage as a time of curiosity, including delight in rude jokes and an interest in, and the capacity to understand, how babies are conceived.
Children are already interested, so now is not the time to shut down the conversation. To do so teaches children something else: that this is a topic fit only for school playground humour.
When does puberty begin?
Children need to understand the practical details of managing puberty before it begins to happen in their own bodies, as well as their peers'. And there is increasing evidence that puberty is happening earlier and earlier.
A US study of 4,000 children, published online last week found that boys are reaching puberty 2 years earlier than previously believed. On average “white” boys started puberty at 10, and “black” children at age 9. Other studies have suggested that girls are also beginning puberty earlier.
If we want to introduce children to some of the stages of puberty before it begins, then certainly, year 6 is too late. By the time children reach years 5 and 6, even if covered partly in the previous years, they need to be taught the practical side of the physical, emotional and social changes they’re seeing.
With the advantage of an existing language and capacity to discuss sexual matters these children are more able to critique the media messages and images that they come across.
In recent years, many primary school teachers I work with have, in response to children’s concerns, changed their programs to deal with body image, students’ viewing of pornography online, and exclusion of children who do not fit “prescribed” boy or girl interests.
It seems self-evident but children grow in to teenagers. The fourth National Survey of Students Sexual Health, which surveyed almost 3,000 students in years 10 and 12, found that one quarter of Australian adolescents have sexual intercourse by year 10, and 50% by year 12.
80% have had some kind of sexual interaction such as deep kissing and sexual touching by year 10.
More teenagers are having sex with more partners, and the amount of unwanted encounters is also on the rise. More than a third of high school students have experienced unwanted sex, particularly young women.
Other studies have shown that Australian young people find it hard to communicate sexual boundaries. Because some programs spend their time trying to stop young people from being sexual, rather than helping them towards a healthy sexuality, young people miss the opportunity to consider “how far do I want to go?”
The other important criticism offered by young people is that sex education is often limited to biology and disease without giving them the chance to reflect on their values and priorities. Perhaps, again, we fear that this kind of conversation will give young people license to have sex. Instead we find they are less likely to experience unplanned pregnancies, STIs and sexual coercion.
School-based education programs that focus on helping young people develop values and skills around relationships and sexual decision-making make a difference.
The evidence shows clearly that sexual learning starts before Grades 5 and 6. Before puberty, knowledge is vital to happily managing our sexual lives.
Our job as educators and parents and policy makers, is not to seal children from their sexual development, nor is it to stop the conversation. We have a part to play in setting guidelines and expectations around this aspect of children’s lives, as we do any other.
Jenny Walsh is the Coordinator of Sexuality Education Programs with the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University.