Tackling Age Appropriateness in Sex(uality) Education
Marty Klein (2006) describes the current debate surrounding sex(uality) education as “America’s War on Sex“. Issues of government intervention and religious beliefs run rampant. We constantly question whose responsibility it should be to engage young people in conversations about sex(uality) and identity. As with most debates, answers range from anyone and everyone to no one at all. The answer clearly lies somewhere in the middle, with educators, parents/guardians/family members, and community members all playing a role in providing (sex)uality education for young people. Aside from a small percentage of the population that seeks to completely block all sex-related conversation from the eyes and ears of young people (good luck with that), most folks do agree that these conversations should be taking place. However, the “what” and “when” get a bit more complicated. The age-appropriateness of sex(uality) education continues to be a central topic of discussion among all stake-holders in this discussion, which the exception of the young people themselves, who rarely have their voices heard on the matter.
Whether the conversation begins in the classroom, the living room, or the community room, it needs to begin. Moreover, it needs to begin early, and should be continually reinforced and revisited throughout a young person’s development. In a sense, sex(uality) education should be a process of educational scaffolding that begins in kindergarten and progresses through grade 12. The National Sexuality Education Standards offer excellent guidelines for accomplishing this task.
Much of the fear concerning sex(uality) education seems to focus on the misguided notion that talking about sex(uality) will cause young people to more quickly engage in sexual behavior. Apparently, the consistent evidence that clearly indicates this is not the case needs to be more widely disseminated. Furthermore, research consistently indicates that young people receiving more comprehensive sex(uality) education engage in healthier behaviors, and in fact are often older at first intercourse than their peers who do not receive this education. So, we know that receiving sex(uality) education doesn’t cause young people to engage in sexual activity any sooner, and it increases the likelihood that they use contraception when they do choose to become sexually active. We also know that young people are engaging in sexual activity, albeit at relatively low levels, in middle school, and many are sexually active by the time they reach high school. So, why do we think it makes sense to wait until middle school and high school to begin having these conversations? Allowing young people to make informed decisions, after receiving increasing amounts of medically accurate information, seems like a no-brainer.
From here, however, things seem to get more complicated. Language is a powerful tool in communicating values and beliefs, and people are continually questioning the specifics of “age-appropriate”, which has historically been a very vague term. As a middle-school teacher in Kansas recently found out, some words have more power than others to communicate certain ideas to people, depending on their already-established mindset. Often, sex(uality)-related vocabulary is branded as “graphic” or “offensive”, which leads educators, parents, and community members to avoid using the words. As a result, young people are not gaining the appropriate vocabulary at an early age to express their feelings, or discuss the changes taking place to their own bodies as they mature.
I often begin my sex(uality) lectures with college students by engaging them in some sexual calisthenics. It’s amazing to watch as a group of college students are unable to say words like “penis”, “vagina”, and “vulva” without giggling. This is learned discomfort. This is learned alienation from our own bodies. Young people should be able to correctly identify their body parts by the time they leave kindergarten. This language needs to be part of a growing vocabulary, along with the ABC picture books we use to help them develop their language skills. When we teach them to say “penis” instead of “wee-wee”, we aren’t just giving them a vocabulary lesson. We are also communicating the idea that our bodies are our own, that we should respect them (and those of others), and that there is nothing embarrassing about discussing and exploring our bodies.
Sexuality is a part of all of us, from the moment we are born until the moment we die. Delaying discussions about sex(uality) is like giving young people high-powered sports car before teaching them to drive. It just doesn’t make sense. Different medical, parenting, education, and community sources offer suggestions for age-appropriate sex(uality) content. None of these offer a complete picture of the diversity of young people and their needs, based on social and environmental factors. However, embracing the necessity of age-appropriate sex(uality) education will help to reinforce the beauty and responsibility that comes with being a sexual being. These are lessons that can’t wait. Young people aren’t waiting to engage in the behavior, so we can’t wait to talk about it either.
“With great power comes great responsibility.” – Voltaire