Sex Education For Kids Leads To Safer Sex. Here’s Why.

Sex education for kids is a tricky matter for most parents. Do open conversations encourage teens to engage in sexual behavior? Can sex education ruin their innocence? What should be shared, and what should be avoided? Yes, many questions surround ‘the talk’.

But while you ponder over a potential conversation with your kids, sex is already omnipresent in their lives, from movies to music clips, passing by advertising, and the modern Pandora’s box that is the Internet. In other words, if parents are reluctant to educate their children, peers and media will do just as well regardless of age or accuracy of information.

One thing is certain: avoiding ‘the talk’ won’t make the temptation of sex disappear (we all know that too well) and will simply reinforce the taboo that surrounds it.

The good news is that most teens affirm that their parents play a critical role in decision-making over sex, according to a US national survey. If that is not encouraging, I don’t know what is.

SEX EDUCATION: WHERE TO START?

Comprehensive sex education should take into consideration these four points:

  • What is said

  • How is it said

  • How often it is said

  • Last but not least, teens need to feel understood and supported by their parents

DIFFERENT STAGES OF UNDERSTANDING

Before even thinking about what to say, it’s essential to consider children’s levels of understanding according to their age. It will help to figure out what to say & how to say it.

Experts state that the best strategy is to speak about sex from an early age, progressively and repeatedly. In other words, a lifelong process!

  • From 2 to 4 years old: kids are mostly interested in babies and pregnancy, including their birth story. Around that age, they should know about the social rules surrounding being naked, and that their body is private. They start wondering where babies come from, how they grow, and end up in ‘mum’s tummy’. At that time, children begin to ask about the other sex’s private parts: where do pee and poo come from and exit, for instance.

  • From 5 to 8 years old: kids should know about why we have sex, its role within love relationships, and the existence of different sexual orientations and genders. Around that age, it’s normal to start exploring their bodies in private. They also should be prepared for the coming puberty and all the changes they will experience.

  • From 9 to 12 years old: at that age, children turn into pre-teens! It’s essential to extend their knowledge about STIs, safe sex, contraception, and pregnancy, as well as internet safety in case of sexual bullying. Pre-teens should be aware of the gap between real-life sex and sex represented in the media and popular culture.

  • From 13 to 18 years old: the first menstruation and wet dreams occur through their teenage years. Teenagers should have a solid knowledge of consent, contraception, pregnancy, STIs, the influence of drugs & alcohol, and last but not least, the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

SEX EDUCATION: DOS AND DON’TS

  • It’s not because you don’t talk about sex that it won’t happen. If you don’t educate your children, someone else will! Society is not comfortable talking about bodies and sexuality, especially female ones (we still live in a world where the word clitoris is a ‘bad word‘). But we can help break the taboos for the generations to come by emphasizing the need for communication.

  • Before talking, listen to what your kids/teens have to say, what they have to ask, and what they already know.

  • Don’t lie, be authentic and clarify myths about sexuality.

  • To illustrate your argument concretely, you can use examples from the media, popular, and teen culture.

  • Start to speak about sex early: around 8 or 9 years old is a good start, right before puberty. After that, conversations with peers at school could lead to acquiring inaccurate knowledge.

  • If questions come at an even earlier age, just answer.

  • Avoid too many interdictions, talking down about sex, discrediting romantic feelings teenagers experience.

  • It’s best if speaking with calm and comfort. Otherwise, you might give the impression that sexuality is an awkward and uncomfortable topic.

  • Empower your kids/teens by showing them that they’re the only ones who can make decisions about their sex life.

WHY DO WE NEED SEX EDUCATION FOR YOUNG PEOPLE?

PUBERTY, BETWEEN CHILDHOOD AND ADOLESCENCE 

What exactly happens in children’s bodies during the onset of puberty?

The body goes through many physical, emotional, and hormonal changes during the five distinctive stages of puberty.

For boys, puberty begins around 11 years old, as hair spreads on the body and testicles grow bigger. Around 13 years old, the penis becomes longer, and the first wet dreams occur.

For girls, puberty generally starts between the age of 9 and 11. Then, around 12 years old, noticeable changes occur, such as breast development, pubic hair growth, widening of the hips, and enlargement of the uterus. A few years later, they might experience their first menstruation, and by 15 years old, their genitals should be fully formed.

YOUTH & STIS

Among a world population of 7.2 billion, those aged 10-24 years represent non less than 1.8 billion. That is a quarter of the population. Due to their lack of knowledge and experience, the youth is the most vulnerable when it comes to STIs. In the US, for example, half of the new cases are acquired by people aged 15-24 years!

A 2016 Lancet report shows that unsafe sex remains the highest risk factor for death and disease for young women and the second-highest for young men. Thus, expanding youth awareness about safer sex could lead to a major shift in improving global health.

BENEFITS OF SEX EDUCATION

Why is comprehensive sex education more important than ever? Let’s get into details.

Several studies (1, 2, 3, 4) proved the benefits of having honest conversations with your kids in the long run. Indeed, communication would lead to safer sex, increasing use of contraception, delaying first sexual encounter (against all odds!), and avoiding teenage pregnancy. Sex education would also help decreasing homophobia and sexual abuse.

Last but not least, once educated teens reach adulthood, they are more likely to interact naturally about sex with their future partners. Far from ruining children’s innocence, a myriad of research has shown that, on the contrary, sex education leads to a more positive experience of sex and healthier relationships.

In the bigger picture, “Young people are the world’s greatest untapped resource”, says UN Secretary Ban-Ki-moon. Enhancing youth health could be a driving force to reach some of the Sustainable Development Goals, including good health and wellbeing, quality education, or gender equality.

Adolescence is a significant time in one’s life, not only in terms of brain development and formative growth, but also when identity and future possibilities in life take shape.

According to Doortje Braeken, senior adviser on youth at the International Planned Parenthood Federation, better health for young people would be highly cost-effective. Indeed, it’s obviously cheaper to invest in a sex education curriculum than having to pay for STI, HIV, or abortion treatments.

A little investment for long-term results? Surely. The example of Estonia, which invested in school sex education in 1996, shows it well. Between 1992 and 2009, the country drastically lowered abortion rates by 61% for young people between 15-19 years old and fertility rates, HIV, syphilis, and gonorrhea cases.

THE SEX EDUCATION PARADOX

LACK OF ADEQUATE SEX EDUCATION IN A HYPERSEXUALIZED SOCIETY

Sex education is subject to a fundamental paradox in our society. On the one hand, sex is more omnipresent than ever, influencing our sexuality and relationships from an early age. On the other hand, there isn’t enough comprehensive education and open communication with teens about sex.

In the meantime, misconceptions, taboos and ignorance remain prevalent still today, such as “real-life sex is like porn”, “contraception is the girl’s responsibility”, or “‘pulling out’ efficiently can prevent pregnancy”, and more. “66% of girls don’t know what menstruation is before they get their first period”, says Doortje Braeken.

A SOCIETY MORE GRAPHIC AND PORNOGRAPHIC THAN EVER

Can really the representation of sex in media and popular culture influence our behavior?

Childhood is a critical moment of life. As early as 6 months old, babies begin to recognize corporate logos. That’s the reason why advertising messages now target children, for them to develop and carry over “brand loyalty” into their adult lives.

When it comes to sexual content, being exposed too early also has consequences. This article from the Guardian shares concerns over children (as young as 10 years old!) increasingly displaying sexualized behavior, including sexual assaults, violence, and bullying via social media.

Teachers call for the need to educate kids about sexism and harassment, suspecting that unrestricted access to the Internet is responsible for this rising trend. That’s what confirms a 2020 study, stating that exposure to sexually explicit media during early adolescence is linked to risky sexual behavior during adulthood.

Perhaps parents tend to underestimate how much popular culture already teaches kids about sexuality and relationships. In fact, teens would witness a shocking amount of 15,000 references to sex each year, according to this article of the Time.

“Studies show that more than 75% of primetime TV programs contain sexual content, and the mention of sex on TV can occur up to eight to 10 times in a single hour. And that’s the soft stuff: a national sample study of 1,500 10 to 17-year-olds showed that about half of those that use the Internet had been exposed to online porn in the last year.” – Time

The problem is not to learn about sex, but rather the biased representation of sex in the media and popular culture.

  • A certain representation of sex in mainstream porn. More entertainment than real-life sex, mainstream porn is centered on male fantasies and pleasure, where women are objectified and already labeled as “sluts” in porn titles. It conveys a questionable vision of virility, violence towards women, and “ideal bodies” (penis size and hairless bodies, for instance!) to those looking for education.

  • Sexualization and objectification of the female body. As the campaign #WomenNotObjects reminds us well, women are highly objectified in advertising. It shows little girls that the way they look is more important than how they feel, and impossible beauty standards constantly pressure women to be younger and sexier. But do we educate them about the fact that real people don’t look like this? Several studies (1, 2, 3) showed that mass media exposure is associated with low self-esteem, eating disorders, and depression in teenagers and young women.

  • Normalization of sexual content on social media. Posting sexy pictures to attract more followers? That’s the rising trend inherent to influencer culture on Instagram. The issue is that this content is readily available to anyone using the platform, including 72% of US teens, according to this 2018 Pew Research Center survey.

It’s worth noting, though, that schools and parents are still the most trusted sources of information about sexual health and relationships. A 2016 Australian research report, which surveyed secondary students, reveals that school programs rank first, friends come second, mothers third, right before TV & movies, social media, and the Internet.

Countless positive outcomes can stem from sex education, including improving global health, our perception of sexuality, gender equality, and more respect between one another. The best part is that we all have a role to play in making that a reality for all. With a little bit of preparation, honest conversations can go a long way ♥︎

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