I think that one of the main issues in sex education is timing. I have always wondered when the appropriate time is to teach children about sex and sexuality. Timing is important because it is part of the proactive approach to sex education. It may seem like common sense that children and adolescents receive comprehensive sex education. However, societal taboos on the discussions of sex are big hindrances; and consequently, parents are reluctant to be sex educators. If children are being taught about sex, it is incomplete if what they learn is limited to the process of conception. As Frankham (2006) called it, there is heteronormativity in only teaching children about penis and vaginal sex for procreation.
Whether parents are willing to talk to their children about sex or not, children will receive certain messages regarding sexuality from their parents (Geasler et al., 1995). When I was growing up, my parents never talked about sex. It was a subject that was treated as bad and forbidden for children. Even though they never told me anything about sex, I received the message that it was not to be talked about (at least not with them). I think that the issue of parents being the sex educators is only secondary to children receiving sex education at all. According to Geasler et al., it is uncommon to have parents who talk to their children about sex. Of course, there are numerous issues when it comes to parents being sex educators, such as their level of knowledge, their willingness to be open to the child, etc.
I personally believe that any form of education begins at home. Instruction from the parents is the start of a child’s education. I am not referring to home schooling the child, but I am talking about the parents motivating the child to learn and creating an environment where knowledge is valued and where the child’s curiosity is encouraged. I think that the same attitudes can be applied to sex education.
Schools often times fail to provide the sex education that children need. It has been shown from research that abstinence teachings are not effective (Sharpe, 2003). In fact, more unwanted teen pregnancies and STI transmissions occur when abstinence is the only source of sex education. I know personally that abstinence teachings are a dead end because they create guilt/shame in wanting to know more and reinforce the notion that sex is a forbidden subject. I think that it is a flawed assumption to think that children or adolescents will be encouraged to engage (and indulge) in sex just by telling them about it. I think that comprehensive and honest discussions with youth on sex and related issues will help them make informed and responsible decisions.
I would not be surprised to know that it is the parents who actually become uncomfortable when talking about sex with their children (Geasler et al., 1995). Parents generally like to believe that their children are pure beings (apart from some fundamental Christians who believe that everyone is basically evil/sinful) and should not be tainted by sexual messages (Frankham, 2006). I think the problem here is that there is the belief that knowing about sex will take away a child’s innocence, as sex is considered dirty. The real concern is when to teach children about sex. There needs to be a balance in the timing so that it is not too early for them to comprehend it yet not too late that they have already learned about it in the wrong contexts (such as from peers or the media, which I think can easily mislead the child with incorrect or inappropriate information).
In Frankham’s (2006) study on how parents conveyed sex knowledge to their children, the parents said that they answered their children’s questions honestly and openly as they came up. The author had a criticism to this approach and said that it was too reactive and not proactive. This may be one perspective, but I believe, like with most issues, it depends on the context when considering how to approach the topic of sex. For example, in the case of a very young child, let us say a four-year-old, I think it is only appropriate for the child’s level of understanding to be only reactive and not proactive about sex education.
I personally know what is it like to know about the process of conception at an age when I was not ready for it. I heard a nutshell version of the conception process from my grandmother. My mind was blown away, and I just did not comprehend how that was possible at all: the penis and the vagina and some eggs. That approach may have been directive, but I do not think that it was done responsibly. I did not know that babies were born through the vaginal canal until I was thirteen. I felt embarrassed at the time that I did not know, yet, looking back, I had never any formal sex education up to that point and not until I was fifteen.
From a personal perspective, it is extremely foolish for the parents and the school curriculum to keep children out of the “sex loop.” In addition, I think that sex education should encompass sexuality issues other than just sex-for-reproduction. Children should also learn about different types of genders, sex and gender roles (my opinion is to teach them to challenge traditional gender hegemonies), responsible sexual practices, and sex for pleasure (including self-pleasure). Of course, the timing of those topics is contextual as well.
My main concern is when the right age is to start the basic level of sex education. There may not be a right answer. I think it depends on the child’s level of maturity and the overall environment. This may be an issue that is up to the parents’ discretion. In the ideal scenario, the parents are the first sex educators in the child’s life; and schools must provide comprehensive sex education as well.
for a more detailed look –> Let’s Talk About Sex: Discussions with Adolescents on Their Sex Education
Frankham, J. (2006). Sexual antimonies and parent/child sex education: Learning from foreclosure. Sexualities, 9(2), 236-254.
Geasler, M. J., Dannison, L. L., & Edlunk, C. J. (1995). Sexuality education of young children: Parental concerns. Family Relations, 44(2), 184-188.
Sharpe, T. (2003, April). Adolescent sexuality. The Family Journal, 11(2), 210-215.