Should we or shouldn’t we talk to our children about sex? In the first part of this article, Umul Binin and Shahrezad Samiuddin look at the issues and viewpoints surrounding the controversial topic of sex education in a conservative environment.
If you talk to children about sex, they might be tempted to experiment. When we approached parents to explore views for this article, we found that most of the opposition to sex education is based on the assumption that knowledge of sex encourages it and is a harmful thing.
Many of the replies that we received were unyielding in their disapproval of sex education:
“You want us to allow our children to have sex openly?”
“Now we should start teaching our children about sex?”
“Our religion does not allow us to do anything of this sort”
“They (children) already see so much on TV, now should we also feed these things in their mind?”
There is a strong taboo surrounding sex in a conservative society such as ours. Ask the average parents and they are likely to be tongue-tied when asked to broach the subject with their children. But sweeping the subject under the carpet does not prevent sex outside of marriage, sexual harassment, incest or any other sex-related issues. On the contrary, unless we equip our children with knowledge and methods on avoiding unwanted sex and sexual situations, we cannot hope to prevent issues surrounding them. By imparting reliable information to children, we not only prevent problems related to premarital sex, we also equip them for life after marriage.
Given the strong emotions and taboos surrounding sex and sex education, it is no surprise that parents responded so strongly to it. However amongst the parents who felt that sex education was necessary, there was definitely a divide over who should take on the task of educating their children about sex.
‘It is a parent’s duty to teach their children about sex. A teacher may not know how a student would take in and react to the information,’ said Saima, a parent who made it a point not to send her daughter to school on the day of a seminar on the advent of adolescence and the changes that brings. Sarah, a mother of three said, “I would be too embarrassed to sit my child down and talk to him. I would rather that the school take over and teach them. At least the information they get would be technically correct.’ And then back to those who were against it, such as Aisha who didn’t think there was a debate at all, ‘I think there is no need for sex education, everyone learns these things anyway, so why get into formally teaching it?’
So where does one start in a sea of such vastly differing opinions?
On one end of the spectrum we have those who believe that by talking about sex we encourage it, while at the other we have those who feel that if you don’t deal with it in the classroom or at home, children will get most of their information from books, magazines, pornographic websites and various other sources. And that would lead to misconceptions that would eventually do more harm than good.
Whichever side of the sex education fence you sit on, there is no doubt that the average child today is more exposed to sexual imagery in the media than ever before. This is the generation that has grown up with access to the Internet, with exposure to scandals and innumerable images of semi-clad dancers making suggestive moves on TV; so the children in your class have probably seen a lot more than we had at their age. And unless their parents are watching every website and TV channel their children visit or monitoring every conversation they hear or overhear at all hours of every day, the children probably know more from other sources, than any parent is comfortable with. And these children most likely have a lot of questions buzzing around their heads.
Many of these questions arise from the barrage of confusing messages coming their way. On the one hand they are exposed to suggestive images which are usually glamorised, while on the other hand there are the parents, who frown at all of that and change the TV channel, while a thick air of silence and embarrassment hangs around the whole incident.
Aspects of a Sex Education Programme
In such an environment, it seems that some form of developmentally and culturally appropriate sex education becomes almost necessary, especially when a child is nearing adolescence. In fact a good sex education course would not be one that merely states the facts. Apart from being informative, such a course would also focus on building a child’s understanding and self-esteem. It would enable and empower children to turn away from peer pressure and recognise and prevent incidences of sexual harassment or incest.
Such a programme would focus on teaching self-control and responsible behaviour. Teens would learn to recognise their own feelings and impulses and not allow these to influence their behaviour. They would learn about relationships and feelings of attraction and how to deal with them. They would also learn that their actions could have serious consequences and could change their lives completely. They would be helped to understand the risks and consequences of sex outside of marriage and the social, moral and ethical issues that come with it.
For younger children, say between the ages of 3-9 years, learning about the differences between the genders and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ touch would be developmentally and culturally appropriate and would certainly prevent incidences of child abuse. At ages 10-12 years, children ought to be helped to understand the physical and emotional changes the body undergoes at puberty.
Finally, a course on Media Literacy is indispensible, as it would empower children to evaluate the messages reaching them through the media. This is essential because the media is constantly influencing and communicating values to us. A good sex education programme would include media literacy and teach children to become more discerning consumers of the media, ones who don’t automatically adopt a lifestyle being portrayed without thinking.
With parents having marginal control over what their children are exposed to, a media environment where sex is often dealt with casually and with all manner of misinformation floating around, the question is no longer whether we should bell the cat, but who should do it and how.
Sex Education in Schools: A Psychologist’s Point of View
A crucial aspect of the heated debate around sex education is whether the parents or the school should ‘talk to the child’. Sumaira Osmani makes a strong case for schools to take on the task.
We are all sexual beings, whether we care to admit it or not. It is crucial that schools impart sex education, as most parents, especially in our culture are unsure about how to approach this delicate topic with their children and may end up confusing their child more, rather than educating them.
Sex education is used to explain the concepts of human sexual anatomy, sexual intercourse, reproductive health, birth control options and safe sex. Many people think it is inappropriate to have sex education in schools. However, if the school starts a course in sex education it can help children understand the impact of sex on their lives. It can dispel misconceptions about sex and make children more aware and responsible. Sex education in schools can help children and teenagers understand the differences between the genders and keep the desire to explore things for themselves in check. In any case, in conservative cultures, controversies can be dealt with to a large extent by giving parents the opt-out option, in case they decide the whole exercise is inappropriate for their child.
Sex education should be introduced by the time children are about to enter their teenage years so that they are able to process the information more maturely. Instead of avoiding the subject of sex as a taboo and teaching them that having sex at a young age is bad, we might as well help our children by educating them, instead of scaring them! However, sex education classes for children younger than preteens might cause more harm than good, since they might not be able to make full use of the information that is being imparted to them. A good sex education course would be beneficial in helping children make the right choices, deal with the changes occurring in their bodies and to be comfortable with their sexual development.
It is also important to decide who will be educating the children. Sex education needs to have an effective, sensitively developed curriculum so that the teacher can teach age-appropriate information to the students in a ‘matter of fact’ manner, taking the guilt out of the word ‘sex’. There might be some religious reservations about sex education in schools, but these can be handled by incorporating religious values in the curriculum to make it more manageable for the children, as well as their parents.
Though I believe that a proper sex education course should start around the preteen years, the ground work should be laid much earlier by talking to younger children about their bodies, about gender differences, about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ touch and making them feel comfortable about their body parts and about opening up channels of communication with their parents or their teachers at school. When children grow up knowing it’s acceptable to discuss sex and the feelings they have, then they’re much more likely to come to their parents or a responsible adult for support when they need it.
Umul Binin is a graduate of the TRC-Institute of ECE (2010 – 11). She is currently working as an Enrichment Teacher and teaching Nursery to K2 at NTUC My First Skool, Singapore.
Shahrezad Samiuddin has three children aged 13, 9 and 5 and is part of the TRC Team.
Sumaira Osmani holds an M.Phil in Psychology and is a full-time faculty member and student advisor at SZABIST Dubai. She teaches Psychology, Sociology, Personal Management and Culture & Society courses to graduate and undergraduate students and has been teaching in the UAE for 10 years.