The Problem With Sex Ed — It’s Not Biology, It’s Sociology.
The way we teach our kids about sexuality determines how they will experience life. It’s time to question the lessons we are leaving them with.
The culture of childhood has changed. It is changing. When you, the average person, looks back a few years, a decade, just one year, you will inherently understand this fact without necessarily being able to name how it has changed.
Books have been written all about this great and multifaceted “how” that has fallen over our societies and nations. Reasons like the internet, globalization, the Information Age, the media, politics, 9/11, social media, crime, parents’ work schedules, and hundreds upon hundreds of others have been given, analyzed, and exhausted.
And it’s true, all of these things have played their role in the way children interact with and experience childhood. However, it is perhaps time we ask whether or not we’re focused on the wrong angle.
When it comes to our world’s youth, to our children’s lives, I would venture to say that most of us aren’t compelled by the large-scale, societal-level “reasons” for the problems they are facing. The questions we have — as parents, as aunts, as cousins, as teachers — are simple: how do I help them? How do I give them the best chances in life?
How do I protect them from harm?
Nowhere have these questions been more urgent, or more controversial in their answers, than in the realm of childhood sexual education. And like anything else that intersects so deeply with our values, cultures, beliefs, and roles in life, this type of education is fraught with the potential for ideological conflict and utter confusion for many (if not most) adults.
But childhood is changing, and we are responsible for making sure that our kids get through the experience without losing themselves in the process. Part of that process is learning about the strange and mysterious world of sexuality.
A Few Blunt Truths And Ships That Have Already Sailed.
On average, a child will have displayed sexual behaviors by the age of thirteen. Before that, they will generally have developed a healthy dose of curiosity about topics relating to sex and sexuality, and the way each child reacts to this curiosity varies. Younger children tend to be curious about their own bodies and how they might differ from the bodies of others. Older children will likely have questions about birth, relationships, and how they function physically. This is natural, and it has long been studied as a normal, expected facet of the human experience.
What isn’t normal, or at least what has never been normal before the current Information Age, is the age when children are first exposed to sex. In one Australian study, it was found that approximately 44% of children between the age of 9–16 had been exposed to pornography. In America, young males report that the average age they were sexualized by pornography was between 8–11 years old. The same study shows that at least 60% of young females have been exposed to porn in their adolescence.
We cannot undo the prevalence of smartphones or handheld devices, nor can we reel back the explosion of pornography that currently exists online. As most children are exposed to pornography via a phone or tablet, the issue becomes clear — it is unlikely that a parent can stop their child from viewing sexually explicit content by the time they leave middle school (ages 11–13). This is a very uncomfortable fact for most people to hear, but it is a fact, and it is one backed up by plenty of data.
The problem of children being exposed to explicit content — including the sexually explicit — has been explored at length in a variety of documentaries, books, studies, and papers. All of the research has seemed to agree on a few main points, which are:
- At some point before or during adolescence, children will have been exposed to explicit content.
- Many children receive their first exposure to human sexuality through this explicit content.
- Teens are likely to view pornography as a tool for education, and seek it out actively to answer questions and attempt to learn about sex.
- Pornography and sexually explicit imagery has a measurable impact on the way that people (including children) think about, react to, and make assumptions regarding sex and sexuality.
Abuse against children, especially sexual abuse such as sex trafficking and exploitation, has seen a statistical rise for several years now. Child-against-child abuse is a part of this trend, with children exposed to explicit content being far more likely to perpetuate sexual abuse against a peer.
The point of sharing all of this alarming data isn’t to scare you or cause you to lose hope in the world. As adults, it is our responsibility to not only attempt to protect our society’s children, but to do so armed with all of the facts and information we can access.
Knowing that these trends are happening allows us to make better choices when it comes to educating and defending our kids from sexual abuse, trauma, exploitation, or even simple confusion about what’s right vs. what is wrong regarding their sexual behaviors.
The Problem With The Biology-First Approach To Sex Education.
When it comes down to it, most of us don’t approach sex as a biological question — when we’re dating or seeking a partner, I would venture to say that most of us aren’t picturing diagrams depicting ovaries and genatalia. That’s because people aren’t mere collections of parts, and when we are interacting with someone we are interacting with a person.
And people, as we all know, can be pretty complicated.
Why, then, do we teach kids about sexuality from a ninety-percent “collection of body parts” paradigm? Explaining the finer points of arousal won’t prepare them to navigate issues like consent, gendered stereotypes, or questions about how sexuality impacts their day-to-day experiences.
Knowing about the vas deferens won’t help a boy to know the difference between interest and discomfort when approaching a woman, and learning how the uterine lining sheds isn’t going to give our daughters the tools they need to defend themselves from predation and sexual peer pressure. While a foundational knowledge of sexual biology is important, it’s not the most important thing our children will learn about their sexuality.
As a social species, human interactions are especially complex in the sexual realm. The way we think about and approach sex isn’t really an exercise in biology, contrary to how we usually imagine it, but rather an exercise in sociology. And if we want to truly educate and prepare our youth for the sexual challenges they will face, this is where we need to start.
When we make the first and last lessons in our sex ed classrooms biologically-focused ones, we are essentially teaching our kids about the tools they have without informing them about how to use those tools. Your body does not automatically understand how to be safe, respectful, and empathetic about sex, because these lessons are primarily social ones.
Another issue about biology-first sex ed approaches is that they generally ignore the mind-body connection. My own sex education classes gave the odd impression that my body was somehow a separate and vaguely unpredictable beast from my mental faculties, and I was left with a distinct wariness toward my physical functions. When I became sexually active in my teens, I relied on porn to understand how bodies worked when attached to two separate people engaging in sex acts — and pornography was a woefully inaccurate teacher.
Our emphasis on the “purely physical” is an exercise built on a false foundation in the first place. When it comes to human interaction, especially sexual interaction, there is no “purely physical” realm. We ought to question the worldview we’re promoting when we use biology as the start and end point of our children’s first encounters with sexuality.
The Sociological Approach Is The Human-First Approach.
When we begin our youths’ sex education with the radical notion that sexuality is largely a psychological phenomenon, you prepare them for real situations that, as stated before, are a statistical reality.
Let’s look at some of the situations an adolescent is likely to encounter and view them through the different educational lenses. To start, let’s say that Sally likes Tommy, and she wants to know how to get his attention and express her feelings to him.
Biologically, she might have been taught about arousal, the ways our bodies react when we’re attracted to someone, and the way our hormones work when we hit puberty. Is this going to help her make good or useful choices when approaching the situation she is now in? Maybe she’ll try to get his attention by touching or sending risque pictures to him, because she’s read online that men and boys like this.
Sally might use her physical sexuality to get Tommy’s attention, and he’s likely to react physically, too, without considering the ways his thoughts and views are interacting with that physicality. He might base all of his reactions on his body’s behavior toward Sally rather than his thoughts and feelings toward her as a human being.
We’ve seen the usually-disastrous results of these kinds of interactions in scandalous headlines all over the world. When I was in the seventh grade, my own middle school was the center of a media storm when explicit pictures of eleven-to-twelve year old girls were sent to boys and then passed around via mobile phones. My example is one of many that more and more young adults can remember and relate to.
Now let’s imagine that the sex education that Sally and Tommy received took a person-first, sociological approach to sexuality. Yes, the two students would learn about their bodies, but those lessons would be connected to concepts like autonomy, consent, and personal boundaries. Sally would learn that her body belongs to her and isn’t a “tool” to be used and consumed, but rather something that is an inherent part of who she is.
Tommy would be given an understanding about the harmful ways that certain kinds of media perpetuate stereotypes and assumptions about males and females, and he might question the way that those messages reach him. He would approach Sally’s interest in him from a place of understanding, rather than through the confusing and quickly-changing lens of his biology vs. hers. Armed with empathy and knowledge, these two students are far more likely to make decisions that are healthy or at the very least not harmful.
There is no guarantee that these children won’t make poor choices, but they will at least be given a strong foundation from which to base their decisions. Another area in which the sociology-first approach is useful is within the interpersonal realm — the interactions a child has with their own self. This is often a neglected area of conversation in today’s classrooms, and the assumptions made about kids’ ability to think deeply about their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences are usually unfair and inaccurate.
Children, like all human beings, are perfectly capable of introspection. If the rapidly rising childhood suicide rate isn’t tragic proof of this fact, I don’t know what is. Sexuality is an area especially fraught with feelings of confusion, shame, and uncertainty in today’s world, and the ways that kids speak to and about themselves is perhaps even more important than the way they outwardly interact with others.
Let’s pretend that Jeremiah is a young man who is having some serious doubts about his interest in girls at school. His biology-first education gave him some cursory information about gay men’s sexuality, but this was in passing, and little was explained beyond the vague mechanics of anal sex and the heightened risk of AIDS that comes with it. The rest of his education focused on heterosexual assumptions and reproductive processes that did little to inform him about his own blossoming desires and feelings.
Now he is confused, and knowing that other kids who have expressed doubts or confusion about their sexuality have been quickly labeled and shoved into ready-made roles, he is afraid to say anything about his feelings. He is terrified that doing so will ruin his male-to-male friendships, and additionally he isn’t certain that he is actually “gay” the way that people usually mean when they use that word. He becomes quiet and withdrawn as he grapples with his identity.
Maybe he goes online to forums and websites where he can express his feelings anonymously. On one of these sites he is approached by an older man who provides a listening ear and what sounds like wisdom about Jeremiah’s body, feelings, and desires. The man sends him explicit pictures and tells him to explain how he feels when looking at them — then he asks Jeremiah to send pictures of his own to this adult male. Perhaps the adult invites our young student to meet him somewhere so they can talk face-to-face.
You can imagine the horrible situations that might result from this predatory interaction. Without the proper tools to examine, understand, and appreciate his own sexuality as a very unique and personal expression of his deeper self, Jeremiah is susceptible to intense feelings of shame and confusion. Such uncertainty is a hallmark of children who become the targets of sexual predators, as they tend to be isolated and susceptible to grooming behaviors.
If Jeremiah was taught from the start that what he is feeling is normal and well-documented, he would be less likely to feel ashamed or lost. His peers would have the tools and understanding necessary for an empathetic and nuanced view of sexuality, and so they might be less likely to box Jeremiah or others like him into preconceived identities. Even if his home culture is hostile and Jeremiah can’t express his feelings there, he will know that what he is feeling isn’t negative or bad, and that he should be compassionate and accepting of his sexuality even if he doesn’t know how to explain or label it.
When we teach kids about sexuality as both an interactive and exploratory experience, we give them an increased ability to spot danger and respect their own boundaries before they allow anyone else to violate them. Those who haven’t seen strong boundaries modeled for them at home or in the media are empowered to think deeply about their needs and wants, and have more of a chance when it comes to avoiding abuse, exploitation, and sexual/interpersonal trauma.
The Body Of Truth — Eliminating The Discomfort That Leads To Pain In Our Children’s Lives.
Whether you are conservative or liberal, religious or secular, conversations about sexuality are always challenging. This is because our human sexuality is complex, nuanced, and shifting, and navigating it isn’t something we can do for our kids.
We cannot draw up a map of the sexual landscape and hand it to our children. They have to become their own cartographers, and all we can do is give them the knowledge, tools, and lessons necessary for making good decisions as they embark on this journey. They will encounter others on this adventure, and not all of those others will have our kids’ best interests in mind. Sometimes they will meet enemies who look like friends, and at other times they might find themselves quite alone on the path they are taking.
Our discomfort around sexuality is a phenomenon that has been written about ad nauseum throughout the ages. We know that there are many reasons for it, and yet the anxiety persists. Much of the time it results in parents and guardians avoiding the topic altogether when it comes to teaching their children about life. This discomfort is undeniably present in the way that most schools approach sexual education, if they approach it at all. We are seeing the painful results of this avoidance in today’s generations of youth, and the implications for our global future are both concerning and far-reaching.
There is no way for a child to avoid learning about sex. There is no way for them to avoid feeling curious about it, either, and we can’t magically put up a stoplight to prevent the natural experience of sexuality that will, at some point, become a part of who they are. We are alive, and that means that we are, on some level, sexual beings. We are also human beings, a species both blessed and cursed with the effortless abilities to empathize, judge, discern, introspect, and question.
What we need to ask ourselves is this: do we really want to leave our children’s human experiences up to random chance and the whims of people who might want to hurt or mislead them? Or are we willing to interrogate our own discomfort, our own assumptions, and our own judgments in order to provide our kids with the lessons they need to grow into healthy, respectful, and prepared adults?
The answer will unfold however we allow it to. Let’s make sure it’s an answer we can live with.