What is sexuality education

Separating facts from hearsay

A 13 year old girl is at a school picnic, far away from home.

While playing with her friends, they point to blood stains on the back of her skirt.

She rushes into the bathroom to investigate and finds blood seeping out of her vagina.

To her young mind, blood always meant bad news, so she panics…

"Do I have disease or injury in there?!"

"Is this God punishing me because I touched myself there the other day?"

" How can I stop the bleeding?"

She has no idea how to get help. She doesn’t even know how to refer to that body part. The closest her mother has come to describing her vagina is as pee-pee and she knew from her family’s body language that the pee-pee was taboo, not to be talked about openly. She is bleeding, helpless and very scared.

If she had received sexuality education she would have been prepared for her menarche (the beginning of menstruation) before it happens. She would have known about menstrual physiology (what's going on inside her body) and menstrual hygiene (how to handle the blood flow). She would have also known that masturbation does not affect the menstrual cycle. And of course, she would have known that the vagina was just another part of her anatomy like her nose, knees and fingers. In effect, she would have entered puberty not with shock and distress, but proud that she was blossoming into a woman.

A 14 year old boy wakes up terrified to find a whitish fluid that is obviously not urine, coming out of his penis. Assuming it is a sign of illness or injury, and too embarrassed to discuss such a dirty thing with his parents, his confusion takes a toll on his studies.

With sexuality education he would have known that what he has experienced was nocturnal emission, and the whitish fluid was semen. He would have learnt that this could happen to all adolescent boys, that it was impossible to consciously control and that it was a normal part of growing up.

A little girl of 8 is routinely fondled by her doting uncle, a regular visitor to her house. What nobody except the girl notices is that the fondling includes her genitals. She hates it but thinks grownups have the right to do anything; besides he is obviously well-liked by her parents so he can’t be a bad man. She thinks she has no other option except to bear it or run away to her friend’s house every time he visits.

Sexuality education would have empowered the little girl with 2 simple words: Private parts. Every child should be shown what his/her private parts are and told that nobody has the right to see or touch the private parts of another person, no matter how grownup or how close a family friend; and that if anybody does so, it should be immediately reported to the parent or caretaker.

Why children need sexuality education?

  • To prepare for the physical, psychological and social changes they undergo at adolescence
  • To obtain scientifically correct knowledge of the reproductive system
  • To be able to relate with both genders respectfully, appropriately and comfortably
  • To be able to enjoy sexual feelings without guilt, shame or fear
  • To prevent becoming victims of sexual abuse or rape
  • To learn to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases
  • To learn to express one’s sexuality without inhibitions while respecting the rights of others
  • To avoid consulting exploitative quacks in matters of sexual medicine
  • To understand and abide by laws related to sexual issues

Boy & Girl concerns

At the sexuality education seminars we conduct, we get a stream of questions from boys and girls. Boys worry about the swelling of their breasts, about their penis being too small for them to ever get married, their testicles being abnormal because one is lower than the other, that they are masturbating too much or not at all, about not having control over wet dreams and more. Just telling them that these things are normal and that there is nothing wrong with them is enough to see a calm descend over the boys; the relief that comes over their faces is palpable.

Young girls have their own fears. They worry about their breasts being smaller or bigger than their friends’, or being unusually shaped, or one breast being larger than the other, or finding lumps on their breasts, or that their menstrual flow is excessive or too little or none at all, about tampons breaking her hymen and taking away her virginity, about masturbation causing menstrual problems. Again, they are relieved just knowing that it’s normal for these physical changes to happen, and at different rates in different girls.

Parent reaction to sexual behaviour in childhood

When some parents see their child touching his or her genitals they will shout, scold or over-react in a way they would never do if the child touched any other body part. This tells the child that this kind of pleasure is wrong and that the child is ‘bad’ for enjoying this kind of pleasure. This could affect the child’s ability of giving and receiving erotic pleasure as a grown-up, and in the long-term it could hamper the ability to establish a loving and close relationship.

Instead, parents can calmly and simply tell the child (when they reach the age of 2-3 years) that self-touching is appropriate only in private. And children usually understand, just as they understand that bathing is a private activity.

Talking to children about sex : What, when, how?

From the moment a child is born, you are telling your child about sexuality, whether you realize it or not. The way you wash your child’s genitals, the way you react to an infant’s genital exploration, the words you use to describe sexual anatomy, your explanation of bodily functions such as menstruation or nocturnal emissions, and your facial expressions and body language when you do all this, communicates to the child how you feel and therefore, how you expect the child to feel about sexuality.

A lot of parents are concerned that telling their children too much too soon will damage their minds them in some way or will push them to become sexually active.

In fact, studies on the effect of sex education in schools show that it actually encourages children to delay their sexual activity and to practice safe sex when they become active. Moreover they learn to protect themselves against sexual abuse, molestation, incest and sexually transmitted diseases.

Parents should themselves open discussions about topics related to reproduction and sexuality in ways appropriate to the child’s age, interest and capacity to understand. For example, a relative’s pregnancy is a good opportunity to talk about how babies grow inside a mother. Use accurate language, say that a baby grows inside the mother’s uterus, and describe it correctly as a special bag just for growing babies. Do not say the baby grows in the tummy or the stomach.

Don’t be scared that you’re “putting ideas into their heads”. They probably are wondering about it already. With sanitary napkins and condoms being advertised on prime-time TV, do you think children don’t wonder about these things? Tell boys about girls (for example, talk about menstruation) and tell girls about boys (for example, talk about erections).

Nature abhors a vacuum. The questions in a child’s mind will get answered, if not by you, then by the building watchman or the maid or their friends or their own inventive imaginations. And these answers picked up “on the street” are almost always inaccurate and much more frightening than the truth. The question is not whether your children should get the information - they will! - but whether the information they will get is accurate.

Answer any questions your child asks. Realize that a child asks sexual questions out of curiosity; the same curiosity that provokes man to discover the secrets of the universe.

Never avoid answering, it will make the child turn to some other source. At the same time, you don’t have to give excessive information, say as much as is necessary. Kids don’t really "hear" what they are not ready to understand.

Also do not give false answers to avoid your embarrassment of stating the facts. They will lose trust in you when they eventually discover the right answer.

You don’t have to be an expert to talk about sexuality related topics with your children. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say “I’m not sure about that, I’ll find out and let you know”. Then refer a book, ask a friend or ask your family physician. There are also books written for parents to read to children. Children respect adults who admit they don’t have all the answers. It makes the child more comfortable that he or she does not have to know everything.

If there is just one thing you will remember from this article, let it be this : We cannot choose whether our children should or should not get information about sexuality. They WILL get the information whether we like it or not. We can only choose whether the information they get is accurate.