Within the next month I will be delivering talks based on my book ‘Let’s talk about the birds and the bees’ at Camp Bestival – who host child-friendly festivals in both Dorset (the weekend of 31st July) and Shropshire (the weekend of 20thAugust).
After years of working in ‘sex ed’ or RSE (Relationships and Sex Education – to give it its proper name), I can appreciate telling young children the nuts and bolts of sex, body parts and reproduction at a festival seems possibly a little risqué. And maybe it is because despite a clear ‘blurb’ advertising what I am going to do, there will probably still be someone who has the somewhat irrational gut reaction that this stuff somehow damages children, the reaction I had to navigate so often when employed county-wide to promote RSE in primary schools: the unquestioned and simply repeated reaction they probably received from the adults in their lives when they were a child. It’s amazing how strong this reaction can be in some people.
Our prudishness as a nation when it comes to sex usually means we tend not to talk about it, use euphemisms, cough uncomfortably or become giggly. Sensible conversations that give clear, accurate and unbiased information are something few children encounter. I always ask: what impression do these approaches leave children with? It leaves them with the idea that sex and body parts are something people don’t talk about – well certainly not comfortably, they are slapstick, they’re rude or in extreme cases: disgusting. It’s like an outdated idea of morality has oppressed this topic to the point of leaving children and often, teenagers, confused. They are also left with the idea that there are no adults that you can easily turn to for advice about body matters and sex. I’d argue that with something as potentially life changing as sex, I would want to encourage children and young people to seek advice and feel comfortable to chat about it. The taboo about sex has the opposite effect.
In any investigation I conducted, children always told me they wanted their parents and carers to tell them about puberty and sex. There are parents who do have these discussions – often ones who have carefully considered their parenting approach to these topics, but there are also many parents who want to leave it to school – especially single parents/cares with children of a different gender. But the school RSE cannot be relied upon. My experience of schools is that their RSE programmes vary considerably in both quality and quantity. To illustrate this, I find it shocking that some girls in the UK still start their periods without knowing what is happening which is – as you can imagine – scary. I also – for example – know one secondary school that thinks one afternoon in Year 9 on sexually transmitted infections suffices as their RSE programme.
So in the absence of parents and carers prepared to talk about sex, and schools’ programmes being a bit hit and miss, where do children and young people get their information from? Well a variety of places. There’s always the other kid in the playground who picked up some information from somewhere. This child’s version is likely to be sketchy, and if my experience aged 8 was anything to go by, basically shared like a really naughty secret. I was mostly left with an impression of the gesture of putting your finger into a hole created by the fingers of your other hand. I also didn’t believe him of course.
The other place children receive information about sex, relationships and gender, is from ‘the media’: adverts, TV shows, films, computer games, the internet etc. . I suspect for some children the media is their main source of information about sex and relationships and that this leaves them with huge gaps in knowledge and certainly some quite unhealthy messages. I read somewhere that the average age a child accesses pornography on the internet is eleven and while I can’t source that, it wouldn’t surprise me. The taboo makes it a ‘forbidden’ thing to investigate. Pornography doesn’t usually portray realistic expectations of sex and doesn’t tend to put sex in the content of a loving and caring relationship – which might be an aspiration many parents have for their children.
So what happens when we give children and young people effective RSE? Do they all go out and ‘experiment’? Well as we have no UK area with consistently good RSE, we will have to make comparisons with the Netherlands where a far more effective RSE programme is delivered that includes open and frank discussions with young people. What happens there? Well the age of first sex is certainly comparable with the UK so it hasn’t encouraged early sex. What’s more (and I loved this – now old – piece of research), when 16-year-old boys were asked what would be their reasons for entering into a sexual relationship with someone, answers in the UK were along the lines of, ‘I won’t be a virgin any more’, ‘I can tell my mates’, ‘I’d have sex with her if she was gorgeous’. The top answer in the Netherlands was: ‘love and commitment’. That’s what effective RSE does: makes young people consider in a more measured way, why and when they might start having sex. I’d argue that a child and young person with no information is more likely to fall ‘prey’ to negative experiences of puberty and sex and are less likely to be able to keep themselves safe. A young person who has information and has discussed these topics is more likely to make informed decisions – or failing that, seek help from a trusted adult if something confuses them or if they get into difficulties.
Another point to make that is affected by the taboo is something called the normative effect. When young people do not discuss sex, they assume all their peers have had sex. When a class of 14-year-olds were asked how many of their friends they thought had had sex, the answer was around 95% despite the actually figure being more typically 5%. This misperception inadvertently puts a pressure on young people to want to have sex just to ‘be like everyone else’. When discussions happen, if managed well, they can highlight amongst other things that the average age of first having sex is more like 17.
I once asked a hall full of parents/carers of primary aged children. ‘who here wants their child to never have sex when they grow up?’ A few hands did go up as a knee-jerk response! But with further thought, it was agreed that although we don’t usually like to think of letting our child grow up and eventually becoming a sexually active adult, we would be a tad unrealistic if we set out to prevent them from ever having sex. So if sex as a very likely eventual event, surely it is better to equip children and young people with information rather than hold on to the idea that we are ‘protecting’ them by pretending sex never exists? And where did we get the idea that children can’t know about a bodily function that’s so natural and omnipresent? Just because sex is not for children doesn’t mean they can’t learn about it. The way some adults go to great lengths to keep it secret from children like it’s something shameful just increases the taboo and leaves children and young people (potentially dangerously) clueless.
So this is why I am happy to tell young children about reproduction and the body parts involved. I will do it in an age-appropriate way and leave children with the idea that there are some adults who will talk about this topic comfortably, openly and honestly. Like I did with my own children. I told them as soon as they were old enough to understand. It didn’t taint their innocence. They took it in their stride and didn’t bat an eyelid. My daughter recently thanked me for my openness. She said she feels it has enabled her to talk about what she does and does not want in a sexual relationship. So as a tiny voice going against the grain, I will do my little bit to help break this unhelpful taboo.
Here’s another post I wrote on the same topic on the Bloomsbury education Blog: The birds, the bees and a giant stork.