From Encyclopedia of Sex and Sexuality
Modern sex education embraces the entire spectrum of scientific information and cultural attitudes and learning that are implicit in being male and female and becoming a man or a woman. It includes both the information expected today on human sexual physiology and reproduction, and all of the sexual learning—formal, verbal and even non-verbal—acquired in experiences from birth onward through the life cycle.
Sex education was once seen primarily as education for eventual heterosexual intercourse and childbearing, although in some high schools and in the military it was primarily aimed at curbing venereal disease. The focus was on the female and male bodies and genitals, brief or vague information on how sperm and egg come to be in the right place at the right time, and on how the resulting embryo grows through the stages of pregnancy to produce a new life nine months later. Many early sex “manuals” had titles that were variants on the words “sex without fear,” referring to the very real fears that result from ignorance of sex, especially women’s ignorance—though men were often just as likely to be ignorant of sexual matters.
While many parents hope that sex education classes in schools will remove the burden of an embarrassing task for which they may feel ill-equipped, they should accept the fact that, in one way or another, all parents are sex educators. Sex education clearly begins in infancy as a product of parental emotions and attitudes communicated by interactions with the new infant. Reinforcing scientific knowledge are the observations of those who have younger brothers and sisters or who take responsibility for changing a baby’s diaper—even infants seem to love playing with their genitals. Judging from the smiles and cooing sounds many infants make while touching themselves, they appear to be obtaining a great deal of pleasure.
Despite the pleasure that their child may be having, many parents seem bothered by this behavior and try to make the baby stop. Very likely, the first moral teaching and education about sexual behaviors we experience has to do with this infant and childhood masturbation. Some parents will slap the infant’s hand and firmly say: “No! That’s bad for you !” Others will try to divert the infant’s attention to something else by offering a toy or food. Some parents may carry this to an extreme by fastening the blankets with diaper pins in such a manner that the infant cannot touch this source of pleasure. In all cases these are impressions and associations that may have a lasting effect on the emotional development of the child, and may even carry through to their adult years. Thus, the first and one of the most important aspect of sexual education that the infant should learn is that it is not wrong or unhealthy to touch or explore the genitals or any other parts of the body. Later the infant can be taught cultural norms, among them the need for privacy in sexual matters.
As the child becomes a social being and relates to peers, sex education will continue, whether taught by parents, educators, or other children. Because children of all ages are naturally curious about sex, there is no easy way for parents to avoid sex education. Parents must decide whether they wish to abrogate their responsibility and leave the teaching to strangers or whether to learn how to meet their children’s needs in this matter. Most parents realize that some form of education will fall on their shoulders and that they cannot leave all instruction to schools, because most school systems studiously avoid going beyond the biomechanics of reproduction, disease transmission, and other acceptable “social hygiene” facts into the more controversial areas of sexual morality and responsible decision making.
The content of sex education, as well as the specific goals, are necessarily age-related. What a six-year-old needs for adequate sex information is obviously not what a prepubescent child needs or wants. At all age levels, however, parental (as well as school) education of children must consider not only the facts concerning reproduction, but also decision-making skills appropriate to their age level to help them make moral and responsible decisions and deal with the emotional content and consequences of encounters that may be sexual in nature. Well intentioned, but misguided, efforts of parents to equate sex education with a litany of prohibitions probably do not equip children or teenagers for responsible sexual decision-making and are certainly not going to enhance a young person’s self-esteem or belief that he or she is a trusted and loved child.
At the earliest level of infancy (from birth to two years), there is very little a parent can teach a child about sex. The task is rather one of not teaching the child to associate the penis or vagina with something “bad” or “dirty.” It is even too early to teach the child that masturbation may be acceptable if carried out in the privacy of the child’s bedroom. In early childhood (three to seven years), there is great interest in sex and children ask many questions about it. Parents have the opportunity to help the young child begin to build sexual knowledge and confidence by providing him or her with clear and appropriate answers, using correct terminology rather than euphemisms that often distort information and confuse children. Questions should be answered literally and at a level that the child is capable of comprehending without making the subject so complicated that an air of mystery or forbiddance is evoked. Children’s curiosity about sex play is normal and common at this stage, and their sex education should reflect the questions brought up by the child.
Preadolescent children (eight to twelve years) are usually much more shy about asking parents sexual questions and often will turn to their peers for information. Rather than permitting erroneous and possibly harmful information to be gathered by the child, parents of preadolescents should be assertive in ensuring that the child receives information that is age-appropriate and correct. For parents who are uncertain about the information preadolescents need and how to provide it, pediatricians and librarians may suggest a number of current books.
Changes in the bodies of both boys and girls near the end of this period—girl’s developing breasts and the growth of pubic hair on both boys and girls—may cause them to be unduly self-conscious and may create problems in the development of healthy sexuality. This is especially true because these changes are usually accompanied by the beginnings of strong sexual urges. This is an important time for parents to help their children begin the development of notions of healthy sexuality and acceptance of one’s body. The beginning of or an increase in masturbation during this period among both boys and girls may result in questions about what is “normal,” and this should be addressed by the parents. Questions about the appropriateness of various degrees of sexual activity and how far children should go on a “date” may begin to emerge during this period, with the peer group emerging as an important reference group for the child. Parents of emerging adolescents should, therefore, address values and moral issues and their relationships to behavior. This is an important time to begin this aspect of sexual decision-making because during the adolescent period (roughly thirteen to nineteen) sexual activity in varying degrees, from petting to intercourse, can be assumed among most teenagers. By the early or middle adolescent period, if a child neither knows the “facts of life” and the importance of birth control, nor possesses the moral, responsible decision-making standards best learned before puberty, it may be too late for the child to avoid making a serious mistake.
Many parents, however, make the common mistake of believing that they are helping their child get a good sex education coupled with strong moral values and a sense of responsibility by teaching the child to “say ‘No.’” Voiced prohibitions (and it is difficult to make such prohibitions more than voiced) are no substitute for helping a child develop a strong moral sense to help him or her make wise and responsible choices in sexual matters throughout life. If parents want to assume the role of formal sex educators for their children, they should become more knowledgeable about sexuality in general, and not rely only on personal experiences.
It is a continuing problem for sex education in American schools that local school authorities often fail to press for its inclusion in school curricula, usually in the belief that a political storm will result. Sex education for school children has been favored by most of the organizations of professional educators as well as the American Medical Association, the National Council of Churches, the Synagogue Council of America, and the United States Catholic Conference. On the other hand, there is a small but well-organized minority opposed to sex education in the schools. While their belief that sex education should be a product of the home and religious institutions may sound laudable, studies have shown that neither families nor religious institutions are always equipped or willing to take on this role. Generally, the courts have ruled that sex education is a legitimate part of the curricula of public schools and does not infringe upon the freedom of religion of parents any more than teaching about natural selection and evolution violates the rights of religious conservatives who believe in the biblical account of creation. In spite of these court rulings, religious objections have been the most intractable barrier to sex education in public schools. This has meant that, even in states permitting or mandating sex education classes, there is often an absence of discussion of the relationship between sexual behavior and morality and values. In some other states sex education classes have been prohibited from any discussion of morality on the ground that moral matters and values are the responsibility of parents. Most educators believe, however, that to ignore values and morality in sex education classes may confuse children and create the impression that sex can and should be separated from morality and values. In light of the strong sentiments of many religious and ethnic groups in American communities, this controversy has become very complex for educators and school boards, but it cannot be ignored.