Why Sex Ed Needs to Start in Elementary School [Opinion]

Comprehensive sexual education that starts early in children’s lives could lead to a safer world for everyone.

Having worked as a victim advocate and prevention educator on a college campus for several years, I can share volumes about what college students don’t know about sex.

Not that many of them aren’t having sex, but the students with whom I worked grew up during an era of abstinence-only education. This approach denied them information required to make knowledgeable sexual decisions. In my experience, college is simply too late to begin the dialogue around consent, agency, safer sex, and sexual health.

Our best tool for preventing sexual violence is to shape attitudes and behaviors long before young adults become sexually active. Some people feel squeamish about having “the talk” at home, let alone in the school environment. Yet that hands-off, passive approach is what leaves students with misinformation and more questions than answers. There is, though, a way to address comprehensive sexual education in a developmentally appropriate manner at any age.

How My Personal Experience Shaped My Views

Allow me to share some information about my background: I was raised by egalitarian parents who taught me the anatomically correct names for all of my body parts, as well as where babies come from, all before I entered elementary school. My parents shared books and videos geared specifically toward very young children, and I could go back to these resources as I came up with new questions.

I now have a toddler daughter of my own, and both my upbringing and my professional experiences convinced me that I want her to have a developmentally appropriate education in human sexuality, just as I do in all other areas of learning.

My partner and I have always been on the same page about our daughter not needing to hug or kiss any family member or friend if she chooses not to. This gives her autonomy over her body and begins to teach her the concept of asking for and giving (or refusing) consent. She can opt out of being tickled. She can say no regarding affection at any time and have her wishes respected, just as we ask before assuming she always wants our physical attention. She knows what her vagina is called, just as we don’t make up names for her elbow or back. She knows that her private areas are anywhere a bathing suit covers, and that no one but her parents, teachers, and doctor need to see or touch her there. She is aware that she can come to us should any touch make her uncomfortable or hurt her.

My hope is that she will receive a well-rounded sexual education in school, as well, but that is not a guarantee. Although not all parents share my family’s values, our schools can — and should — prepare students appropriately for citizenship in the world. And part of this educational responsibility involves teaching kids how to make knowledgeable, healthy decisions about their physical, sexual, and relationship lives.

The State of Sex Education Today

A national poll conducted in 2004 by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government as well as research by other investigators since 2000, show that significant majorities of Americans support comprehensive sex education. And yet, as of January 2015, only 22 states and the District of Columbia require sex education in public schools. Even more alarmingly, only 19 mandate that a sex ed program be “medically, factually, or technically accurate.” The information our children receive varies wildly based on where we live; we would never accept such huge differences regarding other elements of the K–12 curriculum.

In 2011, several organizations, including the American School Health Association, the Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education, and the NEA Healthy Futures, collaborated with the Future of Sex Education to develop National Sexuality Education Standards (NSES) with the goal of

... providing clear, consistent, and straightforward guidance on the essential minimum, core content for sexuality education that is age-appropriate for students in grades K–12.

The aim of these voluntary learning standards is to help states and districts implement sex education programs that provide their students with the information and skills needed to make healthy medical, sexual, and relationship choices throughout their lifetimes.

My Recommendations

Sex education should not focus solely on the ways in which bodies change during puberty, nor simply on how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections through the use of safer sex aids. These matters comprise but a small part of comprehensive sex education, which should begin long before middle or high school.

There are many articles that explain why and how providing children with accurate information is empowering and necessary. Effective sexual education doesn’t make a mystery, game, or fun out of any part of human anatomy. It gives children the language to tell someone if they are being abused. It teaches them about self-worth and the rights of others. It develops a generation that understands the concepts of respectful sexual interaction, providing the possibility of a safer world for us all.

So, in my ideal world, what would comprehensive sex education look like? Considering NSES as one possible roadmap, I would develop standards for preschool through twelfth grade that include:

Developmentally appropriate content

For example, in preschool and kindergarten, children would learn the difference between good and bad touch. By the end of second grade, children would know the correct names for body parts, including the male and female anatomies, and they would be aware that all living creatures reproduce. By the end of eighth grade, students would be able to describe sexual and reproductive systems and explain how they work. And once students were ready to graduate from high school, they would understand the role that hormones play in sexual responses and be able to describe the qualities of a healthy (and unhealthy) sexual relationship.

As with any other academic subjects, children would be introduced to topics at suitable stages of cognitive and social growth.

Medically accurate material

In many states, there is currently no requirement that subjects taught in sex and health education classes adhere to accepted criteria of medical accuracy. Moreover, curriculum decisions can be made at the district or school board level in many communities. Without statewide standards mandating medical accuracy, there is no assurance that the topics taught in sex education are correct. To draw an analogy to astronomy, this situation would make it acceptable for a child in Lincoln, Nebraska to learn that the sun travels around the earth, while a student in Washington, D.C., could simultaneously be taught that the earth orbits the sun. We wouldn’t permit our children to learn misinformation in other academic areas, and we shouldn’t in this one, either.

Promotion of open dialogue around the body and sexual activity, including the role of consent in healthy sexual interaction

As many adults will acknowledge, discussing bodies and sexual topics frankly is challenging, particularly since most of us were not taught how to do so when we were young. Learning such skills in developmentally-appropriate ways is crucial for empowering students to communicate clearly and to respect the boundaries of their peers.

Media literacy related to body image and sexualized imagery

One of the most common concerns raised by those who object to comprehensive sexuality education is that it will introduce children to a subject that they would not be thinking about otherwise. But as most parents today recognize — and as children understand by the end of elementary school — the media and popular culture play a role in shaping our notions of beauty, relationships, and sexuality. Providing students with the tools to analyze these images will enable them to critique the messages being imparted and, in turn, allow them to make more informed choices in their own lives.

Options for pregnancy and disease/infection prevention, including abstinence and safer sex aids

According to the 2004 NPR/Kaiser national survey of public attitudes about sexuality education, 90 percent of adults in Texas think that students should have sex education that includes topics on contraception, sexually transmitted infection prevention, and abstinence. Similarly, 81 percent of voters in South Carolina believe that sexuality education should include information on contraception and abstinence.

A vocal minority of Americans — merely 7 percent according to this same survey — object to sex education in public schools. The notion of discussing topics such as disease or pregnancy prevention in any grade is sometimes thrown out as a reason to protest these programs, but contraception, abstinence, and related topics are addressed at appropriate grade levels (typically from middle through high school). And teaching students what their options are to maintain their health is essential.

Opportunities to practice discussing sexuality with highly trained staff

I believe sex education should be taught by educators who are comfortable with their subject matter and who are skilled presenters on this challenging topic. Teaching students how to talk about age-appropriate topics related to sexuality, and facilitating these discussions in a safe, controlled setting helps students develop the skills to explore sensitive concerns in their own lives — before elements such as peer pressure, alcohol or other drugs, or communication issues with a partner inhibit them from doing so.

By framing comprehensive sex education as an ongoing component of our students’ school years, rather than a once-and-done session to be gotten through, we allow learners to grow and mature with the material. Such programs will enable kids to be more comfortable asking questions, knowing where to turn to find answers, engaging in healthy relationships, and asking for — and giving — affirmative consent.

This article was written in collaboration with Catherine Holland.

Seven percent of U.S. guardians opt their child out of school-led sex education. Interested in knowing more about the issue? Read this article about the debate over sex education.

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