by Lanae St.John, a.k.a. The MamaSutra, board-certified sexologist with the American College of Sexologists and professor of human sexuality at City College of San Francisco. Originally published here.
Let’s examine an example of a position I hear often as it relates to childhood sexual education:
“Childhood is a protected state where they can learn new things slowly, once they’re mature enough to handle them.
That’s why I think a child has the right not to know some things. I think they have a right not to know about the horror of war, except in general terms, until they enter the teenage years. I think they have a right not to know about sexuality inside and out. I think they have a right to be told only in vague terms about their parents’ neuroses, marriages or love lives.
Once you open that door into the adult world, you see, children have a difficult time just being children. Childhood innocence has been taken from them.” (Source: https://tolovehonorandvacuum.com/2014/08/childhood-innocence/)
Yes, children are innocent but here’s the problem with keeping them ignorant:
Adults are not innocent. So far trying to teach men not to rape isn’t working. We tell women how to lessen their chances of being raped, but even then they cannot avoid it completely. Which is a sad statement.
Since adults are not innocent, and we are not actively working to change that seemingly simple issue, I believe we have to educate children in relevant ways to keep them safe.
This exposes a problem.
As adults, we’re supposed to protect children. Unfortunately… Trusted adults can’t always be around to answer the call. Because of this, kids need comprehensive information to keep them aware of their surroundings. Teaching children about sexuality and unwelcomed advances from sexual predators is the only way to help kids protect themselves.
It becomes necessary to talk to kids about their bodies with proper terms so they can know what is theirs. Omitting this valuable information borders on abuse. Why abuse? Because failing to do so puts them at greater risk to a predator, groomer or some other abuser than informing them does.
If you want more information on how groomers, abusers and others of this ilk work, check out Alyssa Royse’s fantastic article about abusers who groom, written after the Larry Nassar trial.
The question becomes this: if you believe children should not be told about their bodies, then who is the act of not telling them for? Who is it for? Is it to protect the delicate sensibilities of the adults because they cannot handle the topic themselves? Are the adults too immature to respond without unnecessary sexualization of the topic? I can’t think of a scenario where not talking about healthy relationships, their bodies, and other topics around sexuality is “for the children.”
We use the excuse “protecting their innocence” to claim righteousness but the evidence doesn’t support that. Research shows that abstinence-only methods can cause significant problems for young people. An unfiltered exposure to everything else that’s sexualized in the environment without a reasonable explanation or any context is troublesome. Or, if a parent does attempt to filter things, there’s a whole lot of sexual content kids can see when the parents aren’t around to filter. And then that lack of preparing the child adequately for what they might be exposed to could be considered neglect or child endangerment.
It’s okay for a kid to tell an adult that they don’t want to be touched. The getting consent to change a diaper thing might be a little extreme but I get where the educator was going with that. We put our kids through all sorts of unwanted and unwelcome touch when they’re infants. We find out handling them becomes a bit of a battle or struggle when they become toddlers. My guess is the “terrible twos” are a child’s rebellion against the constant parental interference with their burgeoning selves and independence! My goodness, if someone did that to you as an adult you’d rebel too I imagine. They are little but they’re learning volumes at that age. Think about an average day with a baby or toddler. We sometimes force brush teeth, brush hair, buckle them into strollers or car seats, get them shots or immunizations. Now hear me out – sometimes these things are necessary for their health and safety. I’m on the same page as you here. What I’m proposing is an examination of what could happen instead; a conversation about why these things are happening.
Let me give you an example.
I’ve always talked to my kids as if they were little adults. The first time I realized how traumatic it must be for my baby to be taken to the doctor to be given a shot, I prepped her beforehand. I explained that we were going to the doctor to get a shot and while my job as mommy was to keep her safe, doing this was actually to keep her safe from getting sick later. (You may not do immunizations yourself. That’s cool. No judgment from me. My example is just one that came to mind to illustrate this and you probably have an example of your own that’s similar in intent. Also, all of our immunizations were done while they were infants in Germany). I reiterated to my baby that I would never willingly hand her over to anyone to maliciously hurt her. This visit had a purpose.
So the consent thing can be explained to a child in a way that helps them understand what is happening to them. Just telling a child you are getting ready to change their diaper can be part of a conversation/distraction about what you’re doing and why it’s important or necessary. You could even include an anatomy lesson! Narrating as you go along: “I’m changing your diaper because you’ve urinated or “peed” and it feels terrible and uncomfortable to sit in a wet pant. Now I’m wiping your vulva, getting the pee out from all of the nooks and crannies of your labia to make sure you’re clean and dry. Leaving any pee residue can make your vulva itchy and nobody likes that.” That while Spiel can be said in the time it takes an expert mommy to change a wet diaper. And saying something like that in the soft happy mommy voice makes anyone calm down. Eventually, the kid gets it and knows the drill.
It is necessary to educate children young and old in all of the aspects of human sexuality – so many of them have nothing to do with penises and vaginas. The lessons they learn when they are young build on other concepts they will learn later.
Great evidence-based sex ed programs know what has been proven helpful to the appropriate age groups. Your child might be ahead of that curve or behind it. The key is having the information available so that they’ll have it if they need it.
As you can imagine, I could go on and on. What I’m hoping to do here is challenge each of us to be sensible when it comes to educating our children about sexuality. Thank you for reading.
Dr. Lanae St.John, known as The MamaSutra, is a board-certified sexologist with the American College of Sexologists and a professor of human sexuality at City College of San Francisco. She’s been named one of the top 100 sex blogging superheroes by Kinkly.com every year since 2013.
Dr. Lanae has been quoted in Forbes.com, Huffington Post, livestrong.com, Popsugar, and Women’s Health Magazine and she’s been a guest on multiple podcasts including Sex Out Loud, Sex Nerd Sandra, and Sexology. In addition, she is a writer and blogger with an upcoming parenting book that has a human sexuality focus. Lanae lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner and two daughters.