When my twins came home from school recently with a thick information pack entitled “Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood,” I didn’t know, at first, quite what I was looking at. We live in Scotland and I’m American. Despite residing here for many years, my intuitive sense of what happens in an elementary school classroom is still very much grounded in what I experienced myself. And you can bet your bottom dollar that my mom never received such a leaflet at such an age. Which is why it took me a beat or two to realize: my kindergarteners were about to embark on sex-ed!
Except they don’t call it that here in the UK, which is probably a good thing. Because what this curriculum includes, and the way it manifests in the younger years, is much broader than the mechanics of sex or pregnancy prevention — in fact, for the littlest students, it doesn’t involve the word “sex” at all. It’s a mandatory “whole school” approach to the subject that centers on the development of “decision-making skills” and a “sense of responsibility.” It encourages the kids “to challenge stereotypes” and “to identify social and cultural influences on a person’s sexuality and the sexual choices they make.”
“Our teacher is going to talk to us about our bodies,” my daughter said, matter-of-factly, as I paged through the information.
My daughter is six.
It seems incredibly wise to start conversations on these topics as early as possible. The sooner a child has an accurate understanding of his or her own body, the building blocks of a healthy relationship, and a framework for making sound sexual decisions, the better. Right? The Dutch have been proponents of comprehensive sex education for a while now, and “have garnered international attention, largely because the Netherlands boasts some of the best outcomes when it comes to teen sexual health.” In America, where sex-ed is more limited and can take the form of “abstinence only,” teenagers are not only likely to have had sex earlier and to wish they had waited longer, but to not use contraception at all.
Sex and sexuality is about so much more than learning the basics of how a baby is made — or not made. And stereotypical ideas about the body and about relationship dynamics start as early as two or three years old — what little girls think they should be wearing, what little boys are told about curbing their emotions, about being in charge — as do so many preconceptions about how boys and girls are meant to behave with regard to one another. These entrenched gender roles, ingrained and perpetuated by societal forces, play a huge part in governing the problems that girls in particular experience with sex in their teenage years and beyond. Just read a little of Peggy Orenstein’s "Girls & Sex" and you will blanch at the picture painted girls who seem to lack a fundamental agency when it comes to their sexual interaction with boys.
The curriculum at my kids’ school is, of course, age appropriate. The different topics are calibrated according to grade. In terms of sexual abuse, for example, for first graders, the proposed outcomes involve statements like: “I am learning about respect for my body and what behaviour is right and wrong. I know who I should talk to if I am worried about this.” For a fifth grader, however, it’s to this effect: “I know that all forms of abuse are wrong and I am developing the skills to keep myself safe and get help if I need it.”
There is always going to be a backlash against talking about sex in schools, especially to five- and six-year-olds. Conservatives of all stripes worry that young children can’t handle such sensitive topics, that it’s “inappropriate.” That talking about sex makes kids have sex. That this is a subject better left to parents to disseminate — or not — in their own homes. The argument here is that sex is always laden with values, that there is no way to teach it an objective, information-only manner, and hence it doesn’t belong in the classroom. Even the idea of encouraging children to make their own informed decisions about their sexuality implies a belief in the notion of the self — and the significance of autonomy.
To be fair, it’s unclear how effective schools are at delivering messages about sex and sexual values. According to Jonathan Zimmerman, in his study of the global history of sex-ed, "Too Hot to Handle," “Scholars around the world have struggled in vain to show any significant influence of sex education upon youth sexual behavior.” Schools, he writes, always seem to be “a step — or three — behind the sexual curve,” with institutions like the mass media holding much more sway over impressionable young minds.
And yet, Scotland appears to be moving pretty quickly. As of 2014, the year gay marriage became legal here, the sex-ed guidelines were updated to include issues surrounding same-sex and civil partnerships. So from my (admittedly liberal) point of view, the school environment, however much influence it has in the end, provides yet another forum, another opportunity to open the gateway of communication — which can be especially useful for those parents who find the subject embarrassing or difficult to broach. Sexual relationships, after all, are a hugely important aspect of human existence and one that the vast majority of our kids will have to navigate as they grow up.
We speak very frankly about these things in our house, but I still welcomed the chance to build on the conversations my kids had in their classrooms. My six-year-old told me they talked about the correct names for their body parts. “The teacher asked us what we call our privates, and some of the girls said ‘flowers.’ But I said ‘vulva!’” My nine-year-old son asked me if I knew that babies could be made in a petri dish and not simply from sex. Even my almost twelve-year-old, who suffers from a typical tween horror in respect to this stuff, joined in the discussion.
Just saying the words out loud, hearing them bounce around the car as we drove home from school, felt right. Our bodies and what we do with them are a natural part of life, perhaps the most natural. Normalising this for kids, giving them the tools to be happy and healthy in their sexual selves when the time comes, is a gift. Because ultimately they are the only ones who can make sexual decisions for themselves. Here it really does seem that knowledge is a source of power.