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Sex education: is it important to start it at an early age?

  • Writing
  • BBC News World

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I’ve never had the opportunity to do something that is almost a rite of passage among British teenagers: slip a condom on a banana during a sex lesson.

It wasn’t until I was 27 that I finally succeeded, but in a completely different way. I didn’t learn how to put on a condom, but I studied how to teach someone else how to put one on.

About 15 newly trained sex educators and I sat in front of our computers, condoms and bananas in hand.

“We often use flavored condoms,” our teacher explained via Zoom, “because the smell is a bit more appealing than regular condoms.”

He watched the expressions of the participants for a while and evidently found that some of them were less patient than he expected.

“It’s really important that you don’t look or feel gross when you’re doing it,” he said. “You don’t want young people to feel that way…”

A difficult step for parents

Many parents may experience the same feeling when trying to talk to their children about physical intimacy, although attitudes towards sex education can vary greatly from country to country and family to family.

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Specifically, a UK study found that parents, for example, often felt ashamed and worried that they lacked the skills or knowledge to talk to their children.

But the same review also found that in places like the Netherlands and Sweden, parents openly talk about sex with their children from a young age, and that teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are possible. – as a result, they are much less common than in England and Wales.

Parents who are uncomfortable talking about sex can find themselves in a difficult situation. Many would like their children to know that they can come to them with questions and concerns, especially in the digital age where children are exposed to pornographic content online at an increasingly young age.

Eva Goldfarb, a professor of public health at Montclair State University, co-authored a systematic review of the literature over the past 30 years on comprehensive sexuality education.

While the review focuses on schools, Goldfarb says her research also has important lessons for parents.

The basic idea is that sex education has long-term positive effects, for example helping young people to build healthy relationships. Her advice to parents is not to skip these conversations or put them off.

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“It starts sooner than you think,” he says. “Even with very young children, you can talk about the names of body parts and functions, wholeness and body control.”

This includes talking about topics that parents may not even consider sex-related, but that relate to relationships more broadly: “Nobody gets what they want all the time, it’s important to treat everyone in the world with kindness and respect.”

Step by Step

Parents who do not know when or how to start these conversations may find it helpful to look for materials in schools.

In a 2016 British study, parents who were shown the books used in their children’s sex education classes felt they had a better understanding of the subject and also said it made them feel more confident talking about sex with their children.

Goldfarb says it can also be helpful for parents to meet with sex education teachers and get feedback on what their children are learning at the beginning of the school year.

International guidelines for sexuality education, such as the comprehensive evidence-based guide published by UNESCO, can also be a good starting point for parents looking for advice suitable for minors.

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The UNESCO document uses simple and clear ideas about healthy bodies and relationships arranged in blocks, instead of conveying everything in “big talk”.

For a child between the ages of 5 and 8, for example, the key idea is that “everyone has the right to decide who, where and how can touch their body”.

For teens, conversations can include discussions about emotional health, such as what it means to take responsibility for yourself and others, or ways to deal with peer pressure, as well as providing specific information about condoms and other contraceptives, according to the guide.

A little educated factor

One factor that has proven surprisingly powerful in sex education, but remains relatively underutilized: pleasure.

A new systematic review of health interventions that involve pleasure has found that explaining pleasure in sex can promote safer habits. Programs that taught people how to achieve sexual pleasure were found to improve condom use more than those that focused on the dangers of unprotected sex.

“It’s also worth talking about the positives outside of protection, like the fact that using a condom can be fun and can help you bond with your partner,” says Mirela Zaneva, one of the study’s authors and a candidate in experimental psychology at the university. from Oxford.

Zaneva found that pleasure is rarely, if ever, mentioned in sex education.

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This means that if your child doesn’t hear about fun from you, chances are they won’t hear about it at school either. “Many young people are likely to miss out on positive and empowering conversations about sex in their current school sex education,” she says.

She points out that the Pleasure Project, a public health initiative linked to the research she led, offers a number of practical tips for incorporating pleasure into conversations with young people about sex.

“The evidence so far suggests that talking about pleasure can help young people practice safer sex, have more knowledge and positive attitudes about sex, and have more confidence and self-efficacy.”

Find reliable sources

Parents are often the primary source of sex education for young children, but teens tend to turn to many sources of information, such as peers, teachers, and popular culture.

And parents may not be the only ones feeling worried.

Research in Ireland has found that while in the past parental ignorance and shame were the biggest barriers to opening up conversations about sex, today it is young people who tend to block these conversations, claiming they already know the facts.

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That doesn’t mean parents should avoid the topic, but it does show how important it is to frame the conversation in a way that makes everyone feel comfortable.

“Let your child know ahead of time when you want to talk about something sensitive, potentially embarrassing, or difficult to talk about. They won’t feel as trapped, and they’ll be more likely to be prepared to talk to you.” said Goldfarb.

Overcoming this fear can even become a liberating experience. After all, healthy sex and relationships, or as Finnish scientists call them, “bodily emotions”, are important at all stages of adult life.

Young people are at the beginning of this journey and have the opportunity to define values, habits and priorities that can benefit them throughout their lives, not only in intimate situations, but also in the context of safe and considerate movement around the world.

You may find that it is invigorating and far from unpleasant to be a part of this journey.

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