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The sex education issues parents worry about

July 9th, 2007

Dr Petra

In a recent edition of the Evening Standard, Conservative MP Sayeeda Warsi stated she didn’t agree with school-based sex education. She felt that parents could answer any questions their children might have. Previously she has stated “I will campaign strongly for an end to sex education at seven years and the promotion of homosexuality that undermines family life”. As a mother, she has every right to her opinion – as controversial as it may be to some people. Her view is one that many people hold. However, as a politician it is concerning that Warsi is expressing such opinions, since the evidence on sex and relationships education for young people does not suggest school sex education is a bad thing (even when aimed at young children) – or that parent delivered sex education is enough.

Here are some common concerns or issues parents have about sex education – and some of the evidence about giving sex information to young people which perhaps politicians should consult before recommending parent-only sex education.

I didn’t get any sex education so my kids don’t need any either

Often parents who’ve not had sex education either feel they got by okay and so their children will be the same, or because of a lack of sex education don’t know what to teach their kids and use their lack of sex education as a reason not to tackle issues they’re uncertain about (more on this later). Evidence suggests modern children are growing in a more sexualised commercial and mediated culture than previous generations, which can provide as many questions about sex as it does answers. In the past although it wasn’t necessarily the best idea to not answer questions on sex, most people remained ignorant about sex because it was a taboo topic. Nowadays it is less of a taboo which is why we need sex education to enable youngsters (and adults) to negotiate their way through life.

Teaching them about sex will encourage kids to experiment

This is a very common worry of parents, and a fear that is often echoed by religious groups or those advocating abstinence only programmes. The overwhelming evidence suggests young people who are taught about sex and relationships are less likely to experiment. Successful school sex education has been shown to work if it covers contraception, sexuality, infections, pleasure, feelings, emotions and respect for oneself and others – as well as addressing issues of confidence, assertiveness and negotiating skills. It also works if it is tailored to the needs of the child or teenager. Where young people do not get sex education they tend to have sex earlier than their educated peers, are less likely to use contraception, and more likely to have an unplanned pregnancy, catch an infection, or be a victim or perpetrator of sexual coercion.

Parents also often wrongly assume if their teenager mentions sex, asks about sex education or has any questions on relationships they must already be experimenting and may well punish the child for this percieved transgression. Asking about sex does not mean a child is experimenting sexually, but evidence does indicate if a child is punished for discussing sex or withheld from sex education lessons they may be more likely to end up having a future negative sexual experience or encounter problems with sex in adulthood.

Sex is for marriage so doesn’t need to be taught in school

It is completely possible to teach about sex within the context of marriage. Not all children will save sex until after marriage, but for those who do it is important they learn all about sex, negotiation, communication and contraception as they will need this information when they marry. Frequently parents who hold this view also believe boys do not need teaching as they’ll naturally know what to do (they won’t) and girls shouldn’t be taught as sex isn’t something they should be interested in (they should). You can prepare a child for an adult relationship with sex education so when they do marry they can enjoy a sexual relationship without fear or ignorance. It also means if they do have a sexual relationship before marriage they will be able to protect themselves from pregnancy or infection.

I’m uncomfortable discussing sex with my child

Given that many parents have not had decent sex education it is hardly surprising they feel awkward, afraid or embarrassed discussing sex with their child. It is important to remember that you do not have to have all the answers and it is okay to admit if you’re not sure of something. Many schools now offer the chance to give parents sex education as well as children and teenagers. If you would like such a service ask your school or the health promotion department at your Primary Care Trust (PCT) who can offer support for you.

I don’t know when to start giving sex education

Our media can give the impression that school sex education means teaching four year olds about anal sex or threesomes, which of course is not the case. You can begin teaching your child from an early age, but of course deliver advice that is appropriate to their level of comprehension. For young children this may be around taking pride in their body, respecting others, learning about body parts and answering basic questions on where babies come from. Pre puberty children need to know about bodily changes, menstruation, wet dreams and managing their changing body and desires. Post puberty learning about sex, relationships, contraception, infections, desire and respect can be covered. There’s some useful advice and resources on how to do this in a previous blog of mine on when and how to talk to your kids about sex.

School sex education has led to our current teen sexuality problems

This is a frequently mentioned criticism of sex education in the UK, where we do have problems with unplanned teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and coercive sexual behaviour. It’s inaccurate, however, since it works on the premise that we have blanket school sex education – which we don’t. The reason we have problems with teens and sex is our school sex education is not mandatory, and where it is delivered standards vary wildly. Add to that a highly sexualised mediated culture, young people are given lots of sexual messages without the education and skills to help them negotiate their way through life. So it’s actually a lack of standardised school sex education that has contributed to our problems – not its presence.

What if my child asks me something I can’t answer?

You don’t have to have all the answers. It’s okay to say you don’t know something. What you can do is agree to find out about an issue and then discuss it with your child or teenager. That means you can find out more for yourself and be prepared for any chat you may have. Resources on how to do this can be found in the links above.

I believe some aspects of sex are bad or wrong, should I tell them this?
Everyone has their own views on sex and sexuality. Some believe homosexuality is immoral, others celebrate diversity. Some view sex during menstruation as dirty, others don’t care. You can explain to your child if you don’t agree with something (particularly if it runs counter to your religion), but that should not prevent you from discussing the issue. Remember if you explain something very negatively or positively to your child it is going to influence them. Often a young person asks about sex not for a moral view on it, but just to find out more. So if you are able it is preferable to give them the information they want – not the views you hold. If this is impossible then you may want to get someone else to talk to your child (for example someone from your child’s school). There are some issues – abuse, coercion, rape and exploitation that are wrong and need to be discussed so your child can stay safe – but again this needs to be done within a general context of building your child’s confidence rather than using negative messages as a means of frightening them about sex as a means to stop them having it.

Evidence suggests if a child is raised to see aspects of sex as bad, dirty or immoral they are more likely to encounter sexual problems as an adult, and be less able to overcome said difficulties. If they are unfortunate and are sexually abused or raped they may feel they have deserved it. By providing your child with sex advice that is not overly judgemental you can enable them to enjoy a healthy sex life as an adult with fewer sexual problems, and to be able to come to you if they are in any way threatened by someone sexually.

If they’ve got any questions they’ll come to me and ask them

We often assume a child will come and ask for advice, but frequently they don’t do this. If a problem or question seems particularly personal to them they may well not feel they can ask you. And, let’s face it, there are some topics that probably kids and parents may not want to talk about (“mum, what’s your best ever orgasm?” is probably just one of them). Research indicates where parents initiate discussions on sex and related topics with their child the child is more likely to come and ask for help. It may be that the parent does not always answer their child’s questions, but they are able to refer the child to additional sources of help. Where parents do not talk about sex with their child or assume the child will ask when they want advice it is common that the child will not ask for help.

If a parent does want to be the sole source of sex information for their child, as MP Warsi advocates, then they have to do a good job. This means learning about all aspects of sex and sexuality and remembering young people don’t just want to know basic biology, or lists of contraceptives or infections. They’ll want to know about feelings, what sex can feel like, issues around desire and negotiation, and lots of ‘am I normal?’ questions answered. It may be some parents feel they can deliver this advice, but many do not feel equipped for the task – and for some topics they may not be the best person to give information. Where young people have been shown to thrive is in situations where a parent or carer is happy to listen and talk to them about sex, and where they are also getting high quality, accurate information from school sex education.

If we rely on parents alone our youngsters will probably not get the sex education they need. We wouldn’t assume that we can handle teaching our kids everything about maths, physics or geography – so why assume the same about sex and relationships? Times have changed and young people need specialised advice. As parents we should be educating ourselves and calling for mandatory school sex education – not advocating the removal of school sex ed.

I’m going to email this blog to Sayeeda Warsi and I’ll supply her with any supporting evidence she needs. If I get any reply I’ll post it on this blog. If you’re a parent, sex educator, teacher, medic or therapist and have any thoughts on her views you can contact her via her website.

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