So I’m a little late to the game on this, having grabbed the links to the articles and promptly gone away. I’m going to post on it anyway though, because issues of children, sexuality and information they need to stay healthy is always vitally important. The article discusses how an information pack on sex education, put out by RapeCrisis (a charity supporting women and children who have experienced sexual violence), contains such topics for debate as ‘whether a woman asked for (rape) by wearing a short skirt’.
Now, that’s a pretty inflammatory example for the Telegraph to pull, and there is no context given as to how this information is to be presented, what context is given or what support provided within the classroom for what would doubtless be a heated and difficult discussion. Instead, the article is framed as these always are, portraying children as passive innocents who are being ‘assaulted’ in some way by the very groups established to protect them, given information they don’t need and can’t handle by charities, schools and ‘the media’. “Just because these things happen,” one critic quoted in the article said, “doesn’t mean that children need to have them rammed in their faces.”
I hope that it’s obvious by now that I firmly believe that children should have the opportunity ‘to be children’, to ask questions they have in a safe and supportive environment, and to have those questions answered honestly and in an age-appropriate way. Children are already exposed every day to a range of opinions about sex, sexuality, choice and health which they may need help putting into context. Children’s knowledge of, interest in and concerns over questions of sexuality (including gender, expectation, expression, and so on) varies enormously between individuals. Some are desperately seeking information from peers and older children, from books and television and authority figures, and often finding information that is biased, inaccurate or wholly inappropriate. I know I’m not the only proto-geek who was looking things up secretly in the dictionary, or sneaking down for late night shows I could barely comprehend. Children are curious and often, much as we hate to admit it, children are sexual.
Actually, I think it’s far more important and useful to think of children (particularly young children) as physical, rather than sexual, because the latter term comes pre-loaded with adult associations. Children’s physicality can be sensual, exploratory, curious and celebratory. It can have expressions which we may find uncomfortable or inappropriate, and some of these do need to be discussed and addressed. I’ve delivered training on children’s sexualities and play, and have found many parents and playworkers who are quite comfortable with memories of their own childhood explorations, but terrified at the thought of what ‘their’ kids might be getting up to behind closed doors.
More urgently though, and far more rarely discussed in articles such as this, is the fact that far too many children will already know far too much about domestic violence, and about sexual assault on adults and children. Questions that we may find difficult to stomach may be the precise ones that some children are too scared to ask. Children are also going through puberty at ever-younger average ages, and ten is no longer unusually young to start.
All children deserve the information that they need to keep themselves healthy. This includes quality education on sex and relationships – and if we want children to be self-determining and in control of their own sexual experiences, then we need to provide them with knowledge of what information is available should they seek it, what support can be gathered where and that there are adults nearby who have their best interests at heart.
Now, I haven’t read this particular curriculum and I don’t know how these ‘issues for debate’ are framed, or what support is given to the teacher who may be expected to deliver it with little or no extra training. I have however, thanks to the range of schools I went to in two different countries, suffered through a range of sex education methods. I sat through slide shows on the mating habits of frogs (spoiler alert – they’re not mammals!) and watched films of cartoon eggs batting eyelashes at cartoon sperms. At some schools there was no education at all. At one, someone came to show us pictures of aborted fetuses, give us the numbers of local religious-funded adoption agencies and to warn us of the myriad ways in which a girl might be ‘asking for it’. I knew at the time that something about this was wrong, but didn’t have enough alternative information to articulate what.
The thing is, children today (including eleven year olds) have already navigated more television channels, logged more facebook hours, and processed more images of violence and celebrity than we have. I’m not saying this is fine and dandy, just that children are more capable of engaging with the information they are given and drawing their own conclusions than we sometimes give them credit for. That’s why providing the education that will help keep them safe is so vitally important, and why in many ways the individual delivering these sexual education talks will matter far more than the information in the packs they are working from.
And actually, if you ever wondered why children aged 11 and even younger need guidance when it comes to sexuality, consent and healthy relationships, take a look at this.