The importance of talking to your children about sexual health: part two
Parenting is difficult enough without even considered the implications of sexual health and gender equality, but these topics are important and must be discussed. Our role as parents is to aptly inform and prepare our children to succeed and cope with potential difficulties, including self confidence and care, body confidence, relationships, and the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour by or towards them.
Join me in exploring the importance of educating our children on sexual health. This is a four-part series where we’ll look at the whys, why-nots, the difficulties, and the benefits of parent-led sexual health education for our children.
Teaching a child about sexual health is important for many reasons. Sexual health education would be best coming from a reputable source, such as an informed parent or sources backed by research, rather than inaccurate sources, such as your child’s peers or pornography.
Most education curriculums around the world include some form of sexual education, but there are many gaps and they tend to not be very effective at properly educating students about sexual health. In many conservative countries where religion significantly influences the local culture, shame-based approaches are applied to sex education.1 Abstinence is encouraged and sex or sexuality can be associated with guilt or have negative connotations. In countries like this, children tend to be left uninformed or left with many unanswered questions. Other countries only take a shallow approach, only covering the basics of biology and leaving much else to the imagination. Teaching young people about sexuality is not compulsory in many places in the world, which can stigmatise sex, sexual preference, bodily functions or even basic human contact. Not teaching young people about sexual health causes confusion and shame or can even encourage abuse.
What’s wrong with your child learning about sex from his or her peers? Gender stereotypes give children unreasonable ideas about what is expected of them. Girls are often raised to think that their worth lies within their appearance and that their virginity is some kind of unattainable prize that determines her worth. Meanwhile, boys are often raised to suppress their emotions, to be strong, macho, in charge, domineering, and to strive to conquer the ultimate quest: girls. So what happens when girls abstain and boys try to conquer? We inadvertently contribute to rape culture. Rape culture** is essentially ‘a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse.’ Additionally, we have to assume that there is a lot of misinformation out there. Kids all over the world (eventually) learn about sex in different ways. Some learn about sex in negative ways, such as being victimised. It’s important to remember that the way we learn about sexual health can normalise how we think about sex and gender-equality.
Then there is the danger of sex education through pornography. According to a report by the UK’s National Union of Students, 60% of students turn to pornography to learn about sex. This is extremely problematic. Young people are turning to porn instead of going to their parents or reliable sources to answer their questions or fill in their knowledge gaps about sexual health. This is a huge problem because pornography is not reliable reference material. Porn regularly normalises violence against women, fetishises forceful sex (without consent, or even when consent has been explicitly denied), and it sets completely unrealistic expectations about sex and gender-equality. Now imagine that your children learn everything they need to know about relationships and sexuality from porn, and you can see how this is a huge problem.
According to Fight The New Drug, a research-based charity which spreads awareness on the harm caused by pornography, ‘among the effects of the use of pornography are an increased negative attitude toward women, decreased empathy for victims of sexual violence… and an increase in dominating and sexually imposing behavior.' Effectively, if your kids learn about sexual health from pornography, they will learn that it’s normal to demean and devalue women. They may even come to accept that abusing or sexually dominating women (or men) is normal, or even expected behaviour.
A survey of 5,000 18- to 24-year-olds in India conducted by sex education provider Love Matters, determined that 92% of all respondents had watched porn online. The same survey found that 84% of young women had watched porn online, compared to 97% of young men. About half of the young men and women who responded to the survey said that they had “sexted” before. Roughly 28% had sent or received a “dick pic”. Just because it’s not discussed, doesn’t mean it is not happening. Unfortunately, porn consumption is rampant in just about every society around the world, and this is primarily where uninformed youths are being (mis)educated about sexual health. According to a publication by Pauline Oosterhoff for the Institute of Development Studies, ‘to develop a comprehensive sex education strategy for young people that aims to reduce maternal and child mortality, unwanted pregnancy, sexual violence and includes the realities of sex and pleasure, policymakers and sex educators need to engage with new and traditional gatekeepers, porn distributors and young people themselves.’
Come back tomorrow for part three, where I’ll dive in to the actual benefits (backed by research!) of discussing sexual health with your children.
**Rape culture can impact anyone, regardless of gender but for the purpose of this article on raising children, I’m generally referring to boys contributing to a culture which normalises abuse towards women or girls.