NYT Room for Debate: Sex education

Over at the New York Times’ Room for Debate blog, a lively discussion on sex education—and at what age it should begin—is unfolding. We asked Sinikka Elliott, author of Not My Kid: What Parents Believe about the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers, to chime in on the topic. She shares her thoughts below.

I often heard during the course of my research into sex education that parents are ultimately responsible for teaching their children about sex. But I also heard from parents that sex is not an easy thing to talk about—their kids don’t want to hear it, parents themselves often don’t want to talk about it, and in having these conversations parents risk being labeled sexual deviants for their children’s knowledge about sex.

In fact, some of the parents I interviewed were reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) because people thought their children knew too much about sex. (In the state where I reside, one of the signs of child abuse is “exhibits sexual knowledge that is inconsistent with their age.”)

One couple I spoke with who tried to be open and honest with their daughter about sex was investigated by CPS after a member of their church overheard a family conversation that implied their daughter—who was 11 at the time—understood what sperm was. The congregant reported the couple to CPS believing that the only way an eleven-year-old girl could know about sperm was if she was being sexually abused.

Denise, a nurse, proudly told me that her 6-year-old grandson already knows the proper names for genitalia. Denise’s face fell, however, when she described how a kindergarten teacher reported her daughter to CPS for possible sexual abuse because Denise’s grandson used the words “penis” and “vagina” in class.

“My grandson would actually tell the boys, ‘You can’t go in the bathroom. There’s a girl in there and that girl has a vagina, not a penis, so you can’t go in the bathroom with her.’”

CPS mounted a full investigation into Denise’s daughter, eventually exonerating her, but the accusation has left Denise feeling bruised and uncertain.  If parents can’t teach their kids about bodies and sex, who can?

As the parents’ stories reveal, a climate of fear, suspicion, and taboo surrounds parents as they have, or contemplate having, conversations with their children about sex. Sexual images and messages are now commonplace in our culture, yet there’s still a lot of shame attached to talking openly and knowledgably about sex. Teaching sex in schools as a commonplace fact of life—and starting these lessons early—would not only equip young people with valuable information about their bodies but would also make family conversations about sex easier. Parents may ultimately be responsible for teaching their children about sex but they should be able to do so without fear of being labeled sexually deviant.

Sinikka Elliott is Assistant Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University,  and author of Not My Kid: What Parents Believe about the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers (NYU Press, 2012).

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