The Start of Something New
I remember my first sex ed class as a confusing and somewhat mysterious thing. I studied the textbooks and diagrams. I watched the painfully outdated films. I did my very best to concentrate and understand. It didn't seem like anything more than a new lesson, but there was clearly something special about it. All the boys in our grade went to the gym to be taught by the male P.E. teacher. All the girls were crowded into one classroom and taught by the female teachers. The teachers were clearly flustered and embarrassed, but I wasn't sure why. It didn't seem any more special than a normal lesson, with the exception of the cutaway diagrams that showed how the interior plumbing of a man's reproductive system worked, without giving us any understanding of how the outside worked.
We were taught some vague lessons on puberty, mostly that a woman's body will eventually be hourglass shaped, while a man's will be triangle shaped, and that our voices would change and we would select only a few close friends. Of course, most of this information was forgotten by the time we entered puberty a few years later. Then, we talked about how babies are made. To put it simply, we were told that women make the eggs, while men make the sperm, and once the sperm is inside the woman, it makes a baby. There's a crucial step missing here. Did you catch it? Even as a child, I recognized the problem.
“How does the sperm get from the man to the woman?” I asked.
I didn't know a grown woman could turn that many shades of red, as she tried to explain as clearly and quickly as she could, but stumbled over her words. “Well, it gets there... uh... when the man... uh...inserts... his penis into the woman's vagina. MOVING ON!”
As a child, I was left confused about why this was such an issue. As an adult, I wondered why we were being taught facts that the teachers didn't feel ready to teach, and felt that we weren't ready to know. There were questions of maturity on both sides: professional maturity of the admittedly young women teaching us, and the mental and emotional maturity of the students. Unfortunately, maturity was never taken into consideration, but it should be.
Wisdom Versus Knowledge
Think of a modern classroom and the inclusiveness of it. You could point to some children that are undoubtedly mature beyond their years, and others that act like they belong back in kindergarten. Some of these kids are ready for the basics of sex ed, while some are not. A few will opt out of sexual education for a variety of reasons, but the rest will start learning some of the fundamentals. They won't be learning about sexuality because they are mature enough, as there is a variety of maturity levels in the same group. Instead, they will be learning about it merely because their education system has deemed that year to be the proper time.
Even though, in many sexual education classes, there are facts that are wrong, glossed over, or outright omitted, there are cases where the opposite is true. Think about giving vital information about sex to a mind that isn't mature enough to use the information responsibly. Some children, with the right information at the wrong time, will be negatively impacted. For instance, take the case of New Zealander Amber-Leigh Erasmus. She claims that learning all about sex at 13 practically caused her to have sex at 14, after being taught that sex was perfectly fine as long as you used a condom and it was consensual. Eventually she began to listen to the “wisdom” of older girls that claimed the withdrawal method of birth control was perfectly fine. At 17, she was expecting her first child. She now says that she wasn't mature enough to make the right decisions for herself, and wants other teenagers to wait to be sexually active until they are older and know the dangers of unprotected sex.
Young Amber-Leigh is not alone in the world of youngsters receiving information and not having the maturity to use it wisely, or to even hear it without being upset. With negative stories like this, one has to wonder why young children are taking sexual education classes. We could point to a few different factors here. For one, children are hitting puberty early. Boys are now starting puberty as young as 9 and 10-years-old, while it's not uncommon for girls to be showing the first signs at 8. Puberty can be a confusing time for a child, so it's certainly important to get the right information to them at the right time.
Another reason could be that so many youngsters are sexually active. When the CDC conducted a survey in 2011, they found that 47% of high school students had engaged in sex, and 15% already had 4 or more partners. When teenagers are that active in their early sexual life, it's no wonder young children are being taught the birds and the bees early.
Now let's circle back to maturity. While some students have the maturity to understand that the facts they are being taught will be useful later, some have come home upset at the very idea of sex, and others see sexual knowledge as a ticket to fulfillment and fun. The question would be, then, how to separate students by maturity so that they can be taught the right lessons at the appropriate time for them. The answer is that you can't.
Imagine, if you will, that schools decided to teach sexual education based on maturity rather than age or grade level. How would that be decided? Would the teacher decide when the student is ready, or would that be up the parents? What about some sort of school psychologist or counselor? And then what happens if the adults disagree on whether or not a child is indeed ready for sex ed?
Let's pretend that some sort of scale has been developed that shows the maturity of a child as it relates to sex ed, and Little Imaginary Susie's test shows that she is not mature enough to attend her first sex ed class. If you remember your playground politics, you'll know that Susie will probably get shamed for not having the maturity, then she'll pick up some second-hand and possibly incorrect information from her peers. Further, if she is one of those going through early puberty, she won't have the knowledge she needs.
Now, we know that not all children who take sex education classes are mature enough to handle the information. We also know that we can't separate classes based on maturity level. There is only one option left: parental involvement. No one knows what a child is capable of understanding as much as his or her parents. Schools can not cater to each and every child as they are, by and large, a one-size-fits-all operation. It is vitally important for parents to know what their children are learning in their sex ed classes, what the child's maturity level is for digesting and applying this information, and most of all, be willing to do some of the educating. Some children may have questions or need to be taught the hows and whys in more detail. Some may be confused. Some may be ready to be taught the fundamentals earlier than their peers. The best way to make sure the right information is reaching the right child at the right time is to be willing to be their teacher in an open and honest way.