Let’s be honest! We all know what formal sex education was available when we were in school; it was what we got from a communal perspective.
The extra education we had depended on our parents, and on their knowledge and willingness to share this information with us.
As that was probably a couple of decades ago, many things should have changed since then.
What kind of sex education are our kids getting at school now?
Educating in STDs and contraception isn’t enough
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), sexual education involves learning about the cognitive, emotional, social, interactive, and physical aspects of sexuality.
For children to develop into sexually healthy adults, this approach should be the basis of a comprehensive sex education.
Fulfilling requirements in all these areas calls for thoroughly designed sexuality education programs that cover much more than sexually transmitted diseases and contraception.
These two topics have been the basis of sex education worldwide for the past few decades. Although they’re both very important, a comprehensive sex education program covers many different aspects of human sexuality.
When should sexual education be taught?
Sex education should start from the early years. The earlier we’re aware of our sexuality and know how to establish healthy relationships, the better.
Children start to gain body awareness very early in life. We see this in simple actions, when babies start to place everything they can in their mouths.
As they grow, their focus moves from the mouth to other body parts. Eventually, children will discover their genitals and introduce self genital stimulation into their lives.
These early stages of discovering their bodies leads to a children developing a healthy understanding of their sexuality. During puberty, this lays the foundations for growing into healthy adults.
Of course, sexuality is not just about its physical aspect. Comprehensive sex education should take a much wider perspective, including health, consent, respect, body autonomy, and relationships.
A healthy child with a healthy self-esteem understands what happens in his or her body from a young age.
Although some countries have been able to recognize the importance of a comprehensive sex education from a young age, this does not happen in many ‘developed’ countries.
Sex education in schools 2020
Some kind of sexuality education is mandatory in schools in most Member States of the European Union, except in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and the United Kingdom.
In the US, as of October 2020, just thirty states and the district of Columbia required public schools to teach sex education.
Australia has a national curriculum but, because education remains a state responsibility, States and Territories implement the national curriculum to differing extents.
Some kids begin sexuality education between their first year of school and year 2; they learn about body parts, how their bodies change, and how to stand up for themselves. In Victoria and NSW, the official policy is to introduce the topic of puberty in years 3 and 4, as bodies might already be starting to change at that age.
This means the rollout of Australian sex education can vary, depending on the student’s home State or Territory, school, or even teacher.
In the UK, schools and colleges would be aware of the new Statutory Guidance on Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE), and Health Education. This was due to come into force in September 2020 and applies to all primary and senior schools, including independent schools.
Due to the inevitable disruptions to the education sector caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Department for Education has written to schools to announce they will be allowed to delay teaching until the start of the 2021 summer term.
In Canada right now, young people receive sex education that varies widely in terms of quality. Provinces have different sex education curricula, which have all been updated at various times. There is no system in place to monitor needs, delivery and results. Educators receive little to no support to develop their ability to offer accurate, non-stigmatizing sex education to their students.
If lessons take place, what is taught often overlooks the needs and experiences of many of the students.
What grade is sex ed taught in schools?
In most countries, sexuality education programs must comply with many different laws. Although some countries have a national mandatory curriculum, different provinces or states develop their own rules regarding this matter.
Parents also have the right to withdraw their children from reproductive health classes due to religious beliefs, even in secondary schools.
In the UK, sex ed is mandatory in secondary school, from grades 7 to 11.
In the US, mandatory sexual health information provided by secondary schools starts at grades 7 to 12. In some school districts, they start in grade 5 or 6.
In Canada, each territory is in charge of its sexual education programs. All territories have some form of sexual education in public schools from grade 7. In Ontario, the school-based sex-ed programs start from year 1.
In Australia, the subject is covered by health and physical education, in years 7 and 8.
Is sex ed taught in high school?
Sex ed is taught in almost every high school in developed countries; whether or not it’s a comprehensive sex education is a different matter.
In most high schools, birth control, and family planning, sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and teen pregnancy are more or less covered.
However, students worldwide have criticized their sex education for years, as it often lacks relevance. A 2016 survey of Victorian and South Australian secondary school students found the students were more interested in gender diversity, violence in relationships, intimacy, love, and sexual pleasure than in the basic sex information.
In surveys carried out in different countries, students have expressed their real interests when it comes to sex education and sexual health: human sexuality, sexual desire, sexual orientation, and diversity.
Young people are giving us a great lesson when they tell us what they’re lacking in terms of the sexual education they’re receiving; their worries are much deeper.
They want to know about healthy relationships and self-esteem; they want to hear about personal boundaries and consent, sexual diversity, and different family structures. They want to learn about interpersonal relationships and intimate partner violence.
And, of course, they are still interested in developing healthy sexual activity, learning how to place a condom correctly, and avoiding unplanned pregnancy.
Our children are asking for important, genuine sexual education, and parents and educators must respond accordingly.
Abstinence means refraining from any sexual encounter until marriage. Research has shown how abstinence education curricula have been found to contain scientifically inaccurate information; they contain distorted data on topics such as condom efficacy, and promote gender stereotypes.
In light of current events, involving boys who consume porn and then convince girls to take part in oral or anal sexual activities, abstinence education has proved a failure. It doesn’t achieve what it pretends to, and can lead teens to engage in sexual activities they’re really ill-prepared for.
In some sexual education programs, particularly in the United States, abstinence is the only subject covered.
Although sexual abstinence is a legitimate option, it should always be taught as one part of the sexual education curriculum, and not the only option. Sexual drive is present in our lives from an early age and understanding it is key to become healthy sexual beings.
Ignoring our kids’ sexuality and just promoting abstinence might have the opposite effect of what we’re pursuing. The important lines about consent, healthy relationships, and trust need to be well defined so that children can develop a healthy sexuality.
You can read more about some of the problems that might arise when our children look for this kind of information on their own in Teen Porn Use Linked With Mental Health Problems and Smartphones and Teen Suicide.
Which states require abstinence only education?
Each of the United States has its own curriculum and teaching freedom. If you’re interested in knowing more about this subject here is a list of the states that require sexual abstinence-only education.
How to teach sex education
In the last few years, a lot has changed about the way sexual education should be provided. We’re a wiser and a better informed society.
You can read about how sex education was taught 50 years ago in How A Baby Is Made | How Sex Education Was Taught In The 1970s.
Now we know what a healthy sexual education entails and what our kids are asking for, as adults we have a great opportunity to teach a comprehensive sexual health program.
Talking about sex to a group of people from different backgrounds can be challenging. Getting the children involved in the development of the sessions would be a great way to start.
Establishing some ground rules is paramount for in any education program, especially one in which there’s a lot of misinformation, and which is considered taboo by many. Ground rules will help children feel confident and comfortable among their peers and, if they don’t feel judged, they will expand their knowledge more easily.
They can laugh, in a healthy way, at what they find funny and feel good about asking questions other kids might not feel brave enough to ask. It’s always a good idea to reinforce a question or a comment every time there is laughter in the class.
You can also ask what children would like to know about, and what subjects they’d like to discuss. Answering these questions anonymously acts as an ice breaker, and lets them feel confident and secure to ask anything they want.
Once trust is established and they understand they’re in a safe space, young people will start to open up, be more participative, and have their doubts answered.
A student-led approach has many positive consequences. Not only will students feel safe, cared for, and listened to, this approach offers a great opportunity to establish the basis for age-appropriate content. If they are asking about any subject, then it’s the right time to set the right information in their minds.
I cannot think of a better way to develop global public health than with a healthy sex education built on an early foundation.